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African History, Black Britain, Racism, Slavery

Black History month in unGrand Britannia :

Some excerpts from Black History month in unGrand Britannia :  Many people are aware of the Black Panther movement in the US but how many know of the British Black Panthers which had a brief 10 year life in the late 60s and early 70s.  The Independent reports on a photo documentary by a group of young people called “Organized Youth” who interviewed many of those who were involved in the British Black Panther movement.  Like the US Black Panthers, their struggle was against institutional racism, poor housing and education, and police brutality.   Olive Morris was one of the few women involved in the movement.

Although many members were inspired by hearing American activists talk in London – including Angela Davis, who addressed a crowd to thank her British peers for their support while she was in jail – there were notable differences between Black Power groups in Britain and the US. “Over there, they were a party; they were seeking political power,” explains Kenlock. “The American Constitution allows people to carry guns, so they were policing the police. There was segregation in America at that time – the system in America was far behind Britain. What we were about was seeking better education and jobs, and making sure the police treated us fairly. It was just the name and the culture that was adopted.”


The name was a quick way to attract attention and get young people excited; some of the style was taken on, too. “The berets, black trousers, black T-shirt and guns,” is how Darcus Howe, a member of the British Panther inner circle k and later editor of Race Today, describes the iconography. ” But we didn’t get to the [real] gun bit over here.”

Howe got involved in the movement after meeting Panthers at the Mangrove Trial in 1971. The Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, was repeatedly raided by police; a subsequent protest march saw nine people – including Panthers such as Jones-LeCointe and Barbara Beese – arrested. Their trial became a turning point for racial justice in Britain: they were acquitted, and the institutional racism of the police was publicly acknowledged.

But while the British movement was largely founded on political protest, it was also culturally significant and socially rich. Linton Kwesi Johnson describes, in an interview for the exhibition, how his interest in poetry was ignited by exploring the library at the movement’s headquarters: “Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered black literature.”

While the movement had its own literary sub-groups, it was primarily concerned with fostering understanding of black history and radical political thought. For many, it was a Marxist struggle, an adjunct to the labour movement.

The British Black Panthers’ founders were often highly educated immigrants, scholarship kids who came to the UK from the colonies in order to gain a university degree; from wealthy backgrounds, they had never before encountered racism and were incensed at the violence and prejudice of Britain in the 1960s. They made it their mission to educate and radicalise the black immigrant working-class, too, uniting against racism across class divides (and, of course, across different ethnicities – members might have Caribbean, African or Indian heritage).  Continue on the Independent.

According to the late British social historian, Peter Fryer, Black people have been settled in Britain since Roman times. However it wasn’t until the 16th C that the numbers became significant.  The Old Bailey records and research into plantation owners reveals much about the lives of Black people during this period and later.    However most of the records are limited to England so it was with great interest that I read this account on ‘Scotland’s complicated Black history‘.

SIDEBAR: My own British roots are English from West Yorkshire, my great grandfather was a French polisher who was recruited to work on the Grand hotel in Manchester which of course was built buy capitalists money from the cotton plantations  and slave labour of the West Indies.  At that time Manchester was possibly the richest metropolis in Britain as it was the center of the industrial revolution factories producing cotton and sugar with an exploited indigenous work force including child labour.  As a ‘skilled’ workman, my great grandfather would have had better living conditions than factory workers nonetheless my grandmother spent her working life in factories or as a cleaner to rich industrialists.  Whilst my grandfather worked in a grocers shop.

Back to Scotland…

Scots were heavily involved in the slave trade of the 18th and 19th Centuries, something which leading historian Prof Tom Devine has accused Scotland of ignoring today.

Men and women were put to work in Scots-run plantations in the colonies. Female slaves were also sexually abused by their owners.

An exhibition on slavery held in 2011 involving the Centre for History in Dornoch and Edinburgh Beltane organisation featured correspondence detailing the keeping of sex slaves.

The letters were sent by Highland owners to relatives in Inverness and their contents were described as “graphic” and “disturbing” by researchers.

Prof Tom Devine’s article asked the question “Did slavery make Scotland great?” in which he argues that the close relationship between Scotland’s  18th C economic growth and slavery in plantations owned by  Scottish masters. He also admonishes Scottish academics for ignoring this fact.

The acclaimed historian added: “If you look at the telephone directory for Jamaica it’s stuffed full of Scottish names. These are people who have taken their names from their Scottish masters.

“The jewel in the crown in the Caribbean was Jamaica, which was the single richest colony in the British Empire during the 18th century. We know that and we have evidence that the Scots were the dominating force in Jamaica.

“Their owners didn’t want to live in this lethal environment so they were absentees. A lot of young Scots went out there, including one Robert Burns, who was about to go out to a post in Port Antonio in Jamaica in 1786 when he made his money with his poetry.”

Scottish academics have always skirted round the issue of Scottish slavery because it was mainly thought that the nation had not been involved. Professor Devine expressed regret in the lecture that in earlier studies he had also failed to realise the impact slavery had on the nation and omitted references to Scottish slavery in his past work.


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