Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade only cropped up twice throughout my formal education. Once in primary school, as I carefully evading the gazes and glances of my classmates, and again as a history undergraduate. When my globalisation tutor asked us who had seen the Alex Haley miniseries on slavery, Roots my hand shot up. But not so many of my classmates’ hands joined mine in the air.
Last week UNESCO called on us to commemorate the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. But in Britain we still have a tendency to celebrate the heroic whilst having convenient amnesia for the harrowing. We’re more likely to see the day marked with the celebration of slavery’s abolition than remembrance of the trade itself.
Write or Tweet anything about Britain’s role in the slavery or the slave trade and you will be met with some variation of ‘get over it’. Yet taxpayers only finished paying £20m to slave owners as compensation for losing their valued property in 2015, a mere three years ago. The belief that slavery has little baring on present-day Britain or her former colonies is delusional.
In school, I had two lessons on slavery, yet two years on Victorian Prime Ministers Gladstone and Disraeli. Gladstone’s father, John Gladstone, were paid £100,000 in compensation following the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 – today equivalent to about £80m. The slaves got nothing. And, depending on where you went to school, they might get much space on the curriculum either.
The Our Migration Story project at The Runnymede Trust with the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge, provides resources for teachers that want to teach the history of migration to Britain in all its forms, including slavery, Empire and its legacy. It includes the story of Mary Prince, one of the only accounts of British colonial slavery by an enslaved woman. Her story was published in 1831 and used by abolitionist activists in London. But in 2014, the Department for Education admitted it did not know how many schools were teaching the subject because it was not compulsory.
It’s unacceptable that there’s no uniform understanding of Britain’s role in, and the repercussions of, slavery and Empire. The trade of 3 million Africans on British ships over a 300 year period is no minor moment of our history. It is not an accident that no British politician will apologise for the slave trade and slavery – they fear legal challenge from former colonies for reparations that they know have enough evidential basis to be a threat.
Although its scale is a source of debate, the importance of slavery and the slave trade in the evolution of the British economy is not. And it is not a coincidence that the African nations that are the poorest today suffered the greatest loss of their populations to the slave trade. Caribbean countries are still wrestling with the plantation economics of the past that was enforced on them. The high unemployment that resulted from it is why many of the Windrush generation made the journey to Britain from 1948. How can we face global challenges appropriately without an understanding of how they were caused? With Brexit inching closer, we need to understand our historic relationships with other nations appropriately or face severe embarrassment on the world stage.
History doesn’t cease because we’ve been told to turn over the page. In Lenny Henry’s documentary The Commonwealth Kid, Kristal, the owner of an inherited rum plantation in Jamaica finds solace in the proposition that her family’s plantation – formerly laboured upon by slaves - was said to be one of the friendliest. This is the perfect microcosm for our national conversation on slavery and colonialism. We, as a country, cannot stomach a conversation about any moment of moral ineptitude and seek out comfort instead.
This refusal to engage with this part of our past stops us seeing ourselves as we truly are: a country that is multicultural now because it’s Empire was; a nation that won one world cup and two world wars but also enslaved 2.7 million Africans and starved 1 million Indians. This is how 59% of those polled still feel pride in an Empire that was built upon the idea of racial superiority. These ideas still matter. It is why 44% of people surveyed believed some races are born harder working than others. It contributes to the inequality black people face in the job market. I challenge anyone who wishes me to ‘get over’ slavery to give up their pride in the Empire and the racist ideology used to justify its creation. Let’s all move forward together, face inequality and racism with honesty, and acknowledging the heroes and the horrors of our shared past.
Kimblerly McIntosh is Policy Officer for the Runnymede Trust