The victims of slavery have been erased from the narrative of history – it’s time to start teaching the truth
Protesters in Bristol after tearing down a statue to slave trader Edward Colston
If we are to overcome the injustice in today’s society, we must change how we teach and remember Britain’s past – starting with an honest assessment of the brutal history of the Empire
Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a global debate regarding the depth of systemic, structural and state racism. As statues memorialising slave traders are toppled, it is crucial that we interrogate the interrelation between histories of colonialism and slavery alongside modern forms of racial exploitation.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade was a 400-year-old curse that had devastating effects on the victims and their descendants. Slavery and colonialism required a philosophy of white superiority, the ability to instil fear in its victims through murder, rape, torture and an inhuman system of bondage. There is truth in the saying that ‘history is written by the victors’, because the perpetrators generally airbrushed the evils of slavery from the history books and built statues and tributes to some of its worst offenders.
In 1988, three black men in Liverpool faced allegations of violent disorder. One had a conviction for criminal damage and during his trial he proudly defended his actions in helping to destroy the statue of one of Liverpool’s many slave traders. It was a defence that should echo with those who took direct action against the statue of Edward Colston, the celebrated Bristol slave owner. His statue ended up under water, emulating the fate that many Africans suffered on board his ships in the middle passage. The wealth of Liverpool, Bristol, Antwerp and many other European ports was built on the evil of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Colonialism continued that exploitation for another hundred years, and neo-colonial forms of extraction exist to this day.
In Jamaica during the slave trade, if one survived the horrors of the journey to be sold, one had a life expectancy of only 27 years. Slave rebellions were put down with untold brutality and the system of bondage was maintained by arbitrary punishment with slavers having complete impunity from killing or torturing. Slave families were destroyed, and every sort of depraved sexual and physical abuse was forced upon men, women and children alike.
The degree of subjugation varied little from the Caribbean, to Brazil, to the United States where slave bibles were edited to erase any reference to justice, mercy or equality. This meant that the few slaves who were permitted to read were denied access to any source of religious inspiration against their bondage.
The American Civil War was fought, at the cost of some 670,000 lives, to maintain that racist system of oppression. The confederacy’s defeat witnessed the towering oratory and courage of Black liberation figures such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Douglas and many like him fought to push President Lincoln towards emancipation, and his words are as true today as they were when 190,000 blacks fought for their freedom in the Union army: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Yet the civil war did not mark the end of institutional racism. Slavery was replaced by segregationist Jim Crow laws, an economic and political servitude that still haunts America to this day. Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysberg Address during the civil war spelt out the fundamental contradiction in the creation of the United States: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Those words still ring hollow for millions of African Americans and Native Americans whose rights have been limited by the refusal of white America to share power and correct the litany of historical social, political and economic injustices. There is a thread of injustice and exploitation connecting slavery, lynching, civil rights abuses and modern, systematic police brutality. The fact that one in four African Americans face imprisonment at some point in their life is a direct consequence of the plantation days, and many of the police forces in the US derive their history from brutal slave patrols. The new plantations are privatised prisons, which in the US incarcerate more people than the rest of the world put together.
As we reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement, it is crucial to remember that the United Kingdom has been central to the historical subjugation of African Americans. It is estimated that, until the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833, Britain transported some 3.1 million Africans, around 25% of all slaves, to its colonies in the Caribbean, North America and to other countries. There is no record of the slaughter and starvation this led to on the continent itself but, added to the deaths on the middle passage, it is likely to have been at the cost of at least another two or three million Africans. A slave cost on average $80 in 1860 ($40,000 at today’s prices). Slave catching was a lucrative business and a runaway slave remained a commodity even when supposedly safe in Canada or an abolitionist northern state.
In the UK, as in America, we see statues and monuments used to whitewash this abhorrent history. In 2006 the Metropolitan Police Authority visited the Georgia legislature to give evidence on hate crime legislation and were met outside by four statues of the “Daughters of the Confederacy”. From the late 1870s Southern historians and politicians intentionally reshaped a narrative that the Civil War was simply to protect the southern ‘way of life’ and not in defence of slavery.
The fact that Jim Crow, lynching, and massacres such as Rosewood in Florida and Oklahoma City were used to obliterate successful black businesses was conveniently omitted from this history. Confederate monuments were part of this toxic narrative in the South that elevated General Robert E. Lee and many others to national heroes.
Two years ago, in February 2018, the Treasury in their horrendous “surprising #FridayFact” tweet announced “Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes …Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”
Present day injustices are inseparable from the historical origins of racism and oppression
Yet, what the Treasury did not mention was the British Empire, whilst abolishing slavery, used this money to provide 46,000 slave owners, amongst them the ancestors of David Cameron, George Orwell and Graham Greene, with today’s equivalent of £17 billion. Black British taxpayers have, in a fresh injustice, been paying taxes to compensate those that imprisoned our ancestors.
Statues were commissioned by slaveowners all over the United Kingdom, and many extravagant country homes were built on the back of slavery itself. Edward Colston, who built his fortune on the slave trade then donated some of his ill-gotten gains to charity, was one of these benefactors. The removal of his statue is long overdue. There is no moral ambiguity around his legacy, and that of other slaveowners. It is one of pure evil.
Our cities are littered with monuments to racialised cruelty. A statue to William Beckford still stands in London’s Guildhall, immortalising a man who benefitted from holding 3,000 slaves in Jamaica and campaigned against abolition. Bramshill, the national police training college, is the former home of a Jamaican plantation owner.
The movement to decolonise objects of collective memory has been ignited by liberation struggles all over the world, from South Africa where Cecil Rhodes statues have been taken down forcibly due to his role in systematic colonial oppression and the formation of apartheid, to Oxford, where the powerful #RhodesMustFall campaign has continued to grow.
Racism benefits from a benign narrative that distances present day injustices from past oppression. Recent demonstrations in Bristol, Minneapolis, Brussels, Sao Paulo, Rome and Nairobi, and in many other countries are commendable because they interrogate these histories of oppression.
The invisibility of those that paid with their suffering and their lives for the fortunes amassed by slaver owners and traders is part of the problem. The victims have been erased from the narrative of history. This exclusion must end and their true place in history must be restored – starting with a national curriculum which celebrates Black people’s contribution to Britain and teaches the true, brutal history of the British empire. There must also be a full review of statues and monuments which glorify perpetrators of historic atrocities, the legacies of which persist to this day.
Present day injustices are inseparable from the historical origins of racism and oppression. In order to overcome them, we must challenge how we remember our past.
D. Peter Herbert OBE is the chair of the Society of Black Lawyers and Claudia Webbe the Member of Parliament for Leicester East