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The Last Slave (Channel 4)

Presenter: David Monteith
Date: Sunday 11 March 2007
Time: 8.00pm

The Last Slave follows the personal journey of David Montieff, a youth drugs worker from London, as he travels to Jamaica and Nigeria to examine the history of his ancestor, one of the last Africans enslaved by British slave traders before the Abolition Act of 1807. The programme features interviews with Nigerian tribal representatives, academics and the descendants of slave owners. The programme is narrated, and David Montieff is cast as the subject, as the programme provides a third-person perspective on the emotive material.

The programme provides an unsatisfying examination of a highly unusual case. Set firmly within the model formed by other family history programmes, such as Who do you think you are?, the programme claims to embark on the 'dark part' of Montieff's family's history. The programme therefore appears uncomfortable due to the disparity between the neutral tones of the narrator and the emotional journey of Montieff. The difference is so apparent on occasion that it appears that two programmes are being broadcast. Whilst the narrator constructs one version of events Montieff is evidently experiencing something else. Whilst Montieff learns more about his ancestor's life, the 'uncomfortable truths' described by the narrator, he discovers that his own tribe sold his ancestor to slave traders. Though the narrator is keen to provoke and capture a response regarding this, Montieff instead draws strength from this new information about a previously unknown figure. This 'discovery' regarding African complicity in the slave trade is highly unhelpful considering Montieff's occupation in London. Montieff is shown in the opening scenes delivering a lecture to schoolchildren regarding the stereotypes of black people. It would seem unadvisable therefore in this context to focus upon this aspect of the history of enslavement, to overwhelming and uncritically focus upon what the narrator describes as an, 'unpalatable truth that Africans willingly sold each other...' The programme's narration seems concerned with complicating the memory of Montieff's ancestor, a process which Montieff refuses to participate in. With the eminent historian Professor Verne Shepherd, Montieff examines his ancestor's memoir, finding it sanitised in its discussion of enslavement. With the disclosure that his ancestor worked as a gang driver, responsible for ensuring the productivity of slave groups, Montieff is asked by Shepherd, 'how does that make you feel?' Montieff reassess his ancestor but still draws strength from an individual who suffered and survived the brutalities of enslavement. Montieff asserts that, 'I'm far less ashamed that he was a slave and what he went through.'

The issues of black identity and guilt regarding enslavement are brought to attention during the programme. Montieff describes his own experiences of learning a little about his family history in his youth which reinforced his notions of place and belonging. Reconnecting to an African identity is regarded by Montieff as central to this process, 'I'm British and I think yeah I am, but there's always something missing. It is important to me to go back to Nigeria...It's home.' Montieff compares this with his work with young people in London, 'they don't know who they are they don't know their history. They don't know what else they have to be proud of black people.' In Jamaica Montieff views the instruments of slavery, the manacle and the whip, and contemplates the legacy of enslavement which has caused many of the problems he deals with in London. With these objects evidently in mind Montieff interviews David Farquarson, the descendant of slave owners, who still lives in the grand house in Jamaica built with the profits of enslavement. Evidently uncomfortable Montieff is unable to communicate to Farquarson the anger he feels regarding the history of enslavement. The interview is ended with Montieff describing the unapologetic and defiant Farquarson as, 'a decent guy who loves Jamaica.' The issue of guilt and complicity is considered as Montieff arrives at his own conclusions regarding his family history, 'I don't want white people to feel guilty...I want people to understand the repercussions are still around.' This recognition appears to be a substantially different 'uncomfortable truth' than the one which the narrator described at the outset of the programme. The programme which examines a unique topic therefore appears as an amalgamation of two very different stories.

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