Suppose you were invited to be the guest on Who Do You Think You Are?
, even though you might not be a celebrity, and even though you think you have quite a good idea of your antecedents. The researchers would be able to look at local municipal ledgers filed in town halls, records kept in village churches, synagogues, etc, as well as gravestones. You might have your grandmother's diaries or reminiscences to go on, to get the deeper research started. You anticipate surprises, hopefully not anything too peculiar and maybe even something that enhances your view of yourself and helps to explain mysteries.
However, imagine if you can, that there is absolutely nowhere
to look to find where your family came from: no records, no diaries, no place names and no graveyards. Suppose your ancestors had been stolen, separated from their own families, home villages and countries, stripped of any identity and had their culture wiped clean away. Those of us who have even the most tenuous link to something in our past can have absolutely no idea what this would feel like. Some of us do not want to remember our ancestry, fair enough, but it is still there, shadowy, however much it is unwelcome. Some of us are justifiably proud of the roots from which we grew and draw on them for our identity. During this period of Covid, when time is available to investigate, Ancestry.com has had a surge of enquiries.
What the documentary series Enslaved
sets out to achieve is 'to reconstruct a disrupted cultural heritage and to bring this history back into memory': the history of African people. This is a formidable task, but an inspired one, as it follows quite a different trajectory from what might be expected, using a team of journalists and employing occasional dramatisation. Samuel L Jackson is executive producer, narrator and himself, beginning his story as he walks along a beach in Gabon, a country to which he has traced his roots via DNA, his great-grandfather having been born into slavery in the United States. The year 2019 marked 400 years since the start of the slave trade, the first ship arriving in Virginia in 1619.
It is the ships – those that were lost – and the history that can be gleaned from underwater archaeology that is the surprise of this four-part series. Each episode explores tangible evidence that will 'unearth, reconstruct and resurrect the maritime history of Africa and the African diaspora'. Samuel L Jackson teams up with a company called Diving With a Purpose (DWP), whose main focus is on the documentation and protection of African slave trade shipwrecks and the maritime history and culture of African Americans.
The National Association of Black Scuba Divers founded DWP with the National Parks Service at Biscayne National Park, Florida. Its volunteers are trained as archaeology survey divers and it has links to the National Geographic Society. It is even training divers in Africa to explore wrecks close to their own shores. We are 'raising the spirits of the ancestors', says one of its lead divers, for 'no-one has mourned them enough'.
In a way, this is a recovery of invisible grave markers. Over two million Africans died, when at least 1,000 slave ships foundered, and each has a story to tell. The sugar trade, of course, featured hugely in this trans-Atlantic exchange of people and goods. The Leusden, for example, set sail from the Dutch fort in Ghana bound for Suriname in 1737, but foundered; the captain and crew saved themselves but left the 'cargo' of 664 enslaved Africans to drown by nailing the hatches shut. This is a crime scene, make no mistake about it. The DWP divers, with metal detectors, discover artefacts at the wreck, shackles and an anchor that authenticates its origins. Once back on deck, they discuss the significance to themselves, and to others to whom such discoveries provide links to their past – to their ancestry. While they are delighted to confirm their research, at the same time there is a respectful, almost reverent, mood as they contemplate this historic connection.
Meanwhile, on dry land, investigative journalists Afua Hirsch and Simcha Jacobovici visit sites around the world from Africa to Brazil to Bristol, looking at the architectural history, a fort in Africa, a sugar mill in South America, now deep in the jungle; studying documents of the voyages of slave vessels; and explaining how the system of slavery was perfected to create the wealth upon which cities were built.
Jacobovici is an award-winning Israeli-Canadian producer and filmmaker, also creator and producer of Enslaved
. Afua Hirsch recently narrated a programme about the art of Africa – African Renaissance: When Art Meets Power
– and is well placed to speak on how African people were depicted and presented to Western eyes, such as in paintings where they were shown as 'exotic' or 'other', thereby placing them somewhere below the Europeans.
The structure of each episode contains both explanation and exploration, intercut, so that a dive begins with expectations and anxiety – getting into the gear, studying the conditions and locations – while elsewhere Jackson, Hirsch or Jacobovici may be discussing such history as the black regiments in the American Civil War, or visiting Nashville where music had its roots in resistance, with coded lyrics, the influence of which has spread worldwide.
Later, the episode returns to the scene on board the dive vessel where there has been success, and there is further talk around what the divers have seen and photographed on the seabed. A blue and white plate, in recognisable fragments, for instance, may once have been handled by Africans serving in the galley. These are the poignant remains that somehow serve to stitch tenuously together the enormous rent created by enslavement.
One of the most infamous names in the slave trade was that of the Zong, which left Accra bound for Jamaica in 1781 under an inexperienced and incompetent captain, whose badly plotted course extended the length of the voyage to the extent that there was a fear of running out of water. In three separate occasions, enslaved Africans were thrown overboard – a total of 132 – despite the fact that there had been rain and also that they could have put in to another port.
The Zong is famous for the decision by the Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield, who held that the claim of insurance brought by the ship's owners would not be paid and that this disposal of 'cargo' amounted to fraud. It was to be the beginning of the end of slavery; though many years were to pass, abolitionists began to gain ground. A romanticised but engaging film – Belle
– was made about the mixed-race great niece of Lord Mansfield, and the trial, which depicts attitudes and prejudices in England at the time.
Resistance on the part of the Africans, rebellion and brave efforts to assist one another – the Underground Railroad – are part of this story, as well as British campaigners. While, in Britain, it was declared unlawful to capture Africans for the purposes of slavery in 1807, it left intact the trade itself. There were African abolitionists, and Enslaved
makes it clear that the ending of slavery came about also through concerted efforts of Africans themselves.
The role of Samuel L Jackson is an interesting one throughout Enslaved
. He visits his relatives in America and inspects the family tree. In Gabon, he is welcomed into his tribe – the Benga – in a colourful and emotional ceremony, where the culture of music and dance and art are very much alive, handed down over the generations. The elders lead him through this initiation during which his bearing and modesty belie just how famous this 71-year-old super-star actor is. In his sonorous voice, he recites the poem by Maya Angelou, I rise
. Jackson embodies the essence of Enslaved
, and is a tribute to the success of this format, which is to show that being connected to your ancestry is a precious experience.
We are all tribal, and however small or tenuous the links to our ancestors may be, they are the locators that give us a sense of belonging somewhere.