As is characteristic of BBC documentaries, viewers spent most of Black and British scrutinizing the details of presenter’s face, while the advertised subject took a back seat. Don’t take this the wrong way, David Olusoga’s face is lovely, but black history is too interesting and, as the audience was repeatedly reminded, important to be mere scenery. And so I persevered through longing shots that must’ve appeared in the editor’s notes as “David walks by some books”, “David stares out a window #54”, “David gazes at parchment”. (Note to BBC: we rather see the bloody parchment. 80 years on and you seem to have forgotten the point of television.)
And there were rewards for hanging on. I hadn’t known, for example, about: the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Royal Navy’s celebrated anti-slavery force; how an African girl was taken by a captain of that fleet and went on to become a ward of Queen Victoria’s; how Liverpool’s success as a city depended, in large part, the commodification of men by other men; and just how much support our “neutralist” government lended the Confederate states during the American Civil War. But these were fleeting glimmers in a drab deluge of pop morals and plaque-unveiling.
None of these nuggets could be shared, for a start, without Olusoga prefixing or suffixing them, in a way reminiscent of Paul Theroux’s travel writing, “you really ought to have known this already”. Well, we’re here now aren’t we – eager to learn? Or at least I was.
The Moral Quagmire
In episode three, Liverpudlian dock hands which had worked on Confederate ships were sneered at for their pro-South, objectively pro–slavery activity. Self-aware viewers who spend their days in a bank, or doing the admin for a multi-national corporation may have grimaced a little. But there is a case to be made, and Olusoga went some way to making it. Other work or, should it come to it, starvation are always available to the ethically-minded employee. Options, wage slaves should never forget, you wouldn’t have chattled.
Next, we were taken to rural Lancaster where those dark mills have been exorcised. Olusoga spoke of how he had been taught about the poor working conditions mill workers endured (that doesn’t really cut it – as they suffered through twelve hour shifts, many nine year olds lost lose life and limb to spinning mules and looms), but never had he nor his classmates, been told how the cotton ended up in their hands. It, the lifeblood of the Industrial Revolution, was grown on the forced labour camps – that’s plantations in our sanitized speech – of the American South. We’re right to condemn the “life” inflicted upon those millions stolen from Africa, but were Northern mill workers really culpable?
Well, yes, went the implication.
(He didn’t explore it in great detail, but there was a movement among British workers to refuse employment involving the Southern blood cotton. Karl Marx helped organise these strikes, and provided morale to those left beleaguered by their courageous moral stand.)
The conclusion brought yet another plaque, this time planted in Brixton to memorialise a massacre of civilians perpetrated by Redcoats (in Jamaica). A succession of talking heads then reminded us again of Olusoga’s brief: black history is British history – and also, ordinary Britons bear responsibility, in part at least, for its darkest episodes.
Would it be too complicated to have mentioned that slavery still persists? That there are more slaves today than there were then? And that, should you reach into your pocket and take out an iPhone, chances are you are contributing to its terrible protraction? (Other corporations involved are Samsung, Sony, and Volkswagen.)
Don’t these millions matter? Or are they an uncomfortable thought best brushed over? Perhaps because it might implicate those boring types who seek esteem for the sufferings of their father, and the sins of your’s.