Near the start of Human Resources, a new podcast from Broccoli Productions, the journalist and presenter Moya Lothian-McLean recalls the words of Bob Marley in “Buffalo Soldier”: “If you know your history, you will know where you’re coming from.” But, she says: “I don’t know my history, I don’t know where I’m coming from or where I’m going. Neither do millions of other Brits from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds.”
The daughter of a white British mother, and a black Caribbean father who left when she was three and later died, Lothian-McLean says her Jamaican ancestry remains unknown. And while the histories of Britain and the Caribbean are inextricably linked, the British history she learned at school kept that relationship, and the subject of slavery, at arm’s length.
Now, at 26, she has questions she would like answered: “Did modern Britain develop alongside slavery, or because of it? Why is slavery taught as black history and not British history? What British institutions and social structures owe their foundations to the slave trade?” Human Resources is her attempt to piece together her own story and the history of Britain that has been glossed over in school syllabuses and yet continues to influence society today.
There have been several podcasts lately seeking to highlight and understand Britain’s colonial past. Bonnie Greer’s In Search of Black History, from 2019, was a righteous exposé of the black stories that have been ignored and suppressed by northern European historians, while Afua Hirsch’s We Need to Talk About the British Empire talked to people about their family histories while highlighting the difficult legacy of British imperialism.
Lothian-McLean’s series approaches the subject through a series of landmarks, starting with Lady Hawkins’ School, near her home in Herefordshire, and its connection to Sir John Hawkins, a naval commander and England’s first slave trader whose coat of arms featured a bound African slave. The second episode, out this week, starts at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, home of the apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton to formulate his law of universal gravitation. Not so well known is the debt that Newton’s research into tide readings owes to colonialism and data collection in slave ports in places such as French Martinique.
Human Resources is an elegantly produced and illuminating series that provides an important corrective to what we have been told about our history. In mixing the personal and political, Lothian-McLean shows why this history remains so vital nearly 200 years after abolition.
Also significant is that the series is made by Broccoli, the production company created in response to the clear bias against young and minority talent in podcasting and which masterminded last year’s Equality in Audio pact, in which industry figures and companies pledged to break down barriers and work towards greater representation. Proof that green is good for us all.