An African's Blood
The play tells the story of the twenty year struggle to abolish the slave trade from 1787 to 1807; yet it starts and finishes with the cries of Mariatu Sesay, a modern day slave. We are lured into the world of the late eighteenth century as slaver John Newton (later an abolitionist and author of Amazing Grace) orders his next cargo of ironware, calico and ale to sell on the West African coast in exchange for a cargo of slaves.
Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce meet at a dinner party and describe how they each became committed to the cause of the slaves. We listen to the eloquent testimony of an ex-slave – Olaudah Equiano. Clarkson travels all over England gathering witnesses and testimony to the horrors of the trade, risking his life at least once in the great slave trading city of Liverpool.
Meanwhile we see Wilberforce doggedly introducing his motion for the abolition of the trade, year after year, to the patronizing amusement of his opponents. The powerful proslavery lobby, including plantation owners and City Merchants argue passionately that abolition would ruin the British economy. We hear evidence from both sides about how slaves were treated on the sugar plantations of the West Indies and about life on board ship.
By 1791, the people have begun to take an interest: Miss Arabella Brookes, daughter of one of the pre-eminent slave owning families shocks her Mamma by refusing to touch sugar. She is joined by three hundred thousand people. Poems and pamphlets, songs and pictures gradually change the political atmosphere. Clarkson and Wilberforce and their allies regroup; the new Prime Minister Lord Grenville and the charismatic Charles James Fox give their support. The Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade is finally carried in the Spring of 1807 and the House cheers Wilberforce as he sits, with head bowed, tears streaming down his cheeks.
And what have they really achieved? The ghosts of the nineteenth century make way for the courageous Mariatu who is indeed the face of slavery yet to come. We never discover who the real ghosts are.
Outdoor performance of An African's Blood at Speke Hall, near Liverpool in August 2007
Performance at Speke Hall 2007