How Britain Ceased to be Great (if it ever was)

I remember being taught about William Wilberforce and others who were instrumental in securing the abolition of slavery. Later, when I lived near Kingston-upon-Hull and worked alongside some of that city’s inhabitants, I learned that they were proud of Wilberforce’s connection to the city. I do not remember ever learning much about the role of Britain in the world wide slave trade.

The shameful fact is that Britain’s original greatness was founded on slavery and child labour.

The cities of Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow were central to the trade in slaves that shuttled between Africa and the “New World”. North and South America and the West Indies employed slaves in the cultivation and harvesting of crops like cotton, in the Southern states of North America and the West Indies. The West Indies and Brazil also produced sugar cane.

The late Andrea Levy pointed out in a recent interview that many more slaves were transported to the West Indies than to North America. Even more went to Brazil. Only about 5% of all African slaves ended up in North America, more than half in Brazil. Brazil was a Portugese colony; Spanish colonists also employed slaves but they paid British traders to transport them.

Slave transport operated on a triangular route. Brandy and guns were exchanged for slaves in West Africa. The slaves were taken across the Atlantic to North America, South America and the West Indies for sale to plantation owners. Rum, cotton and sugar were brought back to the UK.

As Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow grew rich on this trade, Manchester’s wealth came from the spinning and weaving of raw cotton, planted and harvested by slaves. The factories in which the spinning and weaving were carried out employed women and children on wages barely sufficient to purchase food.

Over the 300 years during which the slave trade operated, it is estimated that some 12 million Africans were sold into slavery. An additional 2 million died en-route. The slaves were chained together in confined spaces in the ship’s hold.

Add these facts to Britain’s role in the colonisation and exploitation of vast areas of the globe and it becomes clear that shame is a more appropriate emotion than pride when considering the history of the United Kingdom.

Since coming to live in Ireland I have spent some time studying the history of the relationship between the two neighbouring countries. This culminated in the production of my book “A Purgatory of Misery” which outlines the conditions that made the famine that devastated Ireland in the mid nineteenth century inevitable.

As the Brexit debate has raged in the UK and Europe over the past 3 years, I have been shocked at the ignorance of their own history displayed by many Britons. Although the leaders of Northern Ireland’s Unionists make statements affirming their “Britishness”, the legal reality is that no part of Ireland has ever been a part of Britain.

For a hundred and twenty years, from 1800, the whole island of Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom. On 3rd May 1921 the island was partitioned with the creation of a border around 6 counties in its North East. These 6 counties were designated “Northern Ireland” and remained a part of the United Kingdom which now changed its name to “The United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland.”

The border has always been a source of annoyance and dispute to the majority of Irish people. With effect from 2nd December 1999 relations between Britain and Ireland were settled by the Good Friday Agreement. Among other things, this effectively eliminated the border in all but name, enshrining the principle of free movement of goods and people between the two parts of the Island.

Brexit, which will leave the 26 counties of Ireland in the EU whilst the 6 counties of Northern Ireland depart the EU, despite the majority of its electorate having voted to remain, is in breach of this International treaty.

Under the treaty the citizens of Northern Ireland have the right to choose their nationality: Irish, United Kingdom, or both. Again, the arrangements for granting “Settled Status” to EU citizens resident in the UK denies them that right, since those opting for Irish citizenship will be EU citizens subject to the same rules as all other EU citizens in the UK, in effect being treated as foreigners.

In my lifetime Britain has earned the right to be called “Great” through its magnanimity and its support for institutions, like the UN, NATO and the EU, dedicated to upholding peace and human rights. The last three years, with demands for “taking back control” and xenophobic attacks on those perceived to be “foreign”, has seen the nation in which I grew up, and in which I used to feel pride, revert to type as a white supremacist country exhibiting many of the characteristics of Hitler’s Germany.

Written by

Frank is a retired Engineer from England now living in Ireland. He is trying to learn and share the lessons of history.

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