"Story and song won't solve the problems, but they can help find a way in", as Matthew Crampton says in the Introduction to his new book, Human Cargo. And this little gem of a book truly lives up to his claims. In only 160 pages, he explores the impact of migrations across the seas, both forced and "voluntary", on individuals and cultures. In doing so, he vividly describes the misery which drives people to travel thousands of miles to uncertain futures, and the often dire consequences of such leaps of faith and fate.
Matthew is a folk singer, writer and historian who has already written several books on such diverse topics as the Trebor the Sweets Company, Angling and Music Hall. He also performs as part of The Big Muddler, a modern day music hall and folk gig, and in The London Lubbers, an occasional shanty group with Chris Hayes and Jan North. It is from this background that he embarked (in more senses than one) on his newest venture, an exploration in story and folk song of migration, slavery and transportation. The show was originally commissioned for the Harwich Shanty Festival in 2015 and built around 16 traditional songs, but Matthew's researches soon led to the book.
Human Cargo is in two sections; Part 1 - Taken with Violence - looks at forced migrations such as slavery, pressgangs, abductions and criminal transportation. Part 2 - Duped or Desperate - recounts the equally harrowing experiences faced by those who ostensibly "chose" to migrate. Matthew relies upon contemporary reports for much of his story, together with lyrics from some 25 folk songs of the period. Into this narrative he weaves accounts of today's migrants and trafficked people, showing how the abuses of the 18th and 19th Centuries still live on in the 21st. In doing so, he demonstrates how large-scale migrations almost always arise out of desperation, due to war, poverty, and exploitation by the powerful and the unscrupulous.
This all sounds very heavy and depressing; but it is a tribute to Matthew's skills as a writer and storyteller that he has produced a readable and frequently absorbing story. He achieves this through careful research, an easy style and the superb design of his book. By breaking the text up into short sections, using varied typefaces, contemporary images and well-chosen lyrics from traditional songs, he manages to get to the emotional heart of the migrant experience. As Matthew says, "folk songs are hardly history …. but … they're a valid collective memory, giving voice to the silent".
So, we read about the "ghost ships" - the slave vessels, abandoned by their crews once the rotting hull starts to leak, leaving the human cargo to drown. There was the ship found drifting in 1824 by the British vessel the Ascension; they recovered some 41 slaves still alive, but an estimated 200 had died or drowned. But, there are also the modern day ghost ships of the Mediterranean in which migrants from Africa and beyond attempt to reach Italy.
Whilst the forced enslavement of black Africans and South East Asians took place in the most terrible conditions, it was not always the worst example of exploitation of the migrants. A slave ship could lose half its "cargo" on route to America - due to deaths from disease and malnutrition from the inhumane conditions - but slaves had value. Economic migrants - such as the Irish victims of the Potato Famine and Scots victims of Highland clearances - had no economic value: once they had paid for their passage they were expendable. Nor were all of these migrants volunteers; they included those forced or conned into the navy, army and merchant marine, convicts, and the victims of human trafficking.
The horrors of enforced migration are vividly described by Matthew; but it is the songs which really throw light on the emotional impact on the migrant. Unsurprisingly, few songs remain from the black slaves to document their experiences, though Matthew does include extracts from the account of former slave Ouladah Equiano, published in 1789:
"… the whole ship's cargo were confined together … so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself ….. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable."
But, as Matthew makes plain - such horrors persist:
" … Hashem Alsouki can't see his neighbours but he can hear them scream. They are two African women and Hashem lies on top of them. His limbs dig into theirs. They want him to move, but he can't - several people lie on top of him….."
- his source, a Guardian article in June 2015!
Mostly, Matthew leaves the stories and the songs to speak for themselves; but occasionally he directly condemns the combination of misused power and economic greed which drives the exploitation of migrants. If I have one quibble with this excellent book, however, it is that he allows himself to end with "a different tale …. of precious human cargo, carried with care" - the body of Nelson being returned from Trafalgar. Though presumably intended as ironic, it rather dulls the edge of his theme. A stronger conclusion would have enhanced his story.
The book also contains a full list of sources and a detailed list of all the songs quoted, which will no doubt spur on those who wish to delve deeper into the subject.
The London Lubbers are also mounting occasional performances of their Human Cargo show. As yet, no news of an impending CD release, or even better DVD - but I hope this will be the natural follow up to this thoroughly recommended book. Even better would be a BBC or Channel 4 documentary built around the show. If we have any news, Fatea will be sure to let you know! Meanwhile, for more information visit www.humancargo.co.uk or the Refugee Council website www.refugeecouncil.org.uk.