Thursday 4 June 2020

Bunk as history: 'Our Island Story'

‘People’. ‘People had been in the habit’. ‘People had been in the habit of stealing black people’. ‘People had been in the habit of stealing black people from their homes in Africa, and selling them as slaves in the colonies.’

David Cameron – remember him? The man so desperate for the followers of Nigel Farage to vote Tory that he promised them a referendum on the EU. And when that didn’t go the way he wanted, he ran off to a ‘shepherd’s hut’ in the back garden of his Cotswolds home to write a self-justifying memoir while buoyed by ‘a portfolio career of charitable positions, business roles and lucrative speaking engagements’ (Guardian, 17 January 2019).

I discussed Cameron in Good Morning, Mr Crusoe (2019), in particular his kinship with the far-right activist Tommy Robinson: both members of gangs distinguished by a dress code, much alcohol and formulaic violence; both contemptuous of migrants (Cameron: ‘a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’); both cultivating a ‘man of the people’ image; both pressing the patriotism button and both pointing to a toxic, white-supremacist version of UK history.

In 2014 Cameron wrote an article for the Mail on Sunday on ‘British values’, which he defined as ‘a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law’. These values are also ‘vital to other people in other countries’, he concedes, ‘But what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop.’

Cameron’s favourite book, he declared in the ‘British values’ article, was – and presumably still is – Our Island Story. The book was first published in 1905. From the back cover of a recent re-issue: ‘The book was a bestseller, was printed in numerous editions, and for fifty years was the standard and much-loved book by which children learned the history of England … In 2005, an alliance of the Civitas think-tank and various national newspapers brought the book back into print, with the aim of sending a free copy to each of the UK's primary schools. Readers of The Daily Telegraph contributed £25,000 to the cost of the reprint.’

Here is Our Island Story on Captain Cook: ‘It was in April 1770 A.D. that Captain Cook first landed in Australia, in a bay which he called Botany Bay, because there were so many plants of all kinds there. At that time the island was inhabited only by wild, black savages, and Captain Cook took possession of the whole eastern coast in the name of King George.’ Here is the sum total of Our Island Story’s discussion of slavery:

Another great thing which happened during the reign of William IV was the freeing of slaves.

For many years people had been in the habit of stealing black people from their homes in Africa, and selling them as slaves in the colonies. People had grown so used to it that they did not see how wicked and cruel this was. These poor black people were taken to market and sold like cattle, they were branded like cattle, and beaten like cattle. They had to work very hard, were paid no wages, and were often very cruelly treated. All masters, of course, were not cruel, some of them were even kind to their poor slaves, but still they had very unhappy lives. They had no rights whatever, their children might be taken from them and sold, sometimes even husbands and wives were sold to different masters, and never saw each other again. A master might treat his slaves as badly as he chose, and no one could punish him.

In the old, rough, wild days no one cared about the sufferings of these poor black people. They were only niggers, and made for work and suffering, and nothing was thought about it. But, as time went on, people became less rough and more kind-hearted, and good men began to try to make people see the wickedness of slavery. For some years, a man called Wilberforce had been doing his best, and now he was joined by others, among whom was Macaulay, the father of the great writer. Mr. Macaulay had himself been a manager of a sugar plantation in the West Indies where slaves worked. But he gave up his post because he could not bear to see the misery and unhappiness of the slaves, and came home to try to do something for them.

It was not a very easy thing to do, because all the work on the sugar and coffee plantations in the West Indies was done by slaves. The planters said they would be ruined if the slaves were made free, as the black people would not work unless they were forced to do so. Besides, they had paid a great deal of money for their slaves, and it seemed unfair that they should be made to lose it all.

But, at last, all difficulties were smoothed away. The British Parliament said they would give twenty millions of money to the planters to make up for what they would lose in freeing their slaves, and, in the year 1834 A.D., most of them were set free.

‘People’? ‘People had been in the habit’? White people. British white people.

This is the version of history that I (aged 69) was taught at school and that is embedded in the worldviews of Cameron, Johnson, et al: slavery is a bad thing; some masters were kind; ‘a man called Wilberforce’ and the noble and generous British Parliament abolished slavery; zero acknowledgement of Britain’s active participation in the slave trade or that the whole enterprise of empire was built upon slavery.

The Our Island Story version of history has produced a bizarre British sense of exceptionalism ('what sets Britain apart ...'): Brexit, and now the muddle and murderous incompetence of this government’s response to Covid-19. It has also embedded beliefs in white supremacy. ‘This seems very absurd,’ Our Island Story notes of the electoral system in Britain before the 1832 Reform Bill, but those whose power and privilege depended on the absurdity ‘were pleased with things as they were, and very angry with those who tried to alter them.’

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