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The real horrors of the transatlantic slave trade behind Taboo and Roots

Trapped on the slave ship Cornwallis. Scott Free Prods/Robert Viglasky/BBC

As James Delaney, the protagonist of the BBC’s hit drama Taboo, struggles with a vast assortment of enemies upon his return to London from Africa in 1814, he murmurs to his half-sister and former lover: “I have sailed to places where there is no damnation.” Although it is never clear whether he was referring to actual physical places or to some corners of his mind, it is clear that Africa – and the African slave trade – loom large in virtually every aspect of this renegade’s life.

Delaney’s haunting memories and visions relating to his involvement in the abominable commerce of human beings, means that the slave trade is almost permanently in the background as a running subplot that determines much of the subsequent action, as Delaney takes on the powerful East India Company, the British crown and America.

The story is set at a crucial historical moment, just seven years after the British parliament abolished the transatlantic slave trade and just as the British government was starting to put pressure on all European slave-trading nations at the Congress of Vienna to end this inhumane traffic.

It is ironic, then, that the horror stories possessing Delaney’s mind in this fictional series, rather than disappearing, increased in number and frequency in the real world during the next few decades. This was especially the case after 1820, when the British navy began policing the Atlantic and courts of Mixed Commission and Vice-Admiralty began adjudicating vessels engaged in this now illegal activity.

Horror stories

The sloop Cornwallis, the fictitious vessel that haunts Delaney’s nightmares, appears to have run aground during a storm leaving the enslaved Africans to die in its hold. In the real slave trade, even if the storm could have been avoided, a combination of overcrowding, lack of drinkable water, a bad diet, deadly diseases, and maltreatment would often have led to a similar outcome. There are plenty of actual documented cases like this over the next few decades, as slave traders were forced to conduct their activities in the shadows and as the few controls put in place to improve conditions on board slave vessels in the 1790s were abandoned.

For example, in 1837, the Arrogante, a brig owned by the commercial house of Pedro Martinez & Co., based in Havana, gained sudden notoriety after being detained by a British cruiser and taken to Jamaica. There, a large number of the Africans who had been transported inside the vessel’s bowels, accused the crew of murdering one of the Africans, of eating his heart and liver, and then of slicing the man’s legs and arms into small square pieces and serving them with rice to the rest of the Africans.

Anatomy of a slave ship., CC BY

Only four years later, a small Canary Islands coaster, the Jesus Maria, was seized with more than 270 Africans crammed below deck in the most terrible conditions imaginable. Allegations of beatings, rapes and murders were soon to follow. Seasoned British officers who observed the conditions in which this group of men, women, and especially children arrived in Cuba in 1841, were left struggling for words to describe what they considered to be one of the cruellest cases of human trafficking they had ever witnessed.

Out of Africa

The accusations of unspeakable actions directed at Delaney in Taboo, including those of cannibalism, are not, therefore, totally out of order. Between 1820 and 1867 – the year of the last recorded transatlantic slave trade voyage, according to the the slave trade history site Voyages – copious and detailed references exist to brutal actions like those carried out by Delaney, or the sailors of the Arrogante and the Jesus Maria. As a matter of fact, the BBC is also currently treating us to a remake version of the classic TV series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s eponymous novel, where the horrors of the slave trade are also presented in vivid and violent detail.

Roots: a traumatic portrayal of the horrors of the slave trade. BBC/A+E

To be sure, after 1820, enslaved Africans were also forced to endure deadly diseases, piratical attacks, shipwrecks, longer voyages in always-overcrowded vessels, and hurried landings, usually at night and on locations that were hardly ideal for walking barefoot. This is perhaps Taboo’s only weak link in taking on the transatlantic slave trade: the experiences of Africans, beyond some spellbinding graphic images, are not explored in anywhere near the same depth as those of Delaney.

As a result, we can only continue to imagine the sort of memories and visions that may have haunted each and every one of them, from the moment they were seized in their homelands and marched in shackles towards the Atlantic coast, to the hour at which their eyes were closed forever.

When it comes to depicting the horrors of the slave trade, Taboo has done much better than most. Delaney’s own survival, his ghastly memories and visions, and even the beads and iron chains he finds aboard the Spanish brig he buys in a public auction, are manifest markers of a world where colonialism and modern capitalism were concocted – a world that was the result of profiting from human enslavement, displacement, suffering and death.

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