Very recently Sir Mo Farah revealed to the world that that was not his real name and that he had been born Hussein Abdi Kahin. Contrary to what he had let be known previously, he hadn’t fled from Somalia with his parents as a child, but had been trafficked by people who wanted to use him as a modern day child slave, looking after their children and doing all kinds of domestic tasks. Before this revelation he was a well-respected figure, known for his cheerfulness, who many of us had cheered to Olympic gold medals. Since the truth came out there has been extra focus on modern slavery, and many other people have come forward who were silent before to tell their story and get help.
This is a powerful example of what is sometimes called changing the narrative. People can be wary of such things and express great skepticism about what they call ‘revisionism’, and they don’t mean it as a compliment. This point of view goes very close to saying that what has always been assumed to be true is true and should never be looked at again. I have regularly called this the Ladybird book interpretation of history. Everything about the past can be regarded as already known and settled and is only fit for repetition, not revisiting.
Mo Farah’s story is one example of why this isn’t quite good enough, and the brilliant TV drama Sherwood is another. The miners’ strike is one of those contentious moments in the past which is also, for many, a defining political moment, whether we were around at the time or not; but in my view, that series, like all the best dramas, invites us to reconsider and reflect on the experiences and dilemmas of people with a multitude of perspectives, which can challenge and enrich our own and, like the best parables of Jesus, encourage empathy and compassion.
Yesterday was the day in the church’s calendar set aside to give thanks for the lives of the leading figures in the abolition of slavery. At one point, not that long ago, the main focus would have been on William Wilberforce, so well known for steering the abolition of the slave trade act through Parliament in 1807, but now two other major characters are named: Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano.
You might have heard of Equiano, but probably don’t know his full history.
His campaigning in the wake of the Zong affair was the spur to the foundation of the first anti-slavery committee set up by the Quakers in 1783. The fore-mentioned Thomas Clarkson was to be a prominent leader of this group and was one of those who subsequently contributed to persuading Wilberforce that joining the campaign was his sacred Christian duty.
The Zong incident is one of those things that culture warriors don’t like to hear about. It was centred on an insurance claim. In 1783 Captain Collingwood brought and won an insurance claim for cargo he had jettisoned at sea in order to save his ship The Zong and its remaining cargo.
That cargo, of course, was African slaves. As was common practice, Collingwood had packed his slave ship with living cargo, and many people had died or fallen ill. Knowing that he could claim on the insurance if he could show some of his cargo needed to be sacrificed to save the voyage, he argued falsely that there was not enough water on board to keep everyone alive and threw 132 people to their deaths.
Equiano, on reading about the case, lobbied anti-slavery lawyer Granville Sharp to make a case for the incident to be looked into again, but this time as a murder trial. The attempt failed but the publicity – the act of changing the narrative – worked.
But who was Equiano, and why was he listened too?
His story is an astonishing one of survival and achievement. He was born in Nigeria, around 1745. He was enslaved and transported to Barbados and then on to the British Colony of Virginia. Purchased by an English Naval Officer, he was re-named Gustavus Vassa and taken to London, where he was used as part servant part luxury pet. But he was taught to read and write.
He accompanied Pascal on voyages to Canada during the Seven Years’ War with France and undertook seafaring duties. He was swindled of his wages and at age 18 was sold again and taken to work on Montserrat, where his education saved him from working on a plantation but didn’t stop him observing what went on there.
Bought again, by a Quaker, Robert King, he was allowed to take up sea-faring again and was able to save up and buy his freedom.
Coming to England he found employment as a hairdresser in the Haymarket. A year later he went to work for an entrepreneurial scientist, who had developed ways to turn sea water into fresh, and travelled with him on expeditions to the Arctic.
All the time he had been observing the furtive and vulnerable lives of ex slaves in London, always living in fear of being re-captured by their ex masters. He became an advocate for such people and began to make contacts with legal experts who would cooperate with him – all when still in his twenties. He went on to organise a network of lobbying ex-slaves, called the Sons of Africa, and wrote a best-selling autobiography, his Interesting Narrative, which changed even more hearts and minds.
Famously, the inspirer of Methodism and great hymn writer, John Wesley, read Equiano’s book on his deathbed in 1791 and promptly dashed off a letter to Wilberforce pleading with him to do all he could to end the slave trade.