Empire, racism, the slave trade, and statues

Statue of Edward Colston, 1895. Thrown into Bristol harbour on 7 June 2020. The plaque reads, ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city. AD 1895’.

Warning: this post contains descriptions of torture.

The British are in denial about the British Empire.

The British Empire didn’t invent slavery, but it did become deeply immeshed in the Atlantic slave trade. Today the emphasis is placed on its role in ‘abolishing’ the slave trade. And that was a good thing. Later on, the British Empire did put considerable resources into stopping it. But, at the same time it airbrushed its own involvement with the slave trade from history. (The cynical might say that once the Americas became independent cutting off the slave trade was a way of containing their rising power.) The generally agreed consensus is that the transatlantic slave trade killed about 14 million people (some estimates are much higher).

There are many troubling parallels between the British Empire and German National Socialism in the 1930s and 40s. The Nazis always made it clear that they admired the British Empire. They wanted to achieve a British Empire of their own.

The racial parallels between Empire and National Socialism present a grim truth that few people in the UK have come to terms with. The British Empire wasn’t a benevolent club dedicated to education and improving the world. It was a big business. It was designed to suck wealth out of the dominions. To generate large sums of profit for a small number of people. This is not to say that some good things did happen. They did. But, on the whole it was a destructive force for many of the people within it. It worked by using deliberately divisive ‘divide and rule’ policies that created single nations from multiple groups of people.

The success of the British Empire is something of a puzzle to us now. How did such a small, and frankly not exactly efficient, nation become so successful? There are many reasons. Piracy, financial gambling on risky City investment schemes, the political manipulation of other nation’s affairs (‘divide and rule’), hired help, technology, systems and processes, luck, military power, and complete utter ruthlessness.

Where did slavery and Empire begin?

The Ancient Roman Empire had slaves. There was slavery in the Arab world, and in Africa. (The European slave traders bought their slaves from Africans.)

In Britain, Medieval serfs were essentially slaves. In return for their labour to the aristocracy, or landed gentry, they were given a small plot of land allowing them to subsist at little more than starvation level.

The slave trade was a continuation of the raw deal the serfs had. It was an imposed order. It provided cheap labour for plantation owners in the Americas. A workforce without any rights. Maximum productivity. Minimum costs. It was cruel and inhumane but it was also highly profitable for slave traders and plantation owners.

Even after slavery was abolished within the British Empire, its effects continued on. The lack of rights. Indentured labour schemes. Social deprivation. Prejudice. The lack of opportunity. And so on.

Why are there statues to slave owners in British cities?

One of the reasons why there are statues to former slave traders in British cities is that these people made a fortune from their plantations and from the slave trade. They bought their respectability through acts of local philanthropy in the UK. (The story of ethically dubious people buying their respectability is one of the oldest stories.)

We shouldn’t have statues celebrating people who owned slaves. It’s insulting and morally wrong.

Things were not much better after the Second World War

The Nazis also saw certain groups of people as objects, ‘raw material’ to be exploited. This was in part justified by viewing them as less intelligent and less human. The Nazis also made extensive use of slave labour during the Second World War.

The death camps were the end result of this racial view of the world. The British were appalled when they liberated Belsen Bergen. What they saw shocked them and the rest of the world.

Less than a decade after the liberation of Belsen Bergen, the British Army was murdering and torturing people in Kenya, during the Mau Mau Uprising. (Yes, there were atrocities on both sides.) But, somehow, because the people being murdered and tortured by the Army were Black, it didn’t matter so much to them. There was a racial element to how the British viewed the uprising and their own behaviour in putting it down. It is not known how many people were tortured and killed. Estimates range from thousands to tens of thousands.

You can read more about the Mau Mau Uprising at Wikipedia. Here are three quotes from the Wikipedia page that specifically detail the torture that was practiced:

We knew the slow method of torture [at the Mau Mau Investigation Center] was worse than anything we could do. Special Branch there had a way of slowly electrocuting a Kuke — they'd rough up one for days. Once I went personally to drop off one gang member who needed special treatment. I stayed for a few hours to help the boys out, softening him up. Things got a little out of hand. By the time I cut his balls off, he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him.

Prisoners were questioned with the help of ‘slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes’. Castration by British troops and denying access to medical aid to the detainees were also widespread and common. Among the detainees who suffered severe mistreatment was Hussein Onyango Obama, the grandfather of Barack Obama, the former President of the United States. According to his widow, British soldiers forced pins into his fingernails and buttocks and squeezed his testicles between metal rods and two others were castrated.

The historian Robert Edgerton describes the methods used during the emergency: ‘If a question was not answered to the interrogator's satisfaction, the subject was beaten and kicked. If that did not lead to the desired confession, and it rarely did, more force was applied. Electric shock was widely used, and so was fire. Women were choked and held under water; gun barrels, beer bottles, and even knives were thrust into their vaginas. Men had beer bottles thrust up their rectums, were dragged behind Land Rovers, whipped, burned and bayoneted… Some police officers did not bother with more time-consuming forms of torture; they simply shot any suspect who refused to answer, then told the next suspect, to dig his own grave. When the grave was finished, the man was asked if he would now be willing to talk.’

The British Empire and the Nazis both abused groups of people on an industrial scale. Both systems had a racial view of the people they abused and exploited.

While Germany has, in some ways, come to terms with its troubled and difficult past, the British are still in denial about the British Empire. It’s only by coming to terms with this that we can move on.