A bit of a long read but as we approach Black History Month in the UK and start talking about the contributions black people have made to British society I wanted to politely suggest that the majority of white people need to start owning their history and that black history month is not the time to talk about slavery or colonialism.
It seems to be consistently inconvenient to remember the UK’s industrial wealth was built on the backs of the black and brown people who inhabited the British colonies. The wealth that came from this dark history funded the growth of British cities and communities as well as the development of industries that have since boomed into multinationals that dominate the global marketplace.
The people and countries who toiled the hardest for the benefit of the British industrialists have never seen a shred of the unimaginable wealth that has transformed communities and families across the UK. As a result of slavery and post slavery forced labour many white people with humble beginnings benefited from the trickle-down economics and philanthropy that would change the life chances of their future families forever.
Industrialists poured wealth into education for their children and then because the owners of the cotton mills and sugar plants had so much new money they funded schools in their towns, they funded universities, they started charitable organisations for the poor (white people), they brought houses, became property developers, developed new workers housing, built themselves huge mansions of which many are now in the hands of the National Trust. It’s not surprising that at home Industrialists were celebrated, that they became the landed gentry and members of Parliament who could, in their new positions of power, determine the life chances of others while their wives became campaigners fighting for (white) women to have equal rights.
The opportunity to travel and streamline the processes in the Colonies for the benefit of a company’s bottom line enabled Industrialists to take treasures from these faraway lands. These treasures are now worth a fortune and changing the lives of the people who inherited them; all of whom promise when they hear the valuation on the Antiques Roadshow ‘to keep it in the family’.
These Industrialists didn’t pay tax in the British colonies and they certainly didn’t invest into the lands of the people where the raw materials were coming from. No money for schools, hospitals or housing. It’s no surprise then that the generations that came after slavery continued to be oppressed, abused and tortured. These people did not thrive, they received no compensation, they were forced to work in slave like conditions for meagre wages. They had no legacy of wealth, just more pain, poverty and continued racism.
The biggest manufacturing plants on Jamaica are still owned by British companies and the tourism industry is mostly owned by Spanish companies; neither industry reinvest their profits into Jamaica. Even now the commonwealth countries who gained independence from Britain still pay the British government a penny in every pound they make as a tax in exchange for freedom. These taxes are supposed to provide access to funds, including from Europe and security particularly during and after hurricanes but we’ve seen how that plays out.
A good example of an Industrialist who grew a multinational organisation off the back of the colonies is Lord Lever, the ‘hulme’ came later. While Lord Lever built the globally celebrated Port Sunlight village to provide his workforce with good housing and campaigned for better welfare for all he supported the expansion of the British colonies. After being unable to access forced labour in the British West African colonies he brought into the forced labour of the Belgian Congo instead. His huge investment supported a period of history that was responsible for more deaths than the Nazi holocaust. This relationship with the Congo did not end until the country secured its independence in 1960. Today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the poorest counties in the world with 80% of it’s population living on less than $1.50 a day. In contrast, Lever Brothers became Unilever and is one of the richest conglomerates in the world.
To me this is more Britain’s history than it is African but you won’t often read about the dark side of Lord Lever because he was a billionaire Industrialist who is celebrated as a liberal, who gifted Lancaster House (an actual palace) to the British public, invested in schools, universities and grew one of the most successful businesses in the world. He is also responsible for the death of millions of Africans and for stripping the Congo of its natural resources and leaving nothing in return.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to think about but white people, by not taking ownership of what your ancestors did during your colonial past, you are standing still and prolonging the healing that needs to take place. My ancestors had no power to dismantle the structural racism they endured during slavery and post slavery colonialism. These periods of history and their legacy belong to you and a few kind words during black history month is not owning your history or doing anything to re-balance the outcomes of it. If you think your pain is too huge to bear imagine for a moment the life of the people your people abused. If you think I should just get over it, my response is that is easy to say while standing on the privilege colonialism afforded you. Your people were poor you say, indeed they may have been but they were poor within a booming economy that eventually funded a welfare system, free schooling, healthcare and a first rate travel network. Being poor in Britain post the Industrial age was due to political arrangements not because of structural racism. By comparison even desperately poor white people had better life chances than their counterparts in the Commonwealth and that is British history that should be taught all year round not just mentioned along with some kindly words of recompense during the month of October.
“If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”
Sir Terry Pratchett