'1000 Years A Slave': the celebrities, their discoveries, and what happens in this new ancestry series

Hugh Quarshie in a trip of discovery in Ghana for '1000 Years A Slave'.
Hugh Quarshie in a trip of discovery in Ghana for '1000 Years A Slave'. (Image credit: Channel 5)

1000 Years A Slave is an ancestry series on Channel 5, where celebrities take trips to the Caribbean and Africa to learn about the history of slavery in their family heritage. Among the famous faces tracing their ancestors are Hugh Quarshie (Holby City), David Harewood (Homeland), Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir Lenny Henry.

At a time when Black Lives Matter is on people’s mind around the world, and protestors have torn down statues of slave traders, this series will give its viewers understanding of how slavery stained our past and shaped the modern world. 

"The enslavement of Africans changed our language, it changed what we eat, what we wear, what we drink. It created the force that still divides us today," explains Professor David Olusogu who is one of the British experts on the show.

In the first episode of 1000 Years A Slave, David Harewood travel to Barbados and Holby City’s Hugh Quarshie visits Ghana to explore their own ancestry and understand what happened to the 12 million Africans who were enslaved and forced into brutal labour on sugar plantations. They both learn about the horrendous conditions the slaves were forced to endure, the violence they were subjected to and the fact that so many died as they were being transported across the ocean. See below for more what happened on their visits.

“Of 12 million slaves around one million didn’t survive. They died on ships and their bodies were thrown overboard,’ says Professor Olusogu.  “There are stories that sharks learnt to follow the bloody paths of slave ships because for hundreds of years the bodies of one million Africans were cast into the Atlantic Ocean.  To leave the story of slavery out of the histories we teach at school is to lie by omission.”

Here's much more of what to expect in 1000 Years A Slave....

'1000 Years A Slave' release date

1000 Years A Slave starts its four-part run on Channel 5 from Tuesday Oct. 19 at 10pm and episodes then run every Tuesday at the same time. They'll become available on the streaming service MY5 afterwards. We don't yet know if the series will become available in the US, but we will update if we hear of a US release date. 

'1000 Years A Slave' — Hugh Quarshie on his discoveries

Hugh is best known for playing Ric Griffin in the BBC1 drama Holby City. He appeared in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace and earlier this year played Neville Lawrence in the ITV series Stephen, about the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence. Growing up in the UK, Hugh was told of a Ghanaian ancestor, Anton Amo, who was transported as a slave to Europe at the age of four. So in the series he goes in search of more information about him. 

“I’m not sure it’s possible to be a black man in Britain, in the USA or in Africa and not be angry," says Hugh. "Any African is always going to be afraid of finding an ancestor who was a slave or an ancestor who colluded in some way with the slave trade. I’m fortunate in having found ancestors who don’t seem to have colluded but actually argued strongly against it.”

'1000 Years A Slave' with Hugh Quarshie on the case in Ghana.

'1000 Years A Slave' with Hugh Quarshie on the case in Ghana. (Image credit: Channel 5)

Hugh Quarshie in 'Stepehn' playing Neville Lawrence, Steve Coogan as DCI Clive Driscoll and Sharlene Whyte as Doreen Lawrence, all in suits and standing in a dark panelled room

Hugh Quarshie in 'Stephen' playing Neville Lawrence, Steve Coogan as DCI Clive Driscoll and Sharlene Whyte as Doreen Lawrence. (Image credit: ITV)

'1000 Years A Slave' — David Harewood on his discoveries

David Harewood was part of the hugely successful show Homeland, in which he played the director of CIA Counterterrorism, David Estes. He also starred in the 2016 movie Blood Diamond and the BBC/Amazon series The Night Manager, alongside Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. 

In 1000 Years A Slave David learns about two of his own ancestors and hears of the appalling violence used against slaves. “White supremacy is an English invention that was franchised to several different countries,” he says. “There’s still so much about my past that I don’t understand and so many pieces of the jigsaw that are still missing. In England it’s a particularly buried piece of history. As well as making me upset it also makes me angry that there’s been no discussion about it. My sense of displacement erased, my sense of dislocated identity erased. All of the trauma plays a part in the dislocation of my identity. Who am I and where do I come from? The idea that I’m not human, that I have no soul, that I’m a beast. Brand me, burn me, whatever and have no recourse because I’m not human. That’s fundamental to how that’s informed racism.” 

David Harewood on the case in Barbados for '1000 Years A Slave'.

David Harewood on the case in Barbados for '1000 Years A Slave'. (Image credit: Channel 5)

'1000 Years A Slave' — other stars appearing in later episodes

Later episodes of 1000 Years A Slave feature Fleabag actor Ray Fearon, presenter Trisha Goddard, comedian Sir Lenny Henry, newscaster Sir Trevor McDonald and gospel singing legend Karen Gibson, writer Bonnie Greer, former Casualty actor Patrick Robinson and Labour MP David Lammy among others. 

In episode two of 1000 Years A Slave, US news anchorman Shannon LaNier uncovers the truth behind his ancestor’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson. He visits Monticello in Virginia and makes a discovery about the nature of his ancestor’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Shannon discusses how Sally Hemmings was able to negotiate extraordinary privileges for herself and for her children as a result of this, and how Jefferson tried to hide the fact he owned slaves while he was living in France. 

British TV presenter Trisha Goddard investigates how slaves were traded across the Indian Ocean for millennia, and we'll also discover the incredible journey of an 18th-century classical musician who was enslaved twice before finding freedom. In Lisbon, Portugal, Joseph Emidy gained his freedom and success when he arrived in Portugal with his master, who was performing at the Lisbon opera house. But his freedom was short-lived, and he was press-ganged aboard a British naval ship for four long years. 

Finally, Rachel Johnson, sister of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, travels to Venice in Italy to find out how the city adapted when the trade of Christian slaves was banned. 

In '1000 Years A Slave' Trisha Goddard examines her family history.

In '1000 Years A Slave' Trisha Goddard examines her family links to slavery. (Image credit: Channel 5)

Is there a '1000 Years A Slave' trailer?

Channel 5 hasn't released a trailer for 1000 Years A Slave yet, but we will be sure to update if one arrives.

Nicholas Cannon
TV Content Director on TV Times, What's On TV and TV & Satellite Week

I'm a huge fan of television so I really have found the perfect job, as I've been writing about TV shows, films and interviewing major television, film and sports stars for over 25 years. I'm currently TV Content Director on What's On TV, TV Times, TV and Satellite Week magazines plus Whattowatch.com. I previously worked on Woman and Woman's Own in the 1990s. Outside of work I swim every morning, support Charlton Athletic football club and get nostalgic about TV shows Cagney & Lacey, I Claudius, Dallas and Tenko. I'm totally on top of everything good coming up too.