The awkward facts of history

Andrew Donaldson writes on the ongoing war over the past in the US and UK


IN what may be regarded as a significant development in the culture wars, education authorities in the US state of Florida have reportedly removed Africa from world maps.

According to The Onion (“America’s Finest News Source”), the continent had raised “numerous questions of bias and accountability” in classrooms, resulting in heated controversy across the state. The publication quoted Florida Board of Education chair Thomas R Grady as saying:

“Many parents expressed concern that we were teaching their children to be unpatriotic by depicting the existence of the African continent. Some thought seeing Africa drawn on a map might suggest we want white students to feel guilty about themselves. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and we hope this comes across when they see the large landless swath of ocean now visible between South America and Asia. Also, let’s not forget about the role Africa played in the slave trade.”

Grady conceded that the excision of the world’s second-largest land mass from school textbooks and atlases would not prevent parents and students from discussing the “contentious” geographic issue at home. The board had reportedly also agreed to compromise with critics by adding a second America in Africa’s place.

Seen in the context of Florida’s ongoing assault on academic freedomThe Onion parody is right on target. Governor Ron DeSantis does view the state’s colleges and universities as extremist hotbeds where Marxist professors prey on students, teaching them subjects that may cause guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress on account of their race. 

And so, in what may be regarded as reverse snowflakery, DeSantis introduced the Stop WOKE Act, legislation intended to outlaw “erroneous” doctrine, like critical race theory and the contentious “1619 Project”. (“WOKE” in this case is an acronym, and a fairly lame one at that, for “Wrong on Our Kids and Employees”.) ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The ban would, it is envisaged, make way for a more “patriotic” education system, one that will not upset “conservative white folks”, as one commentator put it, and challenge the myth that America’s Founding Fathers “hated slavery even though they owned slaves”.  

Federal judge Mark Walker temporarily suspended the implementation of the legislation. “If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society,” he said, “then let it make its case. But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents.” 

Walker’s ruling will in all likelihood be overturned thanks to the dominance of Donald Trump appointments to the Eleventh Circuit appeals court. But back to The Onion’s joke and the comment on Africa’s role in slavery. There is an uncomfortable truth here — namely that Africa does share in the culpability for the transatlantic trade. 

This in no way excuses, diminishes or mitigates the role of those Europeans whose enormous wealth was derived from the transportation and sale of humans or those in the New World who further profited from their forced labour. Nor should we infer that there was any degree of parity — economic or otherwise — with the Europeans. 

But it was mainly African royalty, local warlords and gangs of kidnappers who oversaw and controlled the so-called First Passage of the trade. This was the forced march of slaves from their homes in the interior of the continent, where they had often been captured by other tribes or even by other members of their own tribe, to the African ports where they were imprisoned until they were sold and loaded onto ships for passage to the Americas. 

Such assistance was necessary. Of all those who transported them, it was only the Portuguese who dared to venture into the African interior to capture slaves. The threat of deadly tropical diseases and other perils kept the other Europeans largely offshore, including Dutch, French, British, Spanish, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Italian, Prussian and Polish traders.

They made a fortune from the misery of it all. As did their clients.  In the UK, much of that wealth, passed down from generation to generation, remains in the hands of the aristocracy. 

Consider the Trevelyan family, whose ancestral exploits were in the news this week. They owned a thousand slaves and six sugar plantations in the Caribbean. When slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the British government paid the family £30 000 for the loss of their “slaveholdings”. In today’s tom, that’s about £3-million. None of it went to the freed slaves. Obviously.

Last year, Laura Trevelyan, a BBC correspondent based in New York, travelled to Grenada to confront, on camera, her family’s slave-owning past. She was shown the sort of gear her ancestors may have used to manage their property. These included, among other items, shackles, manacles, a whip and a neck brace which could be used to choke a slave.

Together with her family, Trevelyan has now donated £100 000 to fund economic development on the island. She then discussed the donation and “her family’s journey” in a BBC broadcast. “If anyone had ‘white privilege’,” she said of her payment, “it was surely me, a descendant of Caribbean slave owners.”

And there it may stayed — had she not gone on to detail her family’s “sugar” legacy, arguing that “obesity … is linked to slavery”. 

But then Irish novelist Katherine Mezzacappa — better known as Katie Hutton, author of historical fiction — pointed out that Trevelyan’s four-times great-grandfather was Sir Charles Trevelyan, the English official in charge of famine relief in Ireland when the response to potato blight killed a million people in the 1840s and 1850s. 

Sir Charles notoriously claimed that “the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”. He is immortalised in The Fields of Athenry, a folk song about a prisoner who “stole Trevelyan’s corn”, a reference to the food that was exported from Ireland while its people were starving. The anthem was sung by rugby fans during the Six Nations encounter between Ireland and Wales on Saturday.

Mezzacappa later told The Times: “I am very heartened by Laura Trevelyan’s intention regarding her ancestral involvement in slavery but raised the issue of Charles Trevelyan because of the weird mismatch between the history taught in the UK about Englishmen and what they did elsewhere that similarly needs attention.

“In the case of Ireland, Trevelyan is just one case; Walter Raleigh and of course Oliver Cromwell are others. As you probably know, there was no reduction in the export of Irish corn to England in the famine years, referenced even as ‘Trevelyan’s corn’ in The Fields of Athenry, but perhaps what is so staggering about Trevelyan’s inaction was his stated belief that Irish sharecroppers had brought the misfortune of the famine on themselves.”

The columnist Charlie Peters, writing in The New Statesman, has suggested a possible explanation for the Trevelyan donation: “[Her] sense of privilege seems to disappear somewhere before the shores of Ireland. Why does Trevelyan choose to ‘set an example’ in Grenada and not in Ireland? James Baldwin might have given us a two-word answer: white guilt … Today, a certain kind of white liberal American, of which Trevelyan can be counted as one, no longer hides under a curtain. But the guilt is still there, and it still motivates their behaviour in strange ways.”

Giles Coren, another columnist, has also waded into the affair, describing Trevelyan as “a squillionaire liberal wetty-pants toff living off ancient family money and racked with guilt about it”. Writing in The Times, he notes that in the wake of Trevelyan’s “generous response to the post-colonial hysteria of the hour”, the Irish have indicated they want “a piece of the action”: 

“But how much to give? It’s so hard to know. Is starving people as bad as enslaving them? Or worse? Is it down to the numbers of people affected or profits accrued? Is Ms Mezzacappa looking for another hundred grand? Or is she after two?”

Then, Coren suggests, there is the matter of the Trevelyan ancestors’ antisemitism. “I have nothing substantive in terms of evidence but, come on, you think old Trevelyan was nice to Jews? You think he paid his tailor’s bills on time? OR AT ALL?” He added he’ll take £10 000 to keep this under his hat. 

I wonder, though, whether a Trevelyan may have had a hand in the Highland Clearances. I too could do with a bit of economic development.

More from the frontline

Elsewhere another commentator on the culture wars, Nigel Biggar, takes issue with the clamour for reparations from those, like Trevelyan, who are descendants of slave owners since “all the world had been engaged in enslavement from ancient times . . . Moreover, one justification for paying compensation to slave-owners was that otherwise plantations in the West Indies would have become unviable, putting at risk any chance of paid employment for emancipated slaves.”

Thus the customary “whataboutery” so favoured by right-wingers. (Mayans! Aztecs! Greeks! Romans! Assyrians! Arabs!) But Biggar is no small fry conservative in the fray. He is the author of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (William Collins), a new work that gamely sets out to offer a “fresh perspective” on imperial history. 

It has not gone well. Part of the problem is that Biggar is not an historian — but a priest who teaches theology at Oxford. His view of Cecil Rhodes, for example, is one that many find objectionable. But, in Colonialism, he counters that his critics are not interested in a “complicated, morally ambiguous truth” about the past:

“For example, in the autumn of 2015 some students began to agitate to have an obscure statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from its plinth overlooking Oxford’s High Street. The case against Rhodes was that he was South Africa’s equivalent of Hitler, and the supporting evidence was encapsulated in this damning quotation: ‘I prefer land to n***ers . . . the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism . . . one should kill as many n***ers as possible.’”

According to Biggar, this quote was not by Rhodes but from a book review by Adekeye Adebajo, a former Rhodes scholar who is now director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. Moreover, the “quotation” appears to have been cobbled together from three different sources and part of it may have been made up.

“There is no doubt the real Rhodes was a moral mixture, but he was no Hitler,” Biggar writes. “Far from being racist, he showed consistent sympathy for individual black Africans throughout his life. And in an 1894 speech he made plain his view: ‘I do not believe that they are different from ourselves.’

“Nor did he attempt genocide against the southern African Ndebele people in 1896 — as might be suggested by the fact that the Ndebele tended his grave from 1902 for decades. And he had nothing at all to do with General Kitchener’s ‘concentration camps’ during the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, which themselves had nothing morally in common with Auschwitz. Moreover, Rhodes did support a franchise in Cape Colony that gave black Africans the vote on the same terms as whites; he helped finance a black African newspaper; and he established his famous scholarship scheme, which was explicitly colour-blind and whose first black (American) beneficiary was selected within five years of his death.”

Not so, according to Pratinav Anil, an historian at Oxford. In his review of Colonialism, he argues that it’s not the moral balance sheet Biggar should be concerned with but rather the financial ledger. The British empire wasn’t genocidal, but nor was it a civilising project. It was instead a hard-nosed business enterprise. Anil writes:

“Biggar’s moral world view lends itself to a certain credulity. Take his quaint judgment of the Boer War. Alfred Milner, the high commissioner for South Africa, we are told, ‘wanted to give South Africa the benefit of virtuous government’, saving blacks from the barbarous Boers. But importing indentured Chinese labourers to slave on the world’s richest goldfield was a strange way of showing it. ‘We seek no goldfields,’ Lord Salisbury had declared, rejecting the charge that his government wanted to wrest the mines from the pastoral Boers, who were being a bit slow on the uptake. Biggar takes the assurance at face value, as I imagine he would Nixon’s pronouncements on crookery and Clinton’s on sexual relations.

“Likewise, Biggar makes a good Samaritan of a gold digger. His Cecil Rhodes is an unrecognisable reformer, an altruist among entrepreneurs, rescuing African men from a ‘life of sloth’ and inebriation, donating land to natives, hammering out an interracial peace. This is hard to square with the facts of his life…”

Such facts include his reduction of the franchise as prime minister at the Cape and, as head of the British South Africa Company, the defrauding of shareholders and provoking war with the Matabele — not, as Biggar claims, to save the Shona from intertribal slaughter but to clear land for mining and settlement by whites who, in Rhodes’s words, were “the finest race in the world”.

Anil does however agree with Biggar in one crucial area: the statue of Rhodes at Oxford must not fall. There are better ways, he argues, of dealing with a troubled past than “blowing statues to kingdom come, Taliban style”.  

The pits

Further to David Bullard’s entertaining column on the forthcoming Formula E.Prix in Cape Town, it would appear that Ferrari have come to the rescue of petrol-heads who may be distressed at the loss of that powerful engine roar in top-end electric sports cars.

A patent filed by the manufacturer reveals plans for an external speaker system that emits an authentic soundtrack linked to the propulsion system of their e-cars, the first of which is set to arrive in 2025. 

Floor it, and awed passersby will be thrilled by the sound of a high-powered food blender racing by. This, the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) all agree, will surely turn the ladies’ heads