Posts Tagged ‘M Shed’

No, Europeans Didn’t Introduce Ironworking to Africa during the Slave Trade

October 2, 2021

I have several times posted about and reposted some of the videos made by Simon Webb of the History Debunked channel. Those I’ve reposted are usually criticisms of Black Lives Matter or falsehoods repeated as truth in Black history. I’ve said that Webb should be taken with caution as he’s a Telegraph-reading Tory. Where he quotes historical and mainstream scientific texts, I think he’s correct. But occasionally he comes up with falsehoods of his own which show he needs checking. Yesterday he put up a video on the transatlantic slave trade and how it benefited west Africa. Now he’s right that the slave trade did bring some benefits to west Africa. The African states who supplied the European slave merchants, Dahomey and Whydah, for example, grew extremely rich. Duke Ephraim of Dahomey had an income of £300,000 a year, and the abominable trade plugged Africa into the wider global economy. According to mainstream academic historians, it introduced modern commercial methods into Africa and allowed capital accumulation.

But Webb seems instead to make a very curious claim. Noting that the Black African professionals people may meet tend to be Nigerian or west African, Webb says in this video that its because Europeans brought iron working and civilisation to Africa. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Webb claims, most buildings were made of mud. Bronze was used for decoration – I assume here he’s talking about the Benin bronzes, sculptured heads what were produced as shrines to the king’s spirit. But iron was unknown. This is bizarre, as it’s very much not the view of conventional historians and archaeologists.

I looked in Colin McEvedy’s The Penguin Atlas of African History (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1980) to see when sub-Saharan African entered the Iron Age. He notes on page 30 that iron-working communities emerged around Nok in what is now Nigeria c. 202 BC. Iron-working also existed in Nubia by AD 200. C. 200 AD is started reaching the rest of Africa as the Bantu peoples expanded east and south, pp. 34, 36. I don’t actually know why Webb should think that they only developed iron working with the slave trade. I think it perhaps comes from the fact that Europeans did trade iron bars for slaves. These were made into objects called manilas, shaped like bracelets. A few of them are on display in the slavery gallery in Bristol’s M Shed. Webb has said that metallurgical analysis has shown that some west African artefacts now at the centre of demands for repatriation, were ironically made using metals that could only have been introduced by European traders. I’ve no doubt this is true, but it doesn’t contradict the fact that Africans were perfectly capable of producing iron for themselves. It may just indicate that Africans were willing to import European iron because it may have been cheaper, better or more easily accessible than that domestically produced. Just a Britain now imports cars despite having a domestic car industry.

HIs claim that Africans also built in mud is also questionable. They certainly did in west and other parts of Africa, so that it’s largely true. The city of Whydah was built of wood, and the Dahomeyans certainly used mud brick to build their towns. But the Islamic states of the Sahara, including Nubia, built in stone. And the Swahili were using coral blocks to construct their cities from the 9th century onwards, roughly as the same time when the ancestors of the Shona built the fortress of Zimbabwe.

This seems to come from Webb’s view that Africa didn’t produce any real civilisations. This was very much the view of 19th and early 20th century historians. On the other hand, one commander of the West African Squadron, Captain Denman, testified to parliament that the mass murder of slaves by one of the African cultures was remarkable, given that the people there had made such progress in the arts of civilisation. Which shows that at that time in the 19th century, not all Europeans thought Africans were uncivilised savages.

I think its undoubtedly true that Europeans introduced modern science and technology to Africa during colonialism, even if this was to exploit the countries and their peoples. They also benefited from the introduction of modern education and literacy, when it was available. If Nigerians are more prevalent among Black African professionals in Britain, it may well be due to a number of factors that have little to do with the slave trade. It may simply be that Nigeria is a richer country than many other African nations, and so has a larger middle class able to afford an education. It also possesses its own university, though I don’t know if it has a medical faculty. It is certainly more populous than some African countries, with a population of about 100 million. It may also have stronger ties with the west and particularly Britain, so that it’s people go here rather than to France or Portugal, the other African colonial powers.

It is therefore far more likely to be due to the education, science and technology introduced to Nigeria and west Africa during colonialism, and the enduring ties with Britain forged during this period, that have led so many west Africans to migrate here rather than the slave trade. Which certainly did not, in any case, usher in the Iron Age in Africa.

My Email to the ‘I’ Recommending Putting Up Statues of African Slavers in Bristol

June 1, 2021

I’ve just sent this email to the I newspaper, noting that Colston’s statue is now rightly on display in the M Shed in Bristol. But I also go further, and suggest that in order to get a proper perspective on the city’s connection with the slave trade, it needs to put up statues to the African slavers involved. These were the chiefs who actually supplied the slaves, and the Barbary pirates who raided Europe, including Bristol and the south-west for White slaves. Here’s the email:

Dear Sir, 

I note on the local news for Bristol that Edward Colston’s statue has been lifted out of the docks and put on display at the city’s excellent M Shed museum. I think this is the proper place for it, because Colston is part of Bristol’s history, and his philanthropy – he founded charities that supported numerous schools in the city – is one reason he was defended for so long. It is, unfortunately, an uncomfortable fact that otherwise admirable people can do the most terrible things, and we distort the past and miss this vitally important point about human nature if it is omitted.

But I also strongly feel that there are other presences in Bristol’s history that are going unrecognised, if not actively and deliberately edited out. Europeans did not catch the slaves themselves. They purchased them from powerful Black African kings, who organised the raids and did the bloody business of enslaving. Chiefs like Duke Ephraim of Dahomey made £300,000 a year in the 18th and 19th centuries. But, with the exception of the excellent ‘Respectable Trade’ exhibition at the City Museum in the 1990s, there is no mention of this, and indeed I get the distinct impression that Councillors Cleo Lake and Deputy Mayor Asher Craig would very much like to place the whole blame for Black slavery on Whites. A few months ago they passed a motion calling for the payment of reparations for slavery, which included all ‘Afrikans’ as victims of the infamous trade.

Another presence is Sultan Mahomet IV of Morocco. From the 16th/17th century through to the early 19th, Barbary pirates from what is now Morocco and Algiers raided Europe for White slaves. About 2 1/2 million White Europeans were so carried off into bondage. In Britain, the south-west of England, including Bristol, was particularly vulnerable to attack and ships and their crews from the city were taken and enslaved. But there are no monuments commemorating this anywhere in the city, again presenting a cosy, distorted view that slavery is just something evil Whites did to Blacks.

Colston’s plinth is now empty, and no doubt there is a debate going on about how it should be used. Might I suggest two statues, one of King Guezo of Dahomey, against whom Britain went to war to stop his predations on other Africans, and Mahomet IV to correct the racial imbalance?

Yours faithfully,

I’ll let you know if they publish it, and if there’s any response.

Edward Colston’s Statue Needs to Be in a Museum to Educate People About Slavery

May 31, 2021

Last week, the BBC local news for the Bristol area, Points West, reported that the statue of Edward Colston had been put on display in the M Shed, one of the city’s many museums. The statue was famously pulled down last summer by Black Lives Matter protesters and thrown in the docks. It’s being put on display, along with an old tyre that was also hauled out of the docks with it and a plaque. The M Shed is asking the Bristolian public what their views about its display are.

I think it needs to go on display along with an explanatory plaque. I don’t think the statue will be particularly missed from its plinth on the city centre. It’s naturally been controversial for decades, and there have been campaign to have it pulled down since the 1990s. But it needs to be retained and displayed because of the uncomfortable facts about the slave trade and those who dealt in it.

If Colston was only a slaver out for his own profit, then there would or should be no objection to the tearing down of his statue. But he was more complex than that. He gave most of his money away to charity, so that there have been schools founded on his bequests. I remember my old secondary school celebrating Colston Day each year, in which a few selected pupils got to attend a special service and receive a free bun. This was very definitely not a racist school. We had regular sermons against racism and the colour bar in school assemblies and the regular church services at Christmas and the beginning of term. Mike told me of one incident where the headmaster gave one boy a roasting for calling one of the Black lads a ‘N***er’. The school building was already crumbling, and the headmaster was so loud telling the lad off that bits actually flaked off.

One of the problems with slavery, and indeed much history, its that the morals of the past are very different from our own. This was first noted by the 18th century Italian historian and philosopher, Vico, and then by Nietzsche and his ‘transvaluation of values’. It’s extremely difficult for us to understand how otherwise good and decent people could perpetrate the most terrible atrocities, like slavery. But they did, and this needs to be recognised and understood. If nothing else, it helps to explain why it took William Wilberforce and the abolitionists so long to have it banned, and why decent people respected and defended Colston and his statue. History needs to be understood on its own terms, even when its controversial. Especially when its controversial.

We falsify it and create new dangers if we try to present it simply so as to fit modern morals.

Video of Trevithick’s Steam Carriage in Bristol

March 14, 2021

I’ve an interest in the real, Victorian technology that really does resemble the ideas and inventions in Steampunk Science Fiction. This is the SF genre that, following Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and other early writers, tries to imagine what it would have been like had the Victorians had cars, aircraft, robots, spaceships, computers and time travel. And at certain points the Victorians came very close to creating those worlds. Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, set in the Victorian computer age, was a piece of speculation about what kind of society would have emerged, if William Babbage’s pioneering computer, the Difference Engine of the title, had been built. And also if the 1820s Tory government had fallen to be replaced the rule of Lord Byron. The 19th century was a hugely inventive age, as scientists and engineers explored new possibilities and discoveries. George Cayley in Britain successfully invented a glider, in France Giffard created a dirigible airship, flying it around the Eiffel Tower. And from the very beginning of the century scientists and inventors attempted to develop the first ancestors of the modern car, run on coal and steam, of course.

One of these was a steam carriage designed by the Cornish engineer, Richard Trevithick, in 1801. This was built, but wasn’t successful. This did not stop other engineers attempting to perfect such vehicles, and steam cars continued to be developed and built well into the 20th century. The most famous of these was the American Stanley Steamer of 1901.

I found this short video on Johnofbristol’s channel on YouTube. It shows a replica of Trevithick’s vehicle being driven around Bristol docks. From the cranes and the building over the other side of the river, it looks like it was shot outside Bristol’s M Shed museum. This was formerly the site of the city’s Industrial Museum, and still contains among its exhibits some fascinating pieces from the city’s industrial past. These include the aircraft and vehicles produced by Bristol’s aerospace and transport companies.

Bristol’s Colston Hall Changes Name to Bristol Beacon

September 25, 2020

My fair home city of Bristol was in the news yesterday. One of its premier music venues, the Colston Hall, is changing its name. This is obviously a consequence of the pulling down of Colston’s statue on the town centre not far from the Hall a month or so ago by Black Lives Matter activists. The Hall’s been debating for a long time whether or not to change its name, and the decision has been hastened as it and other places try to distance themselves from the slaver and his legacy. Colston Tower, an office block on or near the centre, is also being renamed. And there was mention on the news a little while ago that Colston Girls’ school was also considering changing its name.

The item I saw about this on the national news showed one of the journos walking along Pero’s Bridge. It’s an eccentric structure crossing Bristol’s docks, as it has two horn-like structures either side of it at one point. It takes its name from one of the few slaves in the city, whose name is actually known. Then there was a brief interview with Dr. Edson Burnett, one of the leading historians of the Bristol slave trade. He said that the some people were afraid that the renaming of some of landmarks was an attack on history and an attempt to rewrite, but instead it was an attempt to uncover other histories that had been hidden or neglected.

He’s right, and David Olusoga was also correct when he pointed out in an article in the Radio Times the other week that none of the other historic statues in the area were attacked when the BLM protestors took down Colston’s and threw it in the docks. However, it still needs to be pointed out over and over again that Bristol’s involvement with the slave trade has never been covered up. It was mentioned in history textbooks for the city’s schoolchildren. Pero’s Bridge was put up in the 1990s, as was an exhibition, ‘A Respectable Trade’, at the City Museum and Art Gallery, and there is a gallery on it in Bristol’s M Shed.

As for the Colston Hall’s change of name, I don’t think it’ll make any difference. The debate has been going on for some time now, as have demands to have Colston’s statue removed. They were controversial, but now they’ve happened I don’t think it’ll make much difference. I think most Bristolians will simply shrug and get on with better things to do and think about.

And the Bristol Beacon is a great name for one of the city’s most historic and outstanding concert halls.

Liverpool to Put Information Plaques on Buildings and Monuments with Connections to Slavery

August 24, 2020

The Black Lives Matter protests across the world have prompted the authorities in Liverpool to examine once again their great city’s connection to the slave trade. According to an article by Jean Selby in today’s I, for 24th August 2020, the city is going to put up information plaques around the city on areas and places connected to the slave trade. The article’s titled ‘Liverpool to acknowledge its history of slavery’. I think it’s slightly misleading, and something of a slur, as the City has already acknowledged its connection to slavery a long time ago. It has an international slavery museum, which I think may have started as a gallery in its maritime museum way back in the 1990s. This has inspired Black rights and anti-racism campaigners to approach the council here in Bristol calling for a similar museum down here. From what I gather from the local news website, The Bristolian, Asher Craig, a councilor for St. George’s in Bristol and the head of the local equalities body, told them to go away and find a private backer first. This is the same Asher Craig, who in an interview on Radio 4 showed that apparently she didn’t know about the slavery gallery in Bristol’s M Shed, nor about the various official publications, including a 1970s school history book for local children, that discuss Bristol’s history in the slave trade, and told the Beeb she wanted a museum of slavery here in Bristol. According to The Bristolian, the campaigners are dismayed at the city’s refusal to build such a museum following the examples of Liverpool in the Britain and Nantes in France.

Frankly, I’m sick and tired of London journos writing pieces about places like Bristol and Liverpool blithely claiming, or implying, that only now are they acknowledging their role in the abominable trade. I can remember getting very annoyed with the News Quiz and some of the comedians on it over a decade ago when I similar story came up about Liverpool. Jeremy Hardy, a great left-wing comedian sadly no longer with us, said something suitably sneering about the city and slavery. But the impression I have is that it’s London that has been the most sensitive and most desperate to hide its past in connection to slavery. Nearly two decades or so ago, when I was doing voluntary work at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, I had the privilege of meeting a young Asian artist. She was working on a project commemorating the slave trade by making models of old factories and mills from the foodstuffs they produced, which had been cultivated through slavery. She told me that she’d approached a number of towns and their museums, and received very positive reactions to her work. They had all been very willing to give her whatever help they could, though some of these towns had only been in the slave trade for a very short time before being squeezed out by competition from Bristol and Liverpool. As a result, they often genuinely had little in their collections connected to slavery. But they were willing to give any help they could. But her experience with the Museum of London had been quite different. They made it plain that they didn’t have any holdings on slavery whatsoever. I’ve been told since then that things are a bit different, and that individual London boroughs are quite open and apologetic about their connection to the slave trade. But it does seem to me that it is London that is particularly defensive and secretive when it comes to commemorating its own history of slave dealing.

Back to the I’s article, which runs

Liverpool will address its ties to the slave trade with a series of plaques around the city explaining the history behind its street names, building and monuments.

The city council plans to acknowledge the role the port city played in colonialism and the vast wealth generated from the trafficking of human beings. According to the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool ships carried about 1.5 million slaves, half of the three million Africans taken across the Atlantic by British slavers.

Falkner Square, named after an 18th-century merchant involved in the slave trade, is among those expected to have a plaque installed.

“We have to be led by our communities on how to do this and do it in a way that is sensitive to both our past and our present,” mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson said as he announced the project yesterday. He was marking Slavery Remembrance Day – which commemorates the anniversary of a 1791 slave uprising in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

He continued: “I do not believe that changing street names is the answer – it would be wrong to try and airbrush out our past. It’s important that we have a sensible and informed discussion about theses issues. We need to judge the past with a historical perspective, taking into account today’s higher ethical standards and, most importantly, how everyone, from every community in the city, feels about it.”

And advisory panel, chaired by Michelle Charters, recommended the creation of Eric Lynch slavery memorial plaques, named in honour of Eric Lynch, a Ghanaian chief who is a descendant of African slaves and spent his life drawing attention to the city’s slavery history.

His son, Andrew Lynch, said: “These plaques are a tribute to Eric’s long years of work as a black community activist and educator, teaching the people of Liverpool to acknowledge and understand their historic inheritance in an honest and open way, and uncovering the contribution made by black people throughout our great city.”

This all sounds actually quite reasonable. I think it’s fair to put the plaques up for those wanting such information. And I really don’t believe those places should be renamed, as this is a form of rewriting history. You shouldn’t try to erase the past, although I accept that some monuments, like those of Colston, are unacceptable in today’s moral and political climate for very good reasons.

However, I think this says less about Liverpool’s history and more about the present desperate state of the Black community in Britain. Back when I was working at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum all those years ago, I remember talking about some of the materials we had on slavery and its history by West Indian academic historians. I heard from some of the staff that some of this was actually quite controversial in some of the West Indian nations, but for reasons that are completely the opposite to the situation in this country. They’re controversial, or were then, among Black West Indians, who feel that they’re racist against their White fellow countrymen and co-workers. Apparently after one book was published, there was a spate of letters in the local press by Black people stating that their bosses or secretaries were White, and certainly weren’t like that. I think if the Black community in Britain shared the same general level of prosperity and opportunity as the White population, there would be precious little interest in slavery and its commemoration except among academics and historians. It would be an episode from the past, which was now mercifully over, and which the Black community and the rest of society had moved on from.

I also think that demands for its commemoration also come not just from the material disadvantages the Black community in general suffers from, but also its feelings of alienation and marginalisation. They feel that they and their history are being excluded, hence the demands for its commemoration. However, I think the reverse of this is that such demands can also look like expressions of anti-White sentiment, in which the present White population is demanded to be penitent and remorseful about something they were not responsible for, simply because they’re White.

And there are also problems with the selection of the events commemorated International Slavery Remembrance Day. This looks like Toussaint L’Louverture’s Black revolution on Haiti. L’ouverture was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution. It was he and his generals that overthrew the French authorities in what is now Haiti, giving the country its present name and making it a Black republic in which power and property could only be held by Blacks. It naturally became a shining beacon for the aspirations of other Black revolutionaries right across the Caribbean and even the US. Major Moody discusses it in his 1820s report on slavery, which critically examined whether Blacks were prepared for supporting themselves as independent, self-reliant citizens after emancipation. His report included correspondence from Black Americans, who had been freed by their owners and moved to Haiti, but still kept in touch with them.

Moody was not impressed with the progress of the revolution, and concluded that Blacks weren’t ready for their freedom. This shocked many abolitionists, as Moody himself was a married to a Black woman. But if you read his report about Haiti, you understand why. After successfully gaining their freedom, the Haitians had been faced with the problem of maintaining it against European aggression on the one hand, and economic collapse on the other. The result was the imposition of virtual enslavement back on the plantation workers, who had fought so hard for their freedom. The country’s estates were divided up among the generals. The former slaves were forbidden to leave them, and quotas of the amount of sugar they were required to produce were imposed. If the poor souls did not produce the required amount, they were tortured or burned to death. It seemed to me when I read the Blue Book Moody published, kept in the Museum’s libraries, that Moody’s decision against supporting immediate emancipation for the enslaved peoples of the Caribbean was based on a genuine horror of such atrocities and fear that this would be repeated across the West Indies.

I don’t think Marxist historians would be surprised at the brutality that arose after the Haitian revolution. Marxist revolutionaries like Lenin believed that history followed certain deterministic laws, and were acutely interested in the French Revolution. From this they believed that all revolutions followed an inevitable pattern. After the initial gains of freedom, the revolution would be overthrown and a period of reaction arise, created by a dictator. Just like Napoleon had overthrown the French Revolutionaries to create a new, imperial monarchy. In their own time, they were afraid that the new Napoleon, who would undo the Russian Revolution, would be Trotsky. And so they missed Stalin’s threat. The reintroduction of slavery by L’Ouverture’s generals is just part of this general pattern in the progress of revolutions. Nevertheless, like the destruction of personal freedoms following the Russian Revolution and then Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s, it does raise the awkward question of whether it should, like the Russian Revolution, really by celebrated or commemorated without significant caveats.

This aside, I’m sure that following Liverpool’s decision, there will also be demands for Bristol to do the same. There is already a slave walk around the docks in Bristol and a plaque commemorating the slaves exploited and traded by Bristol merchants. The M Shed has a gallery on Bristol and the slave trade, which includes a map of various streets and properties in the city and its surroundings built and owned by slavers and those with connections to the trade. And the latest monument, set up in the 1990s, is a remarkable bridge down on the docks. This has two horns either side of it, but has been named ‘Pero’s Bridge’ after one of the very few slaves traded by the city in the 18th century, who identity is known.

Racial Politics and the Toppling of the Statue of Slaver Edward Colston

June 9, 2020

On Sunday Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol pulled down a statue of Edward Colston from its plinth in the city’s centre, and threw it in the Floating Harbour. It’s been both local and national news. The local news interviewed a White woman, who had been part of the protest. She was married to a Black man, and as the mother of a half-Black child thoroughly approved of the statue’s maltreatment. In fact, she felt a bit teary and overcome with emotion.

Colston, Slavery and Charity

It’s not hard to see why. Colston was a 17th-18th century slaver and president of the Royal African Society. He made a colossal fortune from the enslavement of Black Africans. As historians and Black activists have pointed out, millions of the enslaved died en route to America and the Caribbean due to the appalling conditions on board the slave ships. Slavers like Colston also responded brutally to slave mutinies aboard ship by throwing their cargo overboard, chains and all, to drown. They also did this if a storm threatened to sink the ship, and they needed to lighten it. That’s shown in the classic 19th century painting of a ship at sea facing an oncoming storm. It was based on a real incident, that of the Zong, and the painting shows the struggling Blacks drowning as a detail.

Anti-racism activists have been campaigning for the statue’s removal for over forty years, ever since the St. Paul’s race riots of the 1980s. Mike wrote a long piece about it yesterday. He, and the peeps, whose tweets he cited, viewed the statue’s fall as good riddance to bad rubbish. He wondered why it hadn’t been done years ago. Some of those commenting were Blacks, like the awesome Kerry-Ann Mendoza of The Canary. They compared the statue to those of Hitler, and described how it had tore them up to go past it. If Colston had only been a slaver, the statue’s removal wouldn’t have been an issue. What complicated the matter is that Colston, who actually spent most of his life in Mortlake in London, gave very generously to charity. He endowed several schools in Bristol, one of which was Colston Girls School. As Mike explains in his excellent article, we also had Colston Day at school. This was a one-day holiday. Some pupils were also called upon to attend a special service at St. Mary Redcliffe church, and received a Colston bun. Mike had that experience. So did I.

Bristol and the Slave Trade

I should also point out here that, like Mike, I also grew up believing that one branch of our ancestral family tree, the Haberfields, had been slavers. That was dispelled last week by the historian David Olasuga on the Beeb’s programme, A House Through Time. Olasuga stated instead that the Haberfield’s made their money as wine merchants. There may have been other branches of the family that were slavers, however. I don’t know. I’ve heard stories that one ancestor was the captain of a slave ship, and that the City Museum has his log. But when I talked to people from the City’s museums, they denied they had any such thing. Bristol did benefit immensely from the slave trade, but, contrary to popular belief, most of the slaves were taken to the Caribbean. Those few that came back to the City were trusted personal servants. As a result, there is precious little in Bristol, apart from the luxurious homes the slavers built for themselves, that is directly connected to the slave trade. When the City Museum held an exhibition on Bristol and the slave trade there were so few objects left over from Bristol’s slave trade, that they had to borrow some from elsewhere. There are written documents, like contracts and ledgers, but museums don’t like putting them on display. Not because they’re trying to hide anything, as some people have alleged, but simply because visitors don’t find them interesting.

Anti-racist Politics in Bristol

There have been petitions over the years to remove the statue. It’s remained, because these campaigns did not achieve a majority. At the last poll, Bristolian opinion was divided half and half. Roughly the same proportion of people wanted the statue to stay as those, who wanted it gone. And not all Black anti-racism activists wanted it removed. Paul Stephenson was one of the leaders of the Bristol bus boycott in the 1960s and 1970s. This was against the colour bar operated by the local bus company, which refused to employ Blacks. When he was interviewed about racism and the slave trade in the city a few years ago, he felt the statue should be kept, but with a plaque pointing out that he was responsible for enslavement and genocide. As it is, the statue is going to be fished out of the harbour, and put on display in the M Shed. One of the arguments for keeping it up is that it serves to educate people about this aspect of Bristol’s history, but as one of the tweeters Mike quotes also says, this comes from people, who really don’t want schoolchildren talk about the dark side of the British empire.

I’ve also no doubt that some of the resistance to tearing the statue down and to some of the initiatives by the local authorities to commemorate Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade and its millions of victims comes from the highly emotive and divisive racial politics in the city. Although Britain has had a Black presence since the Roman Empire, and Bristol has had a Black population from at least the 16th-17th centuries, there has only been a large Black community in Bristol since the mass immigration of the post-War years. The Black community in the inner city has, like those elsewhere, a reputation for drug dealing, prostitution and violent crime. St. Paul’s was a district Whites from outside the area drove through with their windows up and doors locked. Furthermore, some of the demands and accusations made by the community’s representatives were less than tactful.

It’s often asserted that Bristol was built on the slave trade. That’s true, but only up to a point. Bristol did profit very well from the trade, as did many other ports. But Bristol was great trading city before the slave trade took off in the 17th century. We traded with France, Spain and Portugal, as well as Ireland and across the Channel to Wales. And the first slaves sold by Bristol were White Anglo-Saxons bought by Irish merchants. The Anglo-Saxon cleric St. Wulstan visited the city to condemn the trade in the 11th century.

There’s also the problem that some anti-racist activists make unwarranted assumptions about racism and Whites. There’s an automatic assumption by some that if you’re White, you must be racist. That naturally gets peoples’ backs up. One of the Conservative blogs I read years ago quoted an American study that found that police officers tended to become more racist after anti-racist training than previously. I don’t know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. The automatic reaction of anyone accused of racism, whatever their colour, is going to be resentment and defensiveness. And in the 1980s the Tory papers explicitly claimed that the riots were caused by Black racism. Some Black leaders didn’t help their cause either. I remember an article in the Absurder c. 1984/5 attacking one Black politician – it might have been Paul Boateng – for suggesting that Blacks should have their own autonomous areas. The writer correctly pointed out that this was a demand for segregation and apartheid. Fortunately, the call for separate Black communities went unheeded.

There has also been the problem that the city has devoted funds and resources in combating the poverty, unemployment and crime in the racially mixed inner city areas of Bristol, at the expense of the White majority areas further out. South Bristol was promised a local hospital back in the 1970s, but it was only built a few years ago. Positive discrimination schemes also give more funding to those areas with a large ethnic minority population. This has caused some resentment.

As a result it has seemed at times that the demands for Colston’s statue to be pulled down, and for the slave trade to be commemorated in Bristol, has come from a position of anti-White racism, rather than a desire for racial justice in itself.

Black Separatism and the Name of the Malcolm X Centre

And if you’re talking about the official commemoration of racists, there is the whole issue of the name of the community centre in St. Paul’s. It is, or was called the Malcolm X Centre, after the American civil rights leader. The problem is that Malcolm X’s organisation, the Nation of Islam, is racially separatist. They want a separate Black state, to be formed from a group of Black majority states in the US. In the 1960s they used to hold joint rallies with the American Nazi party. There was an article on this in the Sunday colour supplement for the Independent back in the 1990s. It contained an article written by a White American female photographer, who followed, interviewed and photographed Malcolm X at the time. The article reproduced some of the photos shed’ taken of these rallies. Now Malcolm X didn’t remain a separatist. He later converted to orthodox Islam, and supported integration after he went on the Hajj to Mecca, during which he found that people of all races were fundamentally the same. I think he also took an orthodox Muslim name. There is therefore the problem that if it is wrong to commemorate a slaver like Colston, then why should a Black activist, who also stood for racism and separation, be commemorated?

Conclusion

Colston’s statue had its time long ago. It’s removal, one way or another, was pretty much inevitable. It won’t be missed. The argument for its retention was weakened when the Americans began pulling down the statues of Confederate generals. At the same time, it’s right that Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade and the slaves transported should be commemorated. There’s a whole gallery devoted to this at M Shed on Bristol’s docks. There’s also a slave walk, and a commemorative plaque. Black Lives Matter still has an urgent point. Racism still exists in this country, and Black communities as a rule are underprivileged, poorer with higher rates of unemployment and underrepresented in large parts of industry, society and the arts.

But anti-racist campaigns also need tact and sensitivity. Accusations that Whites in general are racist, or that Bristol must somehow be intrinsically racist because of slavery, just cause more division and resentment.

It leads to embittered Whites giving their votes to the Tories, who will just use them to justify their own racism and destruction of state aid for the disadvantaged regardless of their colour.

 

 

 

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.

 

Rapper Fab 5 Freddy to Host Beeb Film on Renaissance Art

January 25, 2019

More arts news. Also according to yesterday’s I for Thursday, 24th January 2019, the New York rapper Fab 5 Freddy is due to hos a Beeb documentary about the Renaissance. The article, written by Adam Sherwin, ran

Move over Simon Schama, Fab 5 Freddy wants your spot. The New York hip-hop pioneer and former graffiti artist is the unlikely choice to present a BBC 2 documentary on Italian Renaissance Art.

Fab – real name Fred Brathwaite – was approached to do the film, ‘A Fresh Guide to Florence with Fab 5 Freddy’, after the BBC learnt that he was an art lover who worked closely with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the early 80s, curating the cult artist’s Manhattan shows.

“Amidst superstar artists such as Michelangelo and powerful patrons such as the Medicis, Fab discovers groundbreaking images of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society that have slipped through the cracks of art history,” the BBC said. (‘A ‘Fresh’ take on the Renaissance’, p. 21).

It might be a surprising choice, but it seems to be a good one in line with current arts policy of getting different voices to open up the arts. A number of BAME artists have appeared in the news complaining that there aren’t enough Black artists shown in museums and art galleries, and that when they were small they weren’t interested in visiting them because there was nothing for them there. It therefore looks like the Beeb is trying to appeal to a younger, Black audience with Fab 5 Freddie in order to stop it being viewed as just something made by old White guys for White guys.

I am also not surprised that they chose a former graffiti artist for other reasons. Archaeologists have been working with graffiti artists for several years now in order to explore rock art and its links with modern graffiti art. I can remember attending an archaeological seminar at Bristol university at least six years ago in which one of the speakers presented a piece about their research about the graffiti in a particular area of one of the Spanish towns. And Radio 4 a few years ago also presented a programme about rock art which included comments from some of Britain’s leading street artists.

As for the Renaissance, Florence was a major centre of trade and industry, but historians have pointed out in books like The Renaissance Bazaar that many of the commercial innovations that made the Renaissance possible had their origins further east in the Islamic world. This was also a period when Europeans were turning from the Slavic east to Africa for a supply of slaves, so that you do find Blacks portrayed in art in this period. Not that they weren’t here before, of course. A 12th century manuscript from London in the National Archives shows a Black person, while one of the books that used to be stocked in shop in Bristol’s M Shed was on Blacks in fifteenth century England.

I’ve no doubt critics of the programme will decry it as ‘dumbing down’ and complain about ‘diversity’, but this could be a programme worth watching because of the original insights Fab 5 Freddie could bring.

Richard Coughlan Debunks Holocaust Denial

September 21, 2017

More on the Nazis, I’m afraid, and one of their favourite tactics: trying to get everyone to believe that the Holocaust was faked and didn’t occur.

Richard ‘the Dick’ Coughlin is a professional stand-up comedian, who regularly posts on YouTube attacking the weird and twisted denizens of the far right and men’s rights activists. In this video he takes on the necessary task of refuting Holocaust denial, and does a very good job of it. The video begins with a warning that it contains material some people may find disturbing. These are black and white footage from the concentration and death camps themselves, showing the emaciated inmates, and the heaps of bodies thrown into mass graves. These are shown with appropriate Jewish music and hymns commemorating and lamenting those murdered by the Nazis.

Coughlan explains that modern anti-Semites and Nazis have moved on from denying the Holocaust outright, as there is simply too much proof that it did occur, although there are a few that will still try to do this. Instead, they try to minimize the numbers of people murdered. Instead of millions, they will claim that it was only a few tens of thousands. In some cases, they will try to claim that only 10,000 were murdered, rather than the real figure of 5,700,000+, which is rounded up to six million.

Nazis will then claim that there was no programme to exterminate the Jews, that they were not gassed with Zyklon B in death camps such as Auschwitz, and that the large halls in which the victims were butchered were instead morgues, or chambers where the bodies were deloused before burial. Coughlan cites the textual evidence from the Nazis themselves that the areas claimed to be morgues were where they poor souls were forced to strip before they were gassed, and the contradictions in the neo-Nazis’ attempts to explain away the other chambers. For example, the story that the gas chambers were only used for delousing the bodies is clearly contradicted by the fact that the bodies of the dead were burned. Why would you bother killing parasites on a body that was going to be burned anyway? Surely you’d just burn the body, lice and all.

He also points out that the Nazis deny that the Jews were deliberately exterminated, but merely died from overwork and malnutrition. This is completely false. He makes the point that Holocaust deniers are trying to stop people believing in the Holocaust, not by refuting it completely, but by placing tiny seeds of doubt in people’s minds, which they hope they can develop and encourage further. He also analyses the psychology behind the tactic of minimizing the scale of the Holocaust, comparing it to a naughty child, who has stolen from his parents, who then tries to excuse himself and cast the blame elsewhere by admitting that he stole a lesser amount of money some time ago, but has not stolen the full amount, thus casting doubt on his sibling’s protestations of innocence.

Coughlan also debunks the claim made by Holocaust deniers like David Irving that there is no textual evidence linking Hitler to the Holocaust. There is. There are reports from the Nazi einsatzgruppen tasked with carrying out the murder of the Jews stating that they have informed Hitler of their progress, along with other documents from the Nazi leadership. These can be read in a book of collected reports and documents from these death squads, which Coughlan shows to the camera.

As for the arguments that the infrastructure for the gas chambers don’t exist, Coughlan says that this is based largely on the example of Auschwitz. But Auschwitz is only one of the immense number of these murder factories. He emphasizes their colossal number by stating that most people would probably think there were only about seven or so death camps. Not so. There were 43,000.

He could have added here that the chimneys and other structures used for delivering and venting the Zyklon B at Auschwitz don’t exist, because they were demolished shortly after the war by the Polish government. The bricks were used to build the houses on a nearby estate. Channel 4 made this point a few years ago in a documentary in which they followed an engineer, who designed gas chambers to Auschwitz to examine the remaining structures at the invitation of the American/Canadian Nazi, Ernst Zundel. Unfortunately, he was taken in by the Nazis’ lies and the apparent lack of evidence. The programme also featured a Jewish expert on the Holocaust, who provided the proper evidence that showed where the engineer was severely mistaken in his conclusions. He cited not only the history of the site itself, but also Nazi documents and the deliberately evasive language they used to hide what they were doing. They almost never talked openly about the murder of the Jews. Instead, their mass atrocity was referred to as ‘deportations’ or ‘special operations in the east’.

The video also includes clips from the film dramatization of the court case between Deborah Lipstadt and David Irving. Lipstadt is an American academic who called Irving what he was – a Holocaust denier. Irving sued for libel and lost. There’s also a clip of the real David Irving speaking, stating that he doesn’t believe in the scale of the Holocaust as normally claimed.

As Coughlan is a stand-up comedian, he occasionally uses humour to make his points. He begins the video by joking that it is financed by ‘Jew gold’. This is a dig at the claim by Nazis that anyone arguing against them must be in the pay of the international Jewish conspiracy. The number that then follows is Coughlan’s patreon account, showing that he most certainly isn’t. At one point in the video, he also tries to get his viewers to understand what the Nazis are doing when they minimize the Holocaust by asking them to imagine for a moment that they in the Nazis place. What would they do?

This is clearly a rhetorical technique, and if you watch the video, obviously so. I am mentioning it here because of the danger that someone may try to twist this into an entirely spurious proof that this is article is promoting Holocaust denial. Mike over at Vox Political is a firm anti-racist and certainly not an anti-Semite. Yet because he defended those in the Labour party that were smeared as anti-Semites simply because they criticized the equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or even Israel itself for its occupation of Palestinian territory and ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Arab population, he was accused by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism as an anti-Semite. I am afraid that the loathsome people, who smeared him, may also try to smear me by taking some of the ironic rhetoric in this strongly and most definitely anti-Nazi video out of context in order to smear me.

Lastly, Coughlan is an atheist and was a part of the atheist movement on the Net. Hence his anti-theist farewell against God at the end. I don’t share or approve of his atheism. However, his videos against the assorted Fascists and maniacs on the far right are well informed, and do a very necessary job of debunking them and sending them up. He’s done an excellent job. He states at the end of the video just how many books he’s read about the Holocaust, including one 4,000 pages long, and encourages others to do the same.

This is a great video, and it’s of an appropriate length – 25 or so minutes. That’s long enough to cover the main points without becoming too drawn out. However, it does mean that it obviously can’t cover everything that the Nazis and Holocaust deniers try to do. But it’s an excellent start, entertainingly done.

Of course this video shouldn’t be necessary. In the 1980s an American judge ruled against one of the Californian Nazi magazines that the evidence supporting the Holocaust was so plentiful that it couldn’t be denied. But that hasn’t stopped them trying. The Alt Right is on the rise, and the Holocaust deniers will try to criticize any attempts to present the facts or commemorate this horrific mass murder. The M Shed in Bristol, one of the city’s museums, put on a display about the Holocaust a few years ago. They then had two Holocaust deniers turn up, who tried to argue with the museum staff.

In many European countries Holocaust denial is a crime. There are problems with such legislation, as many people fear it’s an infringement of the right to free speech, however odious that speech is in the case of the Nazis. They also criticize such tactics has being too heavy-handed, and allowing the Nazis to position themselves as the oppressed party suffering official state persecution. They argue instead that a better tactic is to be informed, and refute their specious arguments using confirmed facts and evidence. This video helps to do this job.