Life is complicated

Like life, writing is about decisions and dilemmas. Especially when writing about characters from history. What do we know? Who were they really? Do the characters have to speak in ye olde worlde language…?

James Watt undoubtedly is remembered for his extraordinary inventions. Mainly his steam engine, which he came to invent after trying to repair an older less efficient steam engine, the Newcomen. Throughout his life, he was without question, a giant amongst inventors. What is less well known about Watt is his connection to slavery, mainly through his father’s business enterprises. Very many people at the time had connections to slavery, direct or indirect, as the wealth of the country was arguably derived from the transatlantic slave trade. While he may not have been an actual slave owner these historical connections, as they become known, are important for us to know, even though they are hard to understand or accept in a present-day context. On one hand, we can say he couldn’t help his father’s business but on the other, (and here’s where life decisions come in), he didn’t openly condemn slavery.

This is where I want to bring in Mary Anne Galton (later Mrs Schimmelpenninck) who, as an adult, joined one of the many female anti-slavery organisations who were openly campaigning in Britain against slavery and the slave trade (even though her father was directly connected to it). I’ve no idea if James Watt and Mary Anne Galton actually met but it’s highly likely as her father, like Watt, was a member of the Lunar Society in Birmingham.

I think what’s fascinating about these two characters is that both did ‘good’ things but both benefitted from one of the most disgraceful periods in history. But she made the decision to speak out against it. Perhaps as a woman, she had less to lose. Sayan Kent

Sayan’s play, ‘The Price of Tea’, can be seen as part of Power of Invention at Soho House in Handsworth on the 30th, 31st July and 7th August, at 12, 3 & 6pm each day.

The site-specific production is a collaboration with Birmingham Museums Trust and is funded by Arts Council England and the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.


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