TV Ramblings – The Book of Negroes (2015)

Genre: drama, history, slavery, Africa, USA, abolition

Episodes: 6

star 4

SUMMARY

Kidnapped in Africa and subsequently enslaved in South Carolina, Aminata must navigate a revolution in New York, isolation in Nova Scotia and treacherous jungles of Sierra Leone, in an attempt to secure her freedom in the 19th century.

REVIEW

I’ve decided to split this review into a general review and a more detailed recap of the series below. I think I can safely avoid spoilers this way and let you enjoy this series if you find my thoughts on it intriguing enough. 😀

The miniseries is an adaptation of a book of the same title and it shows us so many things about slavery in America continental Europeans like me probably had no idea about – I didn’t know the British evacuated former slaves to Canada since southern states could hunt down their ‘property’ at the end of the war. Those scenes – just wow in the most negative way. I’m continuously surprised by the levels some people stoop to but that must have been the nadir. Although many tried to help the unfortunate former slaves, it mostly boiled down to few decent people at first and a lot of harmful practices that may not be called slavery anymore persisted in other legal ways.

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The miniseries packs a lot of information and characters into the plot without weighing it down. I’m just sorry they couldn’t explore the issues they highlighted in more detail but then we would lose the red thread of the story – Aminata. She’s the protagonist of the series and a character you deeply sympathise with. She just can’t seem to catch a break in her love life. She is also subject to many attitudes towards slaves and former slaves and close enough to the changes in society to form her own opinion and to observe the impacts of various policies. She is intelligent and even educated, so she sees right through the bullshit – the scenes with Washington and other wealthy white rebels highlight just what they think of coloured people. I found it appalling but I shouldn’t be surprised anymore when I consider the treatment of Native Americans.

Characters are likeable despite being complex and of differing loyalties, outlooks, and backgrounds. We have a nice balance of moral and immoral characters but also people who are caught in the system and can’t do more for the enslaved even if they wish to. As for the slaves themselves – their position in society brings them together but their resistance to slavery is limited. Often, they have no interest in returning back to Africa or in restoring their various cultures or beliefs. There is no such thing as race solidarity in Africa either and the phenomenon of black people enslaving other people of the same colour just boggles the mind. Then again tribal loyalty is foremost and white people behave abominably towards other whites as well – just look at the numerous wars and persecutions. Still, I was fascinated with the time we spent in Africa since this is a rarely shown part of the slavery story arc.

Costumes are the only thing I can criticise in the series – they are really a hit or miss but that is due to budget constraints, so I don’t hold it against the series. It’s just unfortunate that they couldn’t find better costumes to rent to make the series more historically accurate and enhance my enjoyment of the fascinating plot. The actors do such a great job that it is a shame they aren’t given better costumes. I must find the book and read it – I believe the characters will be given more of a voice there, especially the side characters that captured my heart in the short time they were given in the series.

It’s certainly an eye-opener and I recommend it to fellow history buffs. Be prepared for some really depressing stuff and a lot of sub context in scenes that you may not capture at first but realise as you contemplate the episode in more depth.

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RECAP – SPOILERS

The story is centred on the life of a remarkable woman Aminata Diallo who grew up in a village in Africa. Her father is a tribal man who converted to Islam, so he taught his daughter to read but also how to tell stories and histories like himself – quite an unusual upbringing. Her mother is a midwife with a high status and Aminata looks forward to following in her footsteps as well even though she feels storytelling is her calling. Then slavers attack the family – they kill her parents and abduct Aminata. They also sack her village, enslaving other tribal women and men. The scenes are just heartbreaking but they also show the social disintegration of the region. Some tribes collude with slavers in order to be spared the fate of their victims or to take advantage of the emptied land.

Often the slavers are children who had been abducted themselves. This reminds me of the children soldiers phenomena we hear a lot these days from Africa and unfortunately from the Middle East as well – they are kidnapped as children, brainwashed and exploited. The few who do survive into adulthood and climb the ranks continue the hellish practice on other villages and children – it boggles the mind. Why would you do these things to others when you know perfectly well just what a hell this kind of life is?

We see this phenomenon in the character of teenager Chekura – one of the slavers who killed her family. He befriends Aminata during the gruelling journey to the coast and their dynamic is fascinating – she does not hold his actions against him but accepts his friendship. I wouldn’t have been so forgiving but Aminata wisely decides to let bygones be bygones and not be burdened with things she cannot change. The past is in the past and while her goal is to return home she does not forget to live in the present.
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When the slaves arrive at the fort at the coast they are treated even more abominably which is something I just cannot wrap my mind around. In fact the entire slavery phenomena in the 18th century makes my head hurt. First you kill off people in the villages and waste many lives, then you don’t take good care of them during the journey to the coast, you don’t feed or properly house the survivors before you load them onto a ship, then you treat them as pieces of lumber and do your very best to further maltreat them or even kill off if you don’t like their attitude. WTF?! Some historians love to tell us how slaves were valuable goods but I don’t see that anywhere in history. I won’t even go into the horrors of slavery in America because we all know what went down there.

The series certainly doesn’t hold back punches but it also doesn’t let us descent into a pit of despair – it shows us the worst in people but also the best. Even though Aminata is bought by a despicable man Robinson Appleby who has sexual predation encoded in every cell of his body, she finds support among fellow slaves and learns to read and write on the sly. A nice woman takes her under her wing and other slaves do their very best to prevent her ever being alone with their master – they know the man far too well. Female slaves are preyed upon by their masters, their children are sold off, and the wellbeing of other slaves is held over their heads. It’s indescribable.

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Aminata is reunited with Chekura through a slave message system and the two decide to marry even though they must hide their relationship. Other slaves support them and do their very best to shield the pair from the always watchful eye of Appleby. Of course when Aminata begins to show, Appleby loses his cool because he’s told her many times that she belongs to him. Not to mention the rape he subjected her to at one point. It is a dark period for Aminata and we never know just what Appleby will do to exact his revenge.

Enter the Jewish couple – Rosa and Solomon Lindo. They are the ones who buy Aminata from Appleby and the women become close friends. Unfortunately they could not save Aminata’s daughter since Appleby sold her off as punishment. Aminata is heartbroken but she finds joy in Rosa’s child and in the freedom she enjoys in the household. Chekura finds her eventually and the two bond anew over the loss of a child. Solomon is not happy with the strange black man suddenly entering his house and we see the first cracks in the friendship between him and Aminata. This is further compounded when chicken pox takes the lives of Solomon’s wife and child. When it is revealed that he knew where Aminata’s baby was sold and did not tell, she begins to search for an opportunity to escape. She gets it when they travel to New York and the revolution breaks out. She manages to hide amidst the chaos with the help of a black inn holder Samuel Fraunces himself a staunch supporter of the rebels.

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Solomon Lindo returns home as many of slaveholders from the south do and Aminata is nominally free. She is separated from her husband, she fears her child is dead of the same disease that took her friend Rosa, and she longs to return home but she doesn’t lose hope. Living in the tent town of escaped slaves, she hears many stories about their lives and tribulations, and she follows in her father’s footsteps as a storyteller. She works for Fraunces at the inn, listening to the discussions of the revolutionaries and loyalists but forming her own opinions about the relationship between white and black people. She works as a midwife in the camp and in the red quarter. Many of the prostitutes there are coloured or mixed race. I find the parallels between sexual exploitation of enslaved women and these ‘free’ women horrifying especially when many of them are underage. But there are some bright glimmers in this situation as well as some of the officers genuinely care about their mistresses and children. One of them becomes Aminata’s friend and he introduces her to Captain John Clarkson, an abolitionist and a truly devoted ally of the enslaved people.

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The revolution splits the opinions of the slaves in the camp. Some are for the British since they promise rights for the escaped slaves and those who support them, others are for the rebels who promise equal rights for all people. Chekura manages to escape the south in the chaos and finds her in New York by her reputation as a midwife. He then decides to join the fight as a British soldier, angering Fraunces who supports the rebels. Aminata doesn’t wish to see any of the slaves fight since this is primarily a fight between white people. But when Chekura is in wounded she convinces Fraunces to help her find him and smuggle him past the rebels.

When rebels win the war a treaty gives the escaped slaves only a narrow window of time when they can escape the new law giving owners right to hunt them down. The British once again hammer out a deal to count their supporters exempt from it and a hasty plan to relocate any slave to British-held soil is put together. Aminata is employed by Captain John Clarkson to write down the list of slaves since she is fluent in many African tongues. The list is called the Book of Negroes and some of the people we see give their testimony gives you an idea of what a big project this was.

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But for some it is too late as bounty hunters come to enslave them again. A number of Aminata’s friends are forcefully transported to the south and she herself must fight in court when Appleby suddenly reappears and claims her as property. Fraunces helps her by finding Solomon Lindo who presents papers of his ownership. It is then revealed he sold her child as part of the contract – even though he frees Aminata on the spot before the judge, she can barely look him in the eye. She departs on one of the last ships to Canada.

There the situation is dire – slaves have almost nothing to build houses or feed themselves, and winter is fast approaching. Work is scarce and locals are unhappy with slaves taking away the few work-places they have by accepting lower wages. Any thief is killed and a lot of racial tension is compounded by men who prey on black women (again). Aminata is pregnant again, but she can’t find Chekura. Lack of food and abominable hygienic situation leads to cholera and Aminata is lucky to survive but her baby dies. Once she recovers she petitions the British to provide help but before anything can be done a terrible fight breaks out, leaving many former slaves dead.

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Captain Clarkson returns with a plan to relocate slaves to Sierra Leone in Africa and a surprising number decide to brave the dangerous journey, many of them never having seen Africa before. As they arrive at the coast they return to the fort where Aminata was held as a child. She confronts the man there claiming no abuse ever took place and shows him her brand – the initials of the company trading in slaves. Ultimately though, the free people cannot stop the slave trade going on under their very noses. Often, they are themselves in danger of being sold again. Aminata wishes to see her old village again and she convinces Chekura to go with her and the group of slavers. Along the way, the slavers meet another group returning with their ‘loot’. Aminata but especially Chekura who feels deeply guilty over his own role in Aminata’s enslavement can’t see the girls sold off and they free them during the night. In the fight that breaks out Chekura dies but Aminata is rescued by the girl she freed. She is taken to a village where she tells her story and realises she must stop this trade in Britain and in America, not in Africa where she is powerless and without allies.

Aminata takes the offer of Captain Clarkson and travels to England to support the abolitionists. She writes a book about her life and the life of other slaves. It is this book and the testimonies of other slaves that help drum up enough support for the movement. Parliament finally bans slave trade in 1807 and a massive effort is taken to capture ships on the ocean. A happy ending for Aminata is in sight as well as a now elderly Solomon reunites her with her daughter May – his penance for not doing the right thing in the past. Aminata forgives him and the two part as friends. Abolitionists continue their fight and in 1833 they achieve their goals in the Slavery Abolition Act.

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