Racism and Slavery – Long Histories

Black Lives and Other Past Victims

By Gwydion M. Williams

All lives matter, but not all lives are equally at risk.

Racism is currently the main issue.  But it was a big error when this got separated from issues of general liberation in the 1960s.

All of us have slave ancestors.  Slavery was the normal condition of civilisation until the last few centuries.  Race-based slavery was just the last spasm – though maybe the nastiest, since older forms of slavery did allow some slaves to rise high within the society they had been sold into.

Pulling down the statue of a Bristol slave-owner whose business involved the deaths of maybe 20,000 Africans along with the 100,000 sold as slaves needed to be done. It is shameful that it had to be done illegally by protestors, rather than by the elected regional government.

But it is only partly a racial issue.

Britons Quite Often Were Slaves

A thousand years ago, Bristol was denounced for selling English slaves to Ireland. Part of an old tradition. One which extended back to Celtic times.  Several years back, I wrote an article explaining this:

“Celtic antiquities include a slave-chain that must have been used for the securing of a six-pack of British slaves, to be sold from Free Britannia to the Roman Empire in the days before the Roman conquest.

“Celtic tribal chieftains probably took the same view as West African tribal chieftains would later take, sell an unwanted slave or war captive and have the cash to buy something more useful. But trade with a stronger society mostly leads to conquest by that society. Britain was invaded by the Roman Empire and made part of an Empire that took slavery to an extreme that no other empire ever did…

“The Roman Empire was one of many states that copied the imperial model invented by Cyrus and the Persians. All of them had slaves, but mostly as a small inferior class at the bottom of society. Rome with its gigantic slave-based farms and factories was an exception.

“Roman Britannia was conquered by the freedom-loving English, who however kept slaves and sold them too, when there was a market. Saxons were in turn conquered by Normans. Slavery continued, as part of normal commerce:

“ Archbishop Anslem, at the London Council of 1102, denounced the practice of selling Englishmen as ‘brute beasts’; his pious contemporary Bishop Wulfstand preached against the practice of selling English slaves from Bristol to Ireland.’ (The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas, Picador 1997, page 35)

“Bristol’s role began with equal-opportunity enslavement. The English slaves sold to Ireland were probably bought by middlemen who sold them on to a much richer Islamic world. And in those impoverished days, it was maybe a step up to a happier cleaner life for an unfree English man or woman.

“Some churchmen were true to the anti-slavery bias in Jewish and Christian tradition–the only sacred scriptures in which servile origins are admitted and even seen as a sign of divine favour. But others were less idealistic.

‘“Out of nearly 500 Visigothic laws which survived… almost half referred to some aspect of slavery. St Isidore of Seville… had, meantime, no doubt about the divine origin of slavery: ‘Because of the sin of the first man, the penalty of servitude was inflicted by God on the human race; to those unsuitable for liberty’. (Ibid, page 34.)

‘The ideas were strikingly similar to 19th century pro-slavery arguments, except that this was white-on-white enslavement. All that changed between the 12th and 18th centuries was the colour of those found suitable for a servile role.” (Slavery in the British Empire.)

As a man with Welsh and Devonshire parents, I have no doubt that many of my more distant ancestors would have been slaves. That some of their relatives up to the 18th century would have been shipped to the West Indies as slaves, and perhaps merged with an African population in the same predicament. This was normal enough for Robert Louis Stevenson to have it as the threatened fate of his hero in his novel Kidnapped. Losers from the 18th century Jacobite rebellions and in the 17th century Monmouth Rebellion ended up in slavery along with those brought from Africa.

Empire Legacies

My ancestors must also include a few also slave-owners, from when slavery for poorer Britons was normal in Britain. But probably none directly involved in the overseas slave-trade, unlike those of George Orwell, wrongly held up as the prime champion of Freedom.  Orwell (Eric Blair) also concealed the significant fact that his father works for the Opium Department in British India. (Orwell Looking Down on British Workers.)

Opium in India was legal, because the British Empire made the laws. But it was an abomination, with Indian peasant farmers forced to grow it. With the East India Company not directly trading it illegally, but selling it to merchants like Jardine Matheson, who illegally sold it via ‘freedom-loving’ Hong Kong.

A fictionalised and romanticised version of Jardine Matheson are presented as heroes by popular author James Clavell in the historic novel Tai-Pan. And again in the 1960s in ‘Noble House’, which floated the idea that Hong Kong might subvert People’s China when the 1997 lease on most of it ran out. He was part of the New Right rubbish that has caused the world immense suffering, and is now hopefully being rejected.

The current intense wave of ‘Black Lives Matter’ should be part of the general rejection of the New Right. Ronald Reagan began the undermining in the name of Individual Freedom of the push towards racial equality than had been happening with Civil Rights. And used this as a lure for White Racists among ordinary US Citizens. Kept them happy with the idea that Blacks were still below them. Diverted them while their secure jobs were destroyed for the benefit of a small elite that was itself multi-racial, and happy to bring in superior workers from all over and regardless of skin colour.

The New Right shamelessly used White Racism, but did not believe in it. They were not like the Southern Democrats, who had maintained Segregation but also backed the New Deal. When the US Democrats were forced to be serious about racial and sexual equality, the New Right as a rising force withing the US Republicans won over Southern Racist voters with a series of phoney promises.

Phoney because Republicans as much as Democrats oversaw the disappearance of the majority status in the USA of those classed as Caucasian or White. Big business preferred to minimise taxes and let many born in the USA grow up badly educated and often useless for a rapidly changing economy. Let them kill themselves with opioids more dangerous even then heroin, but legal and freely pushed by doctors encouraged by drugs companies.  Big Business moved a lot of its production overseas, mostly to China.  Big Business imported well-educated people from all over the world, notably from the Indian Subcontinent.

Phoney because the triumph of the Adventurous Rich did not boost overall growth, even though they sincerely believed that it would. It dragged it down. It messed up Japan, which ruined its Economic Miracle by believing imported New Right values. (Japanese asset price bubble – Wikipedia). It slowed down growth in the West, which never recovered even the inferior performance of the disorderly 1970s. (The Mixed Economy Won the Cold War.)

To keep going with this failure, they encouraged a very high level of imprisonment. Promoted police forces that in the USA had always been Armies of Occupation for non-white areas. Previously also for those seen as Inferior Europeans, Irish and South Europeans, but later these were incorporated to keep the others down.

And whereas the New Right are almost all callous to all non-rich humans regardless of colour, the US Republicans had to win elections and had always used dirty methods. In the last few years, they have abandoned their brief attempt to win right-wing non-white votes. Initially appalled by Trump, whose father supported the Klu Kluk Klan, they came round to him when they saw he was a winner.

In the USA, there are huge numbers of white-racist votes that are not committed right or left. That would have voted for Saunders on class grounds, but feel happy with Trump as an all-but-open racist.

When I posted an earlier version of these arguments as a blog, someone called me ignorant and posted a swarm of pictures showing right-wingers associating with black people. But US racism has never involved complete separation. Just keeping blacks inferior.

Since more blacks than whites are killed by the police, either the police are racist, or the blacks must deserve it. But people have shown that even for identical crimes, black offenders are more likely to be killed and get heavier sentences.

The USA is engaging now in blatant racism. And is putting off the rest of the world. I would be delighted if Trump got back: it would definitely kill the USA’s dwindling global influence.

In Britain, the Tories have proved much cleverer. They can still juggle policies and have several non-white individuals in top jobs, while still getting a racist vote that has nowhere much else to go. Harshness to immigrants and now Brexit keeps the racists happy, with the Windrush scandal as just the most extreme part of it.

Why do these individuals accept it?  Maybe their true view is Only My Life Matters, and others are not their concern.  That was the essence of Thatcherism, and is also a much older aberration of human thinking.

Maybe someone from Britain’s ethnic minorities could do a series entitled Only My Life Matters, featuring all the nice things these individuals have, and their failure to act on blatant Tory racism.

Britain has nothing like the USA’s problem with thuggery by police, though it certainly has some. It certainly helps that very few Britons own guns. Police are less at risk and can be more reasonable. And there is a single multi-unit police force under firm government control. In the real world, as distinct from libertarian fantasies, this is the best actual control for the problems and general evils of having a police force.

And if you think that few police or no police would be a better idea, you have almost certainly never been anywhere near a place where actual police power is weak. Things done by the Provisional IRA have shocked people, and did include some grim actions, but they were World Champions in terms of being Alternative Police. Always had a hard core determined to uphold the dignity of a movement more than a century old. Did so by grim methods, knee-capping and murder. But did avoid the sort of endless and lethal gang violence that you get in the USA, Brazil, and many other places. Even tried, though with little success, to contain the spread of drugs and much nastier criminality in the Irish Republic.

We need police. But we also need decent politics, if ‘public order’ is to be respected. If it is to be worth respecting.

If the people who pulled down the Bristol statue ever get put on trial for Criminal Damage, I would expect a British jury to uphold the fine old tradition of Perverse Verdicts and let them off.


The War Against Unworthy Statues.

June 2020 saw a massive expansion in the previously neglected Black Lives Matter.  People noticed that there were suddenly a lot more white faces than in previous protests.  And a renewal of long-standing protests against statues seen as glorifying racism.  Most of them in the USA definitely erected to glorify racism and the pro-slavery war of the US Confederacy, it must be said.[1]

Only the brief dominance of Northern Radicals and intense hostility to the ‘Rebels’ allowed for Constitutional Amendments that made black people technically equal.  These were mostly very rich radicals, which was still possible in the 1860s before the rise of significant socialist parties.  They were not bothered by most black people being poor and unequal: they just wanted no formal racism or slavery to offend their core beliefs.

When I speak of ‘white’ and ‘black’, I reference only the social fact that most people at the time saw it as valid, and many still do.  It has no biological reality.  Humans are diverse, but the old notion of several separate developments of distinct races of Modern Human was always unlikely, and has now been thoroughly discredited. 

I happen to be a rather pure Anglo-Celt, red-headed and blue eyed, with parents of Welsh and Devonshire origin.  DNA testing also suggests that I have rather more than most Britons of the heritage of the first two waves of modern humans to settle Europe.[2]  46% Hunter-Gatherer and 43% Farmer, and only 12% from the Metal-Age invaders who conquered using chariots and are believed to have brought an early version of the Celtic language.  Who certainly eliminated older languages and cultures: these persist in a few enigmatic pre-Celtic place-names.  And elsewhere in Europe, in the Basque language and perhaps a few others, and surprisingly in famous names like Athens,

When it comes to exploitation and slavery, I see black people as merely the final victims

The Northern Radicals created formal racial equality.  They  would also have liked to give women the vote, but reckoned that this needed another Constitutional Amendment and that it would not be possible to fight and win on both issues.  And were most likely correct: mainstream US politics at the time was far to the right of what it became even in the 1950s.

When the North chose to be reconciled with the former Rebels, it was accepted that White Power was part of the deal.  And it also applied to those black people who managed to settle in the North.  There was also intense hostility to them settling the West.

That the USA later on never brought in official Racism of the sort you saw in South African is an oddity.  But the white population of South Africa was mostly of Dutch and British origin, and thought of law as something very solumn and respectable.  You could only be racist if it were written down clearly that racism is legal – which also helped keep communities mixed when large numbers of non-European immigrants arrived from the 1950s.

The USA, having written down detailed rules in its 1789 Constitution, also started early on in learning how to be Official Shysters.  The notorious Dredd Scott judgement, which helped start the Civil War, was a blatant example. The United States Supreme Court decided 7–2 against Scott, finding that neither he nor any other person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States.  But the US Constitution nowhere says anything about race.

Rather than go to the trouble of getting White Racism written into the laws, when this was the majority view, US politicians preferred to cheat.  And then in the 1960s, needing Black Africa, they overturned formal racism.  But, as I explained above, the US Republicans prevented a genuinely non-racial society being built.

There is now a war over the past.  But it is worth emphasising that claims to a glorious anti-Fascist past for either Britain or the USA are false.

Problems Magazine, Issue 42, 2nd Quarter 2020. July 1920.

See https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/ for other issues.

[1] For details see The War of Two Racisms, https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/m-articles-by-topic/m99-topic-menus-from-long-revolution-website/52-usa/both-sides-were-racist-in-the-us-civil-war/

[2] https://gwydionmadawc.com/about/my-dna-results/