Many of us are familiar with the “UK isn’t as bad as…” spiel. Let the UK curriculum tell it, our history began with slavery and Africa was the epitome of poverty and famine. I am fortunate enough to have learned from the oral history of my elders, my mothers love of learning and my parents’ commitment to Uganda, which instilled in me a love of travelling. It was through my travels across the continent and Black communities in the USA, including Atlanta, Detroit and New Orleans, that I unlearned the doctrine of imperialism, which teaches many of us that we are ‘lucky’ to receive the grace of Great Britain.

“Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” — African Proverb Slavery

Our history in the UK goes back much further than the Windrush generation, who rebuilt and revitalised this economy. This article highlights a few points to evidence the need for us to learn the true British history, as we cannot heal if we do not know the real cause of our illness.

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Slavery

Liverpool:

  • In 1803, John Gladstone purchased the Belmont estate in Demerara (British Guyana) with 430 enslaved people. He began trading cotton and sugar (hence, Demerara sugar) and became so wealthy from the labour of Black people that his son, William Gladstone was able to study at Eton (many oppressors studied at Eton).
  • William Gladstone became Prime Minister and argued against the immediate emancipation of enslaved people. When the British finally abolished slavery in the 1830s the Gladstone family received over £90,000 in compensation for the people who they had to free.
  • Many Liverpool street names (e.g. Gladstone Road and Penny Lane) commemorate individuals who prospered from the slave trade.
  • Liverpool’s role in slave trading was so significant that UNESCO listed the Maritime Mercantile City as a World Heritage Site.

Joseph Brooks:

  • Brooks was a Slave Trader and was a Co-Owner of the Slave Ship ‘BROOKES’ which was as an infamous symbol of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (see below)
  • He was involved in forty-three voyages between 1770 and 1790.
  • Brooks is renowned for composing Amazing Grace, the hymn which is beloved by Christians and human rights activists. This legacy is highly publicised to overwrite his role in slavery.

London Docklands:

  • Robert Milligan, a slave-owner who settled in London, was the driving force behind the London Docks’ construction. When he died in 1809, he “owned” 526 enslaved Africans who were forced to work on his family’s plantation in Jamaica.
  • The West India Docks company erected a statue in honour of Robert Milligan in front of the Museum of London Docklands, which itself is a converted warehouse once used to store slave-harvested sugar.
  • The Museum of London Docklands is surrounded by buildings, streets and statues built with the profits of slavery, in many cases commemorating the owners and traders of enslaved people.
  • The British government borrowed £20 million (more than £16 billion, in today’s currency) to pay out compensation claims for the sudden loss of unpaid labour. The compensation came from our taxes, which we just recently paid off in 2015.

Hans Sloane:

  • In 1687, Sloane was a physician to Jamaica’s (English) Governor, the Duke of Albemarle.
  • During his stay on slave plantations, he got English planters and enslaved West Africans (Akan men and women mainly from present-day Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire) to assemble a collection which led to the creation of the British Museum.
  • Sloane married Elizabeth Langley Rose, heiress to sugar plantations in Jamaica. Profits from the plantation contributed substantially to his collections, which became the foundation not only of the British Museum, but the Natural History Museum and the British Library.
  • Sloane Square and Hans Crescent are land still owned by his descendants, the Cadogan family.

Barclays Bank:

  • David and Alexander Barclay were engaged in the slave trade in 1756 and they later used their profits to set up Barclays Bank.
  • Barclays Bank was also one of the first to provide loans for colonialism in the name of “assisting Africa”
  • Barclays bought the Colonial Bank and gained a banking monopoly in Africa under the name Barclays Bank Dominion, Colonial and Overseas. They shortened the name to Barclays Bank DCO in 1954 and rebranded to Barclays Bank International in 1971.
  • David Barclay became an abolitionist and is largely remembered for choosing to free enslaved people from his plantation in Jamaica

Universities:

  • Last year, the University of Glasgow said it had received up to the equivalent of £198 million in today’s money from people who accumulated their wealth from slavery. Glasgow said it deeply regretted this part of its past, which clashed with its parallel history of support for the abolition of slavery. They started a program of reparative justice.
  • The University of Bristol rejected a petition to change the name of its Wills Memorial Building in 2017. The building honours its first chancellor, whose family profited from tobacco farming using enslaved labour

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Colonialism

Scramble for Africa:

  • As more resources were “discovered”, the main focus of the British empire became Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • In 1880, there were 10,000 kingdoms in Africa. By 1900, they were forcibly merged into 40 states. 36 were European, with Britain controlling one third of the continent.
  • In 1884, the Chancellor of Germany called a conference to be held in Berlin, to discuss the partition of Africa among European nations. Twenty four nations were invited and fifteen came. No Africans were asked.
  • The British fascination with drawing lines on maps of other countries caused a lot of conflict for different kingdoms and cultures, who were forced to exist as one people.
  • Biafra (Nigeria), Ambazonia (Cameroon), Somaliland (Somalia) and Azawad (Mali) are examples of separatism and civil wars which can result from diverse peoples being forcibly united into single states.
  • What we now know as Nigeria, was named as such following a suggestion from Flora Shaw, a British journalist from Woolwich, South London. She was the wife of Frederick Lugard, who was the first Governor of the (then) colony.
  • Seven years after Nigeria gained independence from Britain, conflict with Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani triggered Igbo separatists to form their own nation, called Biafra.
  • This led to three years of bloodshed and (upon advice from the British army) the Nigerian Navy established a sea blockade that denied food, medical supplies and weapons, to Biafran soldiers and civilians. Many died from the ensuing famine.
  • Britain was also Nigeria’s main supplier of arms. A Commonwealth Office briefing document to (then) British prime minister Harold Wilson, stated that “the sole immediate British interest is to bring the [Nigerian] economy back to a condition in which our substantial trade and investment can be further developed.” It was never for moral or ethical reasons.
  • Another legacy of the empire is the “Commonwealth”. While membership in the Commonwealth is now voluntary, its roots go back to the British Empire, when countries around the world were ruled by Britain and had to pay allegiance to the British king or queen.
  • Yet another legacy of the empire is the ‘Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’. This refers to the honours of OBE, MBE, CBE, Knight, Dame etc. George the Poet and Beatles singer John Lennon are some notable names who turned down the MBS. The latter returned his MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra war and the Vietnam war.

Cecil Rhodes:

  • Born in 1853 at Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire, Cecil Rhodes entered Matebeleland and decided that he ‘founded’ the colonies of “Southern and Northern Rhodesia”, later renamed Zambia and Zimbabwe.
  • Rhodes scorched many villages and crops when the Ndebele and Shona people rose up against his oppression.
  • In a show of white supremacy, Rhodes contended that “we are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…if there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…”
  • Olive Schreiner, who initially supported Cecil Rhodes, turned against him because his atrocities were so extreme. She wrote to her friend “We fight Rhodes because he means so much of oppression, injustice and moral degradation to South Africa; but if he passed away tomorrow there still remains the terrible fact that something in our society has formed the matrix which has fed, nourished, built up such a man!”
  • In his will, Rhodes left a fortune in excess of £3 million (approx. £750+ million in today’s money) to fund the Rhodes scholarships that enable students, primarily from former British territories, to study at Oxford University. I hasten to add that this wealth was accumulated through diamond mining in South Africa, which Rhodes was involved in as Chair of the De Beers company.
  • In 2016, Oxford university decided not to remove their statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes. This was despite a campaign by students who argued that his legacy should not be celebrated.

John Ruskin:

  • Another example of Oxford’s legacy is the famed coloniser, John Ruskin. He was a Professor of Fine Art at Oxford who made a speech in which he announced: “This is what England must do or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able… seizing every bit of fruitful waste ground she can set her foot on and there teaching her colonies that their most important quality is loyalty to their country. Their primary aim is to advance the power of England…”
  • In addition to having schools, colleges and streets named after him, we seem to have upheld Ruskin’s demand of ‘advancing the power of England’. As recently as 2018, Afua Hirsch found that British companies control more than $1 trillion worth of Africa’s key resources.
  • Due to Britain’s relationships within the “Commonwealth”, Africa also loses £30 billion more each year than it receives in aid, loans and remittances combined.

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Genocide

Aboriginals:

  • The British committed the largest act of genocide in Australian history. Tasmania was controlled from London and mass killings were conducted for years. First by British soldiers, then police and Brits acting together, then later by native police under the command of white officers from colonial governments.
  • In an 1830 speech at Downing Street, George Murray (Secretary of State for the Colonies) warned the British government that it would leave an ‘indelible stain’ on the reputation of the British Empire, if it was revealed that the indigenous peoples of Tasmania had been deliberately targeted for extermination.
  • The crimes continued without repercussions up to 1926. They were even found to poison flour which was given to Aboriginal people.

Native Americans:

  • We rarely hear about Britain’s crimes against the Native Americans. The British and French fought for control of Ohio valley, trapping various Native American tribes in the middle of this conflict.
  • The British won this war and took control of the land in the early 1760s.
  • Native Americans found that life under British authority was more harmful than living under French control. In 1762, practically every Native American tribe joined forces to expel the British from their lands (now USA), starting from the port of Detroit.
  • This uprising ended in 1763. The British kept control but signed a Proclamation stating that any land west of the Appalachian Mountains was to be preserved for the Native Americans.
  • Many colonisers disregarded the legislation and continued to encroach on Native American land, particularly around the Ohio River. Conflict continued for decades and we have seen the outcome; descendants of the colonisers advocating for walls, ICE tearing families apart and racist groups defending a land that was never theirs to begin with.

Mau Mau:

  • When we hear of concentration camps, most people automatically think of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Lo and behold, it was the British who conceived the ‘concentration camp’ when they persecuted families of Boers in South Africa. Ironically, they went on to admonish Apartheid in South Africa. It’s worth also noting that the Queen and her state initially declared Nelson Mandela a terrorist, before showing solidarity with him.
  • The Mau Mau uprising was a revolt against British colonisers, who were expelling Kikuyu’s (the largest ethnic group in Kenya) from their own land, creating white settlements and causing poverty for the natives, while marginalising them in politics.
  • Under the direction of (then) Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the British hung up to 150,000 suspected Mau Mau and supporters, who they held in detention camps.
  • The Mau Mau also massacred families in this 8 year battle, which only recently ended in 1960.
  • Many credit this battle for hastening Kenya’s independence, which came 3 years later in 1963.
  • In 2006, Mau Mau survivors took legal action against the British government for torture in the detention camp. One lady spoke of being raped with a bottle of water and pepper, while another spoke of being blindfolded while her children cried out for her. She never saw them again.
  • Again, this was just 60 years ago, many of the survivors are still alive, yet their stories remain buried.

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This summary is just a snapshot of British history. Since my focus was on the history of UK racism against Black people, I haven’t detailed the nations role in the Palestine conflict, or the displacement and conflict that they caused when they split India from Pakistan (while sitting in Cambridge might I add). I haven’t even mentioned the economic incentive for having Qaddafi* killed, triggered by his plans for a single African currency backed by gold.

What I will highlight however, is that if you look back far enough (and not always that far), the UK seems to be the common denominator in atrocities across the world. No matter where you find examples of white supremacy, all roads lead back to my country of birth.

It was racism that birthed slavery and colonialism. We say it is in the past but our schools, colleges, universities, streets, museums etc still honour the enforcers of our oppression. There would be outrage if Hitler Avenue still existed in Germany or if there was a Bin Laden School in Saudi Arabia. So why don’t we show the same disdain for the oppressors, torturers and murderers of Black people?

In Part 2 I delve into Legacies of Racism.

Business Academic | Award-Winning Founder | Doctoral Student | School Governor | Intersectionality Expert

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