Top positive review
For those that are not clued to all the best history themed Twitter fights
19 October 2017
Thoroughly researched and far ranging, David Olusoga's book is topical, necessary, and provides an overview of a neglected element of British history, as well as being essential reading for the contemporary debate about the role (or even existence) of black people in Britain throughout the ages.
It might seem strange to begin a review for one historian with a story about another, but bear with me... For those that are not clued to all the best history themed Twitter fights, eminent Classicist Mary Beard recently provoked uproar when she said that Roman Britain was ethnically diverse after a BBC cartoon dared to include a black Roman soldier and his family. It was not supposed to represent the 'typical' but the 'possible'. Some of the vitriol she received was unfathomable and all because, it seems to me, that there seems to be a whole lot of people who want to see this country as the whitest of white places. Most importantly, the potential for reasoned debate based on evidence was shut down by denial, personal attack, and modern ideological ideas about race. It was a vivid demonstration of the intellectual space into which Olusoga was stepping.
Indeed, this is the period with which he begins his chronological history, noting the role of imperialism that brought different peoples to these lands and how much later it would take Britons to Africa [loc 760]. From Roman soldiers to black slaves to WW2 GIs, Olusoga traces the changing role of black men and women in British society, as well as the attitudes towards them. The specific focus is on the international slave trade, with a much smaller section on post 1900, but there are significant holes in the story due to the nature of the evidence. He notes the difficulties in researching a subject with limited primary/autobiographical sources, especially when looking at black women, which is why there is inevitable repetition of the big names such as Olaudah Equiano. This is no surprise as the underlying theme of the book is the deliberate exclusion of black men and women from the historical record, an interpretation which might have seemed extreme had it not been so clearly illustrated in contemporary debates. That the subject has only recently come to the forefront indicates we have a long way to go.
With all of the horror contained within, it would be impossible to point to a worst time or greatest act of immorality, yet for me, the story that stopped me in my tracks was that of the slaver ship, the Zong. On a journey in 1781, fears arose that there was not enough water to last the trip, so over a period of days, 133 slaves were thrown overboard and left to drown. Even worse, once in port, the slavers tried to cash in the insurance policy on the slaves they had killed, for the loss of their property. The cruelty and sheer disregard for human life that this evinces sickened me, yet it is one of many stories of inhuman action towards people simply because of the colour of their skin.
And the best part of it? The stories that run in the background of the book, often without detail, because they represent the lives of ordinary people, every shade of colour, who lived and loved and married each other despite social conventions, laws, or any other issue that might have stopped them. Real people living as families, producing children, being friends. In a society where race can still affect your opportunities in life, these are the things to hold on to then and now.