Monday 20 July 2020

BBC: the Bad and the Very, Very Good

This isn't a wokewatch blog, there isn't time in the day;   though sometimes we can't contain ourselves.  The importance of free speech and truth-telling is central to the type of liberal capitalism we espouse.

And the Beeb is so very often at fault: so when it lives gloriously up to its Charter the trumpets should be sounded.  But before that, a reminder of its venality.  They are re-running David Olusoga's A House Through Time, and I must have missed the relevant episode of the Liverpool House, or I'd have mentioned it then.  Olusoga is of course a revisionist historian with an impressively "rational" demeanour - oh, he knows so many facts - and needless to say the Bristol House was that of a slave-trader etc etc ad nauseam.  The Liverpool example was near the docks, and in the episode that covers WW2 he delivers the following line.  Thanks to the untiring efforts of the two heroic dock workers he's lauding,
"the Port of Liverpool remained operational throughout the War, ensuring that Britain was fed, equipped and armed"
Except, of course, when it wasn't.  The Liverpool dockers have always been notorious for their propensity for striking, and WW2 was no exception.  As well as a load of small strikes in the period before Hitler invaded Russia (i.e. when Russia was Hitler's ally and the Communist Party opposed the war), there was what even trade unionists accept was a "major" dock strike in Liverpool in 1943; and a big seaman's strike there in 1942.  Londoners of my father's generation would bitterly recall the Liverpool dockers being out at the height of the Blitz.  Time to revise the revisionist account, then.

BUT  (*fanfare*)  the Beeb has redeemed itself, and all is not lost.  For they have seen fit to publish a no-holds-barred account of how the Atlantic slave trade had its origins in a pre-existing, and utterly unrepentent native African slave trade.  We all knew this, but I wasn't expecting to see it aired quite so fully as it is here. 
'My Nigerian great-grandfather sold slaves' - Nigerian journalist and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani writes that one of her ancestors sold slaves, but argues that he should not be judged by today's standards or values.  
My great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, was what I prefer to call a businessman, from the Igbo ethnic group of south-eastern Nigeria. He dealt in a number of goods, including tobacco and palm produce. He also sold human beings. "He had agents who captured slaves from different places and brought them to him," my father told me...
It further contains some highly relevant cultural commentary by this bravely outspoken lady.
The successful sale of adults was considered an exploit for which a man was hailed by praise singers, akin to exploits in wrestling, war, or in hunting animals like the lion. Slavery was so ingrained in the culture that a number of popular Igbo proverbs make reference to it: [e.g.] Anyone who has no slave is his own slave ... The concept of "all men are created equal" was completely alien to traditional religion and law in his society. It would be unfair to judge a 19th Century man by 21st Century principles.  Assessing the people of Africa's past by today's standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains  [my emphasis].
Can this article survive for long in the Beeb's website before being taken down?  I've recommended elsewhere that we all cache it as a gem of accurate, thorough historical reporting and intelligent commentary.  It deserves to go viral - and if it did, the resultant woke-wailing would be wondrous to behold.



DJK said...

I saw it too, though I doubt that the BBC thinks that "he should not be judged by today's standards or values" also extends to Edward Colston, Winston Churchill, etc., etc.

Raedwald said...

I don't share your hopes, Nick. The narrative demands that black slaves were the victims of white slavers, and it's a narrtive that doesn't admit of nuance.

Of some 11m black slaves transported across the Atlantic from the 1450s onwards (a trade we rightly condemn, with sorrow at the pain and suffering of the slaves) only a few tens of thousands were actually enslaved by Europeans. That is the unacceptable truth.

Before quinine prophylaxis, the steam gunboat and the breech-loading rifle, Europeans were confined to a few coastal enclaves in Africa, rarely extending more than a mile or two inland. The portuguese tried sending slave-capturing expeditions into the interior, but disease generally took more of the slavers than slaves they captured. So we relied on their fellow Africans, and on arab traders and intermediaries, to do the actual enslaving.

Yes, many Africans became rich on the profits on the sale of those 11m lives. As did many Europeans. And let's be honest, the Europeans got the better part of the bargain.

But this is not a story you'll ever hear on the BBC. Kids grow up with the map of Africa in 1890 in their minds, not the map of 1840 and at the time of abolition. They think Leopold's Congo was how it always was.

Thud said...

My grandfather was a Liverpool docker, after his shift he would remain and firewatch from his post on the Clarence dock power station, he did his bit.

DJK said...

I think you're on shaky ground there Raedwald. The slaves wouldn't have been captured if the Europeans hadn't created the demand in the first place. (Yes, there was internal demand for slavery within Africa and Arabia, but not at the prices the Europeans could pay.)

Raedwald said...

DJK - yes, Europe created a market that didn't exist before 1450 or after 1850. But Africans and arabs were deep in the slave trade for centuries before - millennia before - for slaves built Egypt. And they've been deep in the slave trade ever since 1850 - even down to slavers operating in Libya today.

Those 400 years represented a peak of the ghastly activity, and I wouldn't want to downplay our culpability, but we certainly didn't create anything that wasn't already well established on the continent.

Anonymous said...

Incredible. This is a really good article. Informative and balanced. I suspect the poor woman has just killed her career but it's still a very good read.

E-K said...

What isn't mentioned is that many white Europeans were slaves too.

Down pits, on farms, press ganged onto ships, satanic mills... and many lived in squalid cities.

It wasn't personal or racist.

E-K said...

Oh - and many whites in Britain wore the very same butler and maid uniforms that their equally subservient black contemporaries were forced to wear in North America.

When slavery was abolished about 1% of our population were awarded compensation for loss of that business - winding forward a similar 1% demand that the rest of the population pay for the sins of that 1% ... excluding themselves of anything that really hurts.

dearieme said...

(i) What's to be done about histories like Olusoga who simply tell lies?

(ii) "What isn't mentioned is that many white Europeans were slaves too.

Down pits, on farms, press ganged onto ships, satanic mills... and many lived in squalid cities."

It needs an extraordinary failure of imagination to suppose that being a farm labourer equates to slavery.

Don Cox said...

I would define a slave as a person who can be legally bought, sold and killed by the owner.
Badly paid peasants or mill workers have a hard time, but they are not slaves.

Does anyone disagree with my definition ? It does include at least the lower grades of serfs in England under the feudal system, and the serfs in Russia before emancipation. Also concubines in various societies.

Don Cox

E-K said...

The narrative is that our people had an easy time of it. They died and got ill in serious numbers - and they starved if their 'owners' ended their employment.

dearieme said...

@Don: I thought that the whole point of serfs (at least in England) is that you couldn't just sell them. They were tied to the land. Their lord had to provide the land and the tools to work it. The serf had to do labour on the lord's land and also hand over a fraction of his own crop.

For how long it really worked like that I don't know. Perhaps as you hint there were different grades of serf (or different habits in different places).

Serfs, or whatever they were called in Gaelic, were treated even more harshly among the Irish than among the Welsh and English. And below the serfs came actual slaves. Doomsday book shows 10% of the recorded population to be slaves. We should all count our lucky stars.

E-K said...

So press ganged sailors weren't flogged, hanged and keel hauled to death ?

Penseivat said...

Unknown @ 6.01,
My great, great, grandfather was a carpenter on a ship wrecked off the east coast of Africa. With others, he managed to get ashore where the survivors were captured and enslaved by an African tribe. Some were sold to other tribes. Those remaining were kept naked as their white bodies were a source of amusement to the children and women. Two men managed to escape and were rescued, but not before my GGF was starved, beaten, and worked to death. White people were slaves too, especially those on the south coast of England, kidnapped by north Africans for hundreds of years.

Nessimmersion said...

A bit of historical awareness foor thebwoke would be good.
There was a risk for thebcoastal fishing communities in southern england and ireland for hundresds of years of being taken captive in slave raids.
The US marines first foreign adventure was to shut down moorish privateers taking ships crews and selling those of the crew they couldn't ransome into slavery.

Nessimmersion said...

A bit of fat finger awareness for myself would be good as well, apologies for typos on phone.

Anonymous said...

E-K - white Europeans were literally enslaved by the Ottomans and Barbary corsairs (who got as far as Iceland) - the very word derives from "Slav". They were also enslaved before that - English slaves were being sold from Bristol to the Viking kingdom of Dublin in the 11th century, and Domesday Book records the slaves in each village.

Slavery still existed in Arabia as late as the 1960s - in Denis Healeys autobiography he's in Abu Dhabi.That slave may be still alive.

"When I visited Prince Sultan in his palace, I sat on a low cushion and was served with fragrant tea by a negro slave. Then the Prince leaned forward and asked for the latest news of Nye Bevan's illness."

Elby the Beserk said...

Liverpool. Just ask any Manc what they think of Liverpool and stand back. Yes, the Liverpool dockers did go on strike in WWII. Same way as the Manchester cotton workers, during the American Civil War, went on strike - refusing to handle Southern cotton, and thereby impoverishing themselves and their families.

When one thinks of the fine Labour & related movements that arose out of the Manchester region as a result of the Industrial Revolution - then compare it to Liverpool's finest achievement - a sense of entitlement like no other city - and happy is the lad such as I with Victorian roots on both sides of the family in Manchester, and a father and grandfather who worked in the rag trade.

Nick Drew said...

I learned something very interesting about Brum recently

will post on it

E-K said...

The point I was making was that during the slave era it wasn't exactly beer and skittles for the average Briton.

Sackerson said...

Sorry to come late to this party, but I'd say that a slave-owner had an interest in keeping his slaves alive and able to work, whereas under a system based purely on money and commercial contracts unemployment and starvation could be Somebody Else's Problem. I recall reading that in the Classical world it was said to be better to get a freeman to take on a job because his survival depended on it, whereas a slave could work less earnestly and still be clothed, fed and housed by his master.

Thud said...

Poor elby and Manchester, always in our shadow, nevermind.