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denialism and anti-history

Published: 
Sunday, October 11, 2015
DR DYLAN KERRIGAN

As historian Liam Hogan suggested of British PM David Cameron’s dismissal of any dialogue about reparatory justice during his visit to Jamaica last week, someone from the Caribbean needs to do a PhD study into the denialism of the British state and the wider British public amnesia. 

Any researcher of this mostly, but not wholly, white denial of the contribution of profits from colonialism and slavery to British industry and society will find it in many places and forms. It’s a culture in itself. There is the economic denialism of the relationship, the classroom and university denialism of education, and the legal denial of the State. And the denialism comes in many other forms too.

These myths and techniques of denialism include the British habit of dismissing conversations about reparatory justice with a long list of counter stories, distractions and anti-history. For example, Hogan suggested three common responses of British deniers are: slavery still exists, we were slaves too, and Cameron’s personal favourite, “get over it.” Other forms of denial include distraction from discussing the facts by bringing up slavery in Africa, slavery in Ancient Egypt, “White slaves,” “Irish Slaves,” the Romans, the Vikings, and many other false equivalents. 

More than 50 years after Eric Williams put forward the argument about the relationship of colonial slavery and its capital to British modernity, peer-reviewed economic and historical evidence now exists tracing the diversification of mercantilist plantation economy profits as well as the compensation for the abolition of slavery, worth £17 billion in today’s money. 

It reveals how the monies were start-up funds and investment needed for the growth of banks, insurance companies, national rail networks, factories, shipping, cultural societies, universities, towns and more. 

As these entities pumped out heroic business narratives of individuals, entrepreneurs and icons of business, they also formed pillars of a public denial complex where context and backstory was removed into how they achieved power, wealth, and wider social value. 

The profits and compensation from slavery also provided for many British people, mainly of money, like Cameron’s wife’s family and to a lesser extent Cameron’s own family line, intergenerational transfers of wealth and privilege. Cumulative advantages passed on generation to generation opposed to cumulative disadvantages as with families of the once enslaved, will clearly produce different material outcomes. 

Now this is not to say as others have mentioned, the Caribbean can blame history for all our troubles. Nor is it to say we can expect current British taxpayers to be responsible for their ancestors’ racism, even if the current British taxpayer has benefited from Caribbean labour, bodies and wealth directly. 

But why are dialogue and an official state apology so hard to get? Many suggest an official apology from the British State is supposedly an admission of guilt and could be used to bring litigation. For that reason there will be no apology. 

On one level, yes, reparations might seem like a call for financial restitution but keeping the focus on financial restitution might be understood as another aspect of denialism too. Anyone who has studied and estimated the financial robbery done to the entire Caribbean, not just the ex-British colonies, its families, and lives knows it goes into the trillions of dollars. It is impossible to pay back. So yes, morally we should be given money, and at the least debt should be cancelled—both ideas with merit. But can we realistically hope for monies? Is that even what we want?

As my Political Sociology graduates see it, on one level financial restitution sounds good, but asking for handouts or the cancellation of debt puts us back into a sphere of dependency with Britain. Where we are at the whims of others and what they decide is right for us and should be our destiny.

Instead, the students agreed with the idea of a truth and reconciliation committee in the Caribbean. We research and publish papers that rebalance and repair the centuries of White, British anti-history. We get our scholars and researchers alongside many formerly amnesiac British ones and others to produce arguments based on evidence rather than powerful myths and make visible the socio-economic ties between Colonial slavery in the Caribbean, the emergence of capitalism in Britain and Caribbean poverty/underdevelopment today.

The students suggest we need to force ourselves onto the denialists and re-educate them and the wider public memory. Take control of the narrative. Holocaust denialism and climate change denialism are frequently targeted, so why is British denialism over slavery not treated in a similar way? 

Cameron’s ability to at once speak of the historic links between our region and Britain, while at the same time telling the Caribbean to move on from Slavery was suggestive. As was Cameron’s refusal to comment on the pro-vice-chancellor of the UWI, Sir Hilary Beckles letter, while offering construction of a jail in some warped gesture of restitution. Yes, better understandings of the culture of denialism are needed; but the logic of denialism—historical, structural and living racism—we already knew and see all the time. 

Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at the UWI, St Augustine campus.

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