Sadiq Khan has given his backing to a proposal from the Fabian Society to establish a British slavery museum in London in order “to deepen our understanding of the past and strengthen our commitment to fight racism and hatred in all its forms”. Britain’s role in transatlantic slavery is one of the most misrepresented in the national memory – a tale littered with lies told to hide the dark side of the island’s story.
When David Cameron declared Britain should be proud to be the country “that abolished slavery”, he was merely indulging the national myth. As the 2007 celebrations of the act that abolished the slave trade demonstrated, little attention is paid to much other than white saviours such as William Wilberforce. Truly understanding how Britain’s dominant role in slavery built the nation is essential for any progressive understanding of the present.
Britain was not just involved in slavery; it rose to become the premier slave-trading nation. Cities such as London, Liverpool and Bristol were key ports in a global system that enslaved a minimum of 12 million Africans. The wealth generated from slavery provided the basis for not only the port cities. The Manchester mills were only possible with cotton produced by enslaved people, transported through Liverpool. The gun industry of the Midlands was so essential to slavery that it was often remarked in the 18th century that “the price of a slave was one Birmingham gun”. It is estimated that 150,000 guns from Birmingham were sold in the trade, not to mention the shackles that were also produced in the city. London was not only an important site for ships but also finance. Without insurance, there would have been no voyages, and companies such as Lloyd’s of London underwrote slave-trading voyages. As the Trinidadian intellectual Eric Williams recounts in his classic Capitalism and Slavery, the relationship between finance and slavery was so insidious that when Lloyd’s was just a coffee house, it hung posters advertising rewards for the return of runaway slaves.
Slavery was an essential part of the development of Britain – so much so that in order to make abolition possible, slave owners were paid reparations in the largest government bailout in history. British slave owners received £20m to compensate for their losses, which at the time was 40% of the national budget of the Treasury. The government had to take out a loan from the Bank of England so large that it was only paid back in 2015. Consider the absurdity and cruelty of the descendants of enslaved people actually paying through our taxes for reparations to the owners of our ancestors.
You cannot understand the situation for black people in Britain without understanding these roots. The wealth generated from slavery is still with us, as is the poverty from centuries of exploitation. The Windrush scandal would never have happened if Africans had not been kidnapped in the first place, or if upon emancipation, enslaved people were given reparations for their labour and the damage inflicted on them. Instead, people were forced to migrate to a land where they were (and continue to be) treated as subjects, rather than citizens.
But we are on very dangerous ground if we believe a museum is any kind of solution to the deep-seated problem of racism. Although it is a nice fairytale to believe in, racism will not melt away if only people are exposed to the light of the truth. Slavery and colonialism embedded racism into the fabric of society and it cannot be educated out. In fact, evidence suggests that when people are given facts about race that challenge racist assumptions, they simply reinterpret them to fit their original perspective. Our historical narratives are delusional precisely because they prevent us from dealing with our complicity in maintaining an unjust racial order.
Some of the most “educated” people end up in government, yet still manage to pursue policy agendas that entrench racial disadvantage. Racism is not in our minds; it is in the schools, prisons and on the streets – it results in inequalities across every area of society.
We already have an international museum of slavery in Liverpool; adding one in London, no matter how critical the message, is not going to have any impact on racial inequality. We should support a new museum because it is an important step in telling a truthful story about Britain. But to pretend this is any solution to racism is actually to obscure just how deeply the problem is ingrained in society.
• Kehinde Andrews is an author and professor of black studies at Birmingham City University