BY COURTENAY FRANCIS RAYMOND BARNETT
By vocation I am a lawyer; by disposition I am a reader and a thinker.
On the latter limb in the year 2020 A.D. I note that the statues of formerly venerated persons in the personage of U.S. Confederate Generals and slave owners are being toppled – while on the other side of the Anglo-American axis there in Britain Edward Colston’s statue ( got a baptismal wash at the bottom of the Bristol harbour) and even Winston Churchill finds himself boarded up lest he too be toppled from his heroic pedestal. How is all this to be understood or interpreted when the ‘evil ones’ are actually challenging, questioning, even symbolically drowning heroes in the harbour – ‘our heroes’?
This is where the sentinel who guards the otherwise unquestionable issue of ‘meaning’ comes to the fore – and finally is to be questioned as to the true meaning of an assumed role as the guardian of truth, righteousness or even ultimately – divinity. I have not written the foregoing words without deep and careful thought, for that if Western civilization were to examine and conduct profound introspection, then the deeper meaning of what I am saying might then begin to emerge. I shall try to explain.
How do we come to understanding and then assign meaning?
Meaning as to – who I am – what is my country as regards its historical expression of an identity – what gave rise to major historical personages and events – and similar cognitive points of reference?
I hazard a guess, from my own experiences, as with anyone else – family – culture – dominant belief systems – formal tuition – discourse – investigation lead to ‘meaning’.
In Jamaica, where I was born, I attended a Catholic school, St. George’s College. By reference to tuition, of my five years there, the third form ( my third year) remains indelibly imprinted in my pedagogic memory. There was a red-haired firebrand of a Scot, a historian by name, Clive Woods. Also, in the same year there were a few young Bostonian Jesuit teachers. Between those teachers they framed and changed my world outlook. It was the 1960s when the Vietnam War was raging and the Bostonians spoke of the horrors of ‘agent orange’, illegal bombings in Laos and Cambodia, defoliates with life destroying chemicals being deployed, the use of ‘napalm’ and other US war crimes. Mr. Woods opened eyes to the real motivational factors behind Columbus, the Conquistadors and the Catholic Church’s role in the ‘civilizing mission’ towards the ‘natives’. On the British side, he went further and informed us of the truth behind the ‘amelioration period’ at the time leading up to emancipation in the Caribbean in 1838. He explained what the payment of 20 million pounds sterling to the slave owners meant as being compensation to the persons who owned ‘chattels’ – the enslaved Africans – without one jot being delivered as compensation to the enslaved people. Mr. Woods only lasted one year at St. George’s and I do believe that he was quietly asked to depart for reason of the impact he was having on the stimulated and excited students. And, to this day the myths and denials persist – despite the best efforts of Mr. Woods who tried to disabuse his Caribbean students of a history that included any benign or caring colonial overlord most concerned with the welfare of the colonised. The other case is told in the status quo accounts, the ‘conventional wisdom’, the official narratives that other than disdain, abuse and exploitation had been colonialism’s handmaiden. Hence 1776 in the United States of America does not surprise and neither should the ever present resistances throughout the British Empire, be it the 1857 Indian Mutiny or the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, so long as the British Empire lasted.
George Floyd in the face of historical facts
I reverted in memory to my years in school for reason of the shock of seeing on video, the killing of George Floyd. The death brought a torrent of early memories to the fore and – as with my recollection of Mr. Woods – I shall explain in broader recall – how so.
When I arrived in England to continue my education at university at the age of sixteen, I was then in the ‘mother country’. The country which had colonised and profited from Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean and built herself tremendous wealth, entire towns, cities ( e.g. Colston’s Bristol), cathedrals, expanded universities, established manufacturing industries from the labour of enslaved Africans. Yet when I spoke to the average English person about from whence I came, quickly I understood their delusional conception of their great and good British Empire. For any human being anywhere living across the globe, simply read Dr. Eric Williams’ tome, ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ which was based on deeply researched historical facts which to this day from the 1940s when first published – not one human being has ever, despite having tried, succeeded in disproving Dr. Williams’ thesis. The Africans, the Asians, the Indian efforts, and all the ‘others’ who contributed to British wealth were largely irrelevant if not historically non-existent so far as my direct participant observations of the British were concerned.
My point can be made quite simply following upon George Floyd’s killing and the dumping of Colston’s statue in the harbour. I have many White European friends of different levels of academic accomplishments. However, it is not whether they have doctorates or are professors or not which distinguishes their level of understanding about the British Empire’s deeds, but the absence of a certain level of economic understanding about what was the British Empire’s methodology. Post Floyd killing, I made the point to a White European friend that the removal of Colston’s statue was perfectly justified in the same way that in Germany today, the idea of honouring Adolph Hitler in effigy in a public place by way of placement of a statue would not be acceptable. I was then chided for comparing Nazi Germany with the British Empire. So, let me ‘double down’ ( to use an Americanism) and then ask:-
- When the Boers were corralled in concentration camps during the Boer Wars – was it the British who had invented this practice – or not?
- When the British moved into the highlands of Kenya and set up an Apartheid system and banned, in particular, the Kikuyu tribe from their ancestral lands –what then happened? Did the Africans not quite understandably resist their displacement? Yet again, did the British not on a large scale again corral and torture the Africans in these concentration camps? Did the Kenyans not recently win a court case and the British government not have to pay Kenyan survivors for the cruel and inhumane treatment experienced and suffered in these British concentration camps?
So, were the Nazis really the originators of this practice?
Actually, the inventor of the concentration camp was Horatio Herbert Kitchener who first used the term ‘ concentration camp’ during the Boer Wars. Wonderful servant of the British Empire he was.
But now, do not forget just how benign the Empire was:-
- The Irish famine of the mid-1800s – due to British colonial policy.
- The Bengal famine that resulted in the death of some 3 to 4 million Indians under the British Raj in 1943– was due to British colonial policy. So, we have a loving and oh! so ever caring overall demonstration of concern, in the words of the British leader at the time:-
“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” Winston Churchill ( and you wonder why some people want to tear his statue down).
- The death of some 8 million Iranians ( formerly – Persians) in 1917 – 1919 – due to British policy.
And on and on.
Such a wonderful Empire – indeed.
A four time UK Parliamentarian recently made his own observations on the British Empire and he said this:-
“ When I was young I told my Irish grandfather that the teacher had told me that the British had an empire so vast that the Sun never set upon it. He answered “that’s because God would never trust the British in the dark.” I knew he was telling the truth. And now so does Venezuela.”*
- Note: The reference to Venezuela at the end of Galloway’s comment relates to the fact that at a point in time when the Venezuelan Government trusted the British ( read: Bank of England) the Venezuelan Government deposited some billions in gold in the Bank of England. When Venezuela required and still requires in 2020 that its gold be paid out – the British Government has refused so to pay.
May I therefore suggest that the contemporary American Empire is actually an outgrowth from the former British Empire. Elements of abusive use of power do exist within the American Empire. So far as the 4th of July is concerned the American people could well do with a few gifts. Maybe the American Government can start to live up to the ideals of the well drafted US Constitution; maybe instead of invading, bombing and manipulating internal political events in so many countries around the world in the name of ‘democracy’ – the U.S.of A. might now start a genuine commitment to pursue justice and equality and fight discrimination within America. It should be noted that nothing teaches better than a good example ( by which I mean – start at home) and leave other countries to determine their own future without continually interfering in their internal political processes.
Anglo-Americans have a lot to account and answer for. George Floyd’s killing is just “child’s play”, when one seriously considers the murderous horrors which as a matter of historical fact, did precede that day and continues unabated this 4th July, 2020.
Footnote: What is the 4th July – a speech by Frederick Douglass – as relevant as ever:-
* COURTENAY BARNETT is a graduate of London University. His areas of study were economics, political science and international law. He has been a practising lawyer for over thirty years, and has argued public interest and human rights cases. He lives and works in the Caribbean.