TV This Week - TV Reviews

The Last Slave - Channel 4, 12 March, 8pm.

David Monteith is followed as he embarks on a journey to traces his relative’s journey of being bought and sold through the use of his memoirs. In a journey that takes him to Jamaica and Nigeria, you gain a powerful understanding, not only of Archibald’s life, but also about the slavery regime, with a few surprises for David along the way. The journey goes along way to helping young black kids understand who they are and their identity, and why they are here.
Over 3 million African people were enslaved by the British and although slave trading ending in 1807, slavery itself still continued for 30 years afterwards. His journey to Nigeria questions his originally held views about the black role in slavery. On finding out that he descended for the Igbo tribe in Nigeria, by speaking to elders in the Igbo tribe, he finds out that it wasn’t uncommon for families to sell a child into slavery, particularly if they were unruly. “As a black person in England, what you’re thinking about slavery is fairly monotone – it was a bad thing, it was an evil thing… white people are responsible. But apparently it is not. I was listening to people and I know what I wanted them to say that and they wouldn’t. They weren’t saying slavery was a bad thing. That is not what I traveled this far to hear…Domestic slavery it seems was just a way of life.”   It’s common for programmes like this to steer towards putting the blame back on African people for selling their own people back into slavery, which is why the programme has to be seen with an open mind, but in every area of history where people have been exploited, there have always been people within the race who have co-operated with the exploiters and this should in no way place the blame on the oppressed race for such an evil regime which most western teachings and programmes try to throw back at black people. David’s view is that the people who sold their kin into slavery had no idea of the atrocities that awaited them as slaves.
On his journey through Jamaica, he sees the torturous equipment that was used to punish people. David Farqhason, a descendant of slave owners still living in Jamaica, says slavery was legalised torture and that cruelty was the order of the day. As David explains, “I think what really takes me aback is he doesn’t talk about his emotions at arriving on land after all that time its just bang we arrived bang I was sold bang I was taken to this estate you know but what happened in between? It’s frustrating because you want to know what goes through a man’s mind at a time like that.” But, when faced head on with the conditions that his Ancestor would have been subjected to and the equipment and clothing he would have  been made to wear, it becomes clearer to David that maybe some things were just too horrific to express on paper…
As he begins to explore the life of his ancestor, Archibald Monteith, he draws many parallels with today’s society, he was married, a rarity in those days, he was promoted to ‘overseer’, although it was noted that overseers were primarily white so his role could have been that of a ‘gang driver’ a role given to black men to drive productivity and to keep people on the plaintations in line. This isn’t confirmed, and there is no confirmation of any cruelty from Archibald but again, David was surprised that a hierarchy existed where slaves had to abuse other slaves to get ahead.
This is a thought provoking documentary, but unfortunately not enough programmes are aired to reveal our history, and David concludes from his journey that the repercussions from slavery are still resounding today, and that it isn’t possible for problems to work themselves out in less that 200 years after the ‘abolition’ of slavery. “I think the biggest way that Archie’s story affects me is just to think that but for an accident of birth that could have been me. I’m black he was black, at that time you were probably a slave.  That could have been me.  And that thought goes through my head a lot”. 
His final thought is that he is now not ashamed that Archibald was a slave and he now knows what it means to be a slave and to survive it. It made him a great man and he is proud of that, a  thought that is echoed by Historian  Professor Verene Shepherd who says that “we should anchor ourselves to this history which says that although we were brutalised by colonisers, we eventually triumphed because our ancestors didn’t acquiesce or succumb completely the to the slave regime.”
This show should be the continuation of a dialogue and a step back to understand our history, and the repercussions in life today for black people. It’s a must watch for people with kids, but it shouldn’t end here and the questions raised need more debate, so that as a mass group, we can the same level of pride that David took from his journey in this film, the same pride that the Jewish have for understanding and never forgetting their history.