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Gabriel Gbadamosi Sings You A Song Of A World Gone Wrong In Abolition

Set in 1792, amongst the merchant princes and cut-throat backstreets of Liverpool, in the Palace of Westminster in London and aboard the Blackamoor JennyAbolition gives us the voices of people caught up in the original sin of slavery and fighting to survive it, profit from it, ignore it, or end it. We had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with poet, playwright and novelist Gabriel Gbadamosi to discuss his upcoming play. 

Q: What inspired you to write Abolition, and delve into the complex and dark history of the transatlantic slave trade – and from the perspective of British involvement, at that?

G: I woke up to being black and English in the 1970s. I didn’t choose this; my mum and dad just told me to get on with it. My parents were both migrants from the former Empire, so I imagined I was just a child of Empire – all that red on a map of the world that said it’s all yours, take it away. However, I was being educationally and socially battered for not being white. Something didn’t seem right. How could I be English, an inheritor of our moral victory over fascism in the World War II, when that same war globally was a war of decolonisation? At home, I sang Irish rebel songs against the brutality of Cromwell and the English, and read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe about the brutal colonisation of my father’s country. I had to disambiguate my way of being English from a terrible history of racialised cultural, political and economic violence. In short, I had to deal with the original English sin of enslavement of Africans like me. I had to do it as an Englishman. The scholar in me sat for years in the reading room of the British Library poring over old manuscripts – contemporary accounts of the slave trade – and collaborated with the poet in me to recreate scenes of the conflicting spiritual, moral, social and economic actors and voices for and against slavery at the end of the 18th century. Neither a perpetrator nor a victim, I wrote Abolition as a witness – as I witness the legacy of slavery in my own contemporary society. 

Q: Abolition explores the perspectives of various individuals entangled in the slave trade. The voices of the dramatis personae, who all hail from such diverse backgrounds, are portrayed with what feels like stunning accuracy. How did you approach the research into the speech of that period?

G: I studied English literature at University – the only black British student there. As a poet, I imitated medieval, renaissance and romantic poetry. I’m Irish, so paid attention to James Joyce’s pastiches and parodies of period English writers in Ulysses; I could myself passably imitate some of my favourites, Dr Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. After some years of reading, I could reproduce many 18th century Englishes. I lived with Nigerians, so knew not to let my father hear me and my siblings reproduce Nigerian Englishes. I lived with working-class and middle-class Londoners, and could ‘code switch’ from south London Cockney to BBC English. Most black kids around me came from Caribbean families, so we all practiced sounding like Jamaicans, which was the new cool currency of Estuary English (what they speak in London). My sister and my son are born mimics, but I can write almost anything. And the biggest secret: let those voices speak. Abolition is full of the actual words used by actual people to actively engage in the slave trade, and the cries against it.

Q: How did you balance historical accuracy with artistic licence when crafting the narrative of the play? What challenges did you face? 

G: The reader will have to judge whether I got the balance right, or whether balance is the right way to assess Abolition. My research was broad and deep, from primary documents to later commentaries – from records of proceedings in the House of Commons to CLR James’ Black Jacobins; I consulted the historian John Ehrman about both the politics and the personalities of the period, and he judged that I got it right. I used artistic licence in the relationship between Wilberforce and Pitt the Younger, and in the portrayal of Fox as a Quaker abolitionist (there were many such religious objectors to the trade in slaves). The challenge was to combine historical accuracy with ways of feeling the truth of what happened.

Q: The play explores the complicity and blind eyes turned to the horrors of slavery. What made you want to explore this aspect of history, and how do you think it relates to contemporary society?

G: The Britain I grew up in had turned away from its slaving history as water under the bridge. It was a bad thing; we abolished it; it’s over. End of story. Similarly, rampaging into other peoples’ countries and ripping them off was forgotten; we defeated the Nazis, we decolonised, we left systems of law, democracy and religion, we civilised. What’s the problem? Well, do black lives now matter? Or are we still the torturers of the Mau Mau, the policers of criminalised black youth? What do you think?

Q: Did you draw any parallels between the themes of the play and contemporary social or political challenges?

G:  Do black lives matter? Because Abolition is a demonstration of how they didn’t. The black presence in Britain is often subliminally and occasionally explicitly seen as an ongoing cost of slavery. Debates now about repair where then about compensation – of the slave-owners. Abolition speaks about ‘what is now being unwritten’ then, to open a space for what is not being said now.

Q: Abolition is set in a range of settings, from Liverpool’s backstreets to the Palace of Westminster to a slave ship itself. There’s a strong sense of authenticity in each setting, which informs the characters’ thoughts and motivations. Can you elaborate on how you developed these characters and their outlooks?

G: The characters in Abolition begin as types, and develop as the real people I met in my research – sailors, the enslaved, politicians and religious opponents. The settings begin as symbolic, and become then the actual wet wood on which people confronted the ocean, the polished wood of the merchant houses and the houses of parliament, places in which people thought, suffered and changed their minds.

Q: Were there any particularly challenging scenes or moments that were difficult to write or include in the final production?

G: Scene 15, which unfolds in a storm simultaneously at sea on a ship and in debate in the House of Commons across aisle was and is challenging. It erupts and goes to the heart of the matter.  It hurt to write.

Bonus Question: Were there any characters you personally wanted to throttle?

G: The Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. As I imagined him.

Q: Abolition shines a light on the greed and inhumanity of the slave trade. What message or takeaway do you hope readers/audiences will carry with them?

G: The takeaway I would hope for is that no one ever says they didn’t see the English trade in slaves and don’t know what that was.

Q: As a playwright, what impact do you want your work to have on conversations about human rights, historical injustice, and the fight for justice and equality in our own time?

G:  Allow me to say I have a number of strategies for changing the conversation around a still strong pact of forgetting seen as necessary for social peace and further prosperity. For example, I see the arms trade as a money-getting extension of the export of violence to faraway, darker peoples of whom we know little. As a playwright, I try to make people feel and think.

Q: Music serves multiple purposes in the play; setting the mood, cementing the theme, smoothing scene transitions, foreshadowing events, and overall enhancing the story. Did you write any of the shanties? How did you conceive of, and select them?

G: The main task of the sea shanties is reach into an English structure of feeling and maritime experience which is widely and deeply felt as a marker of Englishness, and then to reveal their 250 years of experience in our Atlantic slave trade. As an example in my writing, ‘Blow the Man Down’ took very little tweaking to reveal its violence, and where I didn’t find a song I wrote one out of the Scots-Irish-English ballad tradition which I have by heart.

Lockdown revealed the Internet’s love of sea shanties. Abolition has quite a number. We asked Gabriel to provide our #FEFolk with a playlist of some Songs of Abolition so readers can follow along with the Neger Shantyman.