Slavery was not just about profit and suffering, a controversial report commissioned by the UK government in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests last summer has said.
The much-anticipated report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities says that there is “a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.”
The commission was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in June 2020 in a column for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, following a series of BLM protests which sought to highlight racism in the UK, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that triggered global demonstrations. It was tasked with looking into all aspects of racism in the UK.
One aspect of UK BLM protests was a demand to see Britain reckon with its racist, imperial history. In Bristol, protesters toppled a statue of former slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in the harbour. A petition for making topics such as “Britain's role in colonisation, or the transatlantic slave trade” a compulsory part of the national curriculum gained almost 270,000 signatures.
The foreword of today’s report, written by chair of the commission Dr Tony Sewell, proposes a “Making of Modern Britain” teaching resource as a “response to negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum” in order to help children “reclaim their British heritage”.
The resource would look at “the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period. We want to see how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain.”
“One great example would be a dictionary or lexicon of well known British words which are Indian in origin,” says the report, referring to words that were absorbed into the English language by British imperialists in India. Another is a “new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.”
The comments on Atlantic slavery have been widely criticised.
Shadow Equality minister Marsha De Cordova tweeted that the report was “Putting a positive spin on slavery and empire. Published on a Government website in 2021. Is this for real?”
Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust told the PoliticsHome website: "I'm absolutely flabbergasted to see the Slave Trade apparently redefined as 'the Caribbean Experience'; as though it's something Thomas Cook should be selling – a one-way shackled cruise to purgatory. The cultural deafness of this report is only going to become clearer in the coming days and weeks."
Nazir Afzal, a former Chief Prosecutor for north west England, Tweeted, “As for the Race Report asking us to look for the positives in such things as Slavery, which is now the “Caribbean Experience” I have nothing but contempt.”
Sewell was a controversial appointment as chair. Writing in Prospect magazine in 2010, he said "much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy". The Muslim Council of Britain said at the time that he was the wrong choice as he was "keen on downplaying race disparities".
As BLM protests swept the country in June 2020, Johnson posted a video message in which he said, “We are all right to say black lives matter”. He added that feelings of discrimination could not be ignored because “in too many cases, I am afraid, they will be founded on a cold reality.” Johnson has faced calls to apologise for his long history of racist remarks in his career as a columnist for newspapers and magazines.
In June, Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy criticised the plan for a commission as “written on the back of a fag packet” in order “to assuage the Black Lives Matter protests. Get on with the action. Legislate. Move. You’re in government – do something.”