Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


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