Rarely has archaeology had such a personal dimension. It was a masterstroke for the producers of Enslaved to enlist the co-operation of DWP — Diving with a Purpose — the team committed to exploring wrecks from the 400-year history of the slave trade. Every grim item sifted from the seabed seems to etch a new groove into the face of lead diver Kramer Wimberley. Samuel L Jackson may be the headliner, a perfect mix of glamour and gravitas, but Wimberley, strapping on his oxygen tanks, is a humbly heroic figure.
In the third episode of the series, we reach the mid-19th century and the stirring tale of the underground railroad, the clandestine routes by which escaped slaves from the southern states made it to Canada and freedom. The divers go on a hunt, first through the archives, then into the murky waters of the Great Lakes, in search of the paddle-steamer Niagara and the schooner Home. The Niagara was known to smuggle former slaves under the guise of waitstaff, so anything recovered from the galleys would have symbolic value. The Home, captained by an Irishman, has an unaccounted-for gap in its history. The dive scenes are thrilling. “Cold, dark and a little eerie — but not sad,” says Wimberley on emerging.
With the help of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, Jackson, possessor of a rumbling blues voice, explores the musical tradition along the railroad. Songs such as “Go Down, Moses” encoded a plea for freedom, while others passed along hidden instructions. The divers, on dry land for once, head to St John’s Church in Cleveland, its bell-tower once a safe house for fugitives. Numerous abolitionists took risks to help along the railroad, yet the emphasis here is not on white saviours but the astonishing bravery and resolve of the escapers.
At Antietam, site of a bloody civil war battle, even matter-of-fact Simcha Jacobovici finds the atmosphere a little spooky. Newly liberated African Americans in the north heeded Abraham Lincoln’s stirring Emancipation Proclamation and enlisted in huge numbers to fight their former masters; at one point as much as 10 per cent of the Union army consisted of black soldiers. A historian gently corrects Jacobovici’s suggestion that Lincoln emancipated the slaves: “Lincoln was responding to black people’s own actions to free themselves.”
While Jackson hangs out in Africatown, Alabama with bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens, Wimberley gets the biggest treat of all, a meeting with legendary congressman John Lewis. A close associate of Martin Luther King, Lewis, who died in July, was arrested many times in the service of civil rights. His parents always told him not to get into trouble, but as he tells Wimberley, there’s such a thing as “good trouble — necessary trouble”.
On BBC2 on October 18 at 9pm. The first two episodes are on BBC iPlayer. On Epix in the US
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Get alerts on Television when a new story is published