A young David Olusoga sits in his family’s council housing flat in Leeds, reading a book he holds in bloodied hands. The blood is fresh from his most recent encounter with the National Front, an increasingly violent, racist party in the 1970’s and 80’s; the book, Staying Power (Peter Fryer, 1984), is to have an immense effect on Olusoga. It prompted the realisation that there are swathes of Britain’s historical landscapes that have been painted over and airbrushed away, triggering the question that drives his work: “At what point does an omission become a lie?”
The Nigerian-born, British historian, broadcaster and filmmaker speaks calmly in rich, soothing tones, and weaves factual and historical threads into an eloquent narrative, buoyed along by art references and a dry, almost dark sense of humour. Having taken on the mammoth task of excavating the buried history of Black Britain, he gave a talk in The Anson Rooms as part of the ongoing events for Black History Month.
This image of his bloodied hands around the seminal book is one of many visually rich scenes Olusoga paints, but it strikes me as particularly symbolic for the rest of his talk that focuses in part on language’s ability to deceive. The name The National Front is apt for Britain, whose national identity has been forged in a Frankenstein-like manner by stitching other cultures together. The front is the mask; to hide its brutal past and ease the discomfort of facing the truth. Olusoga’s work seeks to peel back this mask, focusing on what we missed out and how we missed it. I write this as a white South African-Namibian with my own dubious past to excavate. The fact of my whiteness in southern Africa is a red-light warning of my family’s unspoken involvement in colonial legacies, so hearing Olusoga unpick British history was revealing and often times unsettling.
England had drawn itself “a warm bath” of history to lie in that fixated on its positive impact whilst gliding over its role in the more distasteful aspects. As you soak, you think of abolition - but not slavery; of abolitionists - but not of slave activists. You could name William Wilberforce, but not a single slave owner.
Olusoga grew up in The North where a dip in this bath leads your thoughts towards the Industrial Revolution, which paints England as a great, singular power of self-produced wealth. Britain processed cotton in factories powered with coal hauled up from its own land. These histories are actively kept alive in linguistic idioms like “the canary in the coalmine” and “like taking coal to Newcastle,” as well as in the textbooks, which hone the minutiae of factory mechanics into emblems of an era whilst deadening out other truths.
A lightbulb moment for Olusoga was, “Where did the cotton come from?”.
This was what the textbooks missed out: cotton came from plantations in Mississippi powered by 1.8 million slaves. But the single most unnerving omission is the neat misplacement of Clause 24 of The Abolition of Slave Trade Act (1833). Under this clause, that compensates slave owners for their loss of property, £20 million (£17 billion today) was paid out to 47, 000 slave owners, the single largest pay-out since 2008’s financial crash. UCL’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership1 has undertaken the mammoth task of figuring out exactly where all this money went. So, I peeled away the front of my own personal history by typing ‘Orford’ into UCL’s database. Orford, my mother’s family name, is a small clan originally from Orkney now living in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. The search hauls up a previously unknown Samuel Orford from the quagmire of the archives. The first receipt is for the reimbursement of 18 slaves for £934.00 and a second for 14 slaves for £758.00. I don’t know if I am related to this Samuel Orford, but it’s likely.
How was it that this tiny, damp island ruled a quarter of the world’s population? England could retreat when the sun set on the empire in a way that America could not because Americans still live on the land tilled by slaves. The geographical separation allows for a conceptual and psychic distance. We use language to ease the truth and hide behind euphemisms such as “globalisation” and “multi-cultural.”
Consider what is traditionally British: tea. Tea brings the empire and global powers to the privacy and comfort of our own homes with leaves taken from China and grown in India. It’s bitter, so we serve it with sugar-produced by slaves in American plantations using Portuguese-Brazilian technology, in China cups. “I thought the milk was the only national part, but our cows are Dutch,” Olusoga jokes.
This identity formed off dismembered aspects of other cultures is so quintessentially British that we must give it a linguistic mask of names: Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Yorkshire Tea.
We have eroded colonial connections and masked over truths with linguistic tricks. Digging through history the sense of British-self slowly becomes unhinged. The screws are falling out of the carefully constructed past but Olusoga presses that we must be able to experience the discomfort that this reveal brings if we are ever to fix the structural racism inherent in society.
“Black people are everywhere,” they’re in art, in Shakespeare’s characters, in music. This is not a case of political correctness. Olusoga points out that John Amboyne was not cast into bronze next to Lord Nelson as an act for filling BME quotas (Death of Nelson on the HMS Defiance, Trafalgar Square, London), but because he was a respected, honoured part of Britain’s most important battle. “They were there in flesh and blood and now they’re here in bronze.” Later, a quick google search brings up a litany of white admirals, captains and others aboard the HMS that day but only one document mentions Amboyne. The same can be said for George Butler, John Ephraim,2 George Brown and other young black soldiers that Olusoga mentions.
“I am far from being concerned about my right to be here,” he says. “I simply relish in these fascinating stories that we left out.” Olusoga frequently mentions the cyber pressure he receives from people’s reactions against hearing the truth. They accuse him of making it up in an effort to prove his right to be in the UK as a Nigerian born Briton.
For obvious reasons, I experience guilt as a white South African. Guilt is an instinctive feeling in response to personal discomfort or exposure, but unless it provokes action and discovery, it is a wholly useless emotion. A little more probing into my past revealed that my great grandfather’s signature is on the instrumental Apartheid era Natives Land Act, 1913 and had frequent personal correspondence with colonial magnate Cecil John Rhodes.
Revealing these truths exposes the structural racism underneath the façades we are presented with today. The effects are seen but the mechanisms are kept quietly concealed in half-truths. We see that people of colour are paid 23% less than their white co-workers; are twice as likely to be murdered and three times as likely to be prosecuted but we don’t see how or why. So, what do we do to decolonise the societal architecture?
When asked about Colston Hall and his thoughts on renaming or removing monuments Olusoga says that re-contextualising monuments is more important in telling the whole truth. Simply removing a statue is just another way of airbrushing the past and dusting uncomfortable truths under the carpet but by shifting the lens; lowering the towering figures or relabelling them accurately (for example, by stating that Edward Colston was not the “wise and virtuous man” but, rather, the CEO of a monopoly that traded in living human bodies, a.k.a The Royal African Company) - we come closer to telling the whole truth and taking responsibility for our pasts. The act of “inviting a black musician into Colston Hall is insulting.”
Olusoga’s background as an art historian rings through in all he says: he is poetic, painting words into fully fleshed scenes with his hand gestures. The most vivid scene he paints is one that set the tone for his vision of a Black British future, “In the future single race families will be the minority.” This realisation came to him in the surprising form of a bulky white man on the beach. With biceps laced in nationalist tattoos, bulldogs and red flags, the man’s gaze sent a wave of threat and fear through Olusoga, residual instincts from his past when men like this represented The National Front and had left the scars that still edge his body. The same men who caused the blood on the hands that held “Staying Power” back in the 80’s. But the man was looking past him, not into him, so Olusoga turned and followed his gaze to find a young, mixed-race child running out the waves, into those once foreboding, now loving, arms. He thought of the journey that the man had been through, all he had learned and come to terms with, and remembered the power of opening up history.
He ends with a parting gift, a mantra “Black people are everywhere. They always have been, and they always will be.”
If you would like to hear more from David Olusoga watch his BBC series, Black and British and Civilisations, or read his book Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016), winner of the PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize for non-fiction.
Illustration by Larissa Lebe https://www.instagram.com/sleepylisdoingart/
1. UCL’s Legacies of British of Slave-ownership: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/
2. John Ephraim is immortalised JMW Turner’s painting HMS Temeraire (1838) that was named Britain’s favourite painting last year.
3. John Blanke is the oldest recorded black Briton since the Roman Empire. He can be found in the Westminster Tournament Roll that celebrated the birth of Catherine of Aragon’s child.