The Doctor Who episode ‘Thin Ice’ is an allegory for slavery

Liam Hogan
May 9, 2017 · 9 min read

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While many commentators and fans of the long-running BBC sci-fi show noted that the ‘Thin Ice’ episode written by Sarah Dollard (aired April 29) tackled racism and prejudice head-on, few seem to have reflected on how much of the storyline was an allegory for chattel slavery in the British West Indies and absentee slave-ownership in London. The episode opens with the Doctor and his companion Bill Potts arriving in London in the year 1814. Bill, who is of course a black Englishwoman, notes immediately that this is not the safest time place and for her to be present.

BILL: Wait, you want to go out there? DOCTOR: You don’t? BILL: It’s 1814. (Bill points to her face.) BILL: Melanin. DOCTOR: Yes? BILL: Slavery is still totally a thing. DOCTOR: Yes, so it is. BILL: It might be…dangerous out there. DOCTOR: Definitely dangerous.

The British Empire ended their legal participation in the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 but did not abolish racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery in their colonies until 1834–1838. In 1814, as David Olusoga has noted, “abolitionism was in hibernation” and he recounts how during their campaign the slave trade abolitionists had

“…repeatedly reassured the slave owners and the pro-slavery West India lobby that once the trade was ended they did not propose to seek the abolition of slavery. Immediate emancipation of the slaves, they argued, would be a disaster for both the slaves and the slave owners…this view was predicated upon the belief that the slaves were unready and ill-equipped for freedom and any sudden transition might lead to chaos and violence…Freedom would be delivered incrementally, in carefully spaced stages with white men judging and assessing the capacities of black people to manage their own affairs and adhere to European norms. The faith in gradualism said much about the racial ideas that prevailed among the abolitionists and most people in nineteenth century Britain. It said nothing about the capacities and inner nature of African people.” — Black and British: A Forgotten History, p. 223

The anti-black racism aside, until the abolition of slavery in the mid-1830s it was possible and lucrative (albeit illegal) that a free person of colour in Britain or Ireland could be kidnapped and sold into perpetual slavery in the West Indies or the American South.

During my research in 2015 I discovered an account of a mixed-race Irishman who was kidnapped in Ireland in sold into perpetual slavery in Antigua. The State Papers of 1736 record how he “alleged that he was free born in Ireland and stolen thence and sold here as a slave. We think he proved his allegation…” While the black population of Britain and Ireland was relatively small, we can but speculate on how many people of colour were trafficked from Britain and Ireland and do not appear in the records. After all, this anecdote only materialised in the State Papers because it occurred during the violent suppression of a suspected slave uprising in that colony.

Also pertinent to this Doctor Who episode is the fact many of those that owned slaves and sugar plantations were not resident in the slave colonies. They were absentee slave owners and planters and most of these absentees lived in England and Scotland (some were resident in Ireland and Wales) while others relocated to the Metropole from the slave colonies and brought some of their human stock with them. Slaves were also sporadically advertised for sale in British and Irish newspapers up until the 1770s and the University of Glasgow Runaway Slaves project estimates that there were “many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ‘black’ runaways in Great Britain in the eighteenth century.” There is also evidence that some of the black slaves in Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were made to wear slave collars and some of these collars carried the initials or names of the slave-owners. In 1694 a runaway slave advert in the London Gazette stated that a thirteen year old black boy had escaped his owners and that he was wearing a collar that was inscripted with the stark words “The Lady of Bromfield’s black, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.” A London goldsmith’s advert in 1756 declared that as well as collars they also sold “silver padlocks for Blacks or Dogs.” (Olusoga, p. 93–94)

Scholars continue to debate whether the famous Somerset case ended de jure slavery in England in 1772, but most agree that the legal ambiguity surrounding their status was not decisively resolved until full abolition. This ambiguity is well illustrated in the case of Thomas West a young boy who was baptised at Chislehurst near London in 1788 and described in the records as “a negro of about 6 years of age, who had been sent over as a present to Lord Sydney from Governor Orde of Dominica.”

“History’s a whitewash.”

This Doctor Who episode also notes the oft-overlooked presence of black people in early nineteenth century England.

BILL: Interesting. DOCTOR: What is? BILL: Regency England. Bit more black than they show in the movies. DOCTOR: So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.

Lord Mansfield claimed that there were between 14,000–15,000 black slaves present in England at the time of the Somerset trial. This approximate figure, we can assume, did not include the free or indentured black population. Mansfield’s 1772 ruling critically undermined the notorious York-Talbot slavery opinion of 1729 which had surmised that

“We are of opinion, that a slave coming from the West-Indies to Great-Britain or Ireland, with or without his master, doth not become free, and that his master’s property or right in him is not thereby determined or varied; and that baptism doth not bestow freedom on him, or make any alteration in his temporal condition in these kingdoms. We are also of opinion, that his master may legally compel him to return again to the plantations.”

“I felt it in my bones”

Back to the show, and to cut a long story short, Bill and the Doctor encounter a large creature held in chains beneath the ice of the Thames. This massive creature is kept out of sight, is fed human beings as its fuel and in return creates vast amount of wealth for its enslavers by forcibly producing a lucrative product for them to sell to the residents of London, who in turn use it for their own benefit. On one level in this allegory the creature represents an enslaved person, but it more broadly represents the system of racialised slavery that enriched the British Empire while consuming the lives of millions of human beings.

BILL: The sound it made. I couldn’t hear you, but that noise, it’s like I felt it in my bones, you know? It sounded like, like… DOCTOR: Despair. Loneliness. A prisoner in chains.

The duo later discover that the owner of this creature is a certain Mr. Sutcliffe. The Slave Compensation records inform us that 1,437 different absentee slave-owners (or mortgagees, etc) in the Greater London region claimed for the loss of their human property after slavery was abolished in colonies in the 1830s. Incidentally one of those individuals was John Knapp Sutcliffe, a London solicitor who lived in Blackfriars in the 1840s and claimed almost £8000 for the 308 slaves who were freed on his Waterloo plantation in the British colony of St Vincent. The Doctor describes the fictional Sutcliffe to Bill as follows.

DOCTOR: You’re about to meet a man…for whom human beings are raw material.

By 1750 around 800,000 enslaved Africans had been imported by Europeans into the Caribbean, yet the slave population stood at only 300,000. Joseph Inikori pointed out that over 41,000 slaves were imported into Barbados between 1698 and 1712 yet the island’s slave population in 1712 was 30 less than it was in 1696. The language the Doctor uses recollects the words of John Lee, the solicitor general during the Zong Massacre trial, who stated that “Blacks are goods and property” and that “the case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

When Sutcliffe enters the room he immediately shouts racist abuse at Bill.

SUTCLIFFE: Who, who let this creature in here? On your feet, girl, in the presence of your betters.

The Doctor responds by punching him in the face. Once Sutcliffe has recovered, he is questioned by the Doctor.

DOCTOR: The creature in the river, where did it come from? SUTCLIFFE: Who the devil are you people? DOCTOR: Where did it come from? SUTCLIFFE: Nowhere! It’s always been there. The secret’s been passed down in the family since, I don’t know when.

This resonates with the historical record and the historian Madge Dresser has recently concluded that in the Regency era “most planters resident in England had inherited their estates.” Their “estates” in this context meaning land and enslaved human beings in the British West Indies.

‘Pity this busy monster, manunkind’ — E.E. Cummings (1944)

Sutcliffe rationalises his profiteering from slavery and death with the well-worn “progress” rhetoric beloved by capitalists, imperialists and industrialists.

SUTCLIFFE: I help move this country forward. I move this Empire forward.

This argument is but an embellishment of Sutcliffe’s self-interest and the Doctor has seen it all before.

DOCTOR: Human progress isn’t measured by industry, it’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.

“The monster is dead; the negro is free.” — William Knibb (1838)

DOCTOR: The creature…are we just going to leave her down there? BILL: We can’t set her free. She could burst up out of the water and eat a hundred people right off of Southbank! She could eat half of London! DOCTOR: She might. It’s a risk. So, what do you want to do, Bill? BILL: We already know the answers. Why are you even asking? DOCTOR: I don’t know the answers. Only idiots know the answers. But if your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s your future worth?

This debate about the potential violence that could occur by emancipating the creature raises the spectre of pro-slavery propaganda in Britain and the United States. These propagandists warned that emancipation would unleash a wave of great violence by the former slaves towards their former masters. The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson lamented how the pro-slavery lobby changed people’s minds by spreading the most “…scurrilous and false publications throughout the whole kingdom [against emancipation]” and that “they foreboded insurrections of the most fearful kind, destruction to the planters, and even ruin of the Mother Country…”

In 1862 the London Times claimed that to emancipate the slaves in the American South contemplated “the negro only as an instrument of revenge. It means, not the subjection of armed men in fair fight, but horrible deeds committed upon defenceless whites of every age and sex…”

Of course this was propaganda. The post-emancipation periods in nineteenth century British America dispatched this lie to the dustbin of history. The only true guarantee of violence was to allow the system to remain in place. Violence is a foundation block of slavery. Such an exploitative dehumanising system can not exist without it. Violence was the enslaver’s necessity; it was the everyday action or threat needed to attempt to coerce people to be subdued absolutely. To invert or erase their nature. Violence was necessary to maintain the illusion of mastery, the dream of unfettered racial superiority and dominance. Violence was required to forcibly break up families, relationships, to take children from their mothers and sell them, to force hard labour without pay for a lifetime. For their children’s lifetime. For their children’s children’s lifetimes. Violence too was the inevitable response to this system and it manifested itself when the enslaved sought to be free, to escape their bondage, to resist their enslavement, to demand dignity or to exact an often mutually-destructive revenge on their tormentors.

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Liam Hogan

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Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi