History is not about blame or regret but about learning from tragedies: as David Cameron refuses to discuss slavery reparations with Jamaica, Robert Sommyne reflects on Scotland, Slavery, Britannia and Land Reform.
The Jamaican Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, called for non-confrontational discussions about reparations in 2013. She called again for them this week ahead of David Cameron’s visit to the island as part of his trade drive to strengthen business ties and relations with the Commonwealth. Miller has prided herself on being a confrontational leader full of new ideas and instilling pride in the island’s people.
As she stands up to the so-called big players of the world stage she demands her countrymen and countrywomen do the same. This is very much the Jamaican way. Even more it reminded me of the debate in the UK around the programme ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners’ presented by the ever informative and elucidate David Olusoga. It was possibly the best TV event on the subject of the Atlantic Slave Trade and laid out on a far deeper level what our relationship should be to the history and actions of the times.
What is interesting about both issues is the reaction to them. The proposal to have reparations or to discuss slavery in any detail is regarded in some quarters as a greater sin than the deeds themselves. The blood boils and the flag flutters as the rabid excuses fly forth such as “Why I am to blame!” or “If we didn’t have slavery, you would be sitting here typing this garbage now!”
Certainly no one alive today is to blame for the enslavement of entire peoples and the unique history of economic and social exploitation and degradation they endured. How fascinating though that this would be the reaction from often ordinary people of this country who have no vested interest in the upholding slavery’s principles. It could lie in how we identify ourselves with our nations, histories and ruling classes. We take on the ideas of our masters all of us black and white and their crimes and therefore often react badly against people who point out these events and their legacies. Why else would a call centre worker from Birmingham angrily complain that “we’re getting blamed for everything these days!” An odd notion unless you actually identify with your rulers’ imperial projects.
Indeed, there was a general accrued benefit to European societies that engaged in the slave and sugar trade. Our finest buildings, gallery and halls in London, Liverpool and Glasgow are testament to such tawdry glories. However what concerns me more is the imprint that this leaves on our nations now, whether in Europe or in Africa and the Caribbean. What good are reparations if policies that treat the world like a giant military playground are not reevaluated? What succour can the chequebook give if Scots, Welsh, Irish and Englishmen are still sent to engage in folly filled wars abroad for disingenuous gain? Why rebuke the history of Irish and black bodies brutalised if we do not make efforts to restrain the arms trade and engage with multinationals who treat workers in the developing world as cattle?
Any fickle personal feelings I have about slavery come second to the effect it still has on our consciousness and politics. Tom Devine, famed Scots historian, has written extensively about the involvement of Scotland in the slave trade. As part of the British empire the mercantile class and lords both Highland and low invested heavily in sugar and tobacco plantations in the US and Caribbean, expectant of great returns.
I myself am biological proof of this dubious history as an ancestor of mine has the delightful irony to be a sugar plantation owner. Therefore on a personal level I am pulled apart by both slave owner and slave with the hard true muddled in my very bloodstream. Does this irk me or make me regret? Not in the slightest, for history is not about blame or regret but about learning from tragedies and conducting our affairs differently based on those lessons. Much of the profits from the sugar slaves were ploughed into investments for the industrial revolution in England and Scotland and more pertinently the clearance and ‘improvement’ of land.
While the Highland Clearances were afoot many landlords needed to maintain a source of income, buy the sheep and invest in other means to ‘improve’ the land once the tenants were evicted. Slave money was important to tide the lairds over while they reinvested in the cheviot and other breeds of sheep. While the African slaves worked in the heat of the sugar mills the many dispossessed in Scotland were either driven into the new growing grey cities of industry or abroad to seek better lives colonising the corners of empire.
So you see we are all connected, black and white or Scots and African. You could not have the clearances without the profit of white gold and you could not feed the demand for sugar without a merchant industrial class. It is two parts of the same story. This elegant point was made so succinctly in the play, ‘The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil’ where the narrator switches from the Highland clearance and directs the audiences’ minds to the international significance and connection of their story. “And all over Africa, men were being brought to heel…”
On this lies my argument, for surely it makes more sense for us not to be guilty but to be angry. Guilt is worthless in this debate and advances nothing for the future of Scotland or our relationship with other parts of the world. But anger raised in justice can bring forward demands and actions much needed. David Olusoga pointed out that the compensation given to slave owners after emancipation in 1833 was the biggest bailout by the state to any private concern until the 2008-9 banking crisis.
Let that sink it and marinate, the injustice of yesterday forming a despicable pattern today with the same people being exploited, black or white. And doubtless many of the few that own so much of Scotland’s land or the super rich and powerful still ruling over us are descendants of those compensated. The reaction of the man or woman on the street surely should be centred on this fact. That hundreds of years ago the poor ancestors of these citizens were forced to pay out of taxation, compensation to someone else for their largesse and exploitation. That’s what I would be mad about, that is what I would want to not be ‘sorry for’ but to distance myself and my future governance from.
Arguably the Scottish polity has gone about coming to terms with its connections to the slave trade and the British heritage of exploitation. When we talk about land reform we should see not only as a local or national shame to be remedied although these are crucial. It must be viewed as a part of the larger tapestry of exploitation woven and still woven in the past and in todays world. And this is possibly a greater justification for more bold reform as advocated by the Scottish Land Action Movement. The SNP, Greens and RISE already hold close to their hearts the understanding of Scotland’s role as exploiter and exploited. In their politics, specifically in economics and foreign policy, rests the knowledge that as we have degraded each other and others we have degraded ourselves. Britons have become slaves to their bullish ignoring of a shameful past, but Scots can lead the other nations out of this psychosis. By redressing the legacies of land possession in Scotland we can strike a blow of historical justice while entering a truly modern political era.
- Originally published on Robert Sommyne’s blog and republished with permission.
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