(Spoilers: Please don’t read on if you haven’t watched Tuesday’s episode of “Taboo”)
Late in the fifth episode of the FX limited series “Taboo” we meet a black man named George Chichester (Lucian Msamati), who has for nearly a decade been trying to draw the British Crown’s attention to a sunken ship called the Influence that Chichester sank with 280 African slaves aboard.
Chichester’s annual letters had been ignored, stashed, apparently, in a “bottom drawer” somewhere and forgotten until they were dug up by Solomon Coop (Jason Watkins) during this episode. And Coop wanted to use Chichester’s claim against the East India Company.
Chichester says, you see, that the sinking of the Influence wasn’t an accident — he says the Company sank it on purpose and that he, working with the British anti-slavery organization Sons of Africa, wants justice for all those lives lost. Furthermore, Chichester says, there was some kind of deep cover-up involved. The ship only took the name “Influence” when it began taking its “human cargo” during a stop at the African slave port Cabinda.
“It is my belief that some very powerful men in London were involved in an illicit shipment of slaves for personal profit, were complicit in the deaths of those slaves, and the subsequent concealment of the facts,” Chichester tells Coop.
We don’t get any further details about the Influence or the shipwreck this week (though more will come since Msamati will be sticking around for the remaining three episodes), so it’s hard to tell if there’s any historical basis for the Influence or its sinking. The best guess would probably be that this is a historical revision of the sinking of the Earl of Abergavenny, an East India Company ship that wrecked in 1805 due to an egregious pilot error and lost upwards of 260 of its crew in the process. This particular George Chichester also appears to be a fictional character, though the Sons of Africa was certainly real. Given that very little of “Taboo” is based on historical fact, the historicity of George Chichester’s claim against the East India Company is immeterial right now.
What’s not immaterial is the rest of his exchange with Coop. The conversation went like this:
Coop: “What is your interest in the sinking? Did you have relatives aboard?”
Chichester: [Laughs] “Mr. Coop, even though I am black, I am not related by blood to every slave stolen from Africa.”[A long, awkward pause comes here]
Coop: “So the Sons of Africa, you write on their behalf?”
Chichester: “I write on behalf of humanity, as a man concerned with injustice.”
Coop: “Against your people.”
Chichester: “Against people.”
The show delivers that line like it’s a punchline, and it is. “Taboo” has been a largely un-diverse show, making this whole sequence stand out quite profoundly already. It certainly stood out for Coop, who doesn’t appear to be used to interacting with black people, or at least he’s not used to having to treat them the same way he does white people who visit his office.
That “Taboo” takes advantage of the moment to make a political statement that resonates both then and now is refreshing, then. And don’t mistake this for modern-day “all lives matter” rhetoric that white people try to use to subvert Black Lives Matter. Chichester’s simply saying that black people are people and deserve justice, just as Black Lives Matter does in the present — it’s just a point that’s going to be phrased a bit differently 200 years ago. Today, white people pretend they don’t have any kind of racial bias — in 1814, white people proudly displayed it.
It’s going to be interesting to see what “Taboo” does with George Chichester from here — this is a show fond of introducing wild cards, and the emphatic Chichester comes off as a big one as the three-pronged conflict between James Delaney (Tom Hardy), the East India Company and the Crown continues to ramp up. And considering the way East India Company boss Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) freaked out about the upcoming investigation into the sinking of the Influence, I’d guess that Chichester is going to be a very prominent wild card, indeed.
“Taboo” airs Tuesday’s at 10p.m. on FX.