Not even in my wildest dreams did I ever consider I would be writing a review of a play based on sections of my own book, It Wisnae Us (2009). But here goes. I’m no Arts correspondent so I’ll instead describe how the work evolved, my input as an adviser and how the historical reality shaped the scenes. I’m a huge supporter of the use of public history – underpinned by academic research – as it allows dissemination in a new medium to a wider audience. Tours are the natural way to do this but a multi-scene roving play was a far more ambitious project that required a skilled, multi-disciplinary team.
Emancipation Acts was a series of site specific performances that took place in Glasgow’s Merchant City during the Commonwealth Games, 31 July – 1 August 2014. The origins of the play can be traced to meetings last year for those interested in the Caribbean Commonwealth. Graham Campbell and Anne McLaughlin, co-directors of African Caribbean Cultures Glasgow, had the original idea for an inaugural event with a community cast on Emancipation Day, 1 August, the 180th anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies. I agreed to provide specialist advice on Glasgow. This happened in tandem with another discussion. Last year, Jean Cameron, the producer of Glasgow 2014 international programme, attended one of the Glasgow- Slavery tours I run for the Merchant City Festival and afterwards suggested some dramatic performances around the locations based on the characters I described.
Collaboration was natural and Emancipation Acts was born.
Written and directed by the acclaimed Alan McKendrick and produced by Emilia Weber for Glasgow Life, the play explored Glasgow’s involvement with Caribbean slavery, abolition and reparations. It was nice that three University of Glasgow alumni collaborated on this production. It was a masterstroke identifying McKendrick for this role. I’ve since discovered he deploys a number of contemporary allusions in his work which was evident throughout the play and dramatic finale. Alan and I met for the first time at the University of Glasgow just before the summer with an agreement that although we were up against time we would make this project happen. I provided historical expertise and Alan brought to life my world of dead, white men who lived in Glasgow in luxury based on the proceeds of Caribbean slavery.
The locations almost picked themselves based on locations in It Wisnae Us and the tour; Merchants Steeple at the Briggait, Ramshorn Kirk, City Halls, Virginia Court and the Cunninghame Mansion (GOMA). To tell such a story we also needed a diversity of historical characters; an abolitionist, a pro-slavery voice (merchant or planter) and of course, the enslaved peoples themselves. Some of the characters and locations were naturally connected- the City Halls and the abolition movement, Virginia Court and the merchants. Alan was ingeniously creative with other locations, transforming the graveyard of the Ramshorn Kirk into Bance Island, a slave trading fort off the coast of Sierra Leone, and the plantations of the Caribbean. Alan also perfectly recruited a cast of highly rated professional actors – Ncuti Gatwa, Ross Mann, Martin McBride, Lou Prendergast and Paksie Vernon – and it was a real privilege watching these guys in action. Professional dancers Ashanti Harris and Joy Maria Onotu worked their magic as well.
Now it started to get more difficult. In many ways, Alan faced the same issue as any historian starting to write a chapter or book. How do you introduce big concepts that set the scene and can be explored further in later stages? Alan managed this in a variety of innovative ways in the first scene at the Briggait. The play naturally complemented the activities at the Empire Café last week (thanks again to Louise Welsh and Jude Barber) and we made use of their outstanding set up. Almost at the outset of the performance, the title of the book It Wisnae Us – which always seems to go down well with a Glasgow audience – was introduced to explore the popular misconception that Scots had limited involvement with the Caribbean. The dialogue made it clear although there was minimal Scottish involvement with the ‘triangular trade’, there were long term trading connections with the plantations. A stanza from John Mayne’s poem Glasgow was read to remind us that goods from the West Indies and America that made a ‘penny or twa’ came to bonnie Clyde. Advertisements for indentured servants and for runaway slaves implicitly established the transition from white, indentured labour to enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. Having attended the conference for the ‘How Glasgow Flourished’ exhibition in the Kelvingrove Museum in May 2014, Alan was well aware of the issues. Songs and first-hand accounts relating to the Middle Passage described the triangular trade as well as the Scots involved in slave trading in Africa, particularly Richard Oswald of Auchincruive. Oswald owned Bance Island from whence 13,000 captured Africans were shipped to the New World between 1748 and 1784. I especially liked Alan’s use of Oswald’s gushing obituary of 1784 (which I found in the Glasgow Herald) to illustrate the hypocrisy that such merchants had an esteemed place in the Georgian period which, in some cases, has continued into modern times yet their fortunes were based exclusively on exploitation and death. From the Briggait, we commenced our voyages through the slave Merchant City.
There were three separate routes around the locations allowed concurrent performances; Cotton Masters, Sugar Princes or Abolitionists. Naturally, as a researcher of the city’s West India Interest, I was a Sugar Prince and I shall describe the scenes in that order. David Hanock’s magisterial study, Citizens of the World, described Richard Oswald’s activities in Glasgow, London, the Caribbean and in Africa in some detail. This knowledge allowed us to transform the Ramshorn Kirk for three days into Bance Island by clever use of a flag and tartan. The wonderful costumes were designed and made by Melissa Zofia Devine. Richard Oswald had horrifically embraced his Scottish heritage on the slave fort by constructing a golf course for slaving captains and using his slaves as caddies who were dressed in tartan imported from Scotland. Paksie Vernon and Ncuti Gatwa did a remarkable job at this scene which was at once comedic, informative and ultimately emotional. The actors nodded to the authenticity of accents by putting on pronounced Scottish twang in places. McKendrick also toyed with the idea of historical accuracy and artistic licence in theatre. This production was never intended as a historical enactment and in fact, it would have been much the lesser had it been so. In any case, the audience weren’t historically accurate; they were pleasantly interacting with enslaved caddies which wouldn’t have been the case on Bance Island! At the same time, he told us what we should have been seeing which allowed an exploration of conditions on a global entrepot; surrounded by mangroves and rum and tobacco from the Caribbean and America, slaves in tartan from Scotland. The scenes were also very powerful. Ncuti stood on an old tomb and referred to the rusty cages whilst alluding to the instruments of incarceration, torture and punishment designed for enslaved peoples. Paksie perfectly encapsulated the brutal absurdity of Bance Island with the memorable line ‘Disneyland with slave trading’ whilst Ncuti described how their job wasn’t that bad – ‘caddying, it’s the best’ – compared to the labour intensive agricultural work on sugar plantation. We were then transported to the Caribbean.
In the most poignant scene of all, the audience were slowly walked through the Ramshorn Graveyard to the sound of slave narratives describing various aspects of plantation life, emancipation and rebelliousness (including Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Harriet Ann Jacobs). At first, I interpreted this as a journey into the plantations of the New World but also interpreted the long walk as the Middle Passage. In any case, we eventually arrived and Ncuti warned us that whilst Glasgow should take some credit for abolition, the enslaved peoples also emancipated themselves. I was impressed many times by McKendrick’s capacity to quickly absorb and explore important issues in a new research area but particularly with this scene. He contrasted the assumption of subservience of enslaved peoples on plantations with the much wider narrative of slave rebellion and resistance. At that point, we were treated to a moving song by the community choir and I’m told that some people were in tears. The local African-Caribbean community were involved with Emancipation Acts from the start and all Graham and Anne’s hard work paid off.
The direct reference to Glasgow’s commitment to abolition laid the basis for the next location. Lou Prendergast has had a dramatic rise in her new career and this monologue allowed her to deliver powerful oratory. Frederick Douglass and female abolitionists spoke at the City Halls during the Campaign for Universal Emancipation, 1834-1865 and Alan used this as context for Lou’s scene. As a female abolitionist, she pointed out the hypocrisy that whilst William Wilberforce wanted to emancipate the slaves, he accepted the subjugation of women and hoped to confine them to a supporting role in the abolition movement. However, the movement provided women with their first civic role and McKendrick connected this with the later move for female suffrage. This scene allowed exploration of further hypocrisy that the refined, pious class of Glasgow tacitly accepted chattel slavery. Lou advised an education to overcome ignorance. Firstly, she pointed out that enslavement occurred due random accident of birth. There was nothing pre-ordained about chattel slavery- it was social construction entrenched in colonial law by the Barbados Slave Act of 1661 which ultimately facilitated economic exploitation of enslaved peoples. This provided the basis to explore the argument made by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations that Empire and slavery were unprofitable as well as Eric Williams’ thesis in Capitalism and Slavery that the Caribbean provided the primitive accumulation of capital that fuelled the rise of Great Britain to industrial powerhouse. In one of his contemporary allusions, McKendrick used the female abolitionist of the 1840s to look into the future towards a dystopian post-slavery future where there were ‘no slaves, but workers on wages’ with more workers than work. Louise Welsh noted something similar today when she suggested any ‘discussion about our country’s connections with transatlantic slaving inevitably leads to discussions about class, capitalism and modern day exploitation’.
From the City Halls, we journeyed into one of Glasgow’s most bustling commercial streets in the colonial period: Virginia Street leading to the court of the same name. This was the scene I was anticipating the most; I’ve spent years of my life researching the city’s West India merchants and planters and now I was about to meet them (or at least the actors Ross Mann and Martin McBride). This was perfectly cast; both of these young gentlemen looked the part in a location that once housed the galleries where merchants sold sugar and tobacco. I thought this was Alan McKendrick’s best section but I appreciate I am biased given my own research interests. The two Sugar Princes were based on James MacQueen, the chief propagandist of the Glasgow West India Association, a key focus of my own research. In the 1820s, MacQueen made a series of pro-slavery justifications in the Glasgow Courier as well as in private and public correspondence. But how do you put forward this position in a theatrical production? The Sugar Princes were comedic yet convincing and streetwise; we had arrived at the ‘actually inarguably good bit’ of the show. As expected, they proceeded to play down the brutality of chattel slavery to the audience using a familiar argument of the West India propagandists: the enslaved had it better than the Scottish working class of the same period. But they weren’t there to tell us slavery wasn’t a ‘CRUEEEELLLLL!’ condition. Oh no. Instead they pointed out that ‘life was full of cruelties’ and contrasted the sun kissed plantations of the Caribbean with the coal mines in Scotland where many miners were thirled for life. They posed the question to the audience: where would you rather be? I’m told a young boy shouted out he would rather be in the Caribbean, so for the two MacQueen’s, it was job done! The Sugar Princes then pointed to an unavoidable and perhaps unpalatable fact about the role the colonial class and chattel slavery played in the economic development of the city. It wasn’t the Police nor the miners that allowed Glasgow to flourish. No, it was the merchants who kept the Clyde ‘flowing with commerce’. Further, they outlined a theme direct from the writings of James MacQueen. Slavery was a national sin and the concept of slaves as chattel property was established by British Government legislation over several centuries. They were therefore only property developers operating for the benefit of Glasgow within a nationally approved system. They subsequently pleaded:
Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
McKendrick expertly used a paragraph written by MacQueen in the Colonial Controversy of 1825 in which he compared the economic system of slavery to a building. The merchants used the built heritage of Virginia Court as a theatrical prop to point out they were happy with the system. If the Government decided to take away the first floor on which it rested (Caribbean slavery) they required compensation. This was the crux of the Glasgow West India Association argument leading up to emancipation; slaves were legal property protected by British laws. McKendrick also made a comparison that was at once both historical and contemporary; were these suppliers really the bad guys? They were only providing a service to the public based on basic economics. And a good service it was too. The tobacco and sugar was imported because it was in great demand. Further, it meant the public didn’t have to deal with the brutalities of the supply chain. They were, according to them, doing the public a favour. Think of the modern large conglomerates that depend on sweatshop labour. These places only exist because we, the consumer, continually purchase the goods.
The dramatic and highly provocative finale at the Gallery of Modern Art (formerly the mansion of Tobacco Lord, William Cunninghame) had a carnival atmosphere with the community cast of singers and dancers although it posed two key questions. How long will Glasgow continue as the only Atlantic port that doesn’t have a permanent exhibition in a museum or memorial recognising the role of Caribbean slavery (in direct contrast to London, Liverpool and Bristol)? I noted this after research trips to all cities and after making this point last year at an NUJ conference in October it has taken off, particularly with a discussion at the Empire Café. This was a new way of delivering the message.In the discussion connected to Emancipation Acts on Glasgow Green, Professor Sir Tom Devine alluded to this in the discussion with myself and Dr Karen Salt as he called for a ‘Museum of Empire’ in Glasgow that addressed Caribbean slavery. Another question centred on reparations. Much of my thinking here was shaped by Professor Hilary Beckles’ landmark text ‘Britain’s Black Debt’, although I noted that Scotland remains largely absent from the text. Yet Scotland is beginning to face up to her slavery past in recent times. Will this be accelerated in the next month? If the nation becomes independent, will CARICOM name Scotland as a beneficiary of Caribbean slavery and subsequently to be pursued for reparations? The legal and political questions surrounding reparations will be answered by others, but historians clearly have an important role. In spite of disapproval and even outright animosity towards historical research on the Scottish involvement (not least in the publicity article associated with this project in which I was accused of ‘profiting from the slave trade’!), such research is not invidious retribution or anachronistic judgement to expose slave owners and their gains, nor is it a quest to exonerate the nation. Historians have a duty to explain and several issues are becoming clear: how was this wealth acquired, where did it go, what was the impact and how should we, as a nation, commemorate it today?
The aim of many historians is to explain ‘how things actually were’ which is based on the famous mantra of Leopold Van Ranke: wie es eigentlich gewesen. I am very confident that we managed to achieve this with this piece of work which was also situated in modern context. And when I say ‘we’ I mean Alan McKendrick. I provided historical expertise whilst he shaped the sometimes short essays into a very clever, provocative play that addressed key historical and contemporary themes. This was effective in tackling a difficult subject. Public history – although it cannot be used for all research areas – should be promoted by historians to take the archives to the streets. At the same time, there was the perfect mesh with African-Caribbean Cultures to produce a very moving couple of hours. Sad it had to end so soon.
Photographer credits: official Emancipation Acts – Tommy Ga-Ken Wan; Lou Prendergast – Jean Cameron; Briggait scene- Juliette Carty.