From revisiting the murder of Walter Rodney to lying about history, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Mary E. Curry
National Security Archive
The U.S. Embassy in Guyana in 1980 had strong evidence to believe that the death of internationally-known historian and activist Walter Rodney in the capital of Georgetown was a political assassination, according to declassified documents obtained and posted today for the first time by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University.
Rodney, a popular opposition figure in Guyana known as much for his sharp critiques of capitalism as his disapproval of the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, was killed when a bomb exploded in the car he was driving. The government claimed Rodney himself and his brother, Donald, were responsible but the cables posted today describe deepening skepticism on the part of the embassy in the face of mounting indications that the authorities had covered up evidence. [continue reading]
The toppling of slave-trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol just over a week ago produced a lot of discussion online about Atlantic slavery and how it ended. The discussion is about events that happened in the past and cannot change, yet is intensely political in its implications. Some commentators claim, wrongly, that Britain was the first country in the world to abolish slavery. Sometimes, wrongly, they mix up the abolition of slavery with the abolition of the slave trade. Many appear ignorant of the difference between the two, and the fact that the British government didn’t fully abolish slavery until 1838, more than a generation after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
The first place to abolish slavery was not Britain but the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), in 1793. The 1793 abolition decrees recognised the de facto abolition of slavery achieved by the huge insurrection of enslaved people in the colony that began in August 1791, and which French forces could not suppress. In 1794 the revolutionary Jacobin government in Paris confirmed emancipation, decreeing the abolition of slavery across all French colonies. The 1794 decree also de facto abolished the French Atlantic slave trade. The first legislative abolition of the slave trade was by Denmark; passed in 1792, but not coming into force until 1803. [continue reading]
London Review of Books
The statue of Edward Colston that Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down this week was put up in the centre of Bristol in 1895. A Bristol-born merchant, Colston made much of his fortune from his 12-year involvement in the Royal African Company (RAC), which transported more than 84,000 slaves between 1680 and 1692. John Locke and Samuel Pepys were among those who profited from investments in the RAC. Before he became notorious as a slaver, Colston was glorified throughout Bristol for his donations to hospitals, alms-houses and churches.
A plaque on the plinth declares that the statue was ‘erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the foremost virtuous and wise sons of their city’. The other sides of the plinth depict Colston giving alms to paupers; a dolphin plugging a hole in one of his ships; and a group of mythical sea creatures. So the statue appeared in 1895, and so it still appeared more than a century later, until it came tumbling down last Sunday during the Black Lives Matter protests. [continue reading]
Richard J. Evans
When I was a child, in the early 1950s, much of the world map displayed on the classroom wall was still painted pink, depicting the “British empire, on which the sun never sets”. I learned to read from a primer called Little Black Sambo about a Tamil boy and his parents, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth, which I remember watching with our neighbours on a tiny television set in 1953, was the occasion for a magnificent display of the empire’s power and extent, with special attention paid to colonial figures such as the revered Sir Robert Menzies, prime minister of Australia, or the much-loved (and much-patronised) Queen Salote of Tonga. The Eagle boys’ magazine, edited by the Reverend Marcus Morris in a vain attempt to provide a respectable alternative to the Beano and Tiger, serialised comic strips about great imperial lives, including those of Cecil Rhodes and David Livingstone, who, I learned, were hugely appreciated by the Africans for trying to civilise them.
When my mother’s home-made marmalade ran out, usually in August, we bought Robinson’s Golden Shred, which came with a free miniature “golliwog” figure. In the late 1950s, after we got a TV set, we watched The Black and White Minstrel Show every week, in which George Mitchell’s white singers blacked up and accompanied their performances with stereotypical “black” gestures, body movements and Al Jolson accents – or at least, some kind of approximation to them (the show was enormously popular, winning audiences of more than 20 million at its height). Over dinner, I listened to my parents arguing with one of their schoolteacher friends over whether black people were further down the scale of evolution than whites, located somewhere in the vicinity of the apes, as their friend maintained, or perhaps a bit higher up. [continue reading]
It was inevitable that some would insist that ripping the statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth and disposing of it in a harbour in Bristol was an act of historical revisionism; that others would argue that its removal was long overdue, and that the act itself was history in the making. After more statues were removed across the United States and Europe, Boris Johnson weighed in, arguing that “to tear [these statues] down would be to lie about our history”.
But lying about our history – and particularly about our late-colonial history – has been a habit of the British state for decades. In 2013 I discovered that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had been unlawfully concealing 1.2m historical files at a highly secure government compound at Hanslope Park, north of London. [continue reading]