Shame in Britain’s Past: Are Protestors Right?
What follows is an extract from an article I published on Medium in February last year. It anticipates the efforts by protestors, this week and last, who seek the removal of symbols that demonstrate pride in the achievements of some British historical figures. In one such protest a statue was forcibly removed from its plinth in the centre of Bristol and consigned to the waters of the docks from which slave ships regularly sailed.
Not surprisingly, given what I was saying eighteen months ago, I do not have a problem with such events in principle. However, I also agree with the historian who pointed out, in a recent interview on BBC TV, that such symbols are important reminders of our national guilt.
Will their complete removal mean that future generations will not have the opportunity to learn of these things?
The answer, surely, is that the proper location for such symbols is not some place where the men’s achievements are celebrated, but in a museum where children can be taken in order to learn of the horrors perpetrated by those of our ancestors whose beliefs and practices were formed in an age of ignorance.
Meanwhile the buildings and streets that have been named after such individuals, also, I suppose, out of ignorance as to their true nature, must now be renamed as soon as humanly possible.
There is much in our past of which we should be ashamed. But we also can be proud of the part Britons have played in the overthrowing of such ignorance and that Britain has, for most of the last century, been at the forefront of efforts to enshrine the rights of all human beings in national and international law.
The extract from and earlier article:
“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.
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 rest of my original article went on to suggest that Brexit was driven, at leat in part, by pride in the wrong aspects of our past and represented a reversion “to type as a white supremacist country exhibiting many of the characteristics of Hitler’s Germany.” The sight of protestors proclaiming their shame in that past is a heartening reminder that Britain can, and aften does, stand for all that is best in humanity.