…. “and so do white lives”, someone will instantly reply. Of course they do, but the point is that when some lives have been valued less, justice demands action to redress that inequality. We may applaud the present government’s intention to “level up” the North (even if we question its analysis and proposals), and no-one replies “but the South-East matters, too”, because we know the imbalance that needs to be addressed. It is as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to Corinth: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.” (2 Corin. 8:13, NIV).
But has there been inequality for black lives, and is there still inequality?
In her book “SUPERIOR- THE RETURN OF RACE SCIENCE”, published in 2019 by 4th Estate, London (www.4thEstate.co.uk), Angela Saini looks back to the 18th century, when “European scientists began to define what we now think of as race. In 1795, in the third edition of ‘On the Natural Varieties of Mankind’, German doctor Johann Friedrich Blumenbach described five human types: Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans and Malays, elevating Caucasians- his own race- to the status of the most beautiful of them all…….. It was hardly scientific, even by the standards of the time, but his vague human taxonomy would nevertheless have lasting consequences. Caucasian is the polite word we still use today to describe white people of European descent.”
Before that date distinctions between “races” were often based on dubious interpretations of the Bible. I still have a nineteenth century West Family Bible, in which the introduction was written by Revd John Brown, a “Minister of the Secession Church” in Scotland, who lived from 1722 to 1787. He refers to that strange story in Genesis chapter nine (verses 18 to 27) where Noah and his family, with his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, emerge from the Ark after the Flood. Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk and lies naked in his tent, where Ham sees him. Shem and Japheth walk backwards and cover their father with a blanket, and when Noah wakes up and learns what Ham did, he curses, not Ham, but his son Canaan. Clearly, this story “explains” the conflict over the possession of the land between the Hebrews (descended, according to Genesis, from Shem) and the Canaanites, the earlier inhabitants. Throughout the world there are many similar stories of primaeval brothers whose different behaviour is said to account for the social superiority or inferiority of their present-day “descendants”.
John Brown says “Of the posterity of Ham, the Canaanites took up their dwelling in that pleasant country which hath been since called by their name….. The rest of Ham’s offspring, after part of them had continued for some generations in Asia, removed south-westward to Africa, and peopled it. No doubt some of them from thence, by means of tempests, or otherwise, crossed the ocean into South America and the islands adjacent. Distinguished estrangement from the knowledge of the true God, miserable bondage to Satan and to their fellows of mankind, have in every age been the general characteristics of the descendants of Ham, particularly of those by Canaan. Never, that we know of, did they form themselves into any extensive and lasting empire. Never, except for a short time, and in a very restrictive extent, have they been able to rule over the descendants of Shem or Japheth.”
Thus did John Brown condemn, in one short paragraph, the whole of the population of Africa, and of America before Columbus, to permanent inferiority and degradation, because of one foolish slip of their “father” Ham. I have no idea whether members of the West family ever read that introduction or believed it. But the ideas it contained were “common sense” at the time, and to some extent still persist today. How often do we hear it said that Africa’s economic problems are caused by their inability to build stable and just societies?
Why, when the Genesis story quite clearly refers to local conflicts between Hebrews and Canaanites, does John Brown turn it into a myth explaining the relationships between whole continents? The clue lies in the names that Genesis chapter 10 ascribes to the children of Ham (verse 6)- Kush, Egypt, Put and Canaan. Put is probably Libya. Kush, we are told in verses 7 to 12, became the ancestor of the great civilisation of Mesopotamia, with its cities of Babel (Babylon) and Nineveh. If anything, then, the story is invective against the great city states and empires of North Africa and the Middle East who used their power and wealth to oppress the nomadic (traveller?) people of the region, including the Hebrews.
But, by a tragic coincidence, “Kush” is also the name by which the people of Ethiopia were known later (see, for example, Isaiah chapter 18, verse 1). So John Brown, and many European readers of the Bible at that time, could turn a condemnation of wealthy and domineering powers into a categorisation of whole peoples as inferior, fit only to be the servants and slaves of “superior” races. That such a theology could be used to justify the expansion of European Empires and their rule over “uncivilised” peoples (not to mention the outpouring of missionary effort to Christianise “primitive” pagans), is obvious.
The developing science of evolution in the nineteenth century reinforced these stereotypes. The subtitle of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” is “On the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” (although there is some debate about the publisher’s influence on the exact wording). A set of National Encyclopaedias, published soon after Darwin’s book, and also inherited (this time from Mary’s family rather than the Wests) has an article on Africa, which says:
“The most widely extended race in Africa is the Negro….. In diverse tribes they occupy the whole of the central portion of the continent in enormous numbers….. Many of them are characterised by an extravagant fondness for ornament; they live but for the moment, and are careless and improvident, passing quickly from one mood to another- from the most exuberant joy to melancholy or anger. All this has been considered to indicate an inferiority of race, fitting them only for a career of servitude. The researches of Dr Livingstone, Speke, Grant, Stanley, and other explorers, however, have revealed to us, within the fertile Central African regions, whole nations of “blacks” who in physical appearance differ greatly from the common type of negro, being of very finely developed stature, and of symmetrical and comely aspect. There are powerful native kingdoms, in which respect for law and social order is well maintained, and the people are industrious as agriculturalists, cloth-weavers, and traders in ivory, ostrich feathers, grain etc, in busy market towns.” These attitudes (including the “ethnic distinctions”) were imported by European colonialists into many parts of Africa, and later played a major contributory part in political conflicts, including for example the Rwanda genocide of 1994.
At Wymington Primary School in the 1950s our history book was “A School History of England”, written by Rudyard Kipling and published in 1911. I think they must have been throwing them out about then, which probably explains why I still have a copy. Kipling sets the scene early on when he speaks about the Roman Empire and Ireland:
“Ireland he never touched at all. So Ireland never went to school, and has been a spoilt child ever since; the most charming of children, indeed, full of beautiful laughter and tender tears, full of poetry and valour, but incapable of ruling herself, and impatient of all rule by others.” But it is when he comes to describe the Caribbean islands that he descends into obscenity:
“The prosperity of the West Indies, once our richest possession, has very largely declined since slavery was abolished in 1833. There is little market for their chief products, and yet a large population, mainly black, descended from slaves imported in previous centuries, or of mixed black and white race; lazy, vicious and incapable of any serious improvement, or of work except under compulsion. In such a climate a few bananas will sustain the life of a negro quite sufficiently; why should he work to get more than this? He is quite happy and quite useless, and spends any extra wages which he may earn upon finery.”
And that was being read by my contemporaries at Wymington School only a few short years before Enoch Powell, as Health Minister from 1960 to 1963, was recruiting people from precisely the same islands to fill vacancies in the National Health Service.
Wymington was probably a little “behind the times” with its school history books, but the ideas contained there certainly influenced generations of British people, as becomes very clear from David Olusoga’s description of the post-war decades in his “Black and British: a Forgotten History” (published in 2016 by Pan Books). With such a weight of indoctrination over many years, it is hardly surprising that many who have come to live in Britain find that there is a deeply ingrained structural racism and discrimination in this society. Individual friendships can mitigate, but not eradicate that fact. “But things have changed” some will say. There is no doubt that attitudes are changing, but to say that they “have changed” and so there is no longer any need to make sure that “Black Lives Matter” is untrue.
In recent decades all this has become compounded and confused with debates about the decline of traditional (imperial?) industry, global markets, religious identities, and Britain’s relationship with Continental Europe. But like a culverted stream the attitudes expressed by John Brown, the National Encyclopaedia, and Rudyard Kipling, however diluted, still flow on today, sometimes beneath the surface, sometimes breaking out into the open, and exert their influence on public opinion and on political decisions.