Article by Geoffrey Heptonstall
‘Africa has no history’, according to Hugh Trevor-Roper. He was explaining why he chose to write European history. Even at seventeen year in age I was doubtful about that. Had he never heard of Egypt? Of course, he would say, that is an exception. It is quite an exception. There are others. Christian doctrine was developed by debates in North African universities. In writing The Rise of Christian Europe Trevor-Roper must have been aware of this. But it too would be regarded as an exception. How many exceptions does it take to establish a general rule?
There were great Classical authors (including Lucius Apuleius and Terence), Christian saints, including St Augustine, and popes from Africa. Western civilisation owes much in its foundation and development to that great continent to the south. This history, vital to our understanding of ourselves, has been airbrushed from the picture until all that remains is a barely visible shadow.
So not much African history was ever taught in my education, although histories of Africa existed. We did European history, though not much English history [leaving curious blanks that I had to fill in.] Africa, like China, was an unknown realm. ‘Darkest Africa’ was the phrase when Speke and others found for themselves the source of the Nile. They knew something of ancient sources, considering them semi-mythical. The truth was that Arab scholars had written in antiquity of explorations and discoveries. But news travels slowly in Europe.
The great empires of Africa were more or less unknown to the West. The spirit of enquiry was circumscribed by what Europeans could find, not what Africans knew was there. At fourteen I studied King Solomon’s Mines as a set book. It was taken to be a tale of white adventurers searching for a lost kingdom, a sub-Saharan Shangri-La. What Rider Haggard did not know (but had imagined) was the truth. Great Zimbabwe, of course, exists. White settlers refused to believe it was the work of Africans. Conquerors from the north were surely the creators of such a construction. The great empires of Africa did not exist in European minds. Fantasies about legendary queens were permitted. Egypt could not be ignored, but all else was desert or primeval forest.
I have been surprised by the number of people who think Timbuktu is an imaginary place and not the great city of trade and learning. There for centuries the caravans have brought spices and goods of great quality. Scholars have taught faith and culture and science far beyond anything available in the Dark Ages of Europe. It continues to this day. Not all the history is good. Slaves even now may be found. But not all human history is benign. That does not render it worthless as history. After the barbarism of European and American history it is refreshing to read of these lost kingdoms and empires of, generally, higher civilisation than contemporary experience in the West. Or, as Edmund Burke put it of India, ‘They had a great civilisation when we were still in the woods.’
Burke is chiefly remembered now for his opposition to the French Revolution. There was another Burke (the same man, of course) who wrote a major philosophy of the aesthetic, who was a supporter of the American Revolution, a supporter of Emancipation for Catholics (he was an Irish protestant) and an end to the slave trade. He was a member of parliament for Bristol where his statue overlooks the river. His statue remains inviolate.
The spontaneous, popular toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in 2020 was, perhaps, in defiance of common law. But it was a heroic and necessary act. No-one was prosecuted, for there is a higher law of common good that precedes statute and custom.
Of course it is easy to watch these actions at a distance. The question is how does Black Lives Matter affect those of us who are not black? Personally I must reach back. In childhood my mother taught me never to use certain words. If I saw a black person I was not say those words. The Vale of York was just about wholly white. To my disappointment, an African or Asian never did walk by. My father had been stationed in Natal, finding Apartheid abhorrent. As a family we followed events in southern African countries. My political hero was Julius Nyrere.
It always seemed to me that the unacknowledged truth about Britain was its racism. The picture of a tolerant society is belied by the attention given to populist voices with wholly unacceptable attitudes to race and national identity. They have made racism respectable enough for mainstream politicians to echo their sentiments with impunity. The prejudice in casual conversation is ubiquitous outside the confines of educated liberals (who are not immune themselves from unconscious prejudice).
An insidious form of racism is the general assertion of superiority by those who are not racist as individuals in their social exchange with minority groups. The prejudice slips out. The master at school who told us that ‘at least the British Empire brought “the rule of law”’ was the same master who cast an Indian pupil as Cordelia. He had no objection to skin colour. He simply thought Britain was civilised in a way other places were not. The world outside of the West, especially in Africa, was a lawless, savage jungle.
The prevalence of this view is being challenged very effectively now, notably by David Olusoga with exact reference to African and British history. With an inheritance of two cultures, Professor Olusoga reminds his fellow Britons of their imperial history, a generally shameful past, and of its legacy in contemporary British society. There are things to celebrate in our diverse experience, and much to understand from fresh perspectives.
It raises the question of what is meant by national identity. There was a time when that identity was seen as white and Anglo-Saxon (with a ‘Celtic fringe’). It was never entirely the case. Victorian literature testifies to this with key works like The Moonstone and Wuthering Heights featuring minority ethnic experience in the foreground. An excellent BBC adaption of Oliver Twist cast a black Nancy, an entirely credible casting. A number of notable Britons of the past have been from minority backgrounds, not always obviously so.
And that is the point. Terms like white and minority ethnic are relative terms with all manner of qualifications. The very notion of minority ethnic depends on the definition of the term. There may be no commonly agreed definition. I am not sure. The point is that such matters of identity are fluid. They always have been. Cultural identity is not a system of exact categories, narrow perceptions, and unchanging values. Rather than lines of stratification it may be useful to consider cultural identity, like class, as a spectrum, or perhaps a network.
Each of us carries within our genetic inheritance a diversity or origins. Most of us, surely, carry within our family and community experience a diversity of cultures. There is likely to be a greater harvest than you may think at first glance. Look back three or four generations (some of whom you may have met). There you may see more than one shade in the spectrum.
Of course every nation has its core identity, its majority experience. But the identity changes with every generation, with every wave of migration. Too rigid a definition of nationality excludes many who are integral to our society. Urban experience has been multicultural for a long time. Windrush was a major milestone without being the prime mover of our varied heritage. Migration began long ago. It is essential to our future that the majority culture repays the debt owed to its minorities. What began in poverty and servitude developed into an enrichment of commonwealth.
Too frequently and for too long voices of reaction have been given an undeserved voice. The presence of David Olusoga and Bernardine Evaristo looks like a hurried, apologetic afterthought following decades of prominence (as the broadcast and newspaper archives show) given to the discredited extremes. One name alone will suffice: Enoch Powell, with his bogus statistics, calculated hyperbole and cynical ambition. Other prancing devils have learned from his example.
We have an obligation to look as objectively as we can at the realities of life on this island. Reality is not what we would wish it to be. Reality is the undeniable life of our city streets. Comparisons with the United States have to be approached with caution, for theirs is a different history. British imperial history is central to an understanding of the transformation of British identity. It is a history that has been taught in terms of benevolence: (Look what we civilised Christians gave to the heathen multitudes.) The truth is more complex. Well-meaning arrogance may be a more accurate description. It was not always well-meaning. So often it was self-deceiving. The ‘rule of law’ (sic) brought no benefit to slaves. Learning something of African history, including the colonial interventions, may be of benefit to all. Liberation remains the distant, but achievable, dream of the human race.
[This article was drafted before the Sewell Report was published.]
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