flipped eye publishing (2023)
Review by Philip Nanton and Jane Bryce
The cover of Gabriel Gbadamosi’s newly published play, Abolition, suggests an uncompromising approach to a story we might prefer left swept tidily under the carpet, after its Young Vic production thirty years ago. A slave ship in full sail sits firmly in the centre, the line of the sea marked by a broken chain. Figures leap off the ship into the water. At the stern, a Union Jack informs all-comers that this is British business. Now, with many ex-colonies lobbying for reparations at state level and Black Lives Matter at the community level, are we ready to confront the ugly truth?
Gbadamosi’s play centres on the Blackamoor Jenny, a Guineaman slaver, which, in 1792, sets off for the coast of West Africa on a high risk venture on which the owner gambles a fortune, as well as his nephew’s life. The expedition encounters disaster on arrival when, unable to purchase enough slaves to make the voyage an economic success, the crew are attacked when they attempt to capture more of them illegally. On board, a form of blindness transmitted by one of the enslaved ultimately infects the entire crew. As the condition spreads, the expedition is lost.
Scenes of the ship at sea, dramatising the relationship between race and terror, are counterpoised by scenes of the ship of state, characterized by cynicism and greed. The former scenes illuminate the process of reshaping black labour for the New World plantation. The latter reshape our understanding of anti-slavery activists by showing how their concerns become ensnared in a net of bureaucratic obfuscation.
The structuring of the drama as a series of seventeen scenes, undivided into acts, flattens the action so that all the events take place on the same plane. Thus, the violent assault on a shackled and hooded African captive on board ship is commensurate with the silencing of the Quaker conscience (represented by William Fox) in the House of Commons. The manipulative political rhetoric of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, and William Wilberforce, the Member of Parliament for Hull, equate to the instruments of torture used on board ship. Language is weaponized while, doomed captive apart, the only other physical evidence of the violence meted out to enslaved Africans is the bloody footprints left by the ship’s doctor. Hidden from view in the festering hold is what he calls: ‘the most horrid Sight I have ever seen. It is the Deformation of Flesh, a Vat of Blood and Mucus. It is the Boiling Coast …’
Otherwise, African subjects are represented by two characters, Jake and the Neger Shantyman, both to some extent assimilated into the ‘civilised’ world of Enlightenment England. Jake, having been redeemed from a slave hold by the ship’s captain, is reprimanded by him: ‘When I plucked you from a Slave Hole, up from a horrible Pit, out of the Mire of your Heart, put Clothes on your Back, formed you, fed you, fenced you from Sin – was it for the Roaring of a Mob?’
On land Jake is no more than a trickster thief; at sea he is an emanation of the Trade itself:
‘I am the dark Energy of Creation
Dividing you from God…
I am your Black Reflection in the Waters –
Lost in long Coils of the Atlantic,
Sighing and hissing.’
The voice of the Neger Shantyman, meanwhile, resounds throughout the play. The sea shanties he sings, a plaintive mixture of sailors’ lamentation at their limbo state and the mourning of the enslaved, function as an ironic counter-chorus. These traditional songs use a distinct intonation laced with dactyls – lines with a heavy first stress followed by two soft stresses. Barbadian poet, Kamau Brathwaite, called the New World hybrid that emerged from this pattern Nation Language – the slaves’ language of rebellion.
Gbadamosi, who has clearly done extensive research about eighteenth century modes of expression, uses linguistic contrast to good effect throughout the play. From the shanties, to the roughly spoken captain and the staccato language of command, to the smooth language of authority spoken by the upper class characters, the style of speech signals the character’s position in the social hierarchy. At its apex, Tarleton the Liverpool merchant, Wilberforce, Fox and Pitt each bring their own interests to negotiations around the process and speed of abolition. Wilberforce counters Fox’s sermonizing with this fatal paradox: ‘The Slave Trade must end, but the Rational Order of things must be preserved. Property in the Slave is untenable, but Property is still the Corner-Stone of any stable, Christian Society.’ Fox’s abolitionist position is emptied of efficacy, reduced to ‘Moral Scruple as the Dog of Profit.’
For anyone in the audience who might be seeking exculpation or historic distance, there is nowhere to hide. Even the trope of young love offers no redemption. The incipient romance between Jenny Tarleton, the merchant’s daughter, and Tom, the merchant’s nephew, who is also the ship’s Purser, is sabotaged by Tarleton’s machinations, Jenny’s contrived murder of her supposed lover and, ultimately, the downing of the ship.
The play’s refusal of a happy ending contradicts the received rhetoric of abolition as a moral undertaking. If there is no redemption for the characters, there is none for us either, as readers or audience. We are left with the strains of a shanty chorus, a ghostly echo of all those lost to the Trade:
‘Well the Rats are gone and we the Crew,
Leave her, Johnny, leave her,
O, I think by God, that we’ll go too!
And it’s Time for us to leave her!’