It all started with the death in Minneapolis on 25 May of an unarmed black man named George Floyd. Nearly three weeks later, with anti-racism protests spreading across the Atlantic, Britain is engaged in an animated, agonising and admittedly divisive discussion about racial justice, colonialism and national memory.
It’s part of a tableau that’s playing out across the United States, Europe and the so-called “white commonwealth” – New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
Countries that traded in slaves, colonised others, or where indigenous populations were displaced by white settlers are being forced to join a global conversation about the bloody legacies of history.
On Sunday, 14 June for instance, New Zealand saw its biggest protests in a decade, with anti-racism campaigners in Auckland and Wellington featuring prominent members of the indigenous Maori people. The Maori, who are less than 20 per cent of the country’s population, make up half of New Zealand’s prison population. Camille Nakhid, an academic who has studied police discrimination in New Zealand, likened racism to a “knee on the neck”, the phrase used in the context of Floyd’s asphyxiation by a white policeman. Using the Maori word for New Zealand, Nakhid said, “I want to talk about the knees on our neck, the black indigenous people of colour in Aotearoa”.
Nowhere is the conversation more painful than the United Kingdom, which colonised large swathes of the world and ran the largest empire in history. With roughly 13 million square miles of land and just under 500 million subjects in 1938, Britannia ruled the waves as well as 20 per cent of the planet’s population.
Much like other European former colonisers, not least Belgium and Portugal, post-imperial Britain has managed to avoid some of the harder questions about the economic and societal foundations of its modern state.
While the idea of decolonising the UK’s higher education curriculum has been around for the past five years, there has been little serious attempt for Britain to honestly interrogate its colonial past.
Prime minister Boris Johnson seems unwilling or unable to help lead the conversation.
But others are making a start in the attempt to tread a delicate line.
On June 7, Bristol, in southwest England, became the first European city to forcibly remove the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader and local philanthropist. Marvin Rees, its mayor, acknowledges the contradictions of the moment. Describing himself as “the first directly elected black mayor in Europe”, Rees said, “I cannot condone criminal damage. I’m a political leader. We need order in the city. But I can’t pretend the statue is anything but an affront to me. Not just as a Jamaican heritage man but as a human being”.
But he cautions that the debate about race, class and history needs both depth and breadth. “Talking about white privilege does not mean that all white people live lives of privilege. They don’t. That’s where race and class are bound up together. They are not the same thing and they should not be confused as the same thing, but you can’t talk about race without talking about issues of class and you can’t talk about the future of working-class white people without talking about the fight against racism”.
The Bristol mayor has asked historians in his city to produce a report on local memorials linked to the slave trade. It will be used to inform a city-wide conversation on their future.
In the British capital, meanwhile, mayor Sadiq Khan also admitted the challenge of reappraising history without rejecting it altogether. Khan, who was born to a working class Pakistani family in south London, said he did not approve of protesters breaking the law and there should, instead, be a proper process for the removal of any statues that do not reflect London’s values.
Khan has set up a new body, the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, which will be tasked with the sensitive job of assessing the legacies to be celebrated and the statues that could be removed.
“It is an uncomfortable truth,” Khan noted, “that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored”.
According to Oxford University historian Diane Purkiss, Britain’s rise to world power was financed by slavery. From the Elizabethan age, she says, England muscled in on the “triangle trade” – Europeans enslaved and transported Africans to the Americas and then used the same ships to bring back sugar and tobacco. They also exported textiles and manufactured goods to Africa. It was lucrative and with the colonisation of India, the “jewel in the Crown” and the exploitation of its wealth and labour, Britain’s industrial revolution proceeded apace and magnificent civic monuments were erected across the country.
Purkiss argues that Britain has long created an “economic theory” that insists meritocracy and mercantile enterprise made the country rich instead of the “triangle slave trade and our dealings with India”.
The conversation will be fractious.
But even acknowledging the need to have it is a good start. Democracy, as they say, rests on the battle of ideas.
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