". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Friday, October 5, 2012

Liverpool's International Museum of Slavery and Andrea Arnold‘s film of *Wuthering Heights*

Looking into the New York Times Wednesday morning, the first day after getting back from England and our visit to Liverpool's International Museum of Slavery on Monday* -- imagine the thrill I felt reading that Andrea Arnold's 'black' Wuthering Heights was finally opening here. Mr. Earnshaw finds Heathcliff in the gutters of Liverpool, from where he brings the child to his Yorkshire family farm on the moors. I've been anxious to see this film ever since first reading about in the English papers last year.

Andrew O'Hehir says Arnold's Wuthering Heights is his film Pick of the Week; he makes his case for his judgement with passion. The reviews in the NYC papers have been favorable. But Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice, who may well know his film history, doesn't know the history of the African diaspora or slavery.  He blithely declares:

In the 1770s, when the story is set, a black child was rare, even in Liverpool, the African chattel of the busy Brit-run slave trade going almost exclusively to British, Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies in the Americas.
Atkinson is wrong. See this, from the Liverpool International Slavery Museum site:

Of the little research into the Black presence in Britain during the slave trade period most has focused solely on London, yet Liverpool had a considerable Black population during the 18th and 19th centuries, many of whom were slaves. Although there seems to be no evidence of large scale slave auctions taking place here, slaves can be found advertised for sale in the early Liverpool newspapers. Merchants would also place 'WANTED' advertisements in the press, demonstrating their eagerness to purchase an African servant.

As well as slave sales, there were also advertisements for runaways, showing that Black people did not accept their enslavement in Britain passively. The newspapers also show the reality of life for Black people in Britain's most important slave trading port after the lauded Mansfield Decision of 1772. The last slave sale advertised in a Liverpool newspaper took place in 1779, seven years after Mansfield had ruled in the case of James Somersett.

Church records of the time also give us a great insight into the African presence in the town and show many Black people being baptised and buried in Liverpool churchyards. From these records and others, we know there were many free Black people living in Liverpool during the latter part of the 18th century, including students and craftsmen, as well as soldiers and sailors who fought with honour during the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars.

Atkinson doesn't comprehend that enslaved Africans and free people of color existed in ports all over the world, side-by-side, even in countries like England, that didn't have a domestic slave trade, but allowed slavery. It wasn't until 1772 and the Somerset (Mansfield) Decision that domestic slavery in England was overturned (This, incidentally frightened the American colonial slaver owners all way to the bottom of their pockets -- and their account books -- that the Decision paved the way for Abolitionists to have their way throughout the colonies; this fear was another reason the southern power elite spent so much energy creating the propaganda agitation for political independence from England.)

As well, everywhere ships and the sea provided many jobs for men of color, whether slave or free.  Among other sources for this, particularly in Liverpool, Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human History, provides extensive, tragic documentation.

Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights opens here in NYC today, at the Film Forum, which is just a few blocks away from here.  I'll be there.

* Among other exciting information gleaned even from this truncated visit to the museum is that several Liverpool slave traders -- all very powerful, very wealthy and very respected citizens of the city -- traded in slaves directly with slave owners in Maryland and Virginia throughout the 18th century, until the War for Independence.

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