Unless you’re already an Andrea Levy fan and have read her bestselling novel, The Long Song, you might not be familiar with this version of events.
She tells the story of July, a slave born on the British-ruled sugar plantations in Jamaica in the early 1800s. The context is familiar – a community of people who lived in unimaginable conditions, were treated in the most disgusting ways and were at the mercy of the worst in human behaviour. But through the book and a new three-part drama coming to BBC One, we're given a rare insight into what life was really like in the last years of slavery. Make room for a huge part of history that we weren’t taught in school.
July (played by Tamara Lawrance) is an incredible, nuanced woman. She was born to Kitty, a field slave at a sugar cane plantation run by John Howarth (Leo Bill) and his younger sister, Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell). As the pair travel through the fields one afternoon, they come across Kitty and her daughter, 7-year-old July. "Look how cute the little one is," Caroline coos. Her brother suggests she take July with her if she wants – after all, she and her mother are his "property". Kitty loses her daughter there and then, and July is taken home to be raised as Caroline’s lady’s maid. Caroline soon renames July "Marguerite".
Though the topic matter is awful, this isn’t just a story about a mass of people who were subjected to the unimaginable hundreds of years ago. As we get to know July, who narrates the tale, we quickly learn that this is a story of resolute survival. This is a human story about a funny, intelligent and wilful young woman in the midst of social turmoil and widespread unrest.
We meet July in her late teens/early 20s at her mistress' house. She smiles mischievously as she removes the pearl buttons from one of Caroline's dresses. As Caroline's wails for July to come to her attention travel across to the slave quarters, July doesn’t flinch. She knows she’s got some time. She knows that Caroline – her silly, overdramatic and wildly distorted mistress who is as much a victim of her circumstance as she is unbearably naïve to what’s going on around her – can’t survive without her, and this dress that she’s waiting on is the least of either of their problems. July grins at the camera to bring us in on this warped joke and takes her time stealing the buttons for herself. There’s humour in the face of adversity.
Speaking about playing The Long Song’s protagonist, Lawrance explained that she had to reorient what she thought she knew about living through this period of time. At the series' preview, she said: "The challenge was fighting my preconceptions of what a slave was. I met with Andrea and she said she didn’t want to write about people who were these mythical objects of abuse, people who just took an inordinate amount of torture […] A slave isn’t a character. July is a character, and I had to go from there and realise that she’s in those circumstances and that she’s not driven by being a slave, she’s driven by other things."
"I can’t imagine living in those times," she added. "July is stronger than me. She finds a way to survive, she finds agency and she finds status where she can. She uses what she knows to have a one-upmanship on Caroline. The joy was the fluidity of playing a character who’s in a subjugated position in world history but actually, in her own self-esteem is a queen. I think she sees herself as very royal."
Lawrance went on to explain that of course it was painful to research the history behind this story. The anger she felt looking up British colonial history is one we’d all share if we knew more about it. Which only makes it even more pertinent that this story is told. "[Slavery is] not just an American atrocity. We have a culpability from this country as well," Lawrance said.
What’s also rare about The Long Song is that it throws us into the narrative at slavery’s breaking point. Slavery came to an end in Jamaica in 1838 and after the Christmas riots and the eventual abolition, triggered the emancipation of a people – but that sudden freedom isn’t as smooth a ride as we’d like to assume. July’s story boldly explores the aftermath. A new owner takes over the plantation with revolutionary ideas about turning life around for the population of slaves adjusting to this new normal. But his arrival of course comes with surprising consequences for everyone. This story hasn't been told like this before on TV; here’s hoping it sparks the conversation it deserves, once it’s finally been heard.
The Long Song starts on BBC One on 18th December at 9pm