There’s something inspiring about seeing people that look like me speaking on something, in Britain, that’s been portrayed as a vocation for middle class White people (mainly men). Watching candidate for Tottenham David Lammy in the Commonwealth war graveyard in Voi (Kenya) talking about history took me back to when I first saw David Olusoga, a Black historian talking about history in a way that wasn’t detached in hope of being objective. Whilst Olusoga is a historian, Lammy is not. However, seeing Black people on British TV talking about history is not a narrative I’m familiar with.
In The Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes we are pushed to remember the two million Africans from British East Africa (now Kenya) dragged into the First World War, many of whom were press-ganged into service. One million joined the dead. In the Voi cemetery, we are witness to a site fitting for those who gave their lives for king, country and commonwealth. But they were White. Each decorated with a headstone, as written into the equalities policy by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission. However, if you were a Black African, then your service was not seen as equal to that of a White person. You were nothing. Forgotten.
“The erection of memorials to the memory of native troops, carriers etc, depends upon local conditions,” wrote the colonial secretary in 1919. “In ordinary circumstances, the Commission would not erect individual headstones but a central memorial in some suitable locality to be selected by the Government concerned.” That colonial secretary’s name was Winston Churchill, who’d go on to be knighted and elected as Britain’s prime minister. In his view, Black Africans (who were British subjects) did not fit into the Commission’s frame of reference for equality.
“I hate Indians, they are beastly people with a beastly religion.” – Winston Churchill
A century on, this year, is the centenary of the first remembrance service. Is it time we confront this legacy of discrimination and institutional racism? The bodies of Black Africans were not in the Voi cemetery, but beyond a fence under canopies of bushes. Here, we see how much the colonial office cared. David Olusoga wrote “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable.” Their corpses were in a wasteland under bushes and litter. Here’s the opening of the documentary, and so the investigation begins.
Whilst it can be interpreted as a harmless doc, it follows in the footsteps of The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files, as both show the institutional racism implemented by the British establishment against those of African heritage. Moreover, investigating how the imperial mindset and colonial-era racial thinking has been allowed to fester into modern Britain.
It’s no secret that British history is a study in erasure, and the stories of Black and brown people in our history books struggle to reach print. These stories really are scaling the walls to get noticed and the unmarked burial sites of hundreds of thousands of Black Africans, including women and children, is just one more example of structural racism. And that the only way to get these histories integrated, is to acknowledge that the establishment erased these stories because of its white supremacist thinking, evident in the heads of the gatekeepers, policy and colonial laws.
The Macpherson Report was in response to the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Its definition of institutional racism includes neglect and “failure to act.” His definition could as easily be applied to the plight of Black and brown colonial soldiers during the world wars, when they came home, and the Black war dead on the African continent.
“the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin” – Macpherson Report, 1999
Whilst MacPherson’s report is about the police, academic frameworks like Critical Race Theory argues that racism is ingrained in the fabrics of society, linking whiteness to power and blackness / brownness to social subordination, allowing White Privilege to thrive. CRT says it’s not about the individual racist, but the system as a collective. And is the system broken, if it was built “racistly” to benefit the White elite? Knowing this, in the mix of the colonial racial thinking in the system, is it really surprising that Black and brown soldiers were treated abominably, both in life and in death?
Channel 4’s documentary is riddled with devastating moments and really leaves no hope for the viewer. David Lammy meets Mwamkono Mwavaka, a man whose now dead grandfather was one of the Carrier Corps – men, women and children taken on to carry supplies on mules to the front lines. In Dar es Salaam sits a massive war cemetery, where British and Germans are buried side-by-side. Yet, no such love is given to the Native Africans who gave their lives. “Where do I go in my own country?” cries an interviewee.
The final act is a metaphor for talking about race in Britain – hostile and resistant to any critique. Lammy at the HQ of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in conversation with its director general is uncomfortable viewing. “Do we have the names? I don’t believe we do,” says Victoria Wallace, hostilely. Refusing to talk about race, historically, and how institutions like the CWGC were complicit in systemic racial inequality.
The story ends with no apology, just a few words on some money for a plaque on African soldiers. And yet, no comments on how someone voted the Best Briton by the British public (Churchill) was a racist and complicit in some of the worst crimes in human history – from the Bengal Famine in what was then British India (in 1943) to the Boer War Concentration Camps.
Reparations is faceless: to some its money, but to me it’s historical awareness, which begs the question why there’s so much resistance to teaching colonial history, or is the establishment scared of what it potentially might find?