This essay is part of Tortoise’s File on The Future of History, which considers what history should look like in the 21st Century – as a subject of study, but also an area of action and protest. To see the rest of the File’s contents, please tap here.
“There are no facts,” Jamaicans will tell you. “There are only versions.” I used to worry about the falsity of this statement – and then I joined the BBC. Almost thirty years ago, along with the latest batch of recruits, I was given a tour of Broadcasting House and then invited to The Talk. In summary, we were instructed to be vigilant, to never bring the corporation into disrepute, and to uphold the doctrine of “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy”.
Making a mistake could land you in trouble temporarily, but it was a more unforgivable error to forget that, ultimately, you worked for a venerable British institution. The BBC was then, and remains now, an instrument of soft power. At times of stress, it is not above propaganda – and the cult of obedience and deference thrives.
British school kids, when taught about the Cold War, learn that propaganda is what the Soviet authorities did when they used either scissors or ink to excise figures who were no longer favoured. You’d think that the BBC, even as a repository for remembrance and received British history, would have a more subtle approach. You’d be wrong. Scandals of omission have been documented – but trivial-sounding failures are more indicative of the culture of the corporation and the country.
Halfway into my career, I was tasked, as a radio producer, with overseeing a presenter’s interview with the Jamaican-born opera singer Sir Willard White. Towards the end of the interview, she asked Sir Willard about how the performance landscape had changed for Black stage actors: “Ten years ago, Sir Willard, there were hardly any Black actors on the British stage, now we have a Black Henry IV at the RSC, a Black Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre. Things have improved, haven’t they?” Willard White glared at her before answering: “You tell me! I wasn’t in the room when they decided who they were going to let through. You white people control things, so you tell me!”
Radio gold! The presenter and I celebrated in the bar afterwards, as we’d gotten some heat; we’d recorded a raw exchange that would bring a rare bit of passion and truth to our sanitised airwaves. The interview was subsequently dispatched to “continuity”, a room where the tapes were lined up on reel-to-reel machines, ready for transmission at the weekend. A day later, I received a phone call from a colleague. In a strained voice and with a heavy heart, he told me that a senior manager had heard about the exchange, and had ordered a razor blade to be taken to the tape recording, and the offending passage of tape dumped in a bin – apparently to spare the presenter’s blushes.
What was I to do about this soft censorship? Take the path of righteous dissent and call out editorial cowardice? Or plump for the wisdom of silence, the kind once characterised by Seamus Heaney as “the government of the tongue”? On returning to work, I chose unwisely, and was later censured, though survived another decade in the BBC.
There was in our country – and still is – acute nervousness and short-sightedness about matters pertaining to race and Britain’s past. Previously, it was obscured by distance – which is to say, hidden away in the colonies. But the mass arrival of the “Children of Empire” complicated that myopia. It couldn’t be ignored if the newcomers had the ill manners to keep on bringing it up. But what was “it”? Since the 1950s, “it” has often been cast by historians, journalists and broadcasters as the “immigrant problem”. Invariably, the emphasis was on the deficits of immigration, and not, for instance, on the post-war surge of emigration.
Here’s another version of that history. In 1947, Winston Churchill appealed to the more than half a million “lively and active citizens in the prime of life” who’d applied to emigrate to Commonwealth countries – countries which most Brits perceived as being predominantly white, including South Africa and Australia – not to desert Britain. Churchill’s plea, “We cannot spare you,” fell on deaf ears. But those outward-bound Britons would, over the course of the next decade, be replaced by inward-bound ones.
Joyce Estelle Trotman came to the UK from British Guiana (now Guyana) five years after Churchill’s speech. Though she travelled more than 4,000 miles to get here, Joyce considered it an internal migration, akin to a Mancunian relocating to London, albeit on a journey that took a little longer.
In her South Croydon home, surrounded by the artefacts and emblems of a very British education – portraits of the Queen, a reproduction of Salisbury Cathedral, and copies of her school textbooks, including Nelson’s West Indian Reader – our conversation is punctuated by Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley, as Joyce recites poems she learned by rote. At one point, this lively 92-year-old gets up to demonstrate a folk dance, ‘Black Nag’, which she recently saw on an episode of Poldark, and realised it was the same dance she’d learned at school, aged ten.
Along with many of her peers, Joyce is, and always has been, exuberantly British, but she’s also been dismayed to witness the shifting characterisation of West Indians’ relationship with the Mother Country. “First we were Children of Empire,” she laments. “Then we were Citizens of the Commonwealth. And now we are foreigners and immigrants.”
Though spoken without bitterness, it grieved me to hear her assessment. There’s an innocence about Joyce that reminded me of my Jamaican-born parents, who, like her, were part of the Windrush Generation. Throughout my childhood in Luton, I never saw anything in their attitude to match Joyce’s enthusiasm (they were sceptical about the faux-politeness of their English neighbours), but they’d arrived in 1959 with the same sense that the very idea of “British” was ennobling.
Along with Joyce, they subscribed to the enduring notion that this country was an “elect nation”. But Britain was not worthy of their respect, and did not deserve their admiration and allegiance. Numerous texts have highlighted that Britain’s so-called “hostile environment” policy didn’t begin in 2012; it was there in the 1940s, as my parents and their peers knew from the endless calls for them to go “back home”. They were bemused by the pervasive ignorance. In a sense, though, the host population’s hostility and hypocrisy was fuelled by amnesia. More than half of the participants in a 1951 government survey were unable even to name a single British colony.
Perhaps Britons have been ill-informed by historians about what has been done in their name. After all, it was a masterstroke of British propaganda to convert the shame of introducing the Transatlantic Slave trade into a story of triumph, of British fair play, as exemplified by William Wilberforce “freeing the slaves”. This was the version of events being taught when I was at school in the 1960s and 70s. But there are myriad examples of British complicity in the trade. Records reveal that tens of thousands of middle-class households directly benefited from the British government’s compensation for slave owners after abolition – details of that particular episode were tucked away in the National Archives and only recently illuminated.
But British amnesia was not accidental; it was willed, right from the beginning of the slave trade and beyond its cessation. The determination to forget was evident in The West Indies and the Spanish Main, the travelogue of a dyspeptic Anthony Trollope who, on a visit to Jamaica in 1859, wrote: “If we could, we would fain forget Jamaica altogether. The utter sinking of Jamaica under the sea might not be regarded as a misfortune.”
Some British writers and historians have resisted the temptation to avert their gaze and sought to counter such bigotry. Thank God for the exemplary James Walvin who in his book of 2007, The Trader, The Owner, The Slave, highlighted the sadistic practices of the slave plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood. As well as keeping a diary, “annotated in simple schoolboy Latin,” of the scores of women he raped, Thistlewood also recorded how certain recalcitrant enslaved men were broken. Of one captured runaway he wrote: “Gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made [the slave] Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put a gag whilst his mouth was full & made him wear it 4 or 5 hours.”
Thistlewood’s depravity did not feature alongside Wilberforce’s heroics in my school history lessons. It never occurred to me, nor any of my fellow pupils, I’m sure, that history books were not records of facts, but curations or versions of them. The novelist Chinua Achebe was undeniably right when he argued about the need to police British history, in relation to the descendants of people of its colonies, whether in Africa or the Caribbean. “Until the lions have their own historians,” wrote Achebe, “then the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
As for myself, I am the descendent of the enslaved and of the slave owner; the product of the victim as well as the perpetrator, as it were. I cannot claim exclusive ownership of one while denying the other. All of us have skin in the game. As Ambalavaner Sivanandan reminded Britons, we of the African diaspora are here now “because you were there”. We share a space as well as a history.
British history is moving beyond the designed invisibility of its Black citizens and its determined forgetfulness. BBC-commissioned programmes such as Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners are testament to that. This is to be celebrated, but there’s a back-catalogue of wrongs – major and minor – that still need to be addressed. After all, Willard White’s tempered anger is real and, today, courses through the veins of the rightfully furious Black Lives Matter protesters. Black people in Britain have endured too many decades of being dismissed, told to shut up and to eat shit.
Illustrations by Tim Vyner, Pictures Getty Images