Black Historian Edson Burnett: White Working Class Did Not Benefit from Bristol Slave Trade

Tonight on the local news programme for the Bristol region, Points West, the historian Dr. Edson Burnett said something very interesting about who did and did not benefit from the city’s slave trade. He was being interviewed as part of an item about the response of Bristol’s elected mayor, Marvin Rees, to the toppling of Colston’s statue on Sunday. Rees is Black, and has said during interviews on the past few days that while he understood that a number of Bristolians didn’t want to see the statue removed, and respected their feelings, he himself hated the statue and what it stood for. Now he has decided to set up a commission of historians and others to look into monuments and places in Bristol with connections to the slave trade, and decide what to do about them.

It isn’t just about the statue, but also about the names of streets and buildings like Colston Street, Colston Girls’ School, the Colston Hall and so on. Some of these are already distancing themselves from Colston and changing their names. Rees stated it was all about setting up a conversation with the public over the issue. The measures taken might include changing the names of places with offensive connections, but he left that open as just one option.

One of those appointed to the commission is Dr. Madge Dresser of the University of the West of England. She’s an historian, teaching the 18th century and specialising in the slave trade. She has written a couple of books about Bristol and the slave trade, one of which is Slavery Obscured. This is about how the city carried on financing and reaping the profits of the slave trade after its official abolition. She used to take her students on a field expedition to the slave fort in Gambia. She was also one of those involved in the expedition A Respectable Trade about Bristol and the slave trade at the City Museum in 1995. She’s an excellent choice.

Another expert, who has been selected for it is Dr. Edson Burnett. Burnett’s Black, and has researched and written extensively about Bristol and the slave trade. And he said something very interesting indeed. I thought he would keep himself to commenting on the effect of slavery on Black people. But he didn’t. He also wanted to include the White working class as those affected by it. He said that the White working class did not benefit from the trade, and said that many sailors were so afraid of slavery voyages that they had to be duped.

This is brilliant! I wish someone had made this point 25 years ago when the City Museum opened its superb exhibition.

I have absolutely no doubt that Dr. Burnett is right. A paper published by Black American students of the slave trade found that mortality among the crew of slave ships in the Middle Passage was slightly higher than those of the slaves themselves. One crewman wrote a pamphlet angrily attacking his captain, as he had contracted a disease during the voyage that robbed him of his sight. He was angry as he had no sympathy from his captain, who had refused him treatment. Historians have rightly commented on the sailor’s own callousness, as he had no sympathy for the poor slaves the ship carried. as for the attitude of contemporary Bristolians towards the trade, a famous visitor to the city commented that everyone hated it, but they could see no way of doing without it. And so the city carried on its bloody business.

Edson’s inclusion of the White working class among those excluded from the trade’s benefits is very interesting. The Tories are able to muster popular support for their policies, including their view of history, by presenting it as a matter of angry, racist Blacks against all Whites. The whole ‘Southern Strategy’ of the Republican party in America is based on them posing as the defender of poor Whites, who feel unfairly discriminated against by pro-Black affirmative action campaigns. This is also how they manage to persuade dirt poor Whites to vote against the introduction of welfare benefits. Because they manipulate the situation to seem that such benefits would only go to profligate, undeserving Blacks. It’s a classic case of ‘divide and rule’.

I’m assuming that the Tories are gearing up to do something similar about this attack on traditional British history and the monuments left by the slave trade and imperialism. They and the Tory press will present it as evil Commies and Blacks working to erase proper history and White identity. They will claim that those liberal elites are going to benefit Blacks at the expense of the White working class. The same White working class they themselves cordially despise and patronise.

But Burnett seems to have dodged that by excluding them as those who benefited from the trade.

This is going to be a very interesting discussion indeed.

Expect more Tory anger soon!

 

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2 Responses to “Black Historian Edson Burnett: White Working Class Did Not Benefit from Bristol Slave Trade”

  1. Jayne Linney Says:

    We may well have been excluded from the profits but we have sadly internalised the propaganda that continues to perpetrate the racist ideology

  2. Jeffrey Davies Says:

    Least we forget all those sent to other countries for stealing a loaf of bread staying alive by stealing but ordered to Australia even the white poor were brutally dealt with

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