Reported by Third Force News – the news we share raises awareness of equality issues being reported in the media.
The mindset created during the years of British slavery in the West Indies, when black people were unfairly described as inferior to white people, still, I believe, sadly persists in many today.
For example, last year, after arriving at an important organisation in Edinburgh to give a lecture, I was stopped by the door attendant who asked what time I was due to deliver my speech.
I told him it was 2pm.
His response? ‘You cannot be lecturing at 2pm because Professor Sir Geoff Palmer is lecturing at 2pm.’
I came to the United Kingdom from Jamaica when I was nearly 15 – a member of the Windrush Generation. One afternoon two years later, a group of young white boys surrounded me on a London street and asked me to tell them the time.
I didn’t have a watch but I knew what they expected. I looked up at the sun and said: ‘4.30.’ They were astonished and one boy said: ‘Hell, how do you do that? Tell us!’ – assuming I only knew the time by looking at the sun’s height in the sky. They didn’t realise I could see a clock behind them.
Modern seeds of racism were planted by philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century and used by politicians and plantation-owners to enslave black people and make money over a period of 200 years from crops such as sugar cane, tobacco and coffee. The average life expectancy of a working slave was less than ten years.
Their labour was invaluable. Indeed, about 46,000 British slave-owners were given financial compensation for losing their 800,000 slaves in the British West Indies when slaves were emancipated in 1833. In total, they got the equivalent of £23 billion in today’s money because slaves, after all, were considered their property.
Sir John Gladstone, father of Prime Minister William Gladstone, received the equivalent of £83 million for the 2,058 slaves over whom he claimed ownership.
Racism is one consequence of slavery. The descendants of people who were treated as barely human for so long are today still regarded by too many with suspicion and prejudice.
In 2018/2019, there were 103,378 hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales of which about three-quarters were racially motivated.
Visual records of the slave trade are reflected in our grand buildings, schools and statues. Last week’s removal of statues of slavers Edward Colston, in Bristol, and Robert Milligan, in East London, has led to demands that others are pulled down.
Slavers were evil people, it is true, but they were a part of the histories of both black and white people. This history cannot be changed – and it most certainly cannot be changed through violence and destruction. Racism, which is a consequence of this history, can, and must, be challenged and extinguished, though.
There is a statue of Henry Dundas (1st Viscount Melville) in Edinburgh. The city’s council has produced a new narrative for the accompanying plaque which describes him being ‘instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade’, causing more than 500,000 black people to be transported into slavery. I support and contributed to this decision. It is the correct way forward.
We must also ensure that the facts about slavery are taught properly in schools so that children realise that we are one humanity, nothing less.
The history of slavery is our collective history, but the ‘guilt’ that people might feel must not alter or moderate our understanding of the past. To remove the evidence is to remove the deed.
Statues and their locations reflect our history. These days, great consideration is given to the erection of statues such as the one of Mary Seacole, a distinguished black nurse, born during slavery in Jamaica in 1805.
The idea came from a group of women who moved to Britain from the Caribbean in 1940 to support the fight against fascism. My friend and colleague Lord Soley and I worked to get it erected and today it stands proudly in front of St Thomas’ Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament – the first statue to a named black woman in the UK.
We faced opposition, including from people who took an overtly racist view. ‘It should be just a small head and shoulders in somewhere like Brixton,’ said one. ‘Who is this Lord Soley?’ asked another. ‘I presume he’s black.’ (He’s white.)
At one point during our campaign, Lord Soley invited some of our critics to meet him in the House of Lords’ Royal Gallery where there is a big painting of Admiral Nelson dying on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. His guests considered Nelson to be a real hero. But Lord Soley showed them a black man on the ship pointing at the sailor who shot Nelson. The painting also depicts Muslim men tending the wounded on deck.
So, in truth, the picture is a powerful symbol of Britain’s mixed heritage – one we can be proud of, but not to the extent that we hide from the horrors of the slave trade or of the damage racism does, whether now or in the past.
Far-sighted and noble British people led a successful campaign to end the slave trade. Over a period of 40 years, the Royal Navy was used to intercept and free thousands of slaves. We should be proud of the many sailors who lost their lives in that example of humanitarian intervention.
But we must also be clear that the transatlantic slave trade was an evil that cannot be forgotten, or airbrushed out of history.
Being aware that it happened means using statues and other monuments to slave traders to explain and illustrate our past. That is why I oppose pulling them down and why I support the move to put explanatory plaques next to them.
There is no reason why the role these people played cannot be put in a wider context – including an explanation of the ideas that were current at the time they lived.
As someone who hopes for lasting change, here and in America, there is an equally important reason to reject the emotional spasm of pulling down statues. For there is a danger that destroying a statue makes a temporary gesture which is then forgotten. The risk is that the anger is temporarily purged but the racism continues.
I believe we need another campaign today like the one fought to end the slave trade. One that ends institutional racism in particular so that all ethnic minorities get a fair chance in life.
I would like to see a new official body established with real power to look at the ways institutional racism is practised in public and private organisations.
Most importantly, people need to understand how insidious racism can be, and we should all start by reminding ourselves that none of us are free of all taints of prejudice of one type or another. Challenging such prejudice is important – and sobering, if we are honest about it.
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