By now it should be clear the extent to which we in Britain are living in a racist society. In 1999 the Macpherson report established that the Metropolitan police were institutionally racist. 23 years later and racism still has a hold on our society. Last week Nazir Afzal published his report that found that the London Fire Brigade was institutionally racist, and that since publication he has been contacted by people in the NHS, BBC and police about issues they face.
The stain of racism can be seen right across society, most alarmingly in the political parties that make up our parliament and government, and in the media that shapes how we see the world and ourselves. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission are still refusing to investigate the Conservative party for Islamophobia. Nobody it seems is interested in the hierarchy of racism found in the Labour Party by the Forde report and Al Jazeera. The so called free press and broadcast news media have it seems no interest in exposing the ongoing issue of racism that is apparent in either party.
To help us understand racism here today, Sathnam Sanghera looks back over the past 400 years at the growth of what became the British Empire, and we soon see why we didn’t learn about this darker side of our history at school. Sanghera says:
“… for many colonialism and empire are synonymous with racism” (p.152)
As North America and the Caribbean were colonised, slaves were imported to work on plantations for sugar, cotton and tobacco, and the British were soon leading the way in the slave trade. Slaves were kept and treated like dogs, locked in chains to keep them under control, and if they become troublesome they would be quickly beaten in to submission. Slavery also had a wider effect on society, by showing that it was acceptable to treat others like dogs, and sowing the seeds of white supremacy.
The British expanded their trading empire gaining huge wealth and power. A picture is built of unfettered free trade, with traders exploiting people and the natural resources of where they lived. The belief of the coloniser in their white supremacy was rarely questioned, and they continued to abuse and dehumanise those they colonised. They inflicted the full range of human cruelty on those least able to defend themselves. This included slavery, theft, starvation, rape, murder, mass murder and genocide. After reading about the genocide in Tasmania (p.150), my copy of the book remained unopened for days.
As free trade moved into imperialism more military force was used: gunboats were sent to Naples to force compensation payments for traders, and the Chinese destruction of 1,000 tons of opium triggered the Opium Wars. When the potato famine hit Ireland, they were compelled to export the food that could have saved many from death. In India between 1875 and 1914 as many as 16 million died in famines, as the unchecked functioning of the free market allowed merchants to sell their wheat to the highest bidder, beyond the reach of the poorest (p.117).
“The reason that are an institutional racist society is that we have grown out of the racist institution that was the British Empire” (p.169)
In the postwar years the government, seeking to solve a shortage of labour in transport, health care and other sectors, encouraged many from the colonies to settle in this country (p.90). Those who came found that they were not welcome, as the prevalence of white supremacy held by many fuelled widespread racism and discrimination.
For many reading this book it will be the first they will have known about the atrocities committed by the British, shattering the sugar coated image of Empire that has been absorbed throughout their lifetime, still expressed today, and held dear by many.
“If the British understood colonial history as well as Henry VIII 6 wives Britain would be a different country” (p.200)
Our culture is shaped by what we tell our children about our past, or in this case more about what we don’t tell them. One of my daughters recalls that when she left primary school her understanding was that Wilberforce had abolished all slavery, that racism had been stopped in the USA thanks to Martin Luther-King and that racism was never a problem in this country.
We need to face up to our past, but first we really need to know the truth behind it.
Perhaps the first step is to make sure that every child understands our nation’s central role in the transatlantic slave trade, and look at the evidence of that trade around us today. We owe a significant portion of our wealth to slavery, the banks funded it and cities like Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester grew because of it. The slave compensation records show who profited from it. One third of the 300 houses owned by the National Trust are tainted by wealth from slavery or have treasures that have been plundered.
If we are to remove racism from our society, a new and more honest story of our past must be shared, challenging the myths about the British Empire with its unfettered free trade and belief in white supremacy. This book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of our history and the impact of that history on our society today. It points us in the direction that thankfully many are already taking of a tolerant and enlightened society.
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