As a young child, he was sold into slavery by his family and lived a horrific life of forced labor and abuse in Ghana until he eventually managed to escape to the United Kingdom. Gabrielle Tierney interviews Kwesi Newson, author of Muriselina, the tell-all autobiography about Newson’s life as a slave.
2007 marks the bi-centenary of the British act to abolish slavery. What does this mean to you as a former slave?
Slavery can never be abolished. As long as one man has power over another man, we will always have slavery. Men will never be equal; therefore we will always have slavery: the struggles of one man over another.
Is that your definition of slavery? The power of one man over another?
Very loosely, yes. Slavery is power. Whether it be financial power exerted, or physical power. That is slavery. Slavery has been going on for a very long time; The Romans, the Egyptians, all their wealth was built upon slave labour.
Do you think that racism is inherent in slavery: that you have to see that person as less than you in order morally justify it?
It would be too easy to say yes to that question, and I say that because everyone falls into the trap of only seeing slavery in a historical context as the West knows it: the White man buying the Black man, which isn’t always the case.
Of course- your experience was different to that…
Yes, for whatever reason my family sold me, as the eldest sibling, into slavery. Something I will never know is the terms and conditions surrounding that deal; how long was I to be the property of this person for? Did they promise my parents that they would educate me? Take care of me? Was that even part of the negotiation? Was a deal made that you will go to this person for X amount of years and then eventually come back? In Western society that’s very hard to grasp: that a mother or father can sell off their kids is hard to imagine. But if we look at it in modern terms, a surrogate mother does the exact same thing. She may not have that time to form an attachment to the child, but it is basically the same thing.
You say you were sold by your own parents into a life of misery to another black man, whom you tried to escape many times and finally you were “freed” by a white man. Has this had an impact on how you racially view people?
For it to have had impact, I would see white is good and black is bad. I would have to go back and say, “my parents were bad.” And to this day, I don’t know why they had to sell me into slavery. Probably poverty. That’s what keeps coming into my head: they had to sell me for survival, sacrificial. How do I feel about that? Sad, but of the same token I feel a tinge of pride. If that’s the reason I was sold, if it helped preserve the rest of my family, then I am proud to have done that.
What was your worst experience as a slave?
To be chained. To be physically chained. That was the worst part by far. Without the chains, there was always hope of freedom. But when the chains went on, there was no hope of escape. Your mind is your biggest weapon. I was always thinking; how do I get out of this?
How did you escape and how did you manage to get to the UK?
When I got up in the morning, the chains were taken off cos I was in full sight of everyone then and had to get up and do my work. The chains were only put on at night. I didn’t run away straight away. I built up trust in their eyes first. Then, when I knew they weren’t watching me, I got up in the middle of the night and I ran. That’s when I met my dad, “The White Man.”
What age were you then?
I don’t know- that is something that will haunt me forever- I don’t know my age. I can only try to work out my age by my size at the time. I don’t even know my birthday. When I look back, I would guess that I was about 6 years old.
And what work were you expected to do with the body of a six-year-old?
Everything. You see the thing in Africa: when you are able to walk, your working life starts. Whatever you can do, you do. And because of this, your body develops a lot quicker; and I suppose your mind does too in a way. In my case, my dad was a fisherman and from a very young age I used to help my dad get the nets ready for night-fishing. And the beauty of Africa is that you walk everywhere. Cars were very scarce then, you walked everywhere. That made you very fit. And even though you are a little boy, you can do a man’s work. In many poor countries, this is a reality.
Roots became one of the most celebrated and controversial movies made about the slave trade; for the first time the slave was the hero. Steven Spielsburg’s Amistad tended to focus on the white anti-slavers than the very heroes of the revolt. Do you think western history still finds it hard to come to terms with their involvement in the slave trade?
Whether they admit it or not, to them it sort of didn’t happen; it’s so far off their radar of history that they don’t even recognise it. When you talk about Amistad glorifying the white anti-slavers, you realise that this is a Hollywood product. In Hollywood, they will always make it so that the white man is the hero.
Many companies such as Tate & Lyle, Barclays Bank, and the Bank of England were heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Do you believe these companies should in some way be held financially liable for their involvement?
As long as they are not involved in it now, then no. But held financially liable? To who?
To Diaspora Africans across the globe. Many Jewish people were successful in receiving reparations for their Holocaust.
OK, but what will that really achieve? You can’t buy blood off your hands. You can’t go back in time. If you could go back in time and try to make things better for the people directly affected at the time, then sure. But the past is past. It’s much healthier to look to the future, and not let that happen again. We really have to be more honest when we look at the slave trade. It wasn’t all the White Man’s doing. Black people sold their own brother; isn’t that worse in a way? That point is always forgotten. Also, you mention the Holocaust in terms of reparations. The hypocrisy there is that these people suffered grave injustices, no doubt. But now they have gone to Israel and done exactly the same thing unto the Palestinians. It makes it very hard to sympathise with them. Like I keep saying, slavery exists, in different forms.
But isn’t slavery still going on even today?
Very much so, even though nowadays it’s very underground; back in the days of the slave trade it was done openly, by everyone. Slavery is not just “get a whole load of black people onto a boat and ship them off to a different country.” Slaves can be created in any country, sometimes without people even realising it. Power creates slavery- it always will. As long as one person has that power over another, that is slavery. And really, we are slaves, in a sense. You are a slave to your job; you are controlled. You have to be there by 9:00 am and stay there till 5:00 pm. Even if you don’t want to be. To me, that’s control. Yeah, some people enjoy their job, they live to work, but the majority of people in the world sell their labour in order to survive. Is that really a “choice”?
Do you think you can become a slave to other things?
Oh yeah. Watching television for one; it gets to the point that television becomes your master. It tells you what to buy, what to eat, how to feel. It’s a modern-day form of slavery. It doesn’t have the brutality and starvation and physical restriction, but psychologically, it’s the same. You can become a slave emotionally too; someone can fall so much in love with someone that they will do anything for that person. It’s not that you want to be in a position where you always have to do for the other; you don’t choose that. But you so want their affection that you do anything for it, you surrender yourself. “If I please my master/lover, I will be treated better.” There are many forms of slavery.
Do you educate your children about your experiences as a slave?
I feel like through some cruel, ironic twist of fate, my children have suffered the same fate as me: in terms of abandonment. That’s what was the most hurtful thing about the whole process of being sold: feeling abandoned. I don’t want my children to feel that. I don’t see them though. I live for the day I see my children, Stephen and Jessica. But because of difficulties with both mothers, they don’t let me see them. I have tried lawyers, everything, but they seem to have disappeared. Jessica’s mum in particular was very spiteful toward me because I didn’t want to be with her as a couple. I didn’t like her in that way and she couldn’t accept it.
Do you think that your experience as a child has conditioned the way you form relationships?
Totally. I love my freedom. I love and value my freedom more than anything else in the world. To see who I want to see, to go out when I want to go out, to be who I want to be. My biggest fear is to wake up to the same person, the same situation, every day. Because then I would feel like I’m “shackled” again. I can be with someone for a while, and I’ll be crazy about them. But then the fear will set in again that I’m controlled. And the second part to that fear is, “How long is this person going to be around before they abandon me?” So I pre-emptively get out before they do. It’s a coping mechanism; even if I yearn to be with someone, I push them away.
The full story of Kwesi Newson can be found in his book Muriselina, available through all leading book-sellers.
1st March 2007