Afua Hirsch on tracing the story of the transatlantic slave trade

Writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch tells us about her new series tracing the story of the transatlantic slave trade, which she co-presents alongside actor Samuel L Jackson and investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici

Afua Hirsh with her ‘Enslaved’ co-presenters Simcha Jacobovici and Samuel L Jackson

The series is called Enslaved: The Lost History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Is the ‘lost’ in its title important?

It is important because few people realise, for example, that the Atlantic Ocean is literally littered with the wreckage of slave ships. The ocean has become a site of trauma for so many African diasporas and yet the actual remnants of that experience have never really been seen. We haven’t seen concerted efforts to dive the wrecks, explore them, and tell their stories. And they tell so many different stories – atrocities in which slaves were thrown overboard, rebellions and mutinies at sea, and terrible accidents.

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How does the series tell those stories?

We tell them through objects and archaeological sites [including dives to wrecks]. To give an example, in Rio de Janeiro, I saw amulet bracelets that enslaved people wore in a heartbreaking effort just to keep a remnant of home or to try to protect themselves from the foreboding sense of tragedy that was facing them. Such items have been recovered from mass graves. Having survived the Middle Passage [in which enslaved people were transported to the Americas], many people just died on arrival, dropped dead from exhaustion, hunger and dehydration, and they were thrown into a mass grave in which local people also threw household rubbish.


Listen: Christer Petley charts the history of slavery within the British empire and considers how it should be reflected upon today. Plus, Afua Hirsch offers her thoughts on the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Were you trying to talk about different African experiences of slavery, to construct a more nuanced cultural history?

Absolutely. We tend to talk about the transatlantic slave trade as one phenomenon, and the story of enslavement as one experience. But actually, if you were trafficked through a slave port in what’s now Ghana to Pernambuco in Brazil to work on sugar plantations, that was a very different experience to if you were taken from a different part of Africa and trafficked to Virginia to work on tobacco plantations.

Going into these stories and understanding what people experienced, and the cultural legacies, is really important. Every single nation has been affected by the culture those enslaved peoples created, whether it’s fashion or hip-hop; food or the aesthetics of art.

Every nation has been affected by the culture enslaved peoples created, whether it’s fashion or food

What was it like filming with your co-presenter Samuel L Jackson?

He went on a personal journey in the series, regarding his own heritage and his own story. It was very humbling to be with him on that journey. Also he just is himself, which makes it different to anything else I’ll ever work on. So that was a real joy.

Enslaved: The Lost History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is set to be broadcast on BBC Two from Sunday 11 October. https://www.historyextra.com/enslaved-qa

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This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine