12 Years A Slave – the context

By - Wednesday 22nd January, 2014

Sean Creighton peels back the Hollywood treatment of this year’s highly acclaimed film revealing Croydon’s own links to the slave trade

Copyright © 2013 by Fox Searchlight Pictures

12 Years A Slave is an uncompromising film which shows the inherent cruelty that was fostered by slavery. It sheds light on the daily humiliations that kept slaves compliant, though they were able to find ways to express their loathing, defiance and humanity, and the dilemmas of whether to submit or fight back. As it is based on the life story of Solomon Northrop, a free African American, it could not include an episode of slave revolt. Nor does the script explain why kidnapping free Africans and runaway slaves were an important part of the system.

Once he was free Northrop became an abolitionist lecturer in the USA, and although he didn’t come on campaigning tours of Britain, many other black abolitionists did. One of those was William Wells Brown, who spoke at Croydon’s Lecture Hall on 5th September 1849, and was back again by invitation in autumn 1852. Both born-free citizens and former slaves came to Britiain including William and Ellen Craft, Frederick Douglass, Henry Garnet, Henry Box Brown, Charles Remond, and Reverend J W Pennington.

But one who was able to publish his narrative was Reverend Thomas Lewis Johnson. He had been a slave in Virginia for 28 years and came to Britain in 1878. He published his Twenty-Eight Years a Slave in 1882. The 1909 revised edition of the book brought his memories up to date. He conducted services in the south London and Croydon area in the 1880s and 1890s, including ones for children at the Croydon skating rink and at Chatsworth Road Chapel (stated by him to be in West Norwood). In 1900, having injured his knee and with his wife visiting her parents abroad, Mrs. Gawin Kirkham, of Croydon, and Mrs. J. Johnson, of West Norwood, “each kindly invited me to make my home with them when conducting meetings in London and neighbourhood.” Johnson lectured on slavery and displayed instruments of constraint, and published a postcard showing them.

After the emancipation of the African slaves in the West Indies the British abolition movement turned its attention to supporting emancipation in the United States. The Quakers and Unitarians were at the heart of the campaigns. An important boost was given to the cause by the publication here of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based on the story of Josiah Henson, a slave who had escaped to Canada. At least 100,000 others got to the British colonies in Canada, especially along the Underground Railroad.

Britain had helped underpin and expand the American slave plantation system

The Quaker women in particular were active in advocating boycotting southern states cotton and using non-slave free labour cotton. There were attempts to expand such cotton in various parts of the world. They failed to win the argument that importation of slave produced cotton should be barred as being anti-free trade because it was grown on slave labour.

Having abolished the legality of the slave trade in 1808, US slave plantations owners became dependent on slaves having children, moving them from more northerly southern states to the Deep South, running so-called ‘breeding farms’, on importations from the West Indies, on kidnapping and on illegal trading in Africans (as portrayed in Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad).

These methods of ensuring an adequate slave labour force were particularly important for the cotton growing southern states because of the insatiable demand of the British Lancashire cotton industry concentrated in Lancashire. Although the film says the plantations Northrop was enslaved on were in Georgia, they were actually in Louisiana. That state was created from the Louisiana Purchase of the French-controlled south from Napoleon by the US Government in 1803, brokered by the British banking house the Barings.

After emancipation the West Indies slave plantation owners needed new ways to get labour. Gladstone’s father was a key architect in introducing the system of indenturing Indians, a form of semi-slave bondage labour. The West Indies lobby kept up agitation alleging emancipation had caused economic damage to the sugar industry. It is therefore no surprise that in 1859 William Garland Barrett, a former minister for the London Missionary Society in Jamaica and British Guiana, wrote a book in 1858 titled Immigration to the British West Indies, Is it the Slave Trade Revived or not? It was published by the important Croydon firm of Gray and Warren, printers, booksellers, music sellers, stationers, and newsagents at 131 High Street, who also published The Croydon Directory.

During the civil war the southern states hoped to get British recognition. The pro-North campaigners  stopped this happening. Lancashire’s economy was decimated during the war period’s cotton famine, as cotton could not get through from the slave states. There is strong evidence that the destitute workers supported the north and the cause of slave emancipation.

The horror portrayed in 12 Years A Slave is like a pebble on a beach in terms of the millions of individual stories of slavery as  experienced by Africans

Britain had helped underpin and expand the American slave plantation system. It did the same in South America, where slavery existed for a lot longer than in the USA. The horror portrayed in 12 Years A Slave is like a pebble on a beach in terms of the millions of individual stories of slavery as  experienced by Africans and their descendants which can never be told because they were not written down.

The legacy of slavery continues even today with a considerably high level of racism in the United States despite the achievements of the civil rights movement. Just as British historians did from 1838, so there are signs of airbrushing the reality out of some histories in the south. For a further discussion have a read of my black history network acquaintance Miranda Kaufmann. Towards the end of last year Ani DiFranco, an American folksinger, feminist and social justice campaigner, withdrew from a songwriting festival in Louisiana to be held in a luxury resort whose owners have been criticised for airbrushing out of history the fact that it was once the largest slave plantation in the American south (the Nottoway Plantation). Her decision and the way she handled it has been subject to much criticism.

Steve McQueen and his team of producers, the writer and the actors are to be congratulated on making 12 Years A Slave, which is making such an impact. It has triggered a debate as to the need to make films about the experience of Black Britons who were slaves.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Anne Giles

    This film is a definite must-see.

  • Anne Giles

    Just been to see the film. Wonderful, but so so sad. Why were the whites so cruel?