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Julie Waterson

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(January 1996)

From Socialist Review 193, (January 1996).
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Black England
Gretchen Gerzina
John Murray £19.99

‘What are England’s rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task?’

The abolitionist decade of the 1790s saw sympathetic poems portraying the plight of the slaves. It also launched ‘political jewellery’ with Wedgwood’s medallion of a kneeling black man, with raised shackled wrists, pleading, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ This was worn on hairpins, on bracelets and on snuff boxes.

The activities of the rich (which dominate in this book) and the poor (who get passing references) against the brutality meted out to slaves stand as a testament to anti-racism. They also stand as proof against those who argue that inequality has always existed and that all whites benefited from slavery – which was eventually abolished in 1833.

Many blacks entered the world of the rich and powerful, like the shopkeeper and former slave Ignatius Sancho. The Prince of Wales had a black friend, as did Mozart. It was a society where class, not colour, was the barrier to success.

Equal treatment is given to the tiny minority of rich blacks who attended elite schools and occupied, alongside their white counterparts, a privileged position above the vast mass of poor people. It was poverty which united the masses and not racism which divided them.

Racism hasn’t been a static feature of our history – from the 1500s when there was the first black presence in Britain to today. The slave trade ended in the early 1800s, mainly because it had served its economic purpose, but it took until 1905 before the first law on immigration with the Aliens Act aimed at restricting Jews fleeing the eastern European pogroms.

It was the slave trade which built capitalism that gave birth to the vile racism that remains today to divide black and white. Even so, it was an ideology our rulers had to fight to establish. They did so by crushing any organised resistance to their rule. ‘They claim their rights as Englishmen’ the black radical William Davidson told the court in 1820 just before he was hung and beheaded along with four white radicals.

As the anti-slavery movement grew, the bosses who profited from the trade used any justification to stop its abolition. When, in 1781, the master of the English ship Zong took a decision to throw 133 slaves overboard to protect his insurance, there was an outcry. ‘This is a case of chattels or goods. It is really so; it is the case of throwing over goods; for this purpose, and the purpose of the insurance, they are goods and property: whether right or wrong, we have nothing to do with it,’ said the solicitor general.

Statements like this fed the revolt against the inhumanity of slavery and the revolts shifted the justification for the trade. In the latter years of the 1700s and early years of the 1800s pro-slave traders used less brutal reasons – one of which was them offering blacks an idyllic life under palm trees, with food and drink being plentiful and their families living happily!

Gerzina’s book is an interesting read about the lives of a handful of slaves in London, where an estimated 20,000 were held in bondage. Most of the book is devoted to the handful of rich whites who campaigned against slavery with little mention of the forces which propelled their activity.

The American War of Independence, the slave revolts and uprisings in the West Indies and the radicals who agitated on the streets in Britain are mentioned, but you feel they are treated as peripheral events by Gerzina. For instance on two occasions she mentions how one visitor from America was horrified (he was rich and white) at the tolerance shown to blacks and shocked at inter-racial relationships, while another (poor and black) was delighted at the differences. This is not really expanded or explained.

In fact, you feel that she has written it so loosely and without comment that you could take what you want out of it. So one reviewer could say that ‘the book portrays what is effectively a black underclass, internationally manipulated and discarded by powerful agencies.’ I think the purpose of Gerzina’s book was to prove the opposite! For a less one sided approach you should read Peter Fryer’s Staying Power.

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