The brutality with which the Jamaican plantocracy reacted to the Christmas Rebellion/Baptist War/Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-2 was so horrific that it may well have been what got Abolitionism over the line in 1833; but it’s rarely spoken about. Maybe it’s just too easy to think of Abolitionism as being about people in black bombazine singing “Amazing Grace” in assembly rooms. And stories about slavery and uprisings are usually told from the viewpoint of the slaveowners: this is a rare example of a story in which the protagonist is a slave. She’s called July.
My one real quibble with it is that Caroline, the main white character, comes dangerously close to caricature, or at least did early on. That’s no criticism of Hayley Atwell: she’s only playing her as she was written, and doing a very good job of it. Tamara Lawrance as July is also excellent, and Lenny Henry as Godfrey, the head of the house slaves, is incredible. We all know what a great comedian and comic actor he is, but I’ve never really thought of him as a serious actor before. And the character of Caroline does improve as the first episode goes on, to be fair.
So what’s going on? Christmas 1831. The slave trade’s been abolished across the British Empire in 1807, but hopes that that would lead to the abolition of slavery itself across the British Empire have as yet failed to materialise, although the Abolitionist movement – notably the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823- is growing in size and influence. There’ve been attempts to improve living and working conditions for slaves, but the Jamaican Assembly hasn’t wanted to know about them. Led by Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe, one of a number of slaves who’d become religious ministers/preachers, a general strike’s planned, to demand a wage and more free time.
It turns into an uprising. The uprising only lasts eleven days, being quickly put down by British and free black Maroon troops, but there are violent reprisals by the slaveowners afterwards, with hundreds of slaves being executed for very minor offences such as stealing a cow. The brutality horrifies public opinion in Britain, and it almost certainly hastens the abolition of slavery. The Jamaican sugar-based economy has already begun to collapse and there’ll be severe economic decline for the rest of the 19th century; and the white upper-classes will continue to dominate financially and politically until well into the 20th century. But at least the days of slavery are over.
July is born about 18 years or so before this (it’s not clear exactly how old she is in 1831) as the result of the rape of a female slave, Kitty, by the plantation overseer. We see the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, take a fancy to her because she thinks she’s sweet and cute, and take her away from Kitty to be trained up as her maid, without a thought for the feelings of either mother or child at being separated. It should be a heartrending and shocking moment, but, unfortunately, at that point the character of Caroline’s so pantomimish and OTT that it doesn’t quite work as it should do.
At that point, I wasn’t very impressed – but it did get better. Caroline is an interesting character. She’s actually a very vulnerable character. She’s the only white woman on the plantation, and, for some reason, there don’t seem to be any other relatives or friends around. I suppose she has to seem foolish because it’s important to the story, later on, that she can’t manage the slaves herself and is dependent on July, who becomes the housekeeper – but it does all go overboard early on, with a lot of yelling and shrieking and hysterics. The idea of the cunning slave/servant and the stupid mistress/master’s a stock storyline in sitcoms, but this isn’t a sitcom. Anyway, as I said, it got better – the character of Caroline was working much better by the end of the first episode.
She insists on calling July “Marguerite”. Dehumanisation’s a key theme here – a child is seen as being cute, as if she’s a puppy or a kitten, and is taken away from her mother without a second thought, and then her name’s changed. OK, it isn’t quite comparable to the famous Kunta Kinte/Toby scene, but there’s a telling scene during the rebellion in which Godfrey makes Caroline call July by her real name.
In the build-up to the rebellion, or uprising, or revolt, or war, or whichever term’s preferred, we see little acts of defiance by the slaves. July and Godfrey use a soiled bedsheet as a tablecloth at a posh dinner being given by Caroline. Godfrey tells Caroline outright that the plantation can’t afford all the candles she wants for decoration – and she hits him for it. The slaves throw their own Christmas party. And then the actual rebellion.
July isn’t involved in it. Instead, she and her lover, a free black man called Nimrod, are enjoying themselves in the bedroom of the master, Caroline’s brother John. John comes in, and shoots himself. Caroline, not wanting to admit that her brother’s killed himself, claims that she saw Nimrod shoot him. Nimrod is executed. July’s sent to work in the fields – but is eventually brought back to the house as housekeeper, because Caroline can’t manage without her.
At the end of the first episode, a new plantation manager, Robert Goodwin, brings news that emancipation is coming. He seems sympathetic to the slaves, but, with two more episodes to come, it’s obviously going to get very complicated.
This is the story of a woman’s life. It’s not a story of a rebellion and emancipation … but that’s like saying that Gone With The Wind isn’t about the American Civil War/War Between The States and Reconstruction, or that War and Peace isn’t about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It could be argued that it’s not the responsibility of Andrea Levy, the author of the book on which this is based, or of the BBC, to teach us about it. Or is it? If you write a book, or adapt for TV a book, about such an important and sensitive issue, then surely you are accepting some responsibility for that. Novels, TV programmes and films reach a far wider audience than academic books do. And this does a good job of it. It’s not angry or aggressive. It’s not sick-makingly preachy like Uncle Tom’s Cabin is. Sorry, but I cannot stand that book! It just tells the story. Good choice by the BBC.