Sorry Hollywood, the U.S. Was Not Uniquely Evil on Slavery

When Anita Anand and William Dalrymple sat down to discuss making a podcast together, there was never really any question what it was going to be about.

“I knew at once that it had to be about empire,” Anand, a London-based journalist and author, says. “When you talk about empire, you’re talking about everything: nations, economies, the past, the present. We can go anywhere we want with it.”

They have done precisely that. After two well-received seasons of Empire, about the British East India Company and the Ottomans, Anand and Dalrymple, a Delhi-based historian, decided to do something different. Rather than go after Rome, say, or the Mongols, the USSR, or Pax Americana, they decided instead to zoom out on their titular subject and consider it through a thematic lens. Their third and thus far most successful season, a kind of potted world history of slavery in general and the trans-Atlantic slave trade in particular, has shown just how elastic, and how relevant, the concept of empire still remains.

“It never struck us as a departure,” says Dalrymple, who last spoke to The Daily Beast in 2019 upon the publication of his award-winning history of the British East India Company, The Anarchy. “We had touched upon slavery in our first two seasons and had begun to ask ourselves whether it was possible to build an empire or engage in colonial rule and not have slavery become a part of that in some way. It was so often the economic engine of these systems.”

“Given the conversations that were happening at the time, and that are still happening today, about the legacy of colonialism and the ill-gotten wealth of nations, it seemed a natural progression.”

“To use a food metaphor,” says Anand, who co-wrote the 2017 book Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond with Dalrymple, “it contained a little of all the food groups we’re interested in. But it was also a very emotive thing.” I am reminded, when she says this, of the season’s introductory episode, in which she spoke of being moved to tears on a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “Every time it came up in the earlier seasons, we sort of found ourselves moved and amazed by the stories and saying, ‘We really must come back to this,’” she says.

More than 10 million downloads, an overflowing mailbag, and one sell-out live show at London’s Union Chapel would suggest that listeners are glad they did. (“I’m used to well-attended book signings,” Dalrymple says, “but I wouldn’t say I was prepared for this.”) By anyone’s standards, Empire has been a success. That it remains less than a year old at the time of writing—its first episode dropped in mid-August last year—would suggest that it has been a roaring one.

“I think the reason for that,” Anand says, “is simply that people don’t know a lot of these things. We didn’t know a lot of them ourselves and this is what we do. I can’t tell you the number of times, during the research for this series, that we’ve found ourselves saying, ‘Well, shit, I didn’t know that.’ The history we get taught in schools rarely covers issues like colonialism and slavery in anything like this sort of detail. It covers the obvious things. It covers the platitudes. But the stories we’ve been able to tell this season often complicate those narratives. To use another food metaphor, when you’ve been munching on the same bran or cereal for most of your life, you’re going to get excited when you realise there’s something else you could have been ordering.”

There is certainly something to this. What strikes the listener of Empire‘s most recent season is how narrow, even parochial, one’s understanding of the slave trade may previously have been. While chattel slavery in the American South has certainly gotten an airing over the course of the season’s run, it has not loomed as large as it does in the popular imagination. The focus has largely been elsewhere instead: on Rome, Africa, London, the Caribbean. The cast of characters has not only included slave-holding presidents like Washington and Jefferson, but also figures like the Jamaican Francis Barber, who was Samuel Johnson’s servant and heir, and Nigeria-born Olaudah Equiano, who was enslaved as a child and sold to a Royal Navy officer before growing up to purchase his freedom and become an author and abolitionist. Even when the United States has taken centre stage, Anand and Dalrymple have approached it from unexpected, idiosyncratic angles, such as in their episode on the slaves who fought for the British in the American War of Independence.

This, Anand says, has largely been a function of her and Dalrymple’s own areas of interest. “If you’re in America or from America, your focus is obviously going to be on America,” she says. “We’re not, so it hasn’t been.”

But Dalrymple says there’s more to it than that. “We’re also trying to shift the focus away from what people might already know,” he adds, “whether it’s through Hollywood movies or other sources, to things that they might not.”

The effect has been to reframe slavery as something other or more than America’s Original Sin, or, rather, to situate that sin within a wider constellation of moral horrors in which far more people and countries were implicated. Without in any way making allowances for the American system, this season of Empire has served as a useful reminder, though it has rarely been framed in these terms, that an over-emphasis on the United States has often allowed others to either understate their role in that system or else overstate their role in its end.

“There is a tendency in Britain,” Dalrymple says, “to emphasise the role we played in the abolition of the slave trade while overlooking the fact that, even after that happened, there were still 700,000 slaves in the British Empire. There were more slaves in Jamaica after the slave trade ended than there were people in any British city outside of London at that time.”

“This is important, big history,” he says. “It’s worth remembering.”

He adds that there’s a lot of “whataboutery” when it comes to the issue of slavery. “Some Americans will point to the rest of the world and quite rightly ask, ‘Well, what about them?’ while Britain and the former colonial powers of Europe will point to America and say, ‘Well, at least we weren’t that bad,’ though a lot of them were.”

“The point is that the history of slavery is something that almost every country, to one degree or another, has to reckon with. It’s the elephant in everyone’s room.”

This is something Anand thinks the podcast’s listeners, especially those of a younger generation, understand implicitly.

“I don’t think this generation has a same sense of boundaries that previous ones have had,” she says. “They’ve grown up in a world in which boundaries and borders mean less than they once did. The idea of a system that has implications for everyone is something that makes a lot of sense to them.”

She says she suspects that the same lack of boundaries, at least when it comes to accessing knowledge, probably helps account for the podcast’s success, too.

“In Britain, where I live, there are so many people from backgrounds who, when they pick up a textbook and read a really rosy account of the British in India or the Caribbean or something like that, aren’t simply going to accept that account,” she says. “They’re going to have some very valid questions about it and they’re not going take, ‘no’—this idea that it’s time to move on and not talk about it—for an answer.”

This is doubtless true and equally doubtless a good thing. But it doesn’t, in and of itself, account for those 10 million downloads and counting. No podcast ever really makes it on the basis of its content alone: there is always something else, some special sauce, that marks it out from others of its kind. There is no doubt that, in the case of Empire, that something is Anand and Dalrymple themselves: their deep and abiding curiosity, yes, but also the great amusement and joy they take in one another.

“It is a little like having a really fascinating conversation with a good friend in a pub,” says Dalrymple, a line that Anand is quick to point out her co-host stole from her. “I said that first,” she says.

Listeners are used to this sort of thing by now: Dalrymple’s infectious enthusiasm and ebullience, Anand’s dryer, somewhat archer tone, her playful but pointed elbowing of his ribs. I knew they had something special on their hands when, early in their first season, she started making fun of the way he tends to pause before his surname when introducing himself. I knew they had a hit on their hands when this quickly became a running joke. I was unsurprised, when I asked what their next season was going to be about, that she quickly jumped in and told him not to say anything. His propensity to drop spoilers and for her to upbraid him for it is another running theme of their on-air relationship. It is not dissimilar to listening to siblings tease one another at Christmas.

Their banter has been bolstered this season by the inclusion of a murderer’s row of special guest historians. Their Rolodex runs deep: Mary Beard on Rome, Vincent Brown on Tacky’s Revolt, Maya Janasoff on slavery in the Americas, Kris Manjapra on emancipation movements. “I’m very lucky,” Dalrymple says, “because of my involvement with the Jaipur Literary Festival, that I have access to all these wonderful people. It means that Anita and I get to speak to people about topics on which we are often not experts ourselves. We get to learn something. We’ve both learned more, I think, this season, than we expected to learn when we began.”

This is the first podcast that either author has been involved with, though Anand has worked in radio before. She says it’s the freedom that the form allows them that sets it apart from its broadcast cousin. “For one thing, there are no time constraints,” she says. “If we want to talk to Maya Janasoff about Washington and Jefferson for an hour, and then about the creation of Sierra Leone for another, we can do that.” (I would recommend readers check out the pair’s multi-episode history of the Koh-i-Noor, which ran as part of their first season, as an example of how fruitful such freedom can be.)

As for where Empire is likely to go next—Dalrymple, to his credit, did not let it slip—the opportunities are endless. “We get suggestions from people all the time,” Anand says. “People have all sorts of things they would like to hear us talk about.”

“There was a lot we didn’t touch in this season, even though it would have made sense to include it, because we wanted to do it justice another time, in other contexts,” adds Dalrymple. “We didn’t do anything about the Belgians in Africa, for example, because we want to do a series about Africa at a later date. We didn’t do anything about the Portuguese slave trade in Brazil, though that is obviously of enormous interest.”

This is to say nothing of today’s empires, or those of the future, which Anand says are within their remit, too.

“In 100 years or so, if humanity survives, I suspect that people will talk about tech empires, the tech giants, the way we talk about the British East India Company today,” she says. “It’s not only about nation states. It’s about power disparities. It’s about who has the power and how they wield it and what those who don’t have it do in response.”

“If you think about it in those terms,” she says, “you’ll never run out of things to talk about.”

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