I’ve been trying to think of a way I could contribute to the current BLM movement – and that’s probably a good point to preface this by saying I am 100% an offender, liable to Churchillian stereotyping of various peoples and very often not thinking that, whilst the intent is not there to upset anyone, it almost certainly does in cases and for that I apologise.
Lewis Hamilton is my absolute sporting hero and I know he’d call me out for not doing more, and this episode should debunk the theory of “I have black friends/like black sportspeople” as a defence. Sure, no one is asking you to unnaturally go out of your way to “make friends”, but understanding is key. That said I’m not turning vegan anytime soon (sorry Lewis, you’re on your own there mate!).
The good news I suppose is I do have some understanding of where racism in the modern form comes from, and can at least provide a quick history lesson for folks to use when trying to talk to people who may not believe the UK is “all that racist”. It is intrinsically through its past. That’s not to say the modern inhabitants are completely at fault (because as you’ll see its almost half a millienia’s worth of learned behaviour), its just our society doesn’t educate us about Empire and the effect Britain, Europe and America has had on the world. I was lucky I studied the US Civil Rights movement at School for a year, but many others are not.
What I’ll provide below is a broad strokes assessment attempting not bog down in the detail too much.
The Rise of Europe
Modern slavery’s roots comes from a time when Europe was not the centre of the world. The fall of Rome and the Roman world led to the “Dark Age” – incidentally my favourite period of history. Incredibly, even into the latter half of the first millennium AD, the Picts still didn’t have a ways and means of writing any of their history down before finally getting the boot from the Dal Riatan’s (or the Scots, as you all know them). The Saxons in the south were at times not that much better. Broadly speaking this was seen across the European continent.
Contrast that to the Middle Kingdom (China), The Levant, India and North Africa. Effectively this region was the centre of the world with Constantinople proving a pivotal focal point. In 1000AD the centre of the world was not Paris, Berlin, London or Washington, it was in an area which connected a variety of different cultures. At this point not much contact had been made with the Americas or Sub-Saharan Africa. There was no “great power” in this time. Very powerful ones for sure, but nothing quite like what we know today.
Things however, began to change. European civilizations finally began to emerge from the darkness. Writing, the beginnings of scientific theory, organised military units, various religious upheavals and the advent of capitalism began to rival and surpass what was then the Old World. Not surpass it in so much that it was readily conquerable but enough that this world would become heavily influenced by the actions of European states. Certainly, the Ottomans held large sway in the Levant and were a constant menace, but Europe was looking elsewhere at this point.
This is where the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa comes in. To put things bluntly – when the Portuguese and most of Europe figured out the world was round, could use sextants, have complex numerical equations and fledging scientific thought, many of the people they came into contact with still believed in Pantheon-esque beliefs – that greater beings were capable of making it rain, that the harvest depended on pleasing mother Earth (in theory I suppose it does!) and various other rituals. In Sub-Saharan Africa you’ll often see furnaces shaped like a womb to invoke the idea that they were giving birth to metal. Obviously, trying to lump in Mesoamerican and Sub-Saharan culture is enough to cause the Twitterati to explode, but for the layman this makes it understandable.
As you can see there is a direct disparity in the technological and social “advancement” of the Europeans compared to the cultures they encountered, much more so than the previous “Old World” societies they had known about. If you’re wondering why Europeans decided Black Africans were the ones to transport to the Americas it’s because they perceived them so beneath their then current level of advancement and they tended to survive the harsh conditions relatively well. Also, let’s be honest that perception hasn’t really gone away.
So you’re probably aware that slaves have existed in some form for thousands of years. In fact, a lot of us have probably visited the Colosseum where slaves fought to the death, and yes, the people were very much entertained. However, whilst I may have shot a glancing blow at Gladiator go back to that movie right now and have a think. Ask yourself, how many Black slaves were there? More importantly, how many White slaves were there?
On a piece of whitewashing that may have accidentally turned out to be historically accurate, Maximus’ story is just an incredibly overblown high profile example of Ancient Slavery. Slavery in this era was as much about personal circumstance above anything else. Your tribe was invaded? Slavery! You got lost at sea and have washed up naked on a beach and found by a passing Arabian tradesman? Slavery! You got injured at work and can’t afford to pay the bills? Slavery, for all the family!
Whilst yes, that is a somewhat comical and non-PC way of presenting an oppressive system, that is how it often worked. This is absolutely not to say that racism as we know it didn’t exist, it probably did in some form and one Chinese source at the time used to refer to Europeans as Monkeys, but societies back then were more Ethnocentric in their approach. That is to say they focused on themselves and why their culture was better, but not necessarily a superiority of the races as we have seen in the past 500 years.
The Roman period demonstrates that well. When the Romans invaded the Greeks, what happened? Well incredibly the Romans assimilated Greek traditions and history into their own civilization, most notably by renaming most of the Pantheon. This was to imbue the idea that Roman culture was above all others, that it heralded from the Greeks who gave birth to civilization. It was imperialist, it was brutal, it was pretty bad to be on the other end of a Legion’s wrath, but this was due to the belief that Roman culture was superior, not necessarily because Roman’s were genetically or scientifically superior. It was largely a colour blind affair, but of course that can also be partially due to the logistics at the time just as much as innate beliefs – there just weren’t very many black people in Greece or Rome at the time.
Roman culture did have a large slave class but a key distinction here is that whilst they barely had any rights (albeit, that’s not exactly unusual for anyone living at the time, slave or not) they did have a myriad of professions. Today’s accountants could just as easily be slaves back then, along with the usual servant and manual labour roles that we traditionally associate with slavery. Masters could be cruel, masters could be benevolent, it was just the way society was back then.
Obviously there is one slight, minor, complication with the above as we drift towards the 1500s. No doubt you may be thinking “well that’s all well and good, but what about the Crusades, surely that’s a form of colonialism?”. Well kind of, but religion is complicated and is still complicated. Religion’s role to play in this is that by the 1500s scientific, rational thought had begun to become influential in Europe via the Renaissance replacing some of the mysticism that religion had retained to his point
Modern (or Colonial) Slavery
We now have the basis for how and why slavery developed over time. The roots of the trans-Atlantic slave trade are from the Rise of Europe, the region surpassing the known world at the time technologically and expanding beyond known horizons. Whilst the Old World would be heavily influenced by this technological and societal advancement (even if to fight against it in the name of Holy War), a few areas of the world had no idea what was going on. That is, large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.
I’ve tried to think of a way to explain in modern terms how a Portuguese explorer on his three masted galleon may think when encountering Mesoamericans or Sub-Saharan Africans, but I can never really think of a parallel. However, he will almost certainly have a degree of curiosity for sure, but also may be thinking how could these people not know anything of the Romans, and heaven forbid these Gods they worship! Savages!
I guess the only comparison is to people who put Pineapple on pizza.
Edit: Of course this is not to discount Mansa Musa’s Kingdom of Mali amongst others who displayed elements of civilisation comparable to European kingdoms, but militarily were certainly behind from a technological and doctrine stance
But jokes aside, its not like this disparity in technology had occurred for the first time. Again Rome is a good example as they conquered vast areas of technologically, for the time, limited people. Its just this time around the thinking back in Europe was to try and explain things within the then scientific and religious boundaries of the time which were vastly different to that of Ancient Rome. Also the disparity was that much larger.
Whilst not dwelling on the specifics, Europe’s rise and advancement set it on a collision course with the rest of the world, displaying terrifying amounts of arrogance and subjugation which it would not rid itself of until self-immolating in the 1940s. People wonder why Russia, China and the US may not want a United Europe – well its not the most trusted part of the world if you’re not from the continent. 50 years of peace do not extinguish 500 years of angst.
Because of this disparity, because of the cultural changes that had occurred on the continent, it led itself to believe its people were superior to those cultures it encountered. Its not hard to see why – we have cannons, they have spears. We have vast stone buildings, they have huts. We have one God superior to all beings, they believe the Earth is alive. It may be shocking to read that, but its key to understand the thought process to understand how to combat innate bias. Its important to understand that to recognise the differences between what slavery was to what slavery became.
Slavery was miserable for pretty much everyone, regardless of age, but in ancient times it was more likely you’d end up in that situation due to personal circumstance. The colonial-modern era saw culture disparity on levels not seen before, and with the introduction of rational thought and scientific theory (for the time – not to be confused with today) it was the perfect storm for the advent of modern racism to rise, through the act of slavery and colonial expansion.
Sadly in the Americas plantations required people that could withstand the conditions (as a staggering number of natives died to things like European introduced Smallpox) – and the people chosen for that role were Black Africans. Because of all this, we have a systemic, innate superiority bias in our society, and sadly Black people are at the tip of the spear of that bias.
The key reason that Black people still struggle to integrate today is that we have never properly confronted our past, we are never taught our past correctly, and thus we struggle to understand the remnants of that past in our modern society. Our society is not evil, and we should be wary of shaming ourselves too harshly, but we are responsible for identifying the problems and correcting them both on an individual and community level. We have not done that and thus we see disproportionate levels of economic stagnation in our Black community because large parts of our society are unwittingly biased against them, even if they do not harbour any ill-will to these people.
The people are not necessarily racist, but the system is, and it’s hard to recognise that for the 97% that do not suffer from it (instead we just suffer from being peasant class).
The Colston Statue vs Ancient Statues
As a quick update, Edward Colston was a famous man from Bristol in the 1600s and 1700s who built hospitals and performed other benevolent acts of charity in the city. He also benefitted from the slave trade and was a slave owner. Streets and buildings are named after him in the city and calls to remove the statue have been getting stronger in recent years. The statue was also built well after the abolition of slavery in the late 1800s which makes it harder to fathom its placement.
Undoubtedly you may have seen comments by people regarding the tearing down of the Colston statue in Bristol to the effect of “well if we’re tearing that down what about the Colosseum! What about statues to Augustus!”.
Factually, they are not actually wrong, these were built by slaves or are statues honouring people who have benefited from slavery. However their comparison is not strictly comparable:
- Ancient Slavery is different to Modern-Colonial Slavery
- Ancient Slaves were largely there due to circumstances that are not race related (this doesn’t discount there being occasions of racially induced slavery – but our knowledge of ancient society suggests far less emphasis on racial background)
This is not to defend slavery in any of its forms, but the reality of ancient slavery was very different to the slavery we think of today. Tearing down the Pyramids as a sort of whataboutism is folly. Having said that, I also don’t completely agree with the way the Colston statue was torn down.
I absolutely agree it should have gone, but the way it went was to me feels similar to erasing history. As someone who studied Archaeology I prefer to preserve things – not everyone on my course would agree with me that preserving the Colston statue is a good idea but I think it could have been done in a far different manner.
Personally, I’d of liked to have seen it taken down in a ceremony, replaced with something commemorating these people with the old statue sitting in the nearby museum to the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Bristol was a big beneficiary of the trade – which is historically significant because not every UK city was so enamoured by the slave trade i.e Manchester). If it’s to be fished out of the estuary I’m of the opinion it shouldn’t be “restored” when it does so, so perhaps actually I’ve debunked myself.
I understand the argument that if the council is unwilling, then we must fight for change, but a more positive message would be to make a big, peaceful deal out of it. On a national level we could create a bank holiday to celebrate the abolition of slavery or something to recognise Black people’s contributions to society, and take down statues and similar things in the process. You could rename schools, hospitals etc to more deserving individuals.
Erasing history makes me uncomfortable – I fully appreciate my country has done exactly that in many parts of the world, whilst also trying hard to defend others. I believe in Erinnerungskultur or Culture of Remembrance. Part of the reason I like Germany so much is because it has not completely destroyed its Nazi past, it has instead embraced its sorrow for the time and preserved locations for people to visit to understand the horror. Last year I went to Dachau Concentration Camp, I’ve been to the Gestapo prison in Cologne and I’m glad they have kept both standing, if only to witness what we were fighting against and from the limited number of Germans I know they seem to acknowledge their past as being abhorrent.
It makes me uncomfortable because at times, when people say “mob rule”, I can see what they mean. Where is the line? How many lines will be crossed in both directions that tear apart society more than bring it together? Perhaps I prefer a sanitised White-person’s version, and that is probably correct, I am innately biased due to my upbringing.
Churchill – A Personal Revision
I’m from a Forces family, so quite obviously anything that denigrates Winston Churchill will be met with a fair amount of disdain. We are products of how we grow up, I’m no different. It reminded me of a few weeks ago when I found myself trying to figure out if Churchill was genocidal or not – and believe me the internal resistance was fierce.
This is fine, if you ever encounter yourself doing this as you may have over the Black Lives Matter movement, challenging ideas, this is exactly what the Black community want you to do. They don’t want you to be best mates, they just want you to change how you think and acknowledge there is innate bias within us against Black people due to our past. They’re not trying to shame us, they’re just trying to make us better people.
The reference some of you may have gathered is to the Bengal Famine in 1943 where potentially 2 to 3 million Bengalis died in India – and this is largely the event that is pointed at when it comes to an assessment of Churchill and why his statue was defaced on Saturday. That and spray painting the plinth is a sure-fire way of sticking it up to the establishment.
I knew already that Winston was capable of saying racist and outrageous things. No one can really deny that. But did he actually cause said famine? See I had always believed the man, whilst fundamentally flawed by his Victorian upbringing, did at least stand up against fascism and was also advocating Operation Unthinkable (i.e fighting the Soviets) against another despotic regime. In a wartime sense he really was something special.
If you believe Dr Shashi Tharoor, Winston “is no better than Hitler” and directly accused him of policies that caused the deaths of millions. Others, such as Amaryta Sen, suggest there were other factors that contributed to the problem, that despite there actually being enough rice in the region the problem was inflationary forces (such as hoarding) that outpriced the locals in getting enough food. Ultimately, its complicated, as Bengal’s food supply was directly tied into Burma which had by this point fell to the Japanese, Brown Spot disease had infected large amounts of rice and of course there was a global war going on.
He undeniably avoided sending aid to the region for a time, prioritising European shipments for the build up towards D-Day, but a lot of the blame has also to go on local British rule and ineffectiveness of Colonialism. Make no mistake the Japanese would have been monstrously worse had they somehow managed to make it into Bengal, but it was poorly handled. Churchill did remark that Indians “bred like Rabbits” albeit, we do not know the context of that statement.
Overall its fair to say he contributed to the famine, which is quite sad in a lot of ways. However, in fairness to him and why the comparisons to Hitler, Stalin, Mao et al are flawed, he did eventually try and arrange shipments of wheat into Bengal. At least when he was quoted in his frustration at Indians in general he did follow that up with asking the Australians to send wheat to the affected area, whilst Hitler’s suggestion of the “Jewish Question” in Mein Kampf eventually led to the murder of 6 million Jews. Incidentally, had people listened to Winston much earlier, maybe neither of the above happen.
Where do I stand on defacing Winston’s statue? Well it seems appropriate enough to do it, to highlight he was a flawed man, and that if it causes some outrage at least people who are ignorant to the situation may look into it further. I don’t believe he was evil just highly prejudice with a misguided, outdated opinion on imperialism – but a hero for Western Europe. The fact I can type this and have it read by 50 people without GCHQ raiding my house is a testament to his resolve against Nazi tyranny. And if we were to get rid of his statue, George Washington’s would also be coming down as he was a slave owner, but I also acknowledge his faults and why Churchill as a domestic leader was often inadequate, racist at times to certain people.
My view of Winston has changed. He was pretty racist and that’s not surprising given his time. A hero for standing up for Western Europe, but also a villain for his part in the Imperial dream. I’d say that my view of him is far more balanced that it was previously. This is what the BLM movement is all about – re-balancing our minds to accept the need to be better and challenge our own privileged perceptions.
Ultimately the unrest we’ve seen since George Floyd’s death has been coming for a long time. Its in fact, centuries old, and it feels like we’re at a point where real change can occur. Hopefully the above has highlighted what the differences are between colonial slavery and ancient slavery and thus how that has spilled into our own perceptions currently. I know there are far better experts in ancient and modern slave trade history – I just wanted to attempt something that people could understand. The idea that men and women can perceive themselves as superior to others based on racial grounds, without even realising they are doing it, has been cultured from centuries of imperial rule by Europe and America.
Its not necessarily our own individual faults for that because our education system does a poor job in highlighting how British, European and American imperialistic policy subjugated and formed the world we know today, but as a whole society is at fault.
Its hard for someone who lives in areas where there are really very few people of any descent other than white British to understand the plight of other cultures, and its our fault as a society for not educating them. Not everyone post education will subscribe to an inclusive view, that’s just the reality of change and without descending down a dangerous path of thought policing just not possible, but the more we can understand our own history the better we can shape our future, the more people we expose to that line of thought in theory, the better our society will be.
One thing I would like to see changed after this is for Year 8s to have 2 hours a week studying the British Empire in it entirety. Not much matters in terms of exams in Year 8 so it feels this would be the best time for this education to happen. The good, the (very) bad and the ugly of the country, spanning from Elizabeth I to the independence of India would go some way to improving our national understanding.
I’d like a government to take a real stand with ethnic minorities, maybe with a public holiday and to promote festivals and gatherings in villages, towns and cities to both highlight the suffering but also how great humanity can be. Of course, I’d also like VE Day to have the same treatment. Make these holidays the moment to take down relics of slavery and replace them with statues of the everyday heroes that make up our society.
Above all I know I need to be better, because I’ve been awful and probably will still be awful (it would be a surprise for me to become devout in political correctness). It’s been a long journey from the right hand side of politics to the centre left – I’m still learning.
And as a final few words of hope, all of this coverage, all of this support for our Black community is quite incredible. There have been anarchists and other idiots attempting to hijack the cause but for 99.5% its been peaceful. As an ode to the advancement of Western civilization, its remarkable that so many different people are coming together for just 3% of the population.
Imagine that 500 years ago.