Dominic Alexander explains how black history is intrinsically connected to the history of the working class
Attempts to challenge the glorification of slave traders, racists and imperialists, far from lying about, covering up or denying any ‘complex’ parts of Britain’s history, are essential to a real reckoning with it. They are a necessary challenge to the ideological censorship of the past that denies the centrality of black and working-class struggles in our history. The toppling of Colston’s statue in Bristol is an act of protest that is profoundly democratic and points us to a history of the struggle for social equality that the imperialist ruling class has largely succeeded in wiping out from our collective historical memory over more than a century of selective remembrance, that is best called propaganda.
You can’t have democracy if you don’t have equality, and in fact, black people in Britain have played a leading role in the struggle for democracy in this country that the official story has wilfully ignored. The active forgetting of black history is part of a wider denial of the role of mass protest, often outside the law, that has been behind all progressive change. To take just one example, the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s is recognised as the first fully independent modern working-class political movement in history, but the simplified story usually told about it, is what really impoverishes the historical understanding of generations.
The black Chartist
One of the leaders of the militant section of the Chartists in London was a black man named William Cuffay, and yet he is hardly even remembered. He was the son of an ex-slave and a woman from Kent, one of many black and Asian people among the working class of cities like London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a tailor, he was a leading trade unionist, a veteran of struggles to reduce the working day to ten hours, even before becoming a leader of ‘physical-force Chartism’. He knew full well that polite lobbying of parliament would gain nothing in the face of the contempt that propertied MPs had for working people.
Like other working-class leaders, Cuffay knew that only a demonstration of the power of mass action would bring about change. He was deported to Australia as punishment for his planning of an insurrectionary protest at the last height of Chartism in 1848. These actions were to involve attacks on property, not people, at a time when troops were deployed against strikers: shooting many dead during the General Strike of 1842, for example. Although pardoned a few years after his exile, he chose to remain in Australia where he is known as a leading founder of the labour movement there.
William Cuffay is only one neglected example of the leading roles black people have played in the history of the struggle for equality and democracy in this country, but cases like his could be multiplied quite easily. The dawn of the modern struggle for democratic rights lies in the 1790s when radical artisans began to organise to demand the suffrage. They were called ‘English Jacobins’ after the radical democrats of the French Revolution, but an equally important catalyst for the spread of such revolutionary ideas among working people in Britain were the ‘Black Jacobins’ of Haiti. Toussaint L’Ouverture, well known only in some quarters, led the overthrew of slavery in that French colony.1 The forces of ex-slaves successfully resisted regular armies sent by both Britain and France to crush their revolution.
It has been shown that the news and liberatory implications of the Haitian revolution spread like wildfire not just across the Caribbean, but back across the Atlantic. Sailors in the Royal Navy erupted in a politicised mass mutiny in 1797 while Britain was at war with revolutionary France. This extraordinary event is little known, let alone celebrated as part of the history of democratic struggle. It is also not widely understood that the crews of British ships at this time, and throughout the nineteenth century, were multi-national and multi-racial, including people from the Middle East, India, the Caribbean, and Africa. Their ideas and actions would certainly have been influenced as much by the Haitian revolution as the French.
Race and class
The ships of the eighteenth century were also a kind of factory in their onboard class structure: indeed, the very word ‘strike’ comes from the sailors’ practice of ‘striking the sails’ in a refusal to work, and running a red flag up the mast to call on other sailors also to go on ‘strike’. 2 This neglected part of the past shows that from the very origins of industrial society, black people have been an essential part of the British working class and the struggle for equality and social justice.
So, where is the statue to Toussaint L’Ouverture, or to William Cuffay? Where are the commemorations of the struggles of black workers and slaves who built the wealth of the 1% of this country? Where such things exist at all, they have been only won by hard, persistent campaigning. The statues that do exist are overwhelmingly those that glorify a very different side of history, that of the wealthy, the slave owners, and the leaders of racist imperialism’s violent plundering of other parts of the world. This is not remotely a neutral reality of some ‘complex’ history, but was, and remains, a deliberately created symbolic structure for the remembrance of the past. All of it was assembled at particular points in time for political reasons.
The statue of Coulson was erected in 1895, long after the abolition of slavery, so as others have pointed out, this was clearly a deliberate act to ‘curate’ Bristol’s history in a particular way. Many other statues and monuments and the entire public history of Britain were created at around the same time. The celebration of racist imperialism was deliberately cultivated as a conscious alternative to the rising demands for democratic and social change by the socialist and labour movement of the 1880s and onwards. Huge changes to what were once commonly known traditions of history happened at this time. A wholesale re-writing of the entire historical narrative began, which has impacted upon the shape of common historical knowledge even today.
Major events like the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 were successfully marginalised in the new story, even if the work of left-wing historians has successfully recovered that episode relatively recently. Other events did disappear. London’s first revolutionary movement of the poor against the wealthy, the rebellion of 1196, was wiped out from popular knowledge, even though its leader, William Longbeard, was as well-known as Robin Hood in the nineteenth century (with the advantage of being a real person). His story was even told by Dickens. He was banished to academic footnotes for most of the twentieth century. 3
Remove the infrastructure of Empire
The present infrastructure of commemoration to racist architects of colonial Empire like Robert Clive or Rhodes, supporters of apartheid-like Baden Powell, and those guilty of allowing millions to die in the Bengal famine of 1943, like Winston Churchill, are not there by accident. They are there as a deliberate demonstration of what it is acceptable to remember and what is not.
It is not to censor or forget history to demand that we deconstruct this infrastructure, by (actually non-violent) ‘physical-force’ if ‘moral-force’ means are treated with the contempt that they have been for so long. It must be replaced with the real, but deliberately suppressed, history of all the struggles for equality and democracy, from the recent to the ancient. In this, the memory and mourning for crimes against humanity perpetrated by the powerful and wealthy of this country must take centre stage.
Opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement say that they are defending knowledge of our history, but the story they are defending is a grossly distorted one which only has room for one race and one class of people (and usually one sex as well). In contrast, what the movement is championing is a demand for a democratic history.
In this history, through which the genuine truths of the past can be recovered to collective memory, the activism and leadership shown by so many black people will have a deservedly prominent place. The true story of BAME history in Britain is not a tokenistic add-on but would be mainstream if we had an actually ‘balanced’ view of the past. Moreover, it would show that you can’t achieve liberation for the working-class without the struggle for racial equality.
1 See the classic work on this by the West-Indian historian and activist, C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (London 1938).
2 For more, see, for example, Marcus Rediker, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail (London 2014).
3 Some of the evidence for this transformation in historiography can be found in a case study, forthcoming in Science and Society: Dominic Alexander, ‘London’s Lost Revolution: William Longbeard and the Historiography of Medieval England.’
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Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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