Thursday, August 24, 2006

The event at the National Maritime Museum last night was excellent. Bonnie Greer chaired a panel of artists, each of whom had chosen two objects from the museum’s collection.

It is interesting to see artists engaging with these objects because they tend to see things in a way the rest of us don’t, and to bring out points we might otherwise miss.

One of the objects chosen by Keith Piper was a clock which, apparently, has been described as the most important clock in the world. It even has a name – H4. It was invented by John Harrison in 1761 and was used to solve the problem of longitude so that ships could work out where they were in the world, horizontally, as well as vertically. Vertical navigation, i.e. latitude, had been worked out by the Moors centuries before.

In 1714, the Crown offered a huge prize, the modern equivalent of which would have been around £20 million, to the person who could work out how to calculate longitude. Harrison was eventually awarded a smaller prize, in 1773.

Piper pointed out that the reason why the British were desperate to solve the problem of longitude was completely tied up with the so-called slave trade – the Transatlantic trade in African people. This is never mentioned with reference to H4, even though a book – Longitude by David Sobel – was written about it and a film has been made about it.

H4 made it much easier to transport enslaved African people because the ships’ navigation became much clear after H4’s invention. The clock was even tested on two ships – the first, the Deptford, sailed from London to Jamaica.

Piper presented a chart which showed the markup on the price of African people. At one time the markup had been 975 percent, and from 1688 to 1692, I was over 600 percent. Between 1703 and 1707 – the height of the Transatlantic trade – the markup dropped to 197 percent. After the invention of H4, the markup dropped still further.

I find it disturbing to think that my ancestors not only had prices on their heads, they had a markup. But of course they would have done, as they were considered to be goods for sale.

The evening was moving and challenging. More later.
Keywords: slave trade, Transatlantic trade, Black history, African heritage, arts, museum

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