Emma Christopher was deep into research for a book about two convicts transported to NSW for slave trading when she was waylaid. For about three years.
She had been in Lofa county in Liberia, West Africa, trying to find out more about the convicts. She is a long-time historian of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its legacies and, on her laptop, had clips of African-style songs and dances performed exclusively by a small community known as Gangá Longobá, who are Cuban descendants of African slaves. The Gangá knew almost nothing about the origins of their precious rituals, nor about their African forebears, who had been stripped of their identities generations earlier.
Dr Christopher showed the clips to some Liberians and, to her surprise, they found some of the words and moves familiar. The clue to the possibility of shared Gangá-Lofa heritage proved irresistible. Robert Bostock and John McQueen, the slave traders, were pushed aside and Dr Christopher began a thrilling and gruelling quest to discover more about the origins of the Gangá Longobá and their songs.
During visits to Liberia and Sierra Leone over several years, Dr Christopher screened the Gangá clips and talked to people, filming as she went. Eventually, in a remote chiefdom of Sierra Leone, a woman watching the film started singing along to some of the songs, almost in their entirety. She knew the meanings of the words. When one of the chiefdom’s men saw the Gangá clips, says Dr Christopher, he “turned to his friend and said simply, in joy and awe, ‘they are we’ ”.
That’s an extremely simplified version of a remarkable research process that culminated in the joyous reclaiming of lost identities and ancestral ties, and a continuing relationship between the Gangá Longobá and their people in Sierra Leone.
Dr Christopher’s documentary film of the process, They Are We, has won a number of awards and the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, is among its admirers. The Gangá and the Sierra Leoneans also have a relationship with the UN, which supports the two to maintain contact.
On March 25,They Are We will be screened by UN offices around the globe, as well as at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), as part of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Dr Christopher is now surrounded by lawyers. She has joined Anti-Slavery Australia, a legal research and policy centre that is part of the faculty of law at UTS, and is on the verge of completing that book about Bostock and McQueen.
Slave trading was criminalised in Britain and the US in 1807 but Bostock, who was English, was still trading slaves in West Africa in 1814. “He had become an extremely wealthy man,” says Dr Christopher. McQueen was his apprentice, sent from Scotland at the age of 11.
When the British navy eventually came after Bostock, he attacked their ships and burnt down his factory, while people were inside. The Africans who survived were freed. Bostock and McQueen were transported to NSW.
Bostock’s punishment didn’t last long. In 12 months he had made enough money to return to Britain, having been pardoned on a technicality. He later returned to Tasmania where he was given 8000 acres (3238 hectares) of land. He fathered 11 children, in addition to those he had left behind in Africa, and again became a very wealthy man, says Dr Christopher.
The West Africans freed from his factory had also received free land. “About 15 feet of it, or something like that,” says Dr Christopher. Equality of opportunity it was not.
Dr Christopher has met descendants of Bostock and McQueen (who also became wealthy but died at the age of 30) and of their West African captives.
“They are not living the same life, is one way to put it,” says Dr Christopher. “Of course, it’s not that simple, either, and the book is a story of legacies and different versions of history and different ways that you look back at the past.”
Slavery, meanwhile, is still not a thing of the past.
“Men, women and children are enslaved here in Australia today,” says Associate Professor Jennifer Burn, who is also at UTS and is the director of Anti-Slavery Australia. “They are trafficked here and enslaved or in forced labour in a range of industries, such as construction, factories, private domestic servitude or in forced marriage.
“There have been 17 convictions in Australia for slavery and slavery-like offences in recent years. It’s pretty staggering,” she says.
“As times move on and economies move on, the ways of exploiting people just move on with them, unfortunately,” says Dr Christopher.