I’m a big fan of David Olusoga’s work.
In the series Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners and, in particular, in The Establishment and the Barbados Slave Code, I was moved to deep sadness, horror and some kind of shame, as he, deeply moved himself, introduced us to the instruments of torture used to ‘discipline’ some slaves, including children. I say shame because I know Robertson’s were part of those horrors. I know that, just as Campbells, Smiths and others do, because of the many British Afro-Caribbeans, we meet or hear of, carrying the names of their ancestral owners.
Olusoga has moved me to deep sadness several times before. Hearing him describe once his own experience as a small child, hearing racist calls for his family’s eviction and stones hurled against their home, I felt a deep and hurtful ache in my heart. I hope, even as a ‘white’ man, I can empathise with that enough to be haunted by the image, to this day and forever now.
I’ve heard him describe, clearly deeply moved, three Bristol sisters who lost all three of their husbands in the bloody mud of WWI battles. I felt a kind of shame in that too. Perhaps, too hard on myself here, I remember my discovery that the man responsible for Britain’s ‘strategy’ of beating the Germans by absorbing more death that they could and sending our working-classes over the top, to walk, to the skirl of our pipes, into the mincing machine of machine gun fire, was the work of the less well-known, Field Marshall William Robertson.
I’ve seen him standing in graveyards, saddened almost beyond words, recounting the tragic lives of children used and abused by Britain’s brutal industrial systems.
Why then do I care about the issue my headline alludes to? Maybe, I’m being a bit OCD or pedantic but Olusoga makes a mistake many ‘English’ historians make, using ‘Britain’ when it should be ‘England’. Others have done it the other way around. I think it reveals an Anglo-Saxon mindset even in those not very Anglo-Saxon.
Ten minutes in, the story takes us to Barbados in 1627, exactly 80 years before Britain existed, but we hear straightaway of ‘50 British settlers’ arriving in Barbados. The term ‘British’ is used again, five times, before a local historian links the code used to articulate the slave system, written in 1660s, and describes it as originating in England:
He goes on to say:
The English arrive in the Caribbean already with a fully formed racist and racial view about other people, especially African peoples.
Now I am not excusing, in any way, the later greedy collusion of elite and middle-class Scots but in the 1660s and for another 100 years many thousands here were to die or be exiled, in borderline genocidal actions and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by England’s elites and their armies, from Cromwellian atrocities at the same time as the Barbados experiment to the Hanoverian destruction of Highland culture and occupation of all Scotland, in 1746.
England’s predatory actions toward Wales, Scotland and Ireland from the 13th to the early 20th Century were often justified by a racist conception of their ‘inferior’ and ‘Celtic’ neighbours and a sense of their own racial superiority.
As Scotland seeks to leave the Empire behind, clearly racist abuse directed at Scots, is becoming common in the English Parliament and in parts of the media. Social media, of course, is awash with angry insults aimed at the ‘ungrateful’ Jocks.
I hope David Olusoga, as an historian, will agree that accuracy is important.
Footnote: Were Irish people beneficiaries of slavery? I hear nothing of that.