Never say protest doesn’t work. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to cut the Police Department and increase spending on social services in response to protester demands to do exactly that. ‘De-fund the police – fund the community’ has been a central demand of the US protests, and it has paid off. In Minneapolis, the city council has committed to dismantling the police force and creating a new system for public safety. Whatever the eventual outcome of such moves, they are unprecedented and impossible to imagine outwith the context of an insurgent mass movement to force it on to the agenda.
So it holds out hope that the Bristol Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday which tore down a statue of 17th century slave-owner Edward Colston could actually force Britain to confront its history. “Historical amnesia” is how Dr Shashi Tharoor, an Indian MP and author of ‘Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India’, describes British culture on the history of slavery and empire. Tharoor’s book shows how India went from being one of the most advanced economies in the world in the 18th century to one of the poorest by the time the British Empire left half-way through the 20th, with its share of global GDP dropping from 23 to 4 per cent in that time. Perhaps the most despicable Empire-looting was what author Mike Davis has described as ‘the Late Victorian Holocausts’; the exporting of food out of India (as well as Africa and Ireland) while local populations starved to death. Many tens of millions died from these famines.
And while Britain likes to pat itself on the back for passing a law to abolish slavery in 1833, it only stopped paying off the compensation in 2015 – to former slave owners. Records show former Prime Minister David Cameron’s ancestors were among those who profited, as was the father of the Prime Minister at the time, William Gladstone, who received a sum equivalent to £83 million today. Paying-off slave owners cost 40 per cent of the budget in 1833 – no justice was done as slavery ended, and the Empire did not reach its peak until late into the 19th century.
None of this history is taught as a regular part of the curriculum in schools anywhere in the UK, including Scotland. A petition signed by over 12,000 people has called for Black history to be taught in Scottish schools. Recent research has found that Scottish slave ownership was proportionately greater than in any other part of the UK, and there are plenty of statues, plinths and street-names to prove it. Many of those names can be traced to power and wealth which remains to this day. One look at the Edinburgh Slavery Map, which shows those properties who were compensated at the end of slavery, shows a big swarm of red dots around the New Town, including an address just two doors down from Bute House. As historian of Scotland Tom Devine has said: “Landownership was the main channel through which new money from the Empire…flowed back into Scotland”. The Bank of Scotland’s first accountant, George Watson, had part-funded a slave ship as far back as 1695, illegal at the time. Sir Lawrence Dundas, a Royal Bank of Scotland governor, owned slave estates. The Duke of Sutherland is on Scotland’s top ten rich list for 2020 with £585 million, and his ancestry is most known for The Highland Clearances, but the second Duke re-invested much of the wealth from his father’s Clearances on railways in the British colonies, building up a “portfolio of overseas investments that reflected this and other Empire related concerns”, according to historian Stuart Sweeney.
We should talk about Scotland and Britain’s past, but we should not be afraid to draw the connections to wealth and power in the present, as a largely unbroken lineage connects the two. A thorough-going anti-racism should seek not just to tear down statues, but to tear down an economic system of land and property wealth in Britain today which was accumulated through blood and plunder.
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