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Slavery - voices from the past
There aren't a lot of historical records relating to Cumbria's involvement in the slave trade hundreds of years ago. So we've turned to fiction to fill the gaps. Cumbrian writer Marian Veevers explains how she made the voices come alive.
When I was asked by BBC Radio Cumbria to write five fictional monologues about the slave trade and base them on material in Cumbria's archives, I knew what I would do. I would write from five view points; representing the thoughts of those who profited and suffered from the slave trade.
But that was impossible. The characters and opinions I found in the records were limited. Here there were the voices of planters, overseers and white reformers; but of the millions of Africans whose lives were destroyed by the trade and of the enslaved people who themselves fought for emancipation, there was no record.
So I tried instead to represent as honestly as I could the voices that actually are there in the archives and to focus on the way in which opinions changed.
There were more surprises to come. There usually are. In my experience, archives rarely contain exactly what I expect. For a fiction writer, it is one of the pleasures of working with them.
For example there were the letters of overseers – the men who enforced slavery. They, I thought, would surely be as brutal as the system… But their letters aren't brutal. They contain fond memories of chapel sermons and other religious references. In the same letter that describes the exact number of lashes the law permits him to inflict, one overseer reminds his brother of old parlour games they used to play together.
And then there were the voices denouncing slavery. Strangely, it is among these enlightened men that there are the clearest hints of what we would today call racism: patronising doubts about equality. It is a reminder of how opinions change only gradually.
As I finished writing, I couldn't help wondering: What opinions do I hold which seem enlightened to me, but will appear the very reverse if someone reads them in two hundred years time…?
These monologues mark the passing of time and the change of opinion ... from 1799 through to 1824.
last updated: 01/05/2008 at 16:04