Posts Tagged ‘Slaves’

History Debunked Demolishes The Black Curriculum

September 9, 2020

This is another fascinating and well-argued video by Simon Webb of History Debunked. This time he takes aim at The Black Curriculum, the group behind the demands that the teaching of Black History should not just be for a month, but all through the year.

Black History Not Inclusive, Solely for Black Minority

Webb starts his video by stating that, demographically, only three per cent of this country’s population are African or Caribbean. This is a problem for those groups desperate to show that Blacks have made a major contribution to British society. There are other, larger ethnic groups. Indians comprise 8 per cent, and we could also reasonably ask why there also shouldn’t be an Asian history month, or Chinese, Polish or Irish. But the demand is specifically for history that concentrates exclusively on Blacks. He returns to the same point at the end of the video.

The Black Curriculum

He then moves on to Black Curriculum group themselves, who have been favourably mentioned by the Beeb, the Groaniad and other newspapers. Their website, to which he provides a link, contains template letters for people to use to send to government ministers. They also produce educational videos which they distribute free. One of these is about Mary Seacole, the Afro-Caribbean who supposedly nursed British squaddies during the Crimean War, and whom Black activists have claimed was a rival to Florence Nightingale. Webb describes it with the Russian term disinformazia, which means deceitful propaganda. He wonders whether this is a bit a harsh, as they might actually believe it. The Black Curriculum also runs workshops for schools and want to have their video widely adopted. He then proceeds to demolish their video on Seacole.

Lies and Bad History in Seacole Video

It starts by claiming that she came to England to nurse British soldiers because she’d heard that conditions were so bad. Not true. She came to England, leaving her restaurant in Panama, because she’d invested in mines in Grenada, and wanted to know why her shares weren’t doing well. She felt they should have been sold on the British stock exchange. It goes on to claim that she applied to be a nurse, but her application was refused. Wrong again. Those applying to be nurses had to send a written application accompanied by references. She didn’t do that, but lobbied one or two people but never made a formal application. It also claims that she opened a hotel for sick and wounded officers. But it was simply a bar and restaurant. There was no accommodation there at all. He backs this up with a contemporary picture of the ‘hospital’, which shows exactly that it wasn’t one.

He notes that there are other problems with the video, but says that these will do for now, though he might say more in a later video about it and The Black Curriculum. He offers two explanations why they made a video as terrible as this. The first is that they knew nothing about Mary Seacole, and hadn’t read her autobiography. The other possibility is that whoever made the video knew the facts, and set out deliberately to deceive adults and children, which is quite malicious. Someone like that – either ignorant or malicious – should definitely not be in charge of what is taught in the curriculum.

Important Mainstream Subjects that Might Have to Be Dropped to Make Room for the Black Curriculum

Webb also wonders how the issues demanded by the Black Curriculum could be fitted into the present curriculum, as it is packed as it is. There is already enough struggle fitting the present material in. He looks at some of the material the Black Curriculum is already putting forward, and what important subjects in history might have to be dumped to make room for it. This, Webb suggests, might be the Magna Carta, or the Bill of Rights, or perhaps the Holocaust. He then looks at the modules The Black Curriculum suggest on their website. This is material aimed at 7-8 year olds, in other words, kids at Key Stage 2. It’s a time when children are learning basic literacy, arithmetic, science, art and PE. It’s very intensive and there’s a lot of work there. Well, reading and writing might have to be cut back to make room for ‘Collectivism and Solidarity’. A few maths lessons could be dropped in favour of ‘Cultural Resistance’ and ‘Food Inequality’. Science is obviously not as important to children as ‘Activism’, ‘Colonialism’ or ‘Systemic Racism’. He describes this proposed curriculum as ‘largely agitprop’. It’s political propaganda.

He then sums up the problems of the Black Curriculum. There are three.

  1. It’s concerned mainly with Black people. If it was geared to broaden the cultural understanding of the average child he might be in favour of it. He states that he homeschooled his daughter, and as result they visited various different cultures. These included a Black evangelical church, a mosque, synagogue, Hindu temple and Sikh gurdwara. If the proposed syllabus included these as well, he might be in favour of it. But it is not.
  2. It seems prepared by the ignorant or malicious. And that’s an insurmountable object to adopting material of this kind.
  3. And if you’re considering cutting material from the national curriculum, then as many groups as possible should be consulted. Like Indians and Bengalis, Chinese, the Jewish community, which has a long history in this country. If you want to broaden the cultural horizons of British children, which is a noble enough enterprise, it shouldn’t be restricted to just three per cent of the population. It needs to be much broader entirely.

Here’s the video.

Now it’s clear that Webb is a man of the right, but I think he makes valid points, and his remark about trying to broaden children’s horizon is both fair and shows he’s not a racist.

I admit I found myself reacting against the demand to have Black African civilisations taught as part of the national curriculum. It undoubtedly would benefit Black children, or at least, those of African descent. David Garmston interviewed several Black schoolchildren about it in an item in the local news programme for the Bristol area, Points West. One of them was an African lad, Suhaim, who said he had had very low self-esteem and felt suicidal. But this was raising his spirits. You can’t want anyone, of whatever race or culture, to suffer like that. I’ve been interested in African history and its civilisations since studying the continent as part of the ‘A’ level Geography course, at which I got spectacularly bad marks. It’s a fascinating continent, and I encourage anyone to learn about it. But I think I objected to the proposal because it seems that what should be a voluntary pleasure and a joy was being foisted on British schoolchildren for the benefit of foreigners or a minority of people, who find it unable to assimilate and identify with the host culture. I know how unpleasant this sounds, but this is how I feel. I also think that activism like this creates more division, by presenting Blacks as an ‘other’ with a completely different history and culture, who need to be treated specially and differently from Whites and other ethnic groups.

Black people have contributed to British, American and European civilisation and not just through slavery and the riches they produced for planters and industrialists. But until the late 19th century, the continent of Africa was effectively closed to westerners through a mixture of the tropical diseases around the malaria-infested swamps of the coast and strong African states that kept European traders confined to ghettos. Hence Europe and Africa have little shared history until the European conquests of the 1870s, except in some areas like the slave forts of the Gold Coast, and Sierra Leone, founded in the late 18th century as a colony for freed slaves. Liberia was also founded as such a colony, but by the Americans.

Webb’s description of the overall syllabus proposed by The Black Curriculum as disinformazia and agitprop is also fair. It looks like propaganda and political indoctrination, and that’s dangerous. I realise that I should agree with its hidden curriculum of anti-colonial resistance, solidarity and exposure of food inequality, but I really can’t. I believe that teachers have to be balanced and objective as far as possible. This is what is demanded by law. I don’t want children indoctrinated with Tory rubbish about how Britain never did anything wrong and the British Empire was wonderful. Far from it. Topics like those recommended by the Black Curriculum are fine for universities, which should be centres of debate where students are exposed to different views. But it’s not suitable for schools. Our mother was a teacher in a junior school here in Bristol She states that teachers are required to keep their personal opinions out of what they teach their students. If this in unavoidable, such as if a child asks them what they personally believe, then they have to reply that it is just their personal belief, not objective fact.

The Black Curriculum, therefore, certainly does seem to be peddling mendacious pseudo-history and should not be allowed near schools. But I fear there will be so much pressure from well-meaning activists to include them, that they will have their way.

J.A. Hobson on Capitalism and Imperialism

May 18, 2020

One of the crimes for which Jeremy Corbyn was pilloried as an anti-Semite was that he had written a foreword for an edition of J.A. Hobson’s book, Imperialism. First published in 1903, Hobson’s book has become one of the classic critiques of imperialism. Hobson considered that the motive force behind imperialist expansion and overseas conquest was capitalism and the continual need to find new markets. The book influenced Lenin’s own analysis of imperialism, Imperialism: The Highest Form of Capitalism. Fifty years after the book was published it was praised by the great British historian A.J.P. Taylor, who said that ‘No survey of the international history of the twentieth century can be complete without the name of J.A. Hobson’ because he was the first to identify imperialism’s economic motives. Hobson has been accused of anti-Semitism.

Imperialism and the Anti-Semitism Smears against Corbyn

I think it’s because he believed that Jewish financiers were behind the Anglo-South Africa or ‘Boer’ Wars. I think the real force was the British desire to expand into the African interior,  retain the Afrikaners as imperial subjects and acquire the riches of the southern African diamond fields as well as Cecil Rhodes own megalomaniac personal ambitions. However, when the various witch-hunters were howling about how anti-Semitic Corbyn was for endorsing the book, others pointed out that it was a very well-respected text admired and used by entirely reputable historians. Yes, it was a bit anti-Semitic. A very small bit – there was only one anti-Semitic sentence in it. It was another case of the witch-hunters grasping at whatever they could, no matter how small, to smear a genuinely anti-racist politician.

Financial Capitalism, Imperialism and the Decline of Ancient Rome

There’s an extract from Hobson’s Imperialism in The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Protest, edited by Brian MacArthur (London: Penguin 1988). This is a collection various writings protesting against a wide variety of issues ranging from indictments of the poverty of Edwardian England, to various wars, including Vietnam, Civil Rights and anti-Racism, as well as feminism, gay rights, the power of television and the threat of nuclear war. Yes, there’s an extract from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but there’s also a piece by the American Zionist rabbi, Stephen S. Wise, against the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany as well as other condemnations of Nazis and their horrific rule. The book very definitely does not endorse Fascism or the Communism of Stalin, Pol Pot and the other monsters.

The extract included in the book does identify financial capitalism and militarism as the force behind Roman imperialism, which led to the enslavement of Rome’s enemies abroad and the emergence of an immensely wealthy aristocracy, while impoverishing ordinary Romans at the other end of the social hierarchy, and compares it to the comparable development of the British imperialism of his own time. The extract runs

The spirit of imperialism poisons the springs of democracy in the mind and character of the people. As our free self-governing colonies have furnished hope, encouragement and leadership to the popular aspirations in Great Britain, not merely by practical successes in the arts of popular government, but by the wafting of a spirit of freedom and equality, so our despotically ruled dependencies have ever served to damage the character of our people by feeding the habits of snobbish subservience, the admiration of wealth and rank, the corrupt survivals of the inequalities of feudalism. This process began with the advent of the East Indian nabob and the West Indian planter into English society and politics, bring back with his plunders of the slave trade and the gains of corrupt and extortionate officialism the acts of vulgar ostentation, domineering demeanour and corrupting largesse to dazzle and degrade the life of our people. Cobden, writing in 1860 of our Indian Empire, put this pithy question: ‘Is it not just possible that we may become corrupted at home by the reaction of arbitrary political maxims in the East upon our domestic politics, just as Greece and Rome were demoralized by their contact with Asia?’

The rise of a money-loaning aristocracy in Rome, composed of keen, unscrupulous men from many nations, who filled the high offices of state with their creatures, political ‘bosses’ or military adventurers, who had come to the front as usurers, publicans or chiefs of police in the provinces, was the most distinctive feature of later imperial Rome. This class was continually recruited from returned officials and colonial millionaires. The large incomes drawn in private official plunder, public tribute, usury and official incomes from the provinces had the following reactions upon Italy. Italians were no longer wanted for working the land or for manufactures, or even for military service. ‘The later campaigns on the Rhine and the Danube,’ it is pointed out, ‘were really slave-hunts on a gigantic scale.’

The Italian farmers, at first drawn from rural into military life, soon found themselves permanently ousted from agriculture by the serf labour of the latifundia, and they and their families were sucked into the dregs of town life, to be subsisted as a pauper population upon public charity. A mercenary colonial army came more and more displace the home forces. The parasitic city life, with its lowered vitality and the growing infrequency of marriage, to which Gibbon draws attention, rapidly impaired the physique of the native population of Italy, and Rome subsisted more and more upon immigration of raw vigour from Gaul and Germany. The necessity of maintaining powerful mercenary armies to hold the provinces heightened continually the peril, already manifest in the last years of the Republic, arising from the political ambitions of great pro-consuls conspiring with a moneyed interest at Rome against the Commonwealth. As time went on, this moneyed oligarchy became an hereditary aristocracy, and withdrew from military and civil service, relying more and more upon hired foreigners: themselves sapped by luxury and idleness and tainting by mixed servitude and licence the Roman populace, they so enfeebled the state as to destroy the physical and moral vitality required to hold in check and under government the vast repository of forces in the exploited Empire. The direct cause of Rome’s decay and fall is expressed politically by the term ‘over-centralization’, which conveys in brief the real essence of imperialism as distinguished from national growth on the one hand and colonialism upon the other. Parasitism practised through taxation and usury, involved a constantly increasing centralization of the instruments of government, and a growing strain upon this government as the prey became more impoverished by the drain and showed signs of restiveness. ‘The evolution of this centralized society was as logical as every other work of nature. When force reached the stage where it expressed itself exclusively through money the governing class ceased to be chosen because they were valiant or eloquent, artistic, learned or devout, and were selected solely because they had the faculty of acquiring and keeping wealth. As long as the weak retained enough vitality to produce something which could be absorbed, this oligarchy was invariable; and, for very many years after the native peasantry of Gaul and Italy had perished from the land, new blood, injected from more tenacious races, kept the dying civilization alive. The weakness of the moneyed class lay in this very power, for they not only killed the producer, but in the strength of their acquisitiveness they failed to propagate themselves.’

This is the largest, planest instance history presents of the social parasite process by which a moneyed interest within the state, usurping the reins of government, makes for imperial expansion in order to fasten economic suckers into foreign bodies so as to drain them of their wealth in order to support domestic luxury. The new imperialism differs in no vital point from this old example. The element of political tribute is now absent, or quite subsidiary, and the crudest forms of slavery have disappeared: some elements of more genuine and disinterested government serve to qualify and and mask the distinctively parasitic nature of the later sort. But nature is not mocked: the laws which, operative throughout nature, doom the parasite to atrophy, decay, and final extinction, are not evaded by nations any more than by individual organisms. The greater complexity of the modern process, the endeavour to escape the parasitic reaction by rendering some real but quite unequal and inadequate services to ‘the host’, may retard but cannot finally avert the natural consequences of living upon others. The claim that an imperial state forcibly subjugating other peoples and their lands does so for the purpose of rendering services to the conquered equal to those which she exacts is notoriously false: she neither intends equivalent services nor is capable of rendering them, and the pretence that such benefits to the governed form a leading motive or result of imperialism implies a degree of moral or intellectual obliquity so grave as itself to form a new peril for any nation fostering so false a notion of the nature of its conduct. ‘Let the motive be in the deed, not in the event,’ says a Persian proverb…

Imperialism is a depraved choice of national life, imposed by self-seeking interests which appeal to the lusts of quantitative acquisitiveness and of forceful domination surviving in a nation from early centuries of animal struggle for existence. Its adoption as a policy implies a deliberate renunciation of that cultivation of the higher inner qualities which for a nation as for its individual constitutes the ascendancy of reason over brute impulse. It is the besetting sin of all successful state, and its penalty is unalterable in the order of nature.

(Pp. 15-18).

Financial Capitalism Operating to Exploit Former Colonies and Undermine Domestic Economy

While the British Empire has gone the way of Rome’s, the same forces are still operating today. The Iraq invasion was really to enable western multinationals to seize Iraq’s state industries, and for the American and Saudi oil industry to seize its oil reserves. They weren’t about bringing it democracy or freeing its citizens. Although our former African colonies are now free, they are still plundered through highly unfair trade agreements. At home manufacturing industry has declined because Thatcherite economics favours the financial sector. And the immensely rich now hoard their wealth in offshore tax havens or invest it abroad, rather than in domestic industry. Thus denying British industry investment and making millions of domestic workers unemployed. There’s a further parallel in that in the later Roman Empire, the senatorial aristocracy retreated to their estates rather than pay tax, and so the tax burden increasingly fell on the ordinary Roman citizen. This is the same as the way the Tories have given vast tax cuts to the rich, which have ensured that the tax burden must also be increasingly borne by the poor.

Conservatives have also drawn parallels between the fall of the Roman Empire and today’s west. This has mostly been about non-White immigration, which they have compared to the barbarian invasions. But as Hobson’s Imperialism showed, capitalism and imperialism were connected and together responsible for Rome’s decline and fall. 

But strangely they don’t talk about that!

 

 

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.

 

Gabriel Rockhill on the Myth of American Democracy

March 2, 2018

A few months ago, the Franco-American philosopher Gabriel Rockhill published a very interesting piece in Counterpunch arguing that, contrary to how the country sees itself, America isn’t and has never been a democracy. He notes that the British imperialists, who founded the Thirteen Colonies, weren’t interested in spreading rights or democracy, and that the Founding Fathers were also anti-democratic. They were like most of the other Enlightenment thinkers in that they were keen to defend to property from the mass of the propertyless, whom they associated with misrule and the mob. He points out that at the time the suffrage only extended to men of property, and excluded the poor, women, First Nations and slaves. The notion that the country was a democracy first appeared with Andrew Jackson, who styled himself as a democrat purely as an electoral pose without doing anything to extend the franchise. He writes

Second, when the elite colonial ruling class decided to sever ties from their homeland and establish an independent state for themselves, they did not found it as a democracy. On the contrary, they were fervently and explicitly opposed to democracy, like the vast majority of European Enlightenment thinkers. They understood it to be a dangerous and chaotic form of uneducated mob rule. For the so-called “founding fathers,” the masses were not only incapable of ruling, but they were considered a threat to the hierarchical social structures purportedly necessary for good governance. In the words of John Adams, to take but one telling example, if the majority were given real power, they would redistribute wealth and dissolve the “subordination” so necessary for politics. When the eminent members of the landowning class met in 1787 to draw up a constitution, they regularly insisted in their debates on the need to establish a republic that kept at bay vile democracy, which was judged worse than “the filth of the common sewers” by the pro-Federalist editor William Cobbett. The new constitution provided for popular elections only in the House of Representatives, but in most states the right to vote was based on being a property owner, and women, the indigenous and slaves—meaning the overwhelming majority of the population—were simply excluded from the franchise. Senators were elected by state legislators, the President by electors chosen by the state legislators, and the Supreme Court was appointed by the President. It is in this context that Patrick Henry flatly proclaimed the most lucid of judgments: “it is not a democracy.” George Mason further clarified the situation by describing the newly independent country as “a despotic aristocracy.”

When the American republic slowly came to be relabeled as a “democracy,” there were no significant institutional modifications to justify the change in name. In other words, and this is the third point, the use of the term “democracy” to refer to an oligarchic republic simply meant that a different word was being used to describe the same basic phenomenon. This began around the time of “Indian killer” Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign in the 1830s. Presenting himself as a ‘democrat,’ he put forth an image of himself as an average man of the people who was going to put a halt to the long reign of patricians from Virginia and Massachusetts. Slowly but surely, the term “democracy” came to be used as a public relations term to re-brand a plutocratic oligarchy as an electoral regime that serves the interest of the people or demos. Meanwhile, the American holocaust continued unabated, along with chattel slavery, colonial expansion and top-down class warfare.

He then goes to argue that America today is also not a democracy. It has elections, but in fact the American people aren’t governing themselves, but merely choosing which members of a plutocratic ruling class they want to govern them. And his last point is that the anti-democratic nature of American politics is shown very clearly in how often America has interfered in the elections of foreign nations – either through manipulation, or by invasion – when those countries haven’t elected the leaders America wants.

The article’s well worth reading, and is at https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/13/the-u-s-is-not-a-democracy-it-never-was/

Douglas Adams made a similar point in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. On one of the fictional worlds described by the Guide, there are two races. The planet’s society is stratified, so that one of the races is the ruling class, and the other their subordinates. But it is a democracy. Ever so often, elections are held, in which the subordinate race goes off to vote for whichever members of the dominant race they want in power. But the position of the dominant race and their right to rule is never questioned.

I don’t know whether this is one of the other Hitchhiker books, or if it was just in the radio series. But it’s a good satirical description of the way western class politics works. It’s probably more true now than it was in Adams’ time, as the Blairites and the Tories come from the same middle class, and promote the same free market, neoliberal policies, which the rest of us are expected to support uncritically. It’s time to break this class monopoly on power.

Sam Seder Attacks Economist Review Defending Slavery

February 22, 2016

This is unbelievable. In this segment from Sam Seder’s Majority Report, Seder rants about a negative review in the Economist attacking Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The reviewer criticised Baptist’s book for being one-sided. All the Blacks in the book were victims, he complains, and all the Whites were villains. Seder is understandably and rightly outraged by this statement, and goes off on a long rant about how luck Blacks were to be enslaved, when they could simply have been kept in the slave ships and not landed in America, or been eaten by lions back in Africa, rather than captured and sold. It seems that many others were offended too, as the review was pulled from the Economist’s website.

Now depending on how their masters treated them, slaves could enjoy quite a high standard of living. Archaeologists researching Benjamin Franklin’s slaves’ quarters found remains of violins, pipes, and good quality china, as well as quite a varied diet, which included fish. And the defenders of slavery pointed out that the standard of living of their slaves was better than the miserable industrial workers in the north, the ‘factory slaves’, who were free in name only. You can even find examples of slave owners, who risked punishment under the law for trying to give their slaves some education, teaching them to read, for example.

None of which detracts from how monstrous and horrendous slavery actually was. The slave was legally just a mere chattel, subject to extreme punishment for even minor offences, who by law was banned from mixing with Whites. It was the appalling conditions in which slaves were kept, sold and exploited that motivated so many people in America, Britain, Canada and across the world to protest against slavery and demand its abolition. Just how deeply traumatised slaves were simply by the condition of slavery itself can be seen by the fact that, in general, very few former slaves described what their lives were like to their free children and grandchildren. Years ago there was a piece in the Observer about the reparations movement. One of the leaders of the movement explained that it wasn’t just about getting reparations for slavery, it was also to recover some of the lost history. They were afraid that with their grandparents’ generations dying off, Blacks would lose contact with the last people, who had had contact with the slaves. They complained that their slave forebears had never talked to them about what it was like when they were slaves.
I can’t say I’m surprised. People who go through deeply traumatic experiences tend not to talk about them. They just want to forget and move on. Old soldiers, for example, rarely talked about what they did in combat. It was too shocking, too horrific. Similarly, people, who have been raped or sexually assaulted generally don’t want to talk about the experience. They’re too deeply shamed, even though they were not responsible for their assault. So it seems entirely natural to me that a generation of Black Americans, raised in servitude, should have gone through their lives as free people determined not to speak about the condition of degradation they had been born into.

The Economist is, of course, one of the main upholders of capitalist economic orthodoxy. There seems to be very much a movement on the libertarian Right at the moment to try and play down the importance of slavery as a dark smear on American history. Guy Debord’s Cat has several very interesting pieces on how the intellectual heirs of Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and von Hayek are trying to rewrite the American Civil War to avoid slavery as its major cause. They’re trying to make out it was due to some kind of trade controversy over tariffs. Together with the deeply racist beliefs of Donald Trump’s supports, it shows how frightening reactionary the American Far Right is.

Trump, Mad Magazine, and the Dangers of Political Clowns

December 12, 2015

I’ve put up a lot of material over the past few days criticising Donald Trump for his horrendous racism, and specifically his Nazi policies towards Muslims. Trump is facing a barrage of criticism, including from his own partners and backers in the Republican party, who find his stance too extreme and fascistic even for him. And his critics are sending him up like crazy. I’ve posted footage of Trump trying to pose for a photo with a clearly extremely irritated and cantankerous bald eagle. And who can blame it? Others have stuck his face onto toilet paper. And the other day Mad magazine also put him on their cover as the leading contender in their competition to find the person who has dumbed America the most over the past year. And to show just how stupid and darkish The Donald is, the magazine’s mascot, Alfred J. Neuman, is there too, sporting his haircut.

Trump Mad Cover

Now this is all very funny, but there’s a danger in treating racists like Trump simply as a joke. He is a joke, and his attacks on Mexicans and Muslims could come straight out of the mouth of one of British television’s greatest and most reviled comic creations, Alf Garnet, if Garnet had an American cousin. Garnet was the creation of Johnny Speight, and played by the Warren Mitchell, who was Jewish. He was a parody of working class Conservatives – dirt poor, but blindly loyal to a ruling class and social order that did nothing for them but keep them in poverty. He was the main character in the ’70s and ’80s comedies Till Death Us Do Part and In Sickness And In Health, a loud-mouthed, cockney paterfamilias, who subjected his longsuffering wife, daughter and son-in-law with bigoted, racist, homophobic and sexist rants. At the same time, he was passionately patriotic about his country and home city. Trump comes from completely the opposite end of the social spectrum: extremely rich, privileged, but with the same bigotry, seething resentment and absolute lack of anything resembling tact, restraint or social sensitivity.

Garnet was such a grotesque caricature that he’s become one of the most celebrated of British comic characters. But while he was an obvious figure of fun to many, others really didn’t see the joke. Speight complained that he was sometimes approached by people, who agreed absolutely with Garnet’s obnoxious comments and failed to find anything remotely ironic in them.

Garnet was fictional, and intended as a figure of fun, not to be taken seriously. I think part of his appeal was that he articulated attitudes that were still widely held, when society was changing and their genuine oppressive nature and real offensiveness was just being realised. He was the stereotypical right-wing curmudgeon, who was popular because he said the unsayable. Repeatedly and loudly.

No matter how perversely appealing and popular such characters can be in fiction, they’re deadly serious in reality. Part of what made Garnet funny was that he was a little man, who was a menace mostly to himself by irritating other people, who would otherwise be perfectly willing to help him. Like a Black repairman, who turns up in one episode simply to fix the family’s broke TV. And sometimes he simply wasn’t that bad, in spite of himself. In Sickness and in Health his other foil, apart from his long-suffering wife, was the gay Black orderly working at the centre he attended for the elderly. He had nasty views, yes, but he was harmless.

The problem comes when real, racist politicians are perceived in the same terms. Like Adolf Hitler in Germany before he took power. In addition to the many, who unfortunately and horribly did take the future Fuehrer and his ghastly views seriously, there were probably others, who may have looked on him simply as a camp joke. Some may have gone to his rallies simply to laugh at his rants at the establishment. There’s a record of one German saying that he was going to hear one of Hitler’s speeches, because he wanted to see who he was going to have a go at next. This suggests that not all of his audience took his attacks on Jews or anyone else entirely seriously. There was, after all, a widespread feeling amongst the German ruling classes that he couldn’t possibly mean everything he said, and that once he got into power he’d calm down somehow and act properly, like a real statesman. But he did mean what he said about getting rid of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, gay men, Socialists, trade unionists and democrats. And he didn’t settle down, to govern in a more appropriate and restrained manner.

There’s a line in Bertolucci’s film, The Conformist, which reflects that attitude. The film’s set in Mussolini’s Italy, and is about a man, who joins the Fascist party after shooting the paedophile, who has attempted to molest him. He is then sent on a mission to assassinate one of the regime’s dissidents, a philosophy lecturer, who has fled to France. As such, it’s loosely based on the real assassination of anti-Fascist Italian philosopher, Matteotti, which threatened to bring down il Duce’s government. At one point in the film, one of the male characters says, ‘When I was in Austria, there was a man, who used to go round the beer halls, ranting. We all used to throw beer glasses at him. That man was Adolf Hitler.’

We’re at that point now with Trump. He’s a clown, whose views absolutely deserve to be mocked and lampooned. But he’s also dangerous. Despite his clownish demeanour, he needs to be taken extremely seriously. The consequences of him gaining power could be deadly.

Exercise Your Political Rights: VOTE!

May 7, 2015

Today’s polling day, as I’m sure just about every one of my readers is aware. I’ve reblogged a number of memes from Vox Political over the past few days, urging people not to vote the Tories and Lib Dems back in. Mike’s posted another piece over on his site, simply asking people to vote. And he’s produced this graphic for further encouragement.

Vote Meme

Remember – the Tories and Lib Dems have reformed the registration system, just to prevent people from voting. This is how they view democracy, despite all the rhetoric about defending and promoting it through ‘localism’, or some such ideological camouflage. They fear it. Just have tyrants have always feared it.

So defy them. Don’t give in to apathy, or pessimism. Use your franchise.

The Francophone Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, said that the man, who votes, but doesn’t want anyone else to, wishes to be a master. The one, who doesn’t, wishes to be a slave.

The Tories are always keen to get their people to vote, and vote first. Because they do see themselves as the masters.

Mike’s short piece is over at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/05/07/at-long-last-election-day-is-here-vote/. Go there for further electoral encouragement.

But you don’t have to accept the status of slaves.

The Unemployed and Disabled Need an Elected ‘Guardian and Protector’

March 11, 2014

131109doublespeak

I received this interesting comment from Gay Mentalist to my post on Kenneth Mackenzie’s book on Parliament as a vital resource in this time of constitutional change, and the Coalition’s contempt for representative democracy:

Really interesting post, as you point out, there has been more of a presidential theme in British politics for some years now. I’m often struck by how sometimes people forget that a general election is a series of local elections rather than just 1 national election. Quite often you used to hear people saying “I’m voting for Blair” in the past. They weren’t generally voting for Blair, Brown, Thatcher, Major, Cameron or any of the other leaders, they were voting for a local candidate, with these tv debates, I fear that is something that is getting lost even more. If they want that style of politics then maybe we should have an elected PM? In fact why not go the whole hog and have an elected cabinet? That could make for interesting results!

Unelected Ministers Causing Problems for Unemployed and Disabled

I was thinking about something like that myself, although it was about a very specific set of ministers. I wonder if we actually need the ministers dealing with the unemployed and the disabled to be elected. Left-wing bloggers like Mike over at Vox Political, Another Angry Voice, The Void, Daepac Leicester, Jaynelinney, Stilloaks, Pride’s Purge, myself and so many others have reported the terrible effects the government’s policies have had on the poor, the unemployed and the disabled. You can read about the immense hardship suffered by ordinary people on Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, London Food Bank and Benefit Tales, to name just a few. In addition to the hardship they face is the fact that they have no voice in parliament. The ministers that should be guaranteeing them some dignity, a living income and the hope of something better – the ministers for the disabled and people in charge of the DWP, are those, who are responsible for the creation and implementation of the policies that are the direct cause of their suffering.

No Help from Information Commissioner

And it seems no redress is possible from other branches of the government Simply getting the statistics of the number of people, who’ve died as a result of government policy is nearly impossible. Mike and the other people, who have asked for this information under the Freedom of Information Act, have been refused. Why? When they asked as individuals, it was deemed to difficult and expensive to provide the information for just one person. When others asked for the information, the government decided that this was a concerted policy to inconvenience the government, and therefore ‘vexatious’. More cynically, the government has blatantly stated it will not provide the information as this would cause more people to oppose the policy and block its implementation. In other words, they know the public would find it unpleasant, cruel and immoral, and so the public must now be allowed to know about it.

Workless Camps

Forced Labour Camps for British Unemployed in 1920s

It’s all rather like the forced labour camps set up for the unemployed in the 1920s, about which Unemployed in Tyne and Wear reported on his blog. Most of the records of that truly horrible little piece in British history were destroyed after the policy was abandoned. One cannot help but compare it to the way the Nazis carefully hid the details of their extermination of the Jews and other racial desirables in the death camps. It also raises very awkward questions of how fundamentally different we British are to the continental nations. We tend to see ourselves as more freedom-loving, and so fundamentally freer and more moral than just about everyone else, but the fact that these camps were set up raises questions about whether, if the First World War had gone the other way, and Britain had been defeated and suffered punitive reparations by a victorious Germany, we would also have seen a vicious, Fascist-style dictatorship, complete with the incarceration of political dissidents and the murder of the Jews and other racial or social undesirables in England’s Green and Pleasant Land.

IDS and McVey, two of the ministers responsible, can get away with this as they are not directly responsible to the people, who are the subjects and victims of their legislation. They are appointed by the Prime Minister, and are essentially responsible for carrying out his policies. Hence IDS on Sunday could get away with issuing a tissue of lies about how successful his policies were to Andrew Neil on the Daily Politics.

This cannot go on. It is failing people. Tens of thousands are dying each year as a result, but this is ignored and covered up by this aristocratic government. 23 out of 29 of the ministers in Cameron’s first cabinet were millionaires. 51 per cent were privately educated, and only three per cent went to comprehensives. Cameron believes he was born to rule, and so treats us like serfs.

It’s time this changed.

Guardian and Protector of Slaves Possible Model for Minister to Protect Unemployed and Disabled?

I wonder if we don’t need a ‘Guardian and Protector’ of the unemployed and disabled as a vital, established and directly elected government official, similar to the officials the British government established in their Caribbean slave colonies during the 1820s. This was a period when the government was trying to ameliorate, rather than emancipate the slaves. As a result of a series of truly horrific cruelty cases, the British government passed a series of legislation intended to improve conditions for slaves. This regulated the amount of food they were to be given by their masters, and limited the punishments that were to be inflicted. They also set up a series of commissions to investigate the condition of the slaves, talking not just to their masters, but also to the slaves themselves. The resulting parliamentary reports make fascinating reading. Many of the slaves had quite strong views about their masters, and weren’t afraid to make them known.

The British government also set up specific government post to deal with cases of cruelty and neglect. This was the ‘Guardian and Protector of Slaves’, modelled somewhat on the office of the alcalde in the Spanish colonies. These were responsible for investigating cases of cruelty and neglect upon the request of the slaves themselves. If they judged that the case was ‘frivolous’, the slave would be punished by whipping. If they found in his favour, however, they could punish the slave-owner, and order the slave to be compulsorily sold to a better, more humane master.

Minister for Women in Greek City States

I also read while at College that some of the ancient Greek city states also had a similar official to ensure better treatment and conditions for women. Ancient Greek society was extremely masculine and patriarchal, and the status of women was very low. Nevertheless, as series of strikes by women, similar to the sex strike in the play Lysistrata, had forced at least one of the ancient Greek city states to set up a special government figure to investigate incidents of abuse against them.

Pressure to Guarantee Proper Representation and Treatment of Women and Ethnic Minorities

All the parties are naturally under increasing pressure to increase the representation of women in parliament, and indeed throughout society, including business, science and the arts. There is also similar pressure to ensure that members of ethnic minorities also receive their fair share in our society and government.

Do We Need A Similar Official for Unemployed and Disabled?

I strongly believe that we need an elected official to represent the unemployed and the disabled at Westminster, and that this official should be elected by the unemployed and disabled themselves. There are any number of organisations pressing for their better treatment, like the CAB, but these are seeing their budgets cut, or their findings ignored. I think a way of solving this problem would be to make the ministers, or a minister for them directly accountable, to ensure that their interests were not side-lined, or simply subordinated to general government policy. So that someone like Ian Duncan Smith or Esther McVey can once again bluster and cover up their cruelty and incompetence with smooth lies without fear of tough questions.

Like how many have been killed or died from despair and starvation through the government’s policies.

This is just a suggestion, but I do wonder if others agree. Any ideas?

The Churches and Monasteries of Medieval Nubia: The Church at Arminna West

June 25, 2013

The Town of Arminna West

One of the Nubian churches excavated by archaeologists was that of Arminna West. This township lay on the west bank of the Nile directly opposite Khor Usha in the middle of the modern Arminna East, a large and prosperous town on the east side of the river, four km south of Toshka, ten km south of the post boat station at Duki Dawur and 26 km north of Abu Simbel. The township was 600 m in length and 300 m in width. It was excavated in preparation for the construction of the Aswan dam from 1961 to 1963. During the Classic Christian period at Arminna West, between 850 to 1100, the town had a population of between 100 to 200 people. It had large, finely built houses with eight or more rooms and barrel vaulted roofs, which were well plastered. These were probably occupied by nuclear families, rather than extended clan groups. The houses in medieval Nubian villages are located extremely near to each other. This, however, may have been due to the fact that ancient Nubian society was highly integrated, rather than for defensive reasons. Under a treaty with the Ummayyad caliph Abdallah ibn Saad in 652, Nubia traded 400 slaves with Egypt annually in return for cloth, horses and food. This trade nearly vanished completely from the middle of the eighth century, possibly due to the overthrow of the Ummayyads by the succeeding Abbasid dynasty, though there was a brief revival around 1000. The Nubians also imported wine from the Egyptian monasteries. There is also evidence of animal herding in Arminna West during the Classic and Late Christian phases of the town’s history. A map of the town’s remains from its Classic Christian phase is shown below.

Arminna Township

The church lay about 54 m north of the town, as shown below.

Arminna Church and Town 1

Sources

Bruce G. Trigger, The Late Nubian Settlement at Arminna West (New Haven and Philadelphia: The Peabody Museum of Natural History of Yale University/ The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania 1967)

Kent R. Weeks, The Classic Christian Townsite at Arminna West (New Haven and Philadelphia: The Peabody Museum of Natural History of Yale University/ The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania 1967).