Posts Tagged ‘‘A Respectable Trade’’

Two Books Showing Bristol Has Not Kept Secret Its Involvement in the Slave Trade

June 6, 2019

The week before last, Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns was in Bristol, examining its history in the Georgian period. The show’s presented by Dr. Alice Roberts, who I believe is the Professor for the Public Engagement with Science at Birmingham University. She’s had a long career in television presenting programmes on archaeology, history and human evolution, beginning in the 1980s with Time Team. She’s a medical doctor, who I believe also taught anatomy at Bristol University. She regularly appeared on Time Team to give her opinion on any human remains that were recovered during their escavations.

Channel 4’s ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns’

Time Team was finally cancelled after a very successful run several years ago, but like its presenter Tony Robinson, Roberts has continued fronting history and archaeology programmes. Each week the show visits a different British town and explores a specific period of its history. Roberts tours the town, talking to experts on its history and architecture during the period, and very often tries on the ladies’ costume at the time. Last year among the various towns the series covered was Cheltenham during its heyday as a regency spa. This year’s series started off with Dover, concentrating on it history during World War II. Last week it was looking at Cardiff in the early part of the 20th century, when the city became the major centre of the global coal industry. And the week before that they were in Bristol, telling its history during the Georgian period. Roberts has a personal connection to the city, as it’s her home town and she went to school here. She also had a personal connection to Cardiff, as it was at its university that she studied medicine.

Georgian Bristol

During the Georgian period – the age of the four Georges, from the early 18th century to the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 – Bristol was one of the leading cities in Britain. It’s a port, whose location on the Bristol Channel gave it an excellent position for trading with Africa and America. The programme covered other aspects of Bristol’s history during the period, like the emergence of gin, the 1827 massacre by the army in Queen’s Square in Redcliffe of a mob demanding electoral reform, and the development of the Clifton and Hotwells suburbs as genteel residential areas for the city’s new mercantile elite. But Bristol’s wealth at the time was largely produced from the immense profits from the slave trade. Ships from Bristol took trade goods down to west Africa, where they were bartered for slaves. These were then taken to the West Indies to be sold, and the ships returned to Bristol with West Indian goods like sugar and rum in what has become known as the triangular trade. And it was on this aspect of Bristol’s Georgian history that the programme concentrated.

The show is well done and the research is very thorough. Among those Roberts talked to was Dr. Steve Poole, a lecturer at the University of the West of England; a member of Bristol’s Radical History Group, who talked about the Queen’s Square Massacre; and a couple of distillers, who showed her how 18th century gin was made. She also talked to Dr. Edson Burnett about the slave trade, going through some of the ledgers left by the slavers itemising their ships’ human cargo in the city archives. Some of these are really shocking. They simply give the number of slaves shipped aboard, and the deaths during the voyage. Those taken were simply items of merchandise, with no names. The ledgers give brief descriptions of those who died and how the body was disposed of. They were simply thrown over the side. One of the most horrendous incidents was the scandal surrounding the Zong, a slave ship, which threw its entire cargo of slaves overboard during a storm, and then tried to sue the insurance company for compensation for them as lost cargo. It’s a horrific atrocity and injustice. She also mentioned how a number of plays were written during the 18th century attacking the slave trade, many of which were set in Bristol. She then spoke to the writer and artistic director of a modern play about the trade being staged by Bristol’s historic Old Vic theatre.

Bristol and the Slave Trade

The programme’s coverage of Bristol’s history during the period was fair, although there was much obviously left out because of the constraints of the programme’s length. It’s an hour long, and it could easily take that long to discuss the city’s involvement with the slave trade and some of the architecture that was built for the merchants involved in the trade. As it was, the programme showed only one of them, the house of George Pinney, a 19th century West India planter and merchant. This is now a museum, the Georgian House, open to the public in one of the streets just off Park Street. However, Roberts opened the discussion of the city’s complicity in the slave trade with a statement that was simply wrong. She said that it was a terrible secret.

Exhibitions

Well, if Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade is a secret, then it’s a very badly kept one! Bristol’s M Shed museum, which takes visitors through the city’s history and some of its industries, including aircraft and motor vehicles built here, has a display on the slave trade. This shows not only slave manacles and the manillas, bracelet-like items used for barter, but also maps of homes and other properties owned and occupied by the slave merchants and plantation owners. This follows an earlier exhibit at the City Museum in Queen Street, ‘A Respectable Trade’, which was timed to coincide with the TV series of that name on BBC 1, based on the book by historical novelist Philippa Gregory. The book and TV series were about the slave trade, and much of it was set in the Bristol of the time. The exhibition was staged by local council and showed the historical reality on which the fiction was based. Gregory also appeared in a TV programme at the time, exploring the city’s connection to the slave trade, in which she spoke to several Black anti-racist activists.

Books and Pamphlets

Since then there have been a number of books published on Bristol and the slave trade. The city library has published a catalogue of books and other materials it holds on the subject.  There has also been a book published on the City in 1807, the year in which the slave trade was officially prohibited throughout the British Empire. Dr. Madge Dresser, a historian at the University of the West of England, has also published a book, Slavery Obscured, on the persistence of the slave trade after its formal abolition, in which merchants from Bristol were involved. And back in the 1990s the local branch of the Historical Association published a booklet on Bristol’s Black population in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Society of Merchant Venturers, the mercantile organisation that dominated Bristol’s trade in that period, has also published a catalogue of its holdings, which included it’s members’ plantations in the West Indies.

Origin of Belief Bristol Keeping Slave Trade Connection Secret

I’ve been told by members of the city’s Black cultural and anti-racist organisations that the idea that the city council is somehow covering up the city’s involvement in the slave trade dates from the 1970s. A member of the community rang the council up to inquire about what they knew about Bristol and the slave trade, only to be told that the city wasn’t involved in it. Which is wrong. I wonder if the person, who answered the call genuinely didn’t know about Bristol’s history of slaving. But whatever the reality, this planted the idea that the city council was deliberating hiding the truth. I think it was partly to dispel this idea that the City Museum staged the 1995 exhibition.

Two Books on Bristol from the 1950s and 1970s

But even before then, the city’s involvement in the slave trade was known and discussed. For example, the book Bristol and Its Adjoining Counties, edited by C.M. MacInnes and W.F. Whittard, and published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1955, has several pages on the slave trade in the chapter by MacInnes, ‘Bristol and Overseas Expansion’, pp. 219-230.

The 1975 textbook, Bristol: An Outline History for Schools, by H. Chasey, published by Georges, also covers the slave trade in its chapter on city’s 18th century trade, pp. 31-2. All the chapters are a page or so in length, with another page suggesting projects or containing questions for students on that period of the city’s history. The paragraph on the slave trade runs

Unfortunately, Bristol was better known at this time for its links with the slave trade. The “Blackbirds” sailed to Africa with various goods, exchanged them for slaves which were then shipped to the West Indies or North America. The ships then returned home iwth sugar and tobacco, the whole “Triangular Trade” bringing enormous profits to many Bristol merchants. Before 1760, Bristol carried about one-third of all the slaves, but this number died away by the end of the century as the anti-slavery movement made progress. (p. 31).

Few Obvious Monuments to Slave Trade in City

I also think that part of this misconception may come from the fact that there are few monuments from the time that obviously have direct connections to the slave trade. When I was studying archaeology at Bristol, one of the foreign students on the archaeology course complained to one of the lecturers that her housemate believed Bristol was racist, because there were no monuments for the slaves. The housemate was another foreign student, from Guiana, where I believe the buildings for landing and sale of slaves still exist. I think the student expected similar buildings to exist in Bristol. But they don’t, as the bulk of the city’s slave trade was with the West Indies. There were slaves in Bristol, but these were brought to the city as personal servants, rather than imported en masse as they were in the Caribbean.

Historic Buildings and Later Monuments Connected to Slaves and Slave Trade

However, there are architectural hints at the city’s connection to the slave trade all around. The city’s merchants decorated the exterior of their homes with carvings symbolising their connection to Africa or the Caribbean, such as pineapples. There are also coloured statues, representing the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas in St. Nicholas Market, one of which is a Black African. And several of the city’s pubs also claim a direct connection to the trade. The Ostrich, one of the pubs on the harbourside, had a cellar, in which, it was claimed, slaves were held ready for sale. When I used to drink there in the 1990s there was a poster up about it, along with reproductions of the advertisements of the time for runaway slaves. However, it may be the reality here was more prosaic. The 1995 exhibition said that many the connection of many of parts of Bristol to the slave trade may just be urban folklore. Blackboy Hill, for example, is probably not named after a slave boy, but possibly a racehorse owned by Charles II. The city has also made other gestures to commemorating the victims of the slave trade. There’s a slave walk along Bristol’s docks, and a plaque put up to those enslaved by city on one of the former warehouses by M Shed. A remarkable bridge built across the docks in the 1990s, which features two horn-like constructions, has been called ‘Pero’s Bridge’, after one of the slaves imported into Bristol. And there is a gravestone for Scipio, an African slave brought to the city by his master in one of the city’s churchyards.

Bristol has a very rich and fascinating history, of which the slave trade is one part. It’s a history that definitely needs to be told. And it has only been within the last quarter century or so that the slave trade has been memorialised in local museums, not just in Bristol, but also elsewhere. Bristol has joined Liverpool and Nantes in France in creating exhibitions and galleries on its involvement in the trade. Before then it’s fair to say that City Museum did not display anything on the slave trade. It was a period of the city’s history that most Bristolians probably would have preferred not to commemorate, but it was never forgotten nor kept hidden.

 

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Jeremy Corbyn in Bristol: It Is Important Children Understand the History of the Empire

October 14, 2018

This is a short clip, of just over a minute, of Jeremy Corbyn at Bristol’s City Hall, put on YouTube on Thursday by the Daily Fail. Corbyn speaks on the need to educated children about Britain’s role in the slave trade and the British Empire, and mentions Bristol as one of the cities involved in the trade, like Liverpool, and some of whose merchants became rich from it. He states that it’s important people understand the treatment of Black people across the Empire and the contribution they made to it. He says that Windrush has highlighted this need, and the making sure all our children understand the history of the Empire will make our communities stronger. The video shows him descending the ramp leading up to the Council House’s entrance, and inside standing in a dock watching a video on the Empire, or slavery.

The blurb for the piece runs:

Jeremy Corbyn today unveiled proposals to ensure schoolchildren are taught about the legacy of Britain’s role in slavery and colonialism. The move comes on the same day as Labour faces accusations that it is ‘putting ideology first and children second’ with its plans to impose a new rule book on all schools. The National Curriculum already recommends that children learn about the slave trade, the British Empire and colonies in America. Mr Corbyn said that ‘in the light of the Windrush scandal’ it is ‘more important now than ever’ that children learn ‘the role and legacy of the British Empire, colonisation and slavery’. Pictured top right, a drawing showing a slave ship and bottom right, immigrants arriving on the Empire Windrush in 1948.

Thangam Debonnaire, the Blairite MP for Bristol West, also got into the I on a related issue. She had stated at a council meeting that the statue of Colston in the centre of Bristol should be taken down. Colston was a Bristol slave trader, who spent most of his life actually in Mortlake in the London area. He used some of the profits he made from his slaving to do charities in Bristol, including Colston Girls school. Redcliffe School, an Anglican faith school in Bristol, which Mike and I attended, was also endowed by Colston. Every year there is a Colston Day service at which a select group of pupils are given a Colston bun. The big concert hall in the city centre is also named after him.

He’s obviously a very controversial figure, and the Black community has been demanding since the 1990s to have the statue of him taken down. Debonnaire has added her voice to the campaign, saying that we shouldn’t commemorate those who have oppressed us.

Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology at Bristol University, was also on the local news programme for the Bristol area, Points West, on Thursday as well, talking about the statue, the debt Bristol owes to Africa and the need for museums here on slavery or Africa. When asked about Colston’s statue, he made the point that it wasn’t even a very good statue. It’s not actually very old, dating from the late Victorian period. He felt that instead there should be a plaque explaining Colston’s role in the enslavement of Africa’s people, and the statue should be packed in a crate in the City Museum.

He stated that if we wanted our children to be world citizens, we should also have a museum dedicated to slavery and Africa, like Liverpool’s Museum of slavery. David Garmston, the co-host of the news programme, said that Bristol already had a gallery on slavery at the M Shed here in Bristol. Horton agreed, but said that it was a small one. He then referred to the exhibition at the City Museum back in the 1990s, entitled ‘A Respectable Trade’, which went on at the same time as the TV series of the same name, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. This had a huge number of people attending. Mark said that he had worked in Africa, and had seen for himself the damage imperialism had done, and a museum to Africa was the least we could do.

Listening to him, it struck me that what was really needed was for the Empire and Commonwealth Museum to be revived and brought back to Bristol. I did voluntary work in the slavery archives of that museum from the 1990 to the early 2000s. It was a private museum housed in one of the engine sheds in Bristol’s Temple Meads station. And it did a good job of representing the peoples and cultures of the British Commonwealth, including marginalized indigenous peoples like the Australian aborigines. Unfortunately, in the early part of this century the Museum was offered the premises of the Commonwealth Institute in London. They accepted and went off to the capital. The Museum failed, and the last I heard its former director, Dr. Gareth Griffiths, was being investigated for illegally selling off the Museum’s exhibits. He claimed he was only doing so as the trustees hadn’t given him enough money to keep it running. In my opinion, the Museum should never have been moved from Bristol. If it had still remained here, I’m sure it would still have been running, and would have been a major part of Bristol heritage sector.

I’ve got mixed feelings about these proposals. I’ve no objection to a museum of slavery in Bristol. Liverpool has one, and other cities around the world also have them. Roughly at the same time Bristol was mounting its ‘Respectable Trade’ exhibition, Nantes was also mounting a similar one on its history as France’s main slaving port, called ‘Les Annees du Memoir’. The slave fort at Elmina in Ghana, one of the main areas from which western ships collected their human cargo, also has an exhibition on its part in the slave trade. However, I feel that every care needs to be taken to prevent such exhibitions being used to inculcate White guilt, to express the attitude that White Bristolians are somehow indelibly and forever guilty because of what their ancestors did.

And there are grave problems with any museum of slavery which does not include the wider background to the European transatlantic slave trade. Slavery has existed in various forms across the world since antiquity. The Arabs also conducted a trade in Black slaves from Africa. They were driven across the Sahara into the North Africa states, and sometimes beyond. During the Middle Ages, they were imported into Muslim Spain. The Arabs also exported them across the Indian Ocean to what is now India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Arabia. Indigenous African peoples were also involved in the trade. One of the chief slaving states in West Africa was Dahomey. In East Africa, in what is now Kenya, Uganda and Malawi, the slaving peoples included the Swahili and Yao. The Europeans didn’t, as a rule, enslave Africans directly themselves. They bought them off other Africans, who could also make immense profits from them. Duke Ephraim, one of the kings of Dahomey, had an income of 300,000 pounds a year in the 1820s, which was larger than that of many English dukes.

After the British banned the slave trade and then slavery themselves, they launched a campaign against it across the globe. the east African countries that became Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and Rhodesia were invaded and conquered as they were centres of the Arab slave trade and the British wanted to prevent them from exporting their human cargo to British India. In some parts of Africa, slavery lingered into the early years of the 20th century because those countries weren’t conquered by the British. Morocco continued importing slaves from Africa south of the Sahara until c. 1911 because the British prevented the other European countries from invading. At the same time, North African Arab pirates preyed on and enslaved White Europeans until Algeria was invaded and conquered by the French. It is estimated that 1 1/2 million Europeans were enslaved over the centuries in this way.

Slavery also existed in Indian society, and the British were responsible for trying to suppress that also in the 19th century. Then Indians, and also the Chinese, were also virtually enslaved too in the infamous ‘Coolie Trade’ in indentured Indian servants, who were imported into the British Caribbean and elsewhere, to replace the Black workers, who had been freed. The Indian and Chinese workers were technically free, but were bound to their masters and worked in appalling conditions that were actually worse than those endured by the former Black slaves.

The history of slavery is complex. It is not simply a case of White westerners preying on people of colour, and I feel strongly that any museum set up to show the history of this infamous trade should show that.

Vox Political: Letter from Jewish Members and Supporters of Momentum Attacking Smears against Jackie Walker

October 5, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece commenting on a post from Mike over at Vox Political, which reported that Greater Manchester Black and Minority Ethnic Caucus had released a statement supporting Jackie Walker and condemning her dismissal by the steering committee from the post of Vice-Chair of Momentum. I am pleased to say that Mike has put up another piece today, reporting that another group of Mrs Walker’s supporters have also publicly shown their backing for her. A group of Jewish supporters and members of Momentum have had a letter published in the Groaniad, refuting the latest allegations of anti-Semitism against her.

This makes it clear that they believe Mrs Walker was right to reject the definition of anti-Semitism used by the organisers of the Holocaust Memorial Day training event. Despite their assertion that this is the standard definition of anti-Semitism, it is no such thing, as it was scrapped by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency because it also considered criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic.

The letter also queries why her own question why the genocides of other peoples can’t also be included in Holocaust Memorial Day is also anti-Semitic. They state that it has always been a principle of the Zionists that the Holocaust was unique to the Jews, and quote the professor of Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Yehuda Bauer, that the Nazis intended to exterminate only the Jews.

The letter concludes

Jackie’s arguments were made in good faith. They may be right or they may be wrong. What they are not is antisemitic. The decision of Momentum’s steering committee and its chair Jon Lansman to remove Jackie Walker as vice-chair is a betrayal of the trust of thousands of Momentum members. Momentum’s grassroots members overwhelmingly support Jackie.

The letter is signed by a mixture of academics and ordinary people. They include two professors and several doctors. Looking down the names I recognised some as people, who have commented on Mike’s blog giving him their support after he attacked the anti-Semitism smears aimed at Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters.

Mike notes in his comments on the letter that David Schneider, whose definition of anti-Semitism he used to dismiss the accusation against Mrs Walker, has stated that individually her statement aren’t anti-Semitic. However, he feels they are taken collectively. Mike remarks that while Mr Schneider deserves credit for his hilariously funny Twitter account, he is only one voice and there are many others, who disagree. Like the signatories of this letter.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/10/05/jackie-walker-ruling-betrays-momentum-members-letters-the-guardian/

Proper Discussion of Jews and the Slave Trade Not Anti-Semitic

Mike’s right. Both the signatories of the letter, and Jackie Walker herself, have an excellent knowledge of the Holocaust and Jewish history, including their participation in the slave trade as one of the European slaving empires’ many junior partners. She has been accused of taking her remarks on Jewish responsibility for the slave trade from Louis Farrakhan, who has been justly attacked for anti-Semitism. Mike has commented that he’s seen no proof she has, and frankly, neither have I. Yesterday Mike put up a piece about Mrs Walker’s own defence and explanation of her remarks on Jewish participation in the slave trade. Mrs Walker cited both respected sources on the slave trade and the history of imperialism. She also made it plain that she when she talked about the participation of some Jews in the slave trade, she was speaking herself as a Jew. This is very far from the attitude of the genuine anti-Semites, Louis Farrakhan and White Nazis, who make Jews solely responsible for the slave trade.

Hugh Thomas also mentions two Jewish slavers in his classic The Slave Trade, which examines the transatlantic slave trade from its origins in the late 15th century to its end in the late 19th. He also notes, contra the genuine anti-Semites, that they were the only two in Anglophone North America. My point here is that Mrs Walker has not said anything that other historians of the slave trade have not also said, as is evident from her own statement. And they, like her, are also not afraid of discussing the subject, because the real historical fact is that while some Jews participated in the slave trade, they were not the only or even the main participants. Thus, the genuine historians aren’t afraid to discuss the role some Jews played in the slave trade, as history itself shows the falsity of the claims made by the anti-Semites.

Slave Trade Increasingly Acknowledged in Official History of Other Communities

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a movement to make those peoples and communities that were involved in the slave trade be more open about their involvement, commemorate its victims, and memorialise it as part of their official, public history. Liverpool has a gallery on the slave trade in its Museum. So too has Bristol in the M Shed museum on the city’s harbourside. And back in the 1990s the City Museum and Art Gallery hosted an exhibition, A Respectable Trade, which narrated the history of the City’s involvement in the slave trade. This was staged at the same time as a TV drama of the same and on the same subject, adapted from a book by Philippa Gregory, was also being screened on the Beeb on Sunday evenings. Bristol and Liverpool were two of the three major cities that profited from the trade, the third being London. I’ve also spoken to artists researching the slave trade, who told me that they were also given generous assistance by the museums of many of the smaller towns, which were only in the trade for a few years or so before being forced out by the major profiteers.

And it isn’t only in Britain that towns involved in the trade are confronting their past. Nantes in France was also a major centre of the French slave trade. This town has also put on its own exhibition on its part in the history of the trade, called L’Annees du Memoir. This is a clever pun. If I understand properly, l’annee can means ‘year’, and also ‘link’, referring to those of the chains which bound the slaves. It seems to me that that if Jackie Walker, as a Jew, is discussing the role of her people in the slave trade, then she is being no more biased or hostile against her people, than other people are communities are in confronting, debating and memorialising their involvement in this horrific trade.

The Holocaust and Similar Genocides

As for Yehuda Bauer’s statement that the Jews were the only people Hitler intended to exterminate, this isn’t quite the case. The Nazis also targeted the Gypsies as well, and historians have also shown that before Hitler began the genocide of the Jews, he tried out the technology on the disabled during the infamous Aktion T4 ‘euthanasia’ campaign. There is also a link to previous 20th century genocides. Hitler was persuaded that he could murder the Jews with impunity because of the failure of the Allies to react to defend the Armenians when they were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks. Furthermore, in 1905 the German Empire had attempted to exterminate an African people, the Herero, when they rose up against German imperial authority in Africa. I’ve read that the German imperial authorities attempted to justify their genocide of this people with the social Darwinism later used to justify the Holocaust and the enforced sterilisation of the disabled. I’ve also seen it claimed that some of the personnel involved were also the same. I can’t comment on whether these claims are right or wrong, as I don’t know much about the genocide. This undoubtedly did happen, but I’ve only ever seen claims about a direct connection to the Holocaust made by the right. It might be true, or it might be rubbish, like the claim by one Conservative that the First World War was also caused by the Germans holding social Darwinism as an official policy, which is rubbish.

And I was taught at school that as well as six million Jews, about five and a half million other people, of various nationalities and political and religious beliefs perished in the concentration camps. These included prisoners from the Slavonic peoples of eastern Europe, who were worked to death as slave labourers. They may not have been targeted for absolute extermination, like the Jews and Gypsies, but they were seen, like those two peoples, as untermenschen, ‘subhumans’, who lives were less than ‘aryans’. You can come across some truly horrific accounts of Nazi massacres of gentile Poles during the occupation of Poland, for example. One BBC programme on this described how a Nazi thug tore a baby from its mother’s arms and, after trying to beat the little mite to death, finally shot it. Whole Polish towns were torn down and their inhabitants forced out in order to prepare that part of Poland for German colonisation, and the Nazis also massacred an entire village, Lidice, in Czechoslovakia. The Holocaust was part of a general programme of mass murder across occupied Europe. This does not detract from the horrific nature of the Holocaust, as they were specifically targeted for extermination in a way that many others weren’t. But that does not mean that the Jews were the only victims. Indeed, it’s in Hitler’s Table Talk where the Fuhrer makes a point about Nazi policy being to stop the Slavs from breeding too much by saying that they should send them contraceptives.

Jackie Walker and Others Smeared as Anti-Semites by Israel Lobby

I’ve stated before that Jackie Walker and the others, who’ve been smeared as anti-Semites, are no such thing. Walker’s only crime, in the eyes of the organisers, was to be a critic of Israel. As were so many of the others. She has been accused through the cynical misrepresentation of an discussion she was having about a complex topic on Facebook with people, who knew exactly what she was talking about, and the context in which they were made. This is the Israel lobby trying to stifle entirely reasonable debate about the nature of genocide and the uniqueness of the Holocaust, to further their own imperialism and persecution of the Palestinians. Free speech, honest debate, and a genuinely open questioning of the past is too precious to allow these bullies to win. I look forward hopefully to seeing more messages of support for Jackie Walker and the other victims of these disgraceful slurs in the future. I hope that Momentum’s steering committee will reconsider their decision, and reinstate her as vice-chair.

The Anti-Semitism Allegations: A Very British Coup Against the Left

May 18, 2016

I was sent this clip from RT’s Going Underground by one of the great commenters on this blog. In this piece, the anchor Arshid Rattansi talks to Max Blumenthal about highly politicised nature of the anti-Semitism allegations. Blumenthal argues that they are being made to defend Israel from criticism, particularly after the Gaza conflict, and shows that those accused also include religious Jews, and those of Jewish descent, whose anti-racist beliefs and pride in their heritage should not be questioned.

Max Blumenthal describes himself in the clip as ‘an anti-Zionist’ Jew. He’s the author, according to a pop-up text in the show, of Life and Loathing in the Greater Israel. He says he was struck by the strong similarity between the accusations of anti-Semitism, directed at Jeremy Corbyn and the plot of the book, A Very British Coup, by the former Labour MP, Chris Mullens. In Mullens’ book, a former steelworker, Harry Perkins, becomes the British Prime Minister, and embarks on a very left-wing, Marxist programme, nationalising industry and setting up anti-nuclear zones. Perkins is very popular, and to topple him from power, the British establishment, the press and the right-wing of the Labour party, aided by the security agencies, manufacture quotes smearing him as an anti-Semite.

Blumenthal states that this is what is being done to Jeremy Corbyn, including groups within the Labour party that are close to the Zionist lobby. These are the Blairites in the Progress party-within-the-party and Labour Friends of Israel. Corbyn himself has said nothing anti-Semitic and has attended a meeting of the Labour Friends of Israel. On the other hand, he has embraced much of the programme of the BDS campaign – Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement, which seeks to persuade firms and consumers from dealing with firms or purchasing goods made in the occupied West Bank. He has also opened his office to anti-Zionist Jews, including Blumenthal himself. Blumenthal also makes the point that this started two years ago in 2014 when Ed Milliband, who was also Jewish, criticised the Israeli attack on Gaza. Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador, who has joined in these allegations, was previously one of the spokesmen for Likud regime defending Israel’s actions during the attack. The definition of anti-Semitism used to justify these actions is highly partisan and politicised. It is not the definition used by some Jewish journalists and philosophers, which is that it is hatred of ‘Jews simply as Jews’, but hatred of the state of Israel. Regev even falsely accused Corbyn’s spokesman, Seaumas Milne in an interview, of saying that he wanted Israel’s destruction, before having to take that back 35 minutes later.

Some of those accused of anti-Semitism include Jews, and people of Jewish descent, whose character should be beyond reproach. In Britain, these include Jacqui Walker. Walker is a black woman of Jewish heritage, who is an anti-racist activist. She was suspended on these charges for a tweet she made saying that slavery was the Black equivalent of the Holocaust. Rattansi states that this isn’t anti-Semitic, just a very strong statement condemning slavery. In America, Bernie Sanders, also Jewish, has been attacked for being anti-Semitic for being critical about Israel. He was also forced to sack his ‘Jewish Outreach Officer’, Simone Zimmerman. Zimmerman is a very religious Jew, who is active in her community. But she also committed the heinous sin of objecting to Israel. Blumenthal states that Sanders and Corbyn have had some contact, but that criticism of Israel is far more muted in America, because AIPAC, the Zionist lobby in America is much more powerful than BICOM, its British equivalent. Blumenthal mentions an awkward moment during an interview Bernie Sanders gave to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Sanders’ raised the point that Comcast, the parent company, was owned by someone, who donated to AIPAC, and that one of its leading journalists, Wolf Blitzer, was also a leading journo and researcher for the lobbyists, and that therefore the show would not broadcast any material critical of Israel. Blumenthal makes the point, however, that there is a grassroots movement in the Democrats away from supporting Israel. This is largely from younger people, who are more secular, and because the country has become much more diverse.

The show has a caveat at the end, stating that they tried to get into contact with Comcast, who made the statement that they do not interfere in the editorial contents of their shows.

Here’s the interview:

CounterPunch have also published a series of articles about the anti-Semitism allegations, pointing out that these are all about the Zionist lobby trying to protect its own interests and Israel against what are perfectly legitimate criticisms. Blumenthal mentions that some of the allegations were made against people, who have criticised the Israeli premier, Benjamin Netanyahu. There’s nothing anti-Semitic about this. I can remember going to a science talk given by a British scientist, who was a staunch supporter of multiculturalism and who had clearly worked in Israel. He had nothing but contempt for the man, whom he described as ‘That b*stard Netanyahu’. There was no condemnation of Israel qua Israel, and certainly no condemnation of the Jewish people. Just a fair comment about the brutal thug governing the country.

As for the extension of the definition of anti-Semitism from its accepted meaning ‘hatred of Jewish as Jews’ to ‘hatred of the state of Israel’, this also won’t wash. Those on the left, who object to Israel, do so because they see it as a White, colonialist settler state, like apartheid South Africa, or indeed the USA. They do not object to it, because its people are Jews.

Moreover, the accepted definition of anti-Semitism, as hatred of Jews simply because of their ethnicity, is that of the person, who first invented the term, Julius Marr. Marr was the founder and leader of one of 19th century Germany’s leading anti-Jewish groups, the League of Anti-Semites. Marr coined the term to describe hatred of Jews based on their racial heritage, rather than their religion. Again, his definition doesn’t have anything to do with the state of Israel. The only way an anti-Semitism allegation against someone based on their opposition to Israel would be correct by that definition, would be if their objection to it was purely or mainly because Israelis were Jewish. This doesn’t appear to be the case in most of these allegations, if any.

As for the suspension of Jacqui Walker for commenting that ‘Slavery was Black people’s Holocaust’, it’s extreme and highly emotive, but it’s one that has certainly been said before. I think it was first made by the highly respected civil rights pioneer, W.E.B. DuBois, after he became a citizen of Ghana after the War. He compared the treatment of Blacks under slavery to the atrocities against the Jews by the Third Reich. In 1994 Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade came under the spotlight once again with the TV adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s A Respectable Trade, and the exhibition of the same name at the City Museum. One particular point of controversy is the statue to Edward Colson on the city centre. Many Black Bristolians wish to see the statue removed. Colson was a wealth patron, who donated generously to charity for the people of Bristol. It was with money donated by him that Colston girls’ school was set up, which still continues today. He made his money from the slave trade, however, and that’s the reason why his statue is so controversial. Gregory presented a feature on Bristol’s legacy from the slave trade during which she interviewed Paul Stephenson, a Black civil rights activist in the city. Stephenson, obviously, had nothing but hatred and contempt for Colson, saying that he was responsible for ‘a holocaust in Africa’. As far as I know, no allegations were made of anti-Semitism against Stephenson for his remarks.

And their people’s experience of persecution and exile from their ancestral homeland through slavery and its aftermath has led some Black writers to identify with the Jewish people. Also back in the 1990s the Black British writer, Caryl Philips, that the historical experiences of Blacks and Jews in this fashion were so close, that sometimes he believed he was Jewish. This caused a little controversy, with Hilary Mantel, the Jewish author of Wolf Hall, writing in reply that Phillips shouldn’t be so daft, as the Jewish experience was unique to Jews. Phillips might be mistaken about the identity of Black and Jewish historical suffering, but he was not anti-Semitic. Far from it.

However, underlying these accusations is a renewed feeling of insecurity amongst Britain’s Jews. There have been reports that anti-Semitic attacks have gone up, especially after the Israeli attack on Gaza. A few years ago there were a couple of festivals celebrating the Jewish contribution to British culture. There was a festival of Jewish literature, which was a general festival of books by Jews. Non-Jews were welcome to come, and the writers speaking at this event included, I believe Howard Jacobson and Hilary Mantel. There was also a festival of Jewish comedy, which was featured on the One Show. It was also covered on Radio 4. The blurb for the radio programme about it stated that one of the reasons it was being staged was because Jews were facing competition as comedians from other ethnic groups. There has thus been some insecurity amongst British Jews about their place in Britain, partly caused by the growth of other ethnic groups in Britain’s changing diverse society. The allegations of anti-Semitism made by the Zionist lobby against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party reflect and draw on this insecurity. Of course, attacking Jews because of the actions of the Israelis is wrong, and should be condemned as anti-Semitic. But this does not make condemnation of Israel for its actions and treatment of the Palestinians anti-Semitic.

Hope Not Hate on Government Blocking of Anti-Slavery Legislation

March 25, 2015

The anti-racist, anti-Fascist and anti-religious extremism organisation, Hope Not Hate, has this important piece about the Coalition’s stance on migrant slavery in the UK today, Which side of history will Britain be on slavery? Today is the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but the article also reminds us that there are 36 million people in slavery around the world today, including, odiously, 13,000 migrant servants living here in the UK.

The article discusses how the Coalition voted out the Lords’ amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill. These included the rights for migrant domestic workers to leave the employers. Four years ago this same coalition refused to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention, which would also have allowed migrant servants to leave their employers. Karen Bradey, the government’s minister for modern slavery and organised crime last week again refused appeals for the government to ratify it.

Last year, Hope Not Hate, Justice 4 Domestic Workers, KALAYAAN, and UNITE the Union handed in a petition and postcards to David Cameron requesting him to end the slavery of domestic migrant workers in Britain. He has not done so.

The article concludes with the following appeal:

16,000 people are now asking for justice to be done and for parliament to bring back HOPE for domestic workers turned modern day slaves in the UK.

Today, the Modern Slavery Bill bounces back to the Lords for consideration of Commons’ unforgivable changes. If not today, on the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery, then when will this government decide to be on the right side of history and put their deeds where their words are?

Please take to social media and remind Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of both houses that you would not want to be #ChainedToYourBoss and thus help migrant domestic workers in the UK regain their freedom and HOPE.

The article can be read at: http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/blog/nick/which-side-of-history-will-britain-be-on-slavery-4343.

This is a vitally important issue. The commemoration of slavery and the slave trade is a contentious and controversial topic. It is one that has strongly demanded by Black and civil rights activists, who were horrified and disgusted by what they saw as the British’ failure to confront this aspect of the country’s past. Many towns have organised displays and exhibitions charting their involvement in the slave trade. Liverpool Museum had a gallery devoted to it, and in 1995 Bristol Museum held an exhibition, A Respectable Trade, about Bristol’s participation. It took it’s name partly from the title of a book by the writer of historical fiction, Philippa Gregory, then being shown as a Sunday night drama series on the Beeb. Other countries apart from Britain have also put own their own slavery exhibitions. Nantes in Britanny also put on an exhibition on their part in the French slave trade, called ‘L’Annees du Memoire’.

The problem of slavery in the modern world was also the subject of a book published in the 1990s, Disposable People. This covered the various types of bondage across the world, from Brazil, Mauretania in Africa, the logging camps and mining towns in Thailand and south-east Asia, and Arab countries. The author pointed out that slavery was often disguised as long-term indentured contracts. Those caught in it including labourers, miners, loggers and prostitutes. The book was called ‘Disposable People’, because that was the attitude of the slavers to the people they owned and exploited. They were there to be used, and then discarded without a qualm when they had no further use for them. And their lives are very, very cheap. There are sections in the book where you need a very strong stomach.

And slavery has crept back into Europe through legislation that binds domestic workers – servants – to their masters when they come to Britain. Under this legislation, the servants come under their masters’ passports, and thus are bound to them. As a result, thousands of domestic servants have found themselves kept as virtual slaves by their employers. They have no rights or control over their conditions, and may be beaten and abused as their masters please. The book describes the cases of a number of migrant domestic workers, who found themselves forced into slavery through this system in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, giving the estimated number of slaves thus kept in Paris.

William Wilberforce, the 18th century campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade, is something of a cause celebre amongst some Tories. He was an evangelical Christian, whose great faith moved him to campaign tireless against the brutalisation and exploitation of African slaves. He was also a High Tory, who believed in laissez faire capitalism. He thus appealed to them as an example of Conservative humanitarianism. One of the former members of John Major’s cabinet wrote a biography of Wilberforce a few years ago, though I can’t remember which one.

The Coalition’s stance on outlawing modern slavery in the UK shows just how far their sympathies with Wilberforce’s campaign really extend: not very. And the rise in the numbers of people enslaved around the world is alarming. When Disposable People was written, there was an estimated 20 million people in slavery. According to the Hope Not Hate article, it’s now risen to 36 million. Previous works on slavery in the modern world, while not being complacent, had considered that it was gradually dying out. One of the presidents of Nigeria, according to one book I read, had a particular type of facial scarring that in tradition Nigerian society indicated slave status. Similarly, the hereditary slaves in traditional forms of bondage, such as in Mauretania, were likely to be the best treated and valued, compared to the labourers trapped in more modern forms. It’s revolting and horrifying that slavery has returned, including the sale of women and girls for sex slavery by the jihadis of ISIS.

It’s clearly going to be a long time, and require a great deal of international effort, before slavery is ever truly eradicated and all of Earth’s people can stand together as free men and women. There’s only so much that can be done by one country. But Britain can start by breaking the chains of migrant domestic workers. They can and should be allowed to leave abusive masters.

Karen Bradey, the minister, who turned down this legislation on behalf of Cameron and Clegg’s government, used to be one of Sir Alan Sugar’s two supervising minions on The Apprentice. She made a speech a little while ago talking about the struggle women have to be taken seriously in business. She’s right, but her speech was a bit rich coming from her. She started her career working for the porn and press baron, and former owner of Channel 5, Richard ‘Dirty’ Desmond. Clearly her demand for respect for women in business doesn’t extend to those further down the scale, and their male colleagues, who wish to escape abuse.