Brian Milne has taken a close look at far more than the surface of the Black Lives Matter that is very justifiably news breaking at present. Its origins are in slavery, which itself is closely tied to colonisation. Recent events have exposed a nasty undercurrent in the UK that shows how far England of the four parts of that union to some extent still sees itself as superior to other nations and how a very clearly racist right wing has shown it at its most unpleasant.
At present there is a conflict going on England, very specifically that country of the four parts of the United Kingdom, which shows that there is a point of view held that their ‘Eng-ger-land’, as the chants will have it, is still considered to be superior. The UK simply consists of that country with some of what remains of a once vast empire. The statues of slavers and harsh colonial heroes endorse that point of view. In Oxford, the Cecil Rhodes statue debate has gone on for many years proving that those who believe in their nation’s importance in today’s world cannot look at the past dispassionately many years after most parts of the empire have been independent. There is, for instance, still no appetite for a thorough forensic examination of British behaviour in Ireland as they come up to a century as an independent nation.
The German experience should be one of the examples of how people of a particular nation can learn the historical truth and acknowledge what their country did no matter how painful it may be. It is difficult to be an informed adult in Germany without having to do that. Education does not hold back on the past, it presents it as it needs to be. People therefore grow up knowing. Some fight against that knowledge, thus political movements like AfD arise, but no matter how much they may deny their past, they have at some point in time been confronted with it. It is also a country of migration, Germans to Germany as part of the forced ‘repatriation’ of German speaking people from eastern Europe immediately after WW2. Approximately 30 million people were ‘ethnically cleansed’ of whom between twelve and fourteen million people were ‘returned’ to a devastated mother country they did not know, had probably never seen before, then been engaged in their society which they helped to reconstruct and reorganise within roughly a decade. A very large part of the population of Germany today who is in their 20s or 30s has a grandparent or at least a great-grandparent who was a refugee. Nearly every German has some kind of direct family experience of knowing what it means to be welcomed into a country you did not know and did not belong in before. There are no statues to people who enslaved and brutalised people of other races, those were destroyed in the wake of WW2 and more recently when the division of their country ended. One might assume that Germany has taken a quite unique stance on Syrian refugees in Europe as a means of atoning for the Nazi era and the injustices against many millions of people who were ‘different’.
Facing up to history
The UK has never entirely faced its past. When the UK was about to leave former colonies, many thousands of documents detailing some of the most reprehensible acts and crimes against fellow human beings committed during the final years of empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments. A few years ago some documents that survived the cleansing were taken to the UK to be held in a Foreign Office archive. They were listed as official secrets, therefore inaccessible to historians and members of the public. Eventually they were in breach of legal obligations that they were to be transferred into the public domain. An archive of documents came to came to light in 2011 when a group of Kenyans who had been detained and supposedly tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion won the right to sue the British government. As a result, with whatever documents relevant to their case, the Foreign Office was forced to release thousands of files from 37 former colonies that had been held at a high security government communications centre at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire.
Those papers included intelligence reports on the ‘elimination’ of enemies in 1950s Malaya, including details of an alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers by soldiers of the Scots Guards in 1948. Other documents showed that ministers in London were aware of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya. That included the case of a man who was said to have been roasted alive. The files showed that the army’s Intelligence Corps operated a secret torture centre in Aden for several years in the 1960s. Highly sensitive documents relating to British Guiana, where policies were heavily influenced by successive US governments and whose immediate post-independence leader was overthrown in a coup devised and organised by the CIA. It also includes records about how the inhabitants of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean were forcibly resettled to other islands in the Chagos Archipelago, Mauritius or Seychelles by 1971 to satisfy the requirements of an agreement between the UK and USA made in 1966 to depopulate the island when the USA constructed a base there. Those papers detail the lengths the UK went to to remove islanders from the island by force.
Some of the documents show that many highly sensitive papers from the tail end of UK occupation were not hidden away just destroyed. Those documents showed that colonial officials were told to separate papers that were to be available in those countries after independence, so-called ‘legacy files’ from other ones selected for destruction or removal to the UK. Those papers give the instructions for the systematic destruction of any material that could embarrass or compromise the government, members of the police, military, public servants and others such as police informers that could have compromised intelligence sources or could have been used by members of a future government against the UK. In some colonies, they were called ‘watch files’, stamped with a large red letter W. It would appear that the closer it was to independence, ever larger collections of files were removed from colonial ministries to the governors’ offices, where they were safely locked away using a process code named Operation Legacy. In Kenya, there was a vetting process, described as ‘a thorough purge’, which was overseen by colonial Special Branch officers including instructions issued that no Africans could be involved. Only people who were servants of the Kenya government who were British subjects of European descent could take part in it. Then scrupulous measures were taken to prevent post-independence UK governments from learning that the watch files had ever existed. Officials in some colonies, for instance Kenya, were instructed that there should be emphasis on disposal of documents rather than removal to the UK, that no trace of either the documents or their destruction would remain; thus when documents were burned they should be entirely reduced to ash then those ashes properly disposed of. A notion of the scale of that operation and how many documents were disposed of are still available through a few instructs that survived the purge. Under certain circumstances, colonial officials in Kenya were informed that as an alternative to burning, documents could be packed in heavily weighted crates then dumped in very deep and water at the maximum feasible distance from the coast. Wherever such instructions are still available the sheer scale of information withheld that hides the disgrace of the past can only be surmised. Even then they would be likely to be gross underestimates of the scale and range of atrocities.
Fortunes made from slavery
So whilst the statues of the like of Edward Colston, Robert Milligan and others whose associations with slavery see them removed to be either transferred to dusty corners in museums or, on might hope, melted down, their history re-emerges from obscurity. Many of them played a very active part in the invasion and colonisation of what was to become part of the British Empire of which it is said, the sun never set on it. Take Sir Francis Baring, 1740 -1810, who was an English merchant banker, who became the first Baring baronet. He was an anti-abolitionist and banker, who profited richly from slavery, indeed the vast Baring family fortune was partly made through slavery as traders, investors and owners. The Baring family received compensation for lost income due to the emancipation of slaves under the Slave Compensation Act 1837 whereby Alexander Baring, a four times great uncle, received £9,900 which is the equivalent of £1.3m when adjusted for inflation. One of the first baronet’s descendants, Evelyn Baring, 1st Baron Howick of Glendale, was Governor of Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising. Other influential family members include Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, a Governor General of Canada, and through the latter, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, of the House of Grey, a former Prime Minister of the UK, after whom Earl Grey tea is named. The present Francis Baring, 6th Baron Northbrook, who is an opponent of Lords reform, has a seat in the House of Lords, one of the mainly ageing, conservative, white men, all of whom are unelected into what is effectively a gentleman’s club that is to quite a large extent a memorial to the slave trade. There is a direct link into what is in the news at present. Mary Wakefield, wife of Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to the present PM, is descended from Evelyn Baring, Governor of Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, through her mother née Katherine Mary Alice Baring, wife of Sir Humphry Wakefield, whose views on class and race are no secret.
Noble or ignoble?
Because hereditary peers go to such lengths to let the world know every sordid detail of their ancestry, which is easily paired with the University College London database of slave ownership, some names stand out. The well known Conservative peer Douglas Hogg, Viscount Hailsham is a descendant of Charles McGarel, compensated £129,464 (over £100m today) for 2,489 slaves. Lord Carrington, in the Lords since 2018, is descended from Baron Carrington who received £4,908 compensation for 268 slaves. Lord Seaford of Sussex, is descended from slave owner George Ellis, who was compensated for more than 1,000 slaves. Simon Douglas-Pennant, 7th Baron Penrhyn had 1,000 slaves who paid for the Penrhyn estate in north Wales. They received £14,683 17s 2d in compensation. The present 9th Baron Temple of Stowe, is a descendant of Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, another opponent of abolition who stated that: “The moment this bill was passed, the death warrant of every white man in the West Indies would be sealed.”
They are among the many whose present fortunes, the legacies they derive from and compensation is still that which enables their political influence. Hereditary peers may not be aware of the slave trade’s role in their family fortunes but given how fond they are of family history, they do not need to look far in most cases. The roles some of those ancestors played in the acquisition of an empire, in a number of cases gaining their titles as a reward, belongs in a picture that unites slavery with colonialism and then links to present governance of the UK. Whilst right wing hooligans confront the police in central London, claiming to be protecting the statues of people who part in history brings shame to English history who, in fact, the police were in place to defend, the credibility of a country that has laid claim to vast swathes of the entire world or has interfered in the affairs of others, diminishes by the day. It did not actually require Covid-19 to expose the political establishment for what it really is to the world, but it has accelerated that knowledge becoming widespread. Perhaps it is not just statues that need to go, but also the status of the direct and indirect descendants of those people that needs to be changed. Apologies and some kind of compensation to those who ancestors were enslaved and who countries were effectively ‘raped’ and plundered would perhaps recover some of the respect that England once commanded. History is not simply a display of glory but also of shame. In much the way Germans have largely acknowledged their recent history, perhaps it is time those who roam the streets shouting ‘Eng-ger-land, Eng-ger-land!’ were put in the picture, the full and uncensored one that shows a nation that is not as superior and noble as so often portrayed.