Dark matters

A quote inspired by Honore De Balzac  “Behind Every Great Fortune There is a Crime” epitomises the theme for the May Blog.

When I was a youth I was taught in school about “Great Britain”  and the wonderful exploits of people like Winston Churchill, Sir Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson and all those great Kings and Queens…. I was awestruck. All of this was confirmed and glamourised by rather amateurish tv productions where Black people were either fetching, carrying or figures of fun, and characters of a dubious reputation were exalted as extraordinary and gifted individuals; but history has now revealed them to be far less reputable than they had been painted. This has resulted in the desperate protection of statues glorifying a less than glorious past.

…..and there was of course those fine buildings like Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and stately country homes which I thought had been secured because there was something very special about this civilisation and its capacity to create such a wonderful Empire. This fanciful recollection of history is now celebrated in the rather random distributions of MBEs and OBEs just to remind us all that the Empire lives on…if only in our imagination. Yes, The Empire Strikes Back!!

After we had all collectively sang “Rule Britannia” in the school assembly hall with the unforgettable line “Britons never, never, never will be slaves”. The classroom continued the torture of referencing slavery in history classes without the backstory ….and I wanted to be either invisible or shrink into the ground. These stories very often characterised Black people as victims who only became slaves because they were not bright enough to defend themselves; and strangely for many years this is what some African peoples thought about Caribbean people…and conversely some Caribbean people were comfortable to have been rescued from a place that was characterised as “uncivilised” …..some of this thinking still resonates with some of our people today!

Of course, the reality that was not shared with us was the extent of Britain’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the fact that many of this country’s wealthiest families became rich having been handsomely rewarded for giving up their slaves and the vast profits they were earning. There is very often a presumption that our supposed “betters”, captains of industry and titled aristocracy earned their position by having some higher intellect and this “doffing of the cap” mentality endures amongst many that theyare a class of people who know better and deserve to lead….and you only have to look at the British cabinet and the strange coincidence that many of them went to Oxford University.

Some of those who benefitted from Slavery are the ancestors of people like David Cameron, Graham Greene and George Orwell and many of the fine houses in our shire counties were built on the profits of the slave trade. Now to bring matters much closer to home, in this very city a number of families have been discovered to have been owners of slaves and received substantial compensation varying from someone who lived in Merry Oak with 1163 slaves in Antigua given £4 million in today’s money to lesser sums like someone living in Sholing who had 37 slaves who received £160 000 in today’s money. The reality is that many fine houses in many English cities were financed through the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Southampton is no exception. Some years ago there was a street in Southampton called Sugar House Lane where Sugar from the Caribbean was refined and I would argue that the name should be restored….lest we forget the part that the city played, not as an accusation but to ensure that this fact is not erased from history. Perhaps this green and pleasant land was not as pleasant as many would like to think.

There is an proposition that inherited (slavery) wealth plays a great part in families retaining their wealth and over the years has resulted in this handed down wealth playing a part in helping with deposits for their children’s mortgage. However, if you are not part of the inherited wealth club you are clearly at a disadvantage and the fruits of slavery over the years has played its part by the sifting down of that wealth to today’s generation and that is something that many choose to ignore. Of course, this does not apply to everyone with money which may have been gained from their own efforts.

Now to return to Balzac’s premise that “Behind Every Fortune Lies A Great Crime” we need to consider how present generations should take responsibility for the crimes committed during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Some countries in the Caribbean feel strongly about this issue as they are painfully aware that the residue of colonial involvement still maintains considerable profits for the ancestors of the original coloniser  not withstanding the historical and emotional trauma to the descendants of those enslaved.

Germany started making reparations payments to Holocaust survivors back in the 1950s and continues making payments today. Some 400,000 Jews who survived the Nazis were still alive in 2019. That year, Germany paid $564 million to the organisation which handles the payments. Germany’s reparations work went beyond money; it included a commitment to ongoing truth telling and outlawing the Nazi Party. Nonetheless companies like BMW, Porsche and the Bahlsen biscuit Empire created billionaires whose profits were simply derived from Nazi loot and the wealth of the richest woman in Germany in 2008 Susanne Klatten was derived from her Nazi sponsoring forebears. The descendants of many of these people are well respected tycoons. In fact, one of the descendants of these ill-gotten gains is quoted as saying “I want to make money and buy sailing yachts from my dividend”

So how does this relate to the Transatlantic Slave trade. Someof us, Black and White, believe that this was a long time ago and we should move on. The reality is that this country enslaved more Africans than almost any other country, and all we have ever had is sentiments of regret and the occasional apology. To compound this even further this country has treated the descendants of those trafficked dishonourably, unjustly and sometimes with contempt and the experiences of the Windrush generation bear testimony to this. Furthermore, in the words of WEB Dubois, enslavement of 12 million Africans became the root of all race prejudice, particularly towards Black peoples, and that became an essential element of modern-day Racism impacting not only on our physical well-being but on our mental well-being even more so!

So where does that leave us? Possibly like Germany this country should commit themselves to a programme of ongoing truth telling. and this should include ensuring that our schools and learning institutions start telling the truth about the Empire and its role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade; and how a considerable part of the wealth of this country is a consequence of this activity. Although Wales has made the teaching of Black History mandatory in the school curriculum, we in this country still treat this issue as “political correctness gone mad”!! There is much talk these days about War Crimes and how punishment should be meted out and reparations made, somehow only regrets and apologies seem to be on the table when it relates to the Transatlantic slave trade.

Monetary reparation is all very well but sometimes the truth is much more valuable. There is a well-known phrase “The Truth shall set you free” ….but in a world where the truth is in short supply and sometimes gets in the way of our relative comfortability, we must work so much harder to hold on to the truths about ourselves and our own history; particularly in a world where the messengers of information are controlled by those whose power is a consequence of these crimes.

Don John