12 years a slave is not the Caribbean story

As I left the cinema at the weekend, after watching 12 years a slave, filled with the usual emotional tightness that many black people feel when watching films, or seeing pictorial depictions, about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a nagging question hit me. Why has this historical episode been captured by the United States? I mean no disrespect to those who came through slavery and find their heritage in the USA. However, the Caribbean slave history, and that of black liberation is vastly different. Yet, we have seen that story barely told. Part of that is a result of the film industry having gained a bigger foothold in Hollywood than in, say, Havana or Kingston or Port-au-Prince.

So, we get to look at slavery through the narrow eye of the passage that ended on the east coast of America. Not the story about the passage that ended on the shores of Barbados. Not the story of those who were transshipped to islands like Jamaica. Not the story of those who went to work in plantations in Brazil.

Many Caribbean people have some notion of our different history.Slaves_resting_by_Rugendas_01 Sugar plantations, rather than cotton. The abolition of slavery in the Caribbean was not after a civil war between ‘the North’ and ‘the South’. Our colonial masters at the time abolished it, some 30 years before Americans went at each other to try to settle the matter. While Americans produced their Ku Klux Klan, we did not have that marauding band, going around threatening black people and meting out justice. We can play guessing games about what might have happened had the American Colonists not decided to fight the British to gain their independence in the 18th century.

The question was too ironic, given that the director of 12 years…, Steve McQueen, is the offspring of Caribbean parents. He wanted to tell the American story, not the Caribbean one? Why? More familiar? More evocative? He hailed his Caribbean roots, yet chose to look at an ‘alien’ experience. Well, not truly alien as he says the majority of his family is in the USA. He was born in England, and rightly remarks that slave history is not part of the regular historical discussion that covers life. There’s the Angles and Saxons: Roman invasion; the Norman Conquest; the Elizabethans and Tudors, THE Civil War; lots of other wars, and all the elements of British history in the context of European development that would swamp the slave trade part of British development.

So, those empty feelings I had when I left the cinema, are somewhat misplaced. It’s about something that I presume affected my ancestors, but it isn’t really. It’s discomfort by a lot of awkward association.

Hollywood hasn’t paid us much mind in the telling of the slavery story. What have we done to fill the gap?


Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

3 thoughts on “12 years a slave is not the Caribbean story”

  1. After the trans-atlantic slave trade was abolished the only way to replenish the supply of slave in the U.S. was to kidnap free Blacks in the north, increase breeding and buy people still enslaved in the Caribbean. Our story is your story and your story is our story.


    1. That period was very short and the supply of Caribbean slaves not large because the economic needs in the Caribbean did not diminish greatly. That does not make the stories the same. The US abolished slavery and then had nearly 100 years of officially sanctioned racial discrimination, which was a very different course to that taken in the Caribbean. State-sanctioned discrimination still continues in the USA, albeit in lesser degrees (sometimes in the form of by-laws that have not been repealed).


  2. This some to do with racial populations in both places. Some report that the ways of the slave masters and the brutality suffered by Caribbean slaves were much worst than that suffered in North America. But overall, slavery is slavery. To be bought and sold as property is inhumane by any standard. Why a Caribbean son would tell the American slave narrative is beyond me.


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