Charles Harris

What activists get wrong about Britain’s history

What activists get wrong about Britain's history
An anti-slavery demo, Britain (photo: Getty)
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Over the last year, the Black Lives Matter movement has created an infectious blend of conflated antipathy to slavery, Empire and England. Across our institutions, there has been a rush to appease self-righteous activists by removing statues and pictures, rewriting our history, altering street names and allowing them to silence anyone who dares question their orthodoxy.

What is motivating this supplication? The reasons ostensibly given are England’s part in the Atlantic slave trade and the British Empire, dismissed as racist and without any redeeming features.

This shift in how the empire is viewed today shows just how historically illiterate we have become as a nation. One ‘academic’ even recently dismissed the British Empire as ‘far worse’ than the Nazis. This line of thinking betrays not only a failure to comprehend the history of slavery, but Britain’s part in it. For our relationship with slavery is not unique. Our role in ending the trade, however, is.

Slavery has existed for millennia: Greece and Rome were based upon it. Vikings took slaves from our coastal villages for 200 years. Between the 16th and 18th centuries African corsairs raided European towns, including some in England, capturing hundreds of thousands of slaves. Crimean Tatars sold Circassians across the Black Sea to the Ottomans. African empires such as the Mande and Ashanti preyed upon their neighbours, long before the arrival of any Europeans. And Arab-Muslim slavers, such as Tippoo Tib, operated in Africa for over 1,000 years. It has been estimated that they traded some 17 million people.

European trans-Atlantic involvement began with the Portuguese, who, starting in the 15th century, transported over five million Africans to Brazil. (They also bought slaves from Japan, who were thought valuable for their intelligence.) The Spanish, and later the Dutch, carried slaves extensively to their colonies. France took a million slaves to Haiti alone. European countries, in total, are thought to have traded around 12 million Africans.

English participation in the slave trade began with three voyages by John Hawkins in the 1560s. During the 17th and 18th centuries, English vessels are estimated to have carried some three million slaves – almost invariably bartered from their African owners, not captured. In total, European ships took about 12 million Africans to America.

Like other nations, England took part in this, but unlike them, we played the primary role in abolishing the trade: not just for this country and its colonies, but for everyone, everywhere.

In 1772 Somersett’s case confirmed that the common law did not recognise slave status in England. In 1787, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, which sponsored Sierra Leone – England’s first substantial African colony – as a home for liberated slaves.

On 24 June 1806, the Chancellor, Lord Erskine, told the House of Lords that it was its duty ‘to God and to our country’ to abolish slavery. This debate was the culmination of 30 years of preaching, argument and threats of divine punishment articulated largely by English non-conformists.

The following year, the slave trade was outlawed. A huge effort then followed to suppress the trade. In 1814 and 1817 Britain paid Portugal and Spain to introduce limited restrictions on their trade. France had abolished slavery in 1793, but Napoleon reintroduced it in 1802.

In 1833, despite opposition from the young Gladstone, parliament abolished slave ownership throughout much of the Empire. The thousands of slaves in Jamaica were freed. The East India Company proclaimed slavery illegal in its territories in 1843 and enslavement was made a criminal offence in India in 1861. After pressure from Isabel, Princess Imperial, Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.

Following British pressure and example, abolition was generally achieved in the 19th century. Though in China, Turkey and Arabia, not until the 20th.

The English were responsible for many slaves taken out of Africa. But the abolition of the slave trade is overwhelmingly a British achievement, and a very great one.

Slavery was, of course, a widespread and terrible feature of the history of the world. But it was not generally so regarded – save by a small vanguard of enlightened thinkers, mostly English speaking – until two centuries ago.

It was sanctioned by both Christian and Muslim religions: the latter more explicitly. A horrific feature of the Arab trade was that many of the male captives were castrated, often fatally. While anger is now directed at European slaveowners and their descendants (though, oddly, not the Vikings), there is no similar complaint against those of Arab, Muslim or African descent, who took more Africans out of Africa than England ever did.

No activists today seem interested in identifying and criticising the descendants of those who used slaves in Turkey, Arabia and North Africa. Nor do they protest outside the Chinese embassy about the subjugation and exploitation of the Uighurs today. Do their lives not matter?

As to Empires – whether Persian, Roman, African, Mughal, Chinese, Ottoman or European – they are neither rare nor gentle institutions, and don’t usually arise by invitation. By historic standards the British Empire was extensive, of short duration and comparatively benign. There was, of course, commercial exploitation and the ruled were not invariably treated well.

But a great deal was good: its administration was remarkably altruistic and impartial and emphasis was generally placed upon the interests of the people of the country. The rule of law replaced despotic whim. Communication, irrigation, new crops and medicines, were established. Education came where there was none. Indian widows were saved from burning on their husband’s pyres. And slavery was abolished.

Britain’s colonies gave birth to new nations: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and democratic India. The Empire gave Britain the strength to resist the onslaught of the Axis. And one former colony, America, has protected Western Europe for 75 years.

To dismiss or devalue this because of disagreeable features of perceived racial superiority is historically ignorant, and lacking in balanced judgement and common sense.

If we identify individuals who profited from slave labour, what should we do? Destroy their depictions, as the vandals of Isis did to the temples of Syria? Remove their statues, as the Mayor of London is seeking to do?

Should we abuse long dead people, or castigate their descendants, because they do not think as we do now? Charles I believed in the divine right of Kings, which we do not. Must he go too? What about Elizabeth I and her captains, who saved England from Spanish invasion? Can Hadrian’s wall remain – built as it was by the very epitome of a slave-owning imperialist – lest it upset a sensitive hiking party? Is a bust of Napoleon acceptable?

The hypocrisy of today's academics can be well illustrated in two respects. First, many British Universities and colleges are presently keen to have close ties with China – a country engaged in the suppression and imprisonment of the people in Xinjiang – yet bitterly complain about remote associations with English slave-owners three centuries ago. Second, there is a striking inconsistency between their fierce retrospective intolerance of slavery with which anyone English was connected, and their utter indifference to other slavers, past or present.

As is becoming increasingly evident, this activism is far more concerned with the destruction of the spirit of the current British nation than it is with the fate of slaves in distant centuries.

We must stop surrendering to retrospective proscription and keep our history free from the censorship of the intolerant, the prejudice of the ill-informed and the designs of the malign. The history of Britain cannot simply be left to the hostile erosions of those who, by whatever perversity of reason, repudiate the benefits which the country has brought to its people and to the world.

Written byCharles Harris

Charles Harris is a former Judge and author of Trial and Error (Mereo Books)

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