06 October 2022

"There is not one British history, but many. There is not one British way of life, but many."


The school curriculum I experienced as a pupil was deeply biased and wildly distorted. It presented an entirely White British interpretation of world history and only British classic literature. As learners, we had no other way of seeing the world, because we were not exposed to any alternative views or experiences.

I was taught that the British Empire was a matter of pride; ignoring the swathes of indigenous peoples who died as a result of our take-overs, and ignoring how the natural resources of the lands were exploited to the benefit of only Britain. The core message was that we had civilized the world, sharing our superior technology and our military and business efficiency. Yes, we did study the systematic slave trading across the 17th-19th centuries in appalling detail. Curiously, it reinforced the idea of white superiority, rather than highlighting the inhumanity of ‘ownership’ of human beings. After all, it wasn’t happening in Britain itself.

Europe’s centuries of voyages of discovery were funded by investors seeking new riches rather than ‘fair trade’; and the ships took with them a belief in their cultural and religious superiority. So, what began as exploration, quickly became exploitation and appropriation. Taking over newly found lands seemed completely reasonable to ‘civilised’ men who deemed the locals as ‘primitive’. Any organised resistance could be dealt with by eliminating the opposition or by incentivising the indigenous leaders.  

In West Africa, the initial plan to exploit the rich seams of gold was overtaken by the vastly superior profits achievable from purchasing enslaved workers. No moral or religious barriers held back the European hunger for profit. As a result, the Caribbean islands gained great value as a location for exploiting this cheap labour, and Britain was happy to accept the riches that flowed. As early as the 1630s, Britain had adopted the slave-plantation model for all its Caribbean and New World plantations.

By the 18th century, plantation owners estimated that the bankable lifespan of Black enslaved workers was seven years or less. In 1751 an Englishman on Antigua explained that it was “…cheaper to work the slaves to the utmost, and by the little fare and hard usage, to wear them out before they become useless and unable to do service.” Meanwhile, the vast wealth generated by this forced Black labour transformed the economics of Britain, effectively facilitating the agrarian and industrial revolutions. The British were at the heart of the transatlantic slave trade and we benefitted for centuries.

It is difficult to access histories of Black resistance as it has been in the exploiters’ interests to remove all traces. Some African kingdoms, particularly in Kongo and Benin, recognized the cost of losing their youth and fought to end the slave trade in their lands. There was resistance too from the enslaved peoples, with many revolts on slave ships and plantations. We might also look to the history of Haiti, once the richest colony in history, where the successful revolution of its slave population eventually saw it become a leading influencer in the ending the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Presenting history, or literature, without alternative perspectives is a way of sweeping history under the carpet. Our politicians still like to spin sanitised versions of the past. Take the Windrush scandal.  In the 1950s, Caribbean families answered the call of the ‘motherland’ and entered the UK legitimately and legally; with most children travelling under a parent’s passport. A change in the law in the 1980s ignored this history and as a result, over the years, 13,000 Black UK citizens were denied their citizenship. Hundreds were wrongly deported or held in detention. Some were stranded abroad. Thousands lost homes, jobs or were denied their legitimate entitlement to benefits, pensions and healthcare. Three enquiries and a dysfunctional compensation scheme later, the government systems that failed these UK citizens could still not accept that this blind-spot to alternative experiences was avoidable.

Informed and inspired by ‘The Guardian’ 12 October 2021 long read:

Built on the bodies of slaves: how Africa was erased from the history of the modern world


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