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The Essay (BBC Radio 3)

Presenter: Angelina Osbourne and John Gilmore
Producer: Zahid Warley
Date: 26, 27, 28, 29 March 2007
Time: 11.00pm

In these editions of The Essay the writer and researcher Angelina Osborne and the historian John Gilmore examine the hidden side of Britain's involvement in the slave trade. In these four episodes, Gilmore and Osborne travel to different locations around the country to uncover the forgotten histories of enslavement and abolition. They use these distinct places to reflect on the way enslavement has shaped Britain.

The programme features a dialogue between Osborne and Gilmore with each taking turns to ask questions and direct the conversation. They use this style to examine particular places, events and individuals in an easy, open manner without recourse to academic complexities. The places that are featured are Sambo's grave at Sunderland Point, Lancashire; Whitehaven, Cumbria; Westminster Hall, London; Soham and Chesterton, Cambridgeshire. The opening episode discussing Sambo's grave is quite emotive as the discussion concerns how this young man came to have been buried at an apparently remote location. Gilmore states that it could have been just 'simple racism' that had prevented a church burial. The grave is used as a wider symbol of those who suffered because of the slave trade. The attitudes and values of a society which could condone enslavement are discussed briefly though they are explained away as 'an everyday fact.' Any indignation which could be present is replaced by sadness for the individual and a sense of reconciliation. This understanding is based upon the efforts of Abolitionists, which though the process is described as slow, is put forward as rectifying the injustice. Local sensibilities are also spared as the presenters reveal how a Lancastrian clergyman arranged for a permanent gravestone and poem to commemorate the slave, and that local children still leave flowers and trinkets at the graveside.

This note of reconciliation appears to be present in all four of the episodes, as figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Granville Sharp are given equal prominence, and an apparently integrated black community in eighteenth century Whitehaven is examined. Without engaging in any debates with other individuals the program is presented as an easy, uninterrupted truth; a means of putting the messy, tangled nature of the past behind us. The burial of Mildred Gale, paternal grandmother to George Washington, with her slave in Whitehaven is used to reconsider the slave-master relation. Much is made of the presence of black people referenced in parish registers throughout rural England during the period of the slave trade. The presenters talk enthusiastically of the possibilities of non-black inhabitants of towns and villages having an African ancestor. The idea of reconciliation and a shared history is most strongly communicated with the programme concerning Equiano. The marriage of Equiano to Susannah Cullen, a white woman from Cambridgeshire is discussed, as is the grave of Equiano's daughter, which was commemorated at a Cambridgeshire church by supporters of Equiano. To conclude, the presenters remind the audience that Abolition is regarded too often as a victory for 'the campaigns of white politicians.' 'Equiano should be as well-known as Wilberforce. Their experiences should be remembered as part of history of all peoples', states Gilmore. 'Yes, that's right, it's a shared history', replies Osborne.

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