Watch: New film honours Scottish slave who changed course of history

The little-known story of an African slave who was brought from the Caribbean to Perthshire by a Scottish plantation owner, fell in love with one of his servants and went on to fight a legal battle to pursue his right to freedom has been brought to life on screen.

Patrick Martins and Emma King play the 18th century slave Joseph Knight and servant Annie Thomson in the new short film. Picture: National Theatre of Scotland
Patrick Martins and Emma King play the 18th century slave Joseph Knight and servant Annie Thomson in the new short film. Picture: National Theatre of Scotland

The National Theatre of Scotland has launched a new short film depicting the relationship which developed between Joseph Knight and Annie Thompson after they met at the Ballindean estate.

Knight’s landmark 18th century court victory against John Wedderburn, the owner of the Balindean estate, is said to have paved the way for the abolition of slavery in Scotland after he demanded to be treated as an employee.

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Campaigners say his contribution has been all but forgotten in Scotland, where he was brought by Wedderburn, in 1769, seven years after he bought Knight at a slave auction in Jamaica.

Some have suggested that he should be honoured on streets named after Henry Dundas, the lawyer who represented him in his court case, but later played a key role in efforts to delay the abolition of slavery in the UK.

Now his life and legacy is being honoured as part of Scenes for Survival - a National Theatre of Scotland project to create new “digital art works” during the nationwide shutdown of venues.

The new short film has been launched in the wake of a sudden surge of interest in the life and legacy of Knight since the Black Lives Matter movement spread to Edinburgh and Glasgow earlier this month.

Actors Patrick Martins and Emma King took on the roles of Knight and Thompson in the short film ahead of the planned launch of a full-scale stage production next year.

Created by Edinburgh-based writer May Sumbwanyambe, who has previously turned Knight’s story into a radio drama, the stage play’s launch at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the autumn has had to be delayed due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dublin-based Martins said: “It’s such a powerful story, but not that many people know about it. I knew absolutely nothing about him myself before I went to audition.

“When I found out it was based on a true story I was completely elated. I’d always wanted to play a character based on a real person. To be able to tell a story that was so close to me and a lot of other black people around the world is something I’ve always dreamed of.

“I was at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dublin the day before we did the filming. The timing turned out to be absolutely perfect, in a sense. I was able to use some of the frustration I felt at what was going in America and what’s been happening around the world, and put that into the film.

Patrick Martins has been cast as Joseph Knight in the National Theatre of Scotland production Enough of Him.

“It’s a complete honour to play Joseph Knight. I’ve been doing a lot of research on him since I was cast and I would love to find out a lot more about him, but his later life just seems to have disappeared into the abyss.

“I’m not sure why his story isn’t better known about. It’s maybe the fact he seems to have disappeared and nothing is really known about his death. His story seems to have almost disappeared with him.

“The National Theatre of Scotland project is a fantastic idea to keep people engaged in theatre while everything else is going on in the world.

“It’s almost like a blessing in disguise that with social media something like this can potentially reach a much larger audience than you would get than with an audience in a theatre.”

Sumbwanyambe, who also worked on the short film, said: “I’ve felt for a long time that the story of Joseph Knight is a very important one for the people of Scotland to understand its own history and identity. But history is now moving so quickly that it is becoming more and more important.

“We need to start a conversation about why stories about people like Joseph Knight have not been represented on our stages and why our education system in Scotland does not teach us about our own history.

“You’re more likely to be taught about American or English history than about pockets of history like this that are massively important to our identity.”

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