David Olusoga has fond memories of Leicester after studying for his masters degree at the university, but, to start his talk, he went further back to studying history at school. He remembered history being chopped up and divided commonly into British History or European History, so history felt incomplete and Black history fell between the gaps. Both common divisions ignored non-white people. Yet history is full of non-white people and Britain’s history is interwoven with Africa. This is shown by relics in street and place names plus financial history. The history of slavery became a specialist subject so was dropped from mainstream syllabi and was given euphemisms like ‘West India trade’ or, the one I remember from school days, ‘the Spice Trade’. It is easy for historians and teachers of history to play down or skip over what was happening outside Britain.
Yet Black British History is often hidden in plain sight. For example, Nelson’s Column in London has four bas-reliefs near its base and one of them, by John Edward Carew is called ‘The Death of Nelson’ and features an African, one of 18 men enlisted from Africa. Of course the Victorians who build the column didn’t care for tokenism or political correctness. The man is there because he was there.
The current trend for tracing family trees, which David Olusoga supports because it keeps records open for access, has seen some discover that there were Africans or slave owners in their history too.
David Olusoga asked the audience to consider the origins of the word ‘guinea’. The common association is with the 1000 and 2000 guinea stakes at Newmarket race course. At one point, business and services, such as legal, often used guineas on their price lists to confer a higher status on their goods and services. The guinea coin was produced from the Guinea coast and minted by the Royal African Company. The Royal African Company were also the largest slave trader, up to 150000 slaves, who were branded with ‘RAC’ or ‘DY’ on their chests. ‘DY’ was representative of James, Duke of York, whom New York is named after. The Royal African Company had a Royal Charter so could call on the British Royal Navy to protect its ships and fortresses. Without that context, guinea has just become a word or the name of a horse race.
Another example of how origins have been obscured is in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. In 1738 Britain was at war with Spain. The excuse for going to war with Spain took place in Cuba where the British ship Rebecca was intercepted by the Spanish ship La Isabela. The captain of the latter assumed British captain wasn’t taking the situation seriously enough so the Spaniard cut the British Captain’s ear off. Spaniards know the war as The Guerra del Asiento, a war over the treaty where Britain had a right to supply an unlimited number of slaves to Spanish colonies. But refering to this as the War of Jenkins’ Ear means the origins are obscured.
The UCL’s Legacy of Slave Ownership project has revealed that slavery contributed 9-10% to Britain’s ecomony at its height, roughly equivalent to the contribution made by the City of London today. The South Sea Bubble is often told as an economic story that overlooks the part that the slave trade played in the bursting of that bubble.
When growing up, David Olusoga felt he wasn’t being told his own history. Lessons focused on the Industrial Revolution and he was taken on visits to cotton mills, mines and factories but never told where the cotton came from. The roots of current management culture are actually in Caribbean plantations, not the cotton mills of Lancashire. His comment, “There’s a point at which omission begins to look a lot like a lie.”
In a recent You Gov poll, 59% thought the British Empire was something to be proud of. In the 1920s, 1 in 4 people were British subjects. Britain was the first superpower. Yet the British are good at overlooking the sources of what are consider national products. For example, tea: grown in India, taken with milk from Dutch cows and sugar from the Caribbean. There was much media fuss when it was claimed that chicken tikka masla had overtaken fish ‘n’ chips as the national dish. But Walter Raleigh introduced the potato from South America and battered fish is a recipe from Portuguese Jewish refugees.
With some laughter and a lot of applause, David Olusoga prepared to take questions. The first asked his thoughts on Germans making learning about the Holocaust compulsory. David Olusoga responded that Holocaust teachings overlooked the holocaust in Northern Africa but teaching history has always been political. His priority is not to have special classes on Black History but integrate Black History into mainstream classes. David Olusoga supports the Black Cultural Archives and hopes this will provide a model for others. However, the Black Cultural Archives have to suceed because, if it fails, it provides an excuse not to bother creating others.
He said he was surprised when others bristled at discovering there were blacks in Britain before slavery – the Romans had used North African slaves to build Hadrian’s Walls and paintings of Georgian country houses sometimes showed blacks. He couldn’t understand why this could be seen as a threat to national identity. But he suspected the answer lay in the way history was taught and that its current insular, islanded approach enabled people to ignore the bits they found uncomfortable.
The final question was about Banjo TV, his production company. David Olusoga explained that teenagers can spot hypocrisy a mile off and when he visited a school and quoted the statistic about British Blacks being less likely to set up their own businesses, he felt he ought to lead by example. At this point, he had to leave to catch a train.
David Olusoga entertained and informed without being accusatory or making people uncomfortable. He made an excellent case for expanding history to include where cotton came from, how sugar got to the UK and Britain’s economic history without omission.