In A Different Name
Who Do You Think You Are with Naomie Harris
The Difference Between Facts and Truth
The BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are is ageing a bit now, and I tend to channel hop over it most times, but the recent episode with Naomie Harris caught my attention and opened up the fascinating world of British/Caribbean family history in a way that is all too rarely witnessed. A history that is so timely and so relevant to many in these times of Windrush related atrocities, the staging of Andrea Levy’s Small Island at the National, and the ongoing need for Britain to face up to its responsibilities and shared history. As Levy stressed in her essays and commentaries, the subject of slavery has never been properly told or taught in our schools. In this programme, some important facts came out. More importantly, these were converted into important truths, not just words and descriptions.
This was a must view. A chance to see the actress who starred in the original BBC dramatisation of Small Island, going in the opposite direction to her character, Hortense, and back in time. A stunning Bond star but not a Bond girl, appearing as a mere mortal, visiting several small islands for real, bearing her soul to the world, and trying to come to terms with discovering so much more about what she already knew and in some cases did not want to acknowledge. Naomie responded enthusiastically and bravely to the challenge, sharing her tears of joy as well as her frowns and moments of inward anger. Seething beneath an exterior of calm, measured tolerance and wisdom.
Naomie Harris as Hortense in Small Island
Ready for a photo shoot with 007
The starting point was Naomie knowing, via a DNA test, that she was 48% Nigerian. Soon, she realised that she would have to travel to Trinidad, Grenada, and finally Jamaica. Naomie expected to discover she was a descendant of slaves, but was worried that she would find out that she was also a descendant of slave owners. As she pointed out, most black people of British Caribbean descent are going have at least one of these presences in their family tree, if not both. And so we stood with her as she discovered the horrific truth, that her lineage included two overseers, from different generations.
The first, with documents from 1897, was not so bad. This, Naomie stated, was at a time when the African workers on the plantations were free, over 60 years after the abolition of the slavery in 1833 (the act took effect from 1834). The ancestor was Charles W W Clarke, of St Andrews, Grenada, her Great Great Grandfather on her father’s side of the family.
Naomie said he was “really industrious, worked incredibly hard, and I respect that”, adding that this was not problematic since the workers at this time were paid. But she was concerned about going further back in history.
Reflective: so far, not so bad
Things then got gloomy. The second overseer, in her even more distant family past, was mentioned in documents from 1829, when slavery was still legal in British eyes. This was her Great Great Great Great Grandfather, James Langdon, of Somerset, who was in charge of slaves first, and subsequently indentured workers. An overseer on the Requin estate. Not such a great man after all.
“Wow!”, said Naomie, shaking her head in bitter recognition of the family link to this man.
But what exactly did an overseer do?
In the first of two conversations with historian Dr. Nicole Phillip-Dowe, Head of The University of the West Indies Open Campus, Grenada, Naomie struggled to come to terms with what she was hearing. In response to Naomie saying that he must have been “Not a very nice human being”, the understatement of all understatements, the historian interjected:
NPD: “Well…”, in an almost upbeat tone, as if to argue, perhaps to suggest ‘Not so bad’.
NH: “Very brutal I would imagine.”
NPD: “He would have had to look after the slaves…”
NH: (huge look of scorn on her face)
NPD: “…his job would have been…”
NH: “To look after?” (pained smile)
NPD: (straight face, revising her previous sentence) “…to look after the running of the estate…So, part of his responsibility would be punishment of slaves.”
NH: “It would almost be better off if he was the owner, because actually the owner’s removed from the brutality whereas James Langdon is right in the heart of all that.”
NPD: “He’s right in the heart of it, yes.”
NH: “Wow!” (looking still more distressed).
Unhappy family connections
The historian’s approach seemed very matter of fact and minimalistic. In my opinion, misleading and surprisingly lacking in empathy. This was the language and style of a certain kind of academic, delivering historical information in the only way she knew how, with apparently little sensitivity and perhaps even getting some of it wrong. Knowing that worse was to follow and it was best to avoid the possibility of being drawn into a shared outpouring of emotion. On Naomie’s part, she maintained her composure and faced up to what was to come.
What following centred on a document from 1849, well after the official end of slavery, detailing the introduction to Langdon’s custody of 19 liberated Africans, from a total of 248 on board the Clarendon.
Naomie, looking baffled, asked “How? Given that slavery had ended?”
The historian stated that the use of liberated Africans meant “the bringing in of indentured servant persons to work on the estates”. Contracted for a fixed period. These were Africans who had been rescued by the British Navy, taken off Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa. But as Naomie pointed out, they were then still transported all the way to the Caribbean to work on plantations. 40,000 people suffered this plight, all becoming indebted to the plantation owners.
But, what did ‘liberated’ really mean? The conversation developed as follows:
NH: “If you were truly liberated, you’d say I wanna go home, right? You’ve ripped me from my homeland, I wanna go back to Africa.”
NPD: “Liberated here means they are not going to be going into slavery on a Spanish plantation or Portuguese plantation”.
NH (increasingly visibly upset): “Just on a Caribbean one.”
NPD: “They would be paid.”
NH: “ A pittance.”
NPD: “Well, 5 pence per day for the first year. So, indentured to the estate for about 3 years.”
NH: “So they were slaves for those 3 years basically.”
NPD: (arguing politely): “We would say indentured – they were paid.”
NH: “But they still didn’t have their liberty.”
NPD: (struggling momentarily): “Well, lib…..it’s restricted.”
NH: “And so it was basically a fancy way of basically the British continuing with slavery, um, when it was not legal.”
NPD: “Very controversial. It’s an extremely controversial system.”
NH: “That means is when we say that slavery ended it didn’t in fact end for a much longer period.”
NPD: “In a different way of…”
NH: “In a different name!”
NPD (finally agreeing): “Under a different name.”
Not accepting Dr Nicole Phillip-Dowe's choice of words
Here, we saw the rolling of eyes and then the anger and the tears of bitterness as Naomie battled through the emotional onslaught. A little later in the programme, Naomie paid tribute to all those who had suffered far more, her ancestors who had made sacrifices in going before her and making her own life possible.
Through analysing this conversation, we get to the heart of the power of words and meaning. The duplicitous technique of being economical with language, adopted here by the historian. To me, this suggested poor judgement, a failure to confront reality, to give only a partial representation. Using merely facts, simple words, descriptions and statements, without setting them in context, developing the meaning and implications, without establishing the truth of the matter. At best, the historian was leaving Naomie to figure things out for herself. Maybe that was an essential part of Naomie’s mission in making this programme.
To prompt completion of the picture, the scholar mentioned one more example of why indenture was so similar to slavery. Indentured labourers still took the last name of the owner or overseer. Naomie gave yet another knowing, sad smile and a shake of the head, realising that there were lots of Langdons on the plantation, not just those in her own family tree. She stated that African immigrants would not willingly give up their names, a practice cruelly demanded by her ancestor.
Learning the British word for a person who was three quarters black
In providing partial answers, simplified statements, the historian was arguably only stating facts as she saw them. Not truth. It was left to Naomie to put the words in context, to understand the lives of those involved, to learn about the terms of their existence and to state them out loud. For Naomie, it was not enough to be told simple fragments of information. Simple words and phrases that were open to a lenient and forgiving interpretation.
Words on their own are never enough. In isolation, they withhold truth, or sometimes disguise truth, and leave little room for understanding. Academics analyse and interpret all the time, and yet they so often seem come to only partial conclusions, or hold back from expressing them at all. On this Caribbean journey, Naomie put all the pieces together herself. She elucidated the parts of the story that she already knew, instantly established the implications of the information presented to her, and developed a much greater understanding of the lives of her ancestors and their peers. Naomie needed to be bold. To seek, and to hear, and to realise the truth. To affirm what needed to be affirmed. Not to go along with euphemisms or false representations.
Really not accepting this at all
The world is better off when people say how it is. In this case, how it was. The truth must come out. We often need to fill in the blanks for ourselves. We need to confirm or challenge what we read or hear. This applies whether it comes via the media or via social historians. And so in one way, Dr. Nicole Phillip-Dowe was right. In holding back, in speaking only a few words, she obliged her student to realise the truth for herself. To appreciate her own sense of enlightenment.
We should not have to wait for moments of individual clarity, for the truth about personal stories and family histories to come out. Figuring out what has to change should not be necessary; the past has clearly told us many times before how it should never have been. How it must never be again. And yet we still have to do this. Individually and collectively, society must be told about our shared history and the pervading racism through the centuries. The ongoing problems in the present are essentially due to the endless failure of the British establishment to make amends for Empire, colonialism and slavery in the past. There has never been a full and proper acknowledgment of these social travesties. Ignorance and denial in modern society perpetuate the ongoing hatred and division. The story is never told enough. We must still learn and respond.
This episode of Who Do You Think You Are has shown us, in no uncertain terms, that when it comes to investigating our past, we need plain language, true, but we also need to understand the context underpinning those words, and the implications they had and have for the lives of all involved. Further, in sociolinguistic discourse and interpersonal engagement we need to be clear on the difference between facts and truth. And we need action. Socially, politically, in every way, we need to make things genuinely better now and in the future.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
See the Connected Cultures review: Small Island at The National Theatre
See the Connected Cultures feature: Small Island and Tonal Balance
BBC iPlayer: Who Do You Think You are? With Naomie Harris