The stories we don’t tell about slavery

The abolition of slavery did not come about just through the actions of benevolent white men. It was the product of rebellions and resistance by the slaves themselves 

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When my grandparents came to the UK from the Caribbean in 1957, there were many things that surprised them. They had never seen snow or fog before. London had almost a hundred times as many people as St Lucia, the island they had left. At the weekends, they used to choose a bus and ride it to the end of the line and back again, their only way of trying to explore the city and understand its scale.

In the UK, memories of resistance and rebellion may have faded, but in the Caribbean they have been kept alive

But there was also much about the UK that was familiar. When my grandparents were growing up, many Caribbean islands were still colonies. The British controlled what they learnt at school. They proudly sang God Save the King. My grandmother, in her convent school, knitted socks for British soldiers during the Second World War. That was the reason my mother, their eldest child, was called Victoria: my grandparents thought of themselves as English, through and through.

Yet, for all they knew of Britain, Britain knew little of them. If anyone they met had even heard of the Caribbean, they would assume my grandparents were from Jamaica. My grandparents suffered many indignities, large and small, and this was one of them, a reminder that the so-called Mother Country cared little for their lives and histories.

In writing my debut novel, River Sing Me Home, I was acutely conscious this gap in understanding that my grandparents observed in 1957 still persists to this day. When it comes to the Caribbean, Britain suffers from a kind of post-colonial amnesia. Thousands of miles away from the physical remnants of our crimes – the old plantation houses and the ports where the slave ships came in – it is easier to forget. There are some signs of hope and changing times: the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, for instance, is a beautiful testament to the full, rich, complex history of enslaved people in the Caribbean and elsewhere. But there is still much more to be done to make such knowledge of Caribbean history mainstream.

River Sing Me Home is set just after the abolition of slavery. It’s about a woman, Rachel, looking for the children taken from her over the years. It’s a book about what it means to be free, and it is rooted in all the things I wish British people knew about emancipation. I, along with so many others, learnt at school that slavery was ended by benevolent white people like William Wilberforce. But this narrative does precious little justice to the agency of enslaved people, who fought hard for their freedom. It wasn’t until I went to an exhibition as a teenager called Making Freedom, all about the way Afro-Caribbean people resisted slavery, that I began to realise there was more to the story.

The British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1834. It’s true that there were many in the country who opposed slavery on moral grounds, white and Black, like Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano. But abolition would not have happened when it did without rebellions and revolutions in the Caribbean that made the British fearful they would lose their colonies entirely if they did not act.

In 1791, enslaved people in Haiti – then a French colony known as Saint Domingue – started a revolution that would lead to the creation of the first Black republic outside Africa. Almost two-thirds of slaves in Haiti were African-born, and many British observers argued it was their “savage” nature that had caused the uprising. Ending the slave trade was, for many, not the first step towards emancipation, but rather a way to keep control over slaves born in the Caribbean, believed to be less volatile.

But of course, between 1807and 1834, slaves in the British Caribbean proved time and again that they hated slavery as much as their African-born counterparts. There were major slave revolts in Barbados in 1816, Demerara in1823 and Jamaica in 1832, all of which made emancipation more pressing as a way to restore control. It was an economic interest in retaining their colonies, as much as any humanitarian feeling, that underpinned the British abolition story.

For as long as there was slavery in the Caribbean, there was also resistance on a smaller scale. Many people tried to run away from their plantations, and some succeeded. These runaways, known in many places as maroons, hid in mountains and rainforests and evaded capture. In Jamaica, maroons were so numerous and such a nuisance that the British signed a treaty giving them formal recognition as an autonomous community. Maroons were a beacon of hope for many, keeping alive the idea that a life outside the plantations was possible.

And then there were the women who tried to find their children. After emancipation, many women put down their tools and went looking for the children who were taken from them and sold to different plantations, or even to different islands. This was an act of resistance that stayed with me for ten years after I first learned about it, becoming the seeds of my debut novel. It stuck with me because one of slavery’s core elements was the destruction of family. Those brought from Africa were renamed, denied any connection with their ancestors. And at any time, husbands and wives and parents and children could be ripped away from each other, with no respect shown by the planters towards these relationships. A mother reassembling the fragments of her shattered family – refusing to allow slavery to destroy it forever – was a powerful and radical act.

In the UK, memories of resistance and rebellion may have faded, but in the Caribbean they have been kept alive. For my master’s degree in politics, I studied the way slavery is remembered in the Caribbean, and travelled to St Lucia and Barbados to conduct fieldwork. The trip was an emotional one for me – only my second time visiting the places where my grandparents grew up, and I met many new family members, including my great-aunt, for the first time. From my conversations about Caribbean history, two things stood out, both of which eventually informed my novel. The first was that people were quick to mention the ambiguities around the end of slavery. River Sing Me Home is set between 1834 and 1838, a period when people in the Caribbean were technically free from slavery, but were tied to the same plantations for no pay under the apprenticeship system. Apprenticeships are little known in Britain, but the people I spoke to had not forgotten their ancestors’ continued economic exploitation.

The second thing that struck me was how quick people were to draw attention to examples of resistance. In Barbados, I heard all about how historians at the University of the West Indies were educating the public about the 1816 rebellion, so that the example of Bussa would not be forgotten. And in St Lucia, family members proudly told me that they lived on land once used by runaway slaves. People in the Caribbean made freedom for themselves over and over, in ways large and small, for as long as slavery existed – and afterwards, when they still lived under its long shadows. This, too, was something I wanted to capture in River Sing Me Home.

In the UK, one of the most famous images of emancipation is the Josiah Wedgewood print of a Black man, chained and on his knees, pleading, Am I not a man and a brother? Compare this to the emancipation statue in Barbados, said to depict Bussa, the leader of the 1816 rebellion. Bussa stands tall, his arms raised to the sky as he breaks his own chains. It is important that we preserve the memory of resistance to slavery, and close the gap between what Caribbean people remember and what British people think we know. The stories we don’t tell about slavery. During the fieldwork for my master’s, a man in St Lucia said something about slavery that moved me deeply. “We should not be ashamed that it happened. We should be proud that we survived it.” The stories of Bussa, of the heroes of the Haitian revolution, and of the women who found their stolen children, are the foundation of that pride, and it is only right that we honour them.

River Sing Me Home, Eleanor Shearer’s debut novel, is published by Headline Books

Photo: The slave revolt in the French colony of Saint Domingue, now Haiti, in 1791. (Granger/Shutterstock)

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