During the 400 years of the Transatlantic Slave Trade conducted by Europe and the Americas, more than 12 million Africans were kidnapped from their homes and trafficked into slavery. Of those 12 million, more than 2,5 million died at sea.

Enslaved: The Lost History of The Transatlantic Slave Trade is a new 6-episode documentary from executive producer, actor and civil rights activist Samuel L. Jackson in collaboration with author/broadcaster Afua Hirsch and Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici (also the series’ director) that explores the history and legacy of these events.

“We only talk about the ships that made it, not the ones that didn’t. There were ships that went down with our ancestors, and we want to tell those stories,” says Samuel. Afua adds, “We are surrounded by the physical remnants of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They scatter our seas and rivers. This unique project to bring them to life will reveal the truths that have been hidden from us in plain sight.”

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A worldwide web

Along with holding up a mirror to history, Enslaved explores the cultures that those stolen into slavery were taken from, and the lasting impact that those who endured slavery continue to have on the world today. The Transatlantic Slave Trade isn’t just American history, it’s world history.

“We structured the series around an underwater investigation. We also pushed the boundaries of the historical investigation, for example, the role of runaway slaves in piracy and the birth of democracy in the New World, and the backdoor influence of African mathematics on the birth of the computer,” reveals Simcha.

Enslaved S1 challenges history through evidence and artifacts collected from these shipwrecks, the exploration of the slave forts and dungeons of Ghana, along with evidence taken from the stately homes of England and former plantations in the Americas. Along with this, researchers reveal what we can uncover about the conditions aboard the ships through the examination of ships’ logs, insurance claims, newspaper cuttings, survivor testimonies and crew members’ diaries.

Making history

Enslaved’s team isn’t just telling history, they are making it. “We tackle economics, politics, resistance, culture etc, relying on the voices of the characters and the experts in the series,” says Simcha. “With regard to the experts, there isn’t a single sit-down interview in the entire series. We meet them in active situations, on location. We weren’t simply following experts at work; we were pushing the boundaries of the historical and scientific investigation. Never before have so many sunken slave ships been investigated. Never before has a sunken boat in the Great Lakes been 100% positively identified as a ‘freedom boat’, a last link in the Underground Railroad. Never before has an artifact been retrieved from the oldest sunken slave ship ever found. We do this and more. Divers literally risked their lives,” Simcha reveals. “We shot in 12 countries. We sidestepped a couple of coup attempts and COVID-19. And we did all this with an incredible group of talented filmmakers who never took their eyes off the storytelling goals.”

3-part harmony

In every episode, the series addresses the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 3 parts. Simcha explains, “Every episode has Samuel L. Jackson’s personal journey, the divers’ search for a sunken slave ship, and a historical investigation into the themes of the episode. We then checkerboard the 3 storylines so that they all drive each other seamlessly. It was very important not to compromise in the storytelling so that millions of people could be educated about this largely forgotten tragedy of trafficking, enslavement and mass murder.”

Samuel L. Jackson

At the start of the series, Samuel traces his DNA back to the Benga tribe in Gabon, and in episode 1, he journeys to meet his ancestral tribe for the first time. The show documents how he sets in motion the production of Enslaved S1 as he hires divers from Diving With A Purpose and sets out to educate the world about the tangled web of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, from its roots to its ends. “My ancestors came from Gabon – they are among 12 million people who were enslaved and trafficked out of Africa. I want to know how my people lived and connect to my roots,” says Samuel. In later episodes, Samuel will travel around the world to uncover how enslaved Africans from around the continent were able to communicate and interact with each other despite not having common languages. He’ll also explore the gifts that came to the world through enslaved Africans, including music, mathematics, medicine, food and culture.

The divers

Diving With A Purpose are an expert team, including marine archaeologists and journalists. They explore the wreck sites of 6 ships carrying human cargo around the world, from the Caribbean to the Americas, to the seas around the UK and Europe. The wrecks are also explored via remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs). With the assistance of academics and engineers, Diving With A Purpose use the latest technology to document their findings as they explore the wrecks, some of which are being described for the first time. “We use the adventure of diving as a springboard to tell the larger story of the politics, the economics, and the ideology of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” explains Samuel.

The researchers

In episode 2, we’ll see Samuel bring Simcha and Afua onboard to trace the footsteps of the enslaved – and to explore the mindset of those who rationalised, justified and profited from 400 years of human trafficking and murder. Samuel tasks Simcha and Afua with coming to grips with how Europeans justified slavery. Throughout the series, Samuel, Simcha and Afua will bring to light the economic drivers behind the trade. In episode 3, for example, we’ll see what the crew of the Dutch ship Leusden did to write off their human cargo as an insurance loss. And in episode 5, while the dive team will put names to those who drowned on the wreck of a Freedom Boat, Samuel, Simcha and Afua will explore resistance to the slave trade that sprang into being on the African continent, aboard the slaving ships and during the American Civil War, and how music was used as a tool for resistance.

A word of warning

Every effort has been made throughout the documentary to respect the victims of slavery, and tell their history compassionately and accurately. But based on the information collected by the research teams, each episode includes dramatic reconstructions filmed at Pinewood Studios by director Nick Green. Viewers should note that aside from the potentially traumatising historical content due to the brutality of the trade, reconstructions of what happened to the enslaved people include scenes of drowning and mutilation. Trigger warnings will be included in the episodes.

Watch Enslaved S1 from Wednesday, 21 October on 1Magic (DStv 103) at 20:30 or on Catch Up. The series will later be available as a Box Set.

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