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Patched with virtue. Britain’s historical legacy and how black lives matter

June 7th, 2020

Hong Kong has been much in the news recently, with the Chinese government looking to unilaterally set aside part of the “two systems” approach that it agreed to when Britain ceded it in 1997 by imposing new national security laws on it.  British public opinion is rightly deeply concerned.  The British government has offered Hong Kongers with a British National Overseas passport the right to live and work in the UK.  This is an admirable and principled stance by the current government.

But why has Britain any interest in Hong Kong at all?  For the answer, we must go back to a time when the British government was rather less admirable and principled.

Britain took possession of India in the late eighteenth century via the East India Company (a strange hybrid of government arm and capitalist enterprise). On doing so, it looked to exploit the resources and industries under its control.  One thriving industry in Bengal was the cultivation and production of opium.

Almost as soon as the British took control of the opium trade in India, they looked to exploit it ruthlessly.  They destroyed food crops to make way for opium cultivation.  This, along with other policies related to the exploitation of the land, was a central cause of a famine in Bengal in 1770 that cost 10 million lives.  Warren Hastings estimated that a third of the population died.

This was, for the British, a minor setback in the exploitation of opium.  They sought to open up new markets, in particular in China.  The Chinese authorities had seen the damage that opium caused and had repeatedly sought to make it illegal.  In 1839, the Chinese seized and impounded 1,300 tons of opium from smugglers, including foreign governments and traders.  In response, the British government sent gunboats to shell the Chinese into submission.  In 1842, China ceded Hong Kong to the British as part of the peace treaty.  This helped weaken the Chinese state to the point where a religious cult was able to wage a civil war that cost 20 million or more lives.

(Not satisfied, the British fought a further war against the Chinese a decade later to secure the legalisation of opium – in China, at least.  It gives the idea of a war on drugs a whole old meaning.)

There is little in this vignette of the British empire that suggests it was labouring under a white man’s burden or performing a noble service for the international public.  It was, rather, a British mechanism for maximising the exploitation of others for their own benefit.  All of this, you will note, postdated the abolition of slavery.  Indeed, the British were entirely willing to use serfdom as an instrument of policy for many years to come, as they did with the practice of blackbirding and the mass importation of indentured Indian workers in South Pacific colonies.  It took until the 1980s for the descendants of British colonists in southern Africa to accept that they were not superior to the people they live among.

Britain’s imperial history was not especially noble.  Pax Britannica was a peace imposed by wolves, not eagles.

Most British people are ignorant about the detail of empire.  It is something that happened elsewhere a long time ago.  The tide marks from it can, however, be found all around the world.  The unique history of Hong Kong is the product of Britain’s desire to push drugs onto the Chinese.  The racial conflict in Fiji is the product of Britain’s mass importation of Indian workers.  And much of the racial division in the USA and the lawlessness in the Caribbean region has its origins in Britain’s slaving past.  The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

“So what?” many readers will think.  “Britain is not an especially racist country now.”  Perhaps, and I’ll come back to that.  But as boasts go, that one reads rather like the Venerable Bede’s claims for law and order under King Edwin:

“At that time there was so great a peace in Britain, wherever the imperium of King Edwin reached, that, just as is still proverbial to this day, even one woman bearing a new-born child might walk the whole island from sea to sea and suffer no harm.”

It is unintentionally revealing about what is expected as the norm.

It is also remarkably lacking in empathy for fellow Britons. If you are not black, surely you can imagine how it might feel to walk down streets named after slaveowners and to be expected to aspire to go to a college endowed by the fruits of white supremacy.  

And surely you can imagine what it might feel like to hear knowing jokes about dead black teenagers always being promising footballers or aspiring rappers.  Surely you can understand how tiring it must be to have to mentally pause before each interaction with a stranger wondering whether you will be feared or fetishised.

You might think that this is all ancient history, though the UK only finished paying off its reparations to slave owners in 2015 and the US stopped paying its last civil war pension this week.  But if you’re black, you were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police in 2018/19 than if you were white (25 times more likely if you passed through Dorset).  If you’re from a BAME background, you’re far more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems.  If you’re from a BAME background, you’re up to twice as likely to die from Covid-19, but the Public Health England report on the subject issued this week failed to look at the causes or make recommendations.

Perhaps you see this as class and social deprivation rather than race.  If so, why then are so many BAME people at the bottom of the heap and given low priority?

So, while no, British police officers are not generally in the habit of murdering black people (in the last year, the police have killed just three people in Britain, two of whom were terrorists on a killing spree and the third of whom was wielding knives and running through central London), that does not mean that Britain has dealt adequately with racism or has sufficiently grasped that black lives matter.

Instead of whitesplaining to fellow Britons how they should feel about their lives, perhaps those of us who are white and comfortable should take the opportunity to listen for a change.  If that makes you a little less comfortable, that is possibly no bad thing.

Alastair Meeks