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man does how he pleases with his property

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“Does the bench and parliament not have a duty to uphold and create the laws that progress our morality, […] if not to protect us from others, then to protect us from ourselves?  Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are frameworks for crime.”

John Davinier (Belle)

When we discuss the worst acts of human history, events that are often brought up are household names. The extermination of the Jews under the Nazis comes to mind, what is often called Auschwitz or The Holocaust. Others include Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and The Black Death of the 14th century. But Britain’s bombing of Dresden is not a household event, nor is the Bengal Famine under Winston Churchill (voted the best Briton by the British public) – who we decided to put on the £5-note. What about the Congolese Genocide under King Leopold II of Belgium, or Lord Kitchener in those Boer Concentration Camps? Concentration Camps are a British design but it’s always linked to Germany, due to how that story’s been framed. And Winston Churchill is a household name, as is parliamentary abolitionist William Wilberforce. But in discussions on colonialism, why do we know nothing of Amritsar, the Mau Mau, or Morant Bay? And when discussing Britain’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, why are those sorts of conversations more often than not, shutdown?

Journalist and author Afua Hirsch made a documentary The Battle for Britain’s Heroes discussing this country’s love for “its heroes” and their statues

Britain still holds a nostalgia for its empire. Whilst Nelson is remembered as a war hero that led Britain to victory against the French and Spanish at Trafalgar, why do people seldom talk about his exploits as a man who protected slave ships crossing the Atlantic (for the Royal Navy), or married into a slave-trading family on Nevis? It was one of the jobs of The Navy to protect British commerce, including slaves. Property not people. Flesh for cash. We paint pretty pictures of British history that make this country look great, but when it comes to the darkness in our past, the establishment, and to an extent, the British public, slinks into its hole of historical amnesia.

Watching Amma Asante’s Belle last week made me ponder how we frame our colonial history in relation to national identity, but also institutional violence, then and now. Set in the backdrop of The Zong Case, the film follows (Black) mixed-race Georgian Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the niece of Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) – the ruling judge on that case and one of the most influential men in 1780s Britain.

“In the prolonged history of collective suffering which formed the story of Atlantic slave trading, few incidents compare to those of the Zong Case of 1781. Luke Collingwood, captain of the Liverpool ship, had 133 slaves thrown overboard to their death when supplies were running short, hoping to claim for their deaths on the ship’s insurance. The case came to court in London two years later, not for mass murder but as a disputed insurance claim.”

James Walvin
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the titular character in writer-director Amma Asante’s period drama, about the Black Georgian
(Belle, Fox Searchlight Pictures)

We remember the history that makes us look good. We remember fifty years of abolition, and Dunkirk, but rarely do we shed light on the skeletons in the closets of “our heroes.” Are we too ashamed to admit that how Britain discusses its history and its icons is often too two dimensional? Are we too British to admit to feelings of guilt? We erect statues to White supremacists and slave traders, dumbing down our role in how we came to speak the terms “developing countries” and “third world struggle.” We put Rhodes in Zimbabwe, and named streets for monuments to king sugar and racism.

Belle brings a an alternative history, that slave stories happened within our borders too – from Buckingham Palace to the Merseyside River. Not only in distant lands in the American South and the West Indies. Reni Eddo-Lodge put it best, giving a snapshot of how in the 21st century the national psyche is so far removed from its past of genocide, conquest and stolen land.

“Although enslaved African people moved through British shores the plantations they toiled on on were not in Britain, but rather in Britain’s colonies. […] so, unlike the situation in America, most British people saw the money without the blood.”

Reni Eddo-Lodge

And in 2019, we need to ask why William Wilberforce is a household name, and Granville Sharpe isn’t; and are we really too British to come to terms with the guilt of our past, or will we just keep calm and carry on?

Bibliography

Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. Print

Walvin, James. A Short History of Slavery. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.


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