From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘A perception more than a reality’?

Perception or reality?

April 1st

So March slips seamlessly into April and the news gets its annual injection of  quirkiness.  One story that caught my attention was the one about a bronze statue of Dominic Cummings, designed by a Scandanavian sculptor called Olof Prial, that is to be erected outside the opticians in Barnard’s Castle where Cummings went to test his eyes.  Another was the story about a ten-person government commission – the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities  – that is said to have reported after the better part of a year that, where race is concerned, the UK ‘should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries’ because, according to its chair, Tony Sewell, while there is ‘anecdotal evidence of racism’ in UK, the commission could find no ‘evidence of actual institutional racism’.   People who spent any time at all opposing apartheid in South Africa will have been mightily relieved to discover that they have came to the right place. Provided, of course, that they haven’t noticed today’s date.

Nobody should be particularly surprised at the findings of the Commission’s 258 page report, which was apparently completed several months ago (and which, beyond the Foreword and Introduction, I have to confess to not having read in its entirety).  Boris Johnson signalled its outcome very clearly when he set it up.  Its job, he said, would be to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.’   As long as we ‘change the narrative’ and stop people feeling they are victimised and discriminated against, all will be well and victimisation and discrimination will disappear out of the window.  Johnson apparently made sure of the desired outcome of the review by getting Munira Mirza, the Director of the No 10 Policy Unit who is on record as saying that institutional racism is ‘a perception more than a reality’, to hand-pick the members of the Commission.   Perhaps the otherwise unaccountable delay in the report’s publication until April Fool’s Eve can be attributed to the same penchant for a jolly jape as Johnson’s racist references to, among other people, ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘water-melon smiles’.

We cannot, surely, be expected to believe that the arrival on the scene of an overtly racist prime minister will have miraculously purged our society of the institutional racism identified by so many previous reports.  Racism is now, Sewell’s Foreword suggests, just an unpleasant historical memory: ‘For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.’  This miraculous change must have happened in the four years since David Lammy produced his 2017 Independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system.*

Lammy’s review revealed that young black people were nine times more likely to be locked up in England and Wales than their white peers, while the proportion of British and minority ethnic (BAME) youth prisoners rose from 25% to 41% in the ten years between 2006 and 2016.   Perhaps even more startling in view of what one knows about the penal system in the USA is the fact that while the 13% of the US population who are black accounted for a striking 35% of the prison population in that country, here the 3% of our population who are black accounted for 12% of the prison population, proportionally almost double the US’s notorious black imprisonment prison rate.   Lammy’s 2017 figures showed that for every 100 white men convicted of public order offences here there were 494 BAME convictions.   For every 100 white men convicted, the equivalent BAME conviction figures for criminal damage and arson, possession of weapons, drug offences, theft, violence against the person and sexual offences were 156, 144, 127, 121, 119 and 118 respectively.  In every instance the number of black men convicted was, proportionately, significantly higher than the number of white men.  

The Home Office’s own figures show that In 2018/2019 Black people were more than five times as likely to have force used against them by police as White people, and were subject to the use of Tasers at almost eight times the rate of White people.** Other figures show that there are twice as many BAME deaths in custody as a result of restraint, and twice as many involving the use of force, as for other groups.  So much for institutional racism being ‘a perception more than a reality’ – unless, of course, that miraculous transformation has indeed come about in a couple of years.  The outrage with which the Review report has been greeted by members of the BAME community would suggest that not to be the case.

As seems now to be the Downing Street custom, snippets of the report were allowed to leak out in advance.  One of the extracts that has occasioned the greatest consternation is one that manages to find a silver lining to the grotesque history of slavery: ‘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 (sic).’  This cultural transformation is clearly seen as a positive benefit.   Crudely put, the route of the perceived ‘progress’ appears to boil down to: lift the African out of the heart of darkness in Africa, transport him across the Atlantic and subject him to the purifying fire of slavery, and, hey presto! you have your ‘re-modelled  African/Britain’, whatever that may be.   Didn’t any of the ten members of the commission pause even for a moment to call out the assumption of racial superiority underlying this bizarre attribution of a ‘silver lining’ to slavery?  In what respect, precisely, is the ‘re-modelled African’, now apparently fit to live in Britain, superior to his antecedents from, say, the empires of Songhai or Mali in West Africa?  

When Diane Abbott, the former shadow Home Secretary, heard that Munira Mirza was going to be involved in selecting the commissioners, she is reported as having said: ‘A new race equalities commission led by Munira Mirza is dead on arrival. She has never believed in institutional racism.’  Boris Johnson’s supposedly ‘independent’ Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities seems by all account to have done its very best to do the job he wanted it to do. It has tried to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination’. But I suspect that Johnson is already wishing that the report really had been ‘dead on arrival.’  It is very much alive and kicking and has clearly already succeeded in gravely exacerbating a great many people’s sense of victimisation and discrimination. Even on April Fools Day it is difficult to believe that Boris Johnson, even Boris Johnson, could manage to shoot himself in the foot quite so crassly.


* https://www.theguardian.com/law/2017/sep/08/racial-bias-uk-criminal-justice-david-lammy

**  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-use-of-force-statistics-england-and-wales-april-2018-to-march-2019

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Slavery, shells, Zanzibar and genocide

June 21. with thoughts of Juneteenth

East African guide to shells. 1950s. Single Cyprae moneta on the right

My mother and I had a special hobby in Zanzibar during the 8 years that I lived there: we collected cowries. My mother would select the days and times of the low spring tides and we would venture onto the exposed coral reefs in search of the cowries under the rocks. We tried to be conservative in our collecting. We left shells that were on eggs; only collected ones that we did not have and always turned the rocks back over so that the myriad creatures thereunder were protected. I learnt all the Latin names of these Indian Ocean cowries. When I was back in boarding school, my mother would write and tell me of her special finds. The rare tiny golden Cypraea globulus was one of these: it is found in coral clumps on the reef edge.

A drawer from my disorganised, well-travelled, shell collection

While in Zanzibar, my father had a shell cabinet made for us. I arranged the shells by size and name, mimicking some museum presentation. I still have that cabinet: for 60 odd years it has travelled with me, from Zanzibar to Durban to Sydney, to Melbourne and to Adelaide. The cabinet is not particularly beautiful and the shells no longer shine as once they did. Their scientific labels are in disarray: I plan to resort the shells during this lockdown.

One of the commonest shells on Zanzibar reefs was the money cowry, Cypraea moneta, a thumb-sized creamy-yellow shell with a slight hump. Nowadays, it has no specific value but this shell is famous, or maybe I should say, infamous.

I only discovered the fascinating background to the international trade in the money cowry when I met Marion Johnson in Windhoek, Namibia. It’s a long story, but the short version is that Marion and her colleague, Jan Hogendorn, became interested in the role of this specific cowry played in West Africa as the regular market currency. Their determined research led to them writing a book: The Shell Money of the Slave Trade. (African Studies Series 49. 1986). Marion said what had intrigued her first was her find of isolated cowries in the old middens of the Bushmen people of Namibia. How had these shells come there – thousands of kms from the coral reefs ringing the islands of the Maldives?

Money cowries on the book that tells of their trade

Cowries do not inhabit the reefs along Africa’s west coast. These beautiful china-like shells travelled from the Indian Ocean to West Africa with Arab traders through the Sahara long before the arrival of the Portuguese.

Then came the European rush to find a way around Africa to purchase the spices of the ‘Indies’. In the process, Portuguese sailors ‘discovered’ West Africa. The old wooden sailing ships needed ballast and one thing led to another. Starting in 1515 these ships were filling their hulls with vats of shells – money cowries. Traders had discovered the value placed on the money cowry in the lands soon called the ‘Gold’ or ‘Slave’ coast. They discovered how easy it was to trade a ‘head’ of cowries for the ‘head’ of a captive man or woman.

Due to the prevailing winds along the West African coast, the ships from the Maldives sailed via the western Atlantic Ocean to returned to Europe with their spice cargoes and ballast of shells. The shells were washed and cleaned – the word is ‘garbled’ and auctioned in great trading halls to the merchants on their way to deal in slaves. The volumes grew to a peak in the 1800s. The trading halls of Amsterdam (the VoC) and London became the centres of this business. The British soon gained ascendancy.

The numbers are staggering. From 1800 to 1825 the annual average of British cowry exports to West Africa was 123 tonnes or 271,163 lbs. Astounding! Almost all were used for purchasing slaves to ship to the West Indies. Bear in mind how little a single shell weighs!

wedding garment from Chad

As time went on, more and more shells were needed to buy a ‘head’. Inflation had set in, and it became inconvenient to manage such volumes. Other currencies began to be used: copper and gold. What happened to the vast quantities of shells in the community – now virtually valueless.? Many were simply buried in heaps, but some found their way into ornaments and clothing. If you examine West Africa tribal art you will often see money cowries incorporated into the fabric.

Zanzibar: the demand for ivory and the slave trade went hand in hand.

Let me turn to Zanzibar. The money cowry is found there as well as the similar ring cowry, Cypraea annulus. Merchants tried to export these shells to West Africa but the Zanzibari shells were unpopular as they were too big. The Maldives cowries had grown smaller over centuries due to dwarfism or the ‘island rule’. Smaller cowries weigh less and if you are carrying thousands around, that is an issue to consider.

But what the mainland of Africa close to Zanzibar did provide was slaves and copious ivory from the once extensive elephant herds. And so, Zanzibar has the infamous history of being the centre of the East African slave trade. The slave trade was finally outlawed in 1876 with an agreement between the British and the Sultan of Zanzibar – although owning a slave was not illegal until 1897.

When the slave market was closed, the Anglican Christian Mission was given the site by a local Hindu. A cathedral was built. Sultan Barghash donated the tower’s clock. There is more symbolism in that the cathedral’s altar is the reputed site of the slave whipping post and the wooden crucifix in the nave is made from the tree under which David Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia.

Nowadays, there is a statue outside the Cathedral, a memorial to those thousands of slaves that were traded through Zanzibar. You will be asked, when you arrive, to pay a few US dollars to a guide and he will explain the horrors of slavery. Such tourism is providing many jobs for locals. The stories have become a drawcard to add extra spice to one’s visit to Zanzibar. What the guides do not tell you is the involvement of the Americans in the East African Slave trade, nor the approx. 12.5 million Africans shipped from West Africa by the European slave trade.

A dedication to Livingstone inside the Anglican Cathedral, Zanzibar

When I lived in Zanzibar, before the 1964 revolution, we attended this Anglican Cathedral. I understood little of the symbolism surrounding me, nor did I realise how the dungeon-like basement floor of our old Arab house was once used. I should have used a little imagination: large iron rings remained there, imbedded in the coralline walls.

The question of slavery and culpability led, in part, to that 1964 revolution and genocide. The Zanzibari African party (ASP) narrowly lost the 1963 elections, organised by the British Colonial government, to the Zanzibari Arab party. It’s hard to designate one as ‘Arab’ and the other as ‘African’ as there was much intermarriage on the island and there were other ethnic groups and religions. However, the island people were 99% Muslim. Slavery had been one of the arguments the ASP had used during the campaign and they repeated horrific stories of abuse.

Nothing is simple in history, but when the revolution occurred, a month after independence, a deranged man called John Okello took charge. Using the radio, he incited mobs to attack Zanzibaris Arabs and anyone who got in the way. Thousands were killed and dumped in mass graves. And even now, 56 years after the revolution, historic slavery is used to explain, to justify, the overthrow of that legitimate government and the years of despotic rule that ensued.

Slavery is not forgotten with the passage of time. It was and is a blight on our world.