One of the positive changes that I see emerging from the recent wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests is that schools are going to be talking a lot about how effective their curriculum is in teaching children about colonialism, empire, slavery and the wider frame of the history of BAME people in Britain. What is an anti-racist curriculum? What are the stories we should be telling that go beyond Wilberforce, abolition and the largely US-dominated story of Civil Rights?
One thing that has struck me as really important to get right in this: we must absolutely reinforce the idea that Black History is everyone’s history – it is obviously not only relevant to black students! This still needs to be said. AND, equally importantly, British History running back through the Kings and Queens, through the days of British Empire, the centuries of social change, to the feudal system, 1066, the Anglo-Saxons and Roman Empire – this is all also everyone’s history. All routes to British culture and citizenship in the 2020s are all of our nation’s history. This is who we are; each story intertwines with the others; each is relevant to the others.
Here, for example, is how that takes form in my own family. Our mum, Karin, is an avid researcher of family history and has been piecing together our family tree for many years using a mixture of genealogy software, online searches, visits to key locations and lots of correspondence with distant relatives. It’s extraordinary work.
For my son’s birthday a few years ago, she gave him a print-out of one line of family history, forming one long scroll:
Yup! William the Conqueror is my children’s and my nieces’ 30th Great Grandfather. A direct line. We’re practically royalty! This is all very exciting until you do the maths… It’s far from being a special story. The truth is that millions of us are direct descendants; it’s just that not everyone will have the paper trail. And then, looking another way, this is just one branch of a great many going backwards. Two of my children’s grandparents (my wife’s parents) are from Dublin – each with their diverging Irish family histories, one of which goes back through the Huguenots to France. Their family stories, including their own migration to London in the early 1960s with all the prejudices they experienced, are part of our collective British history.
Along another branch there’s a direct link to the slave trade. Here’s a more detailed part of my family tree:
Mary D Hanschell is my Grandma. Our mum’s mum. D is for Daphne – the name she used. We called her ‘Daf’ She died aged 98 in 2009. Hanschell is my middle name. Her father Hother, (pronounced Hoater) who I met briefly, aged 3 or 4, is descended from two families with direct links back to the West Indies and the slave trade. Several generations of Hanschells settled in the Danish (now US) Virgin Islands, where Hother was born in 1880, working as administrators and lawyers His father,Valdemar, then moved to Barbados where he was a shipping chandler and also a rum merchant.
In Barbados, Valdemar met Julia McCormick who was born in Puerto Rico. McCormick is our mum’s middle name. Julia was known in Barbados as ‘The Spanish Lady’ referencing her origins. There were large numbers of McCormicks in Puerto Rico; merchant families that originated from Spain – with a very Scottish-sounding name (but that’s another story.) My very British kids love the fact that they are half Irish but also part Puerto Rican, part Danish, part Scottish, part English. There are so many stories to tell.
‘Merchant’ sounds superficially quite grand and morally neutral – but actually any merchant in that time and place was a slave owner. The sugar plantation industry was built on the back of slavery; inseparably so. My mum found this list of slaves owned by William McCormick (older half-brother of Julia’s Grandfather, Alexander) in St Croix, Danish Virgin Islands 1800 . He owned two plantations. This is an important kind of document, reinforcing slaves’ individual identity as people; people who are part of our history; people whose descendants now live in a world still distorted by the brutal power relationships they endured their whole lives.
George, Hector, Little William, Danny, Pamela, Mary….
Samson, Joy, Clarissa, Anthony….
Names on a page.. each a person with a life story; each one a powerful symbol of the gross injustice of the whole enterprise. I would love to know how their family trees continued in parallel with ours.
These short snippets of family histories, the fragments of documents that tell us about our past, are just one part of the huge picture that constitutes British history. We all have these complex family stories and we need to recognise how interconnected they are. It might be our family story – but it’s all of our history, each individual tale forming part of the broad-brush patterns and structures that have shaped the world over time.
It’s crucial to understand how the social and economic power dynamics built on white supremacist beliefs and prejudices from the past have direct impact on people’s lives today. It’s not about individuals taking responsibility or being defensive about the actions of their ancestors; it’s about recognising the ways in which these individual stories formed part of global structures that still exist, sustaining persistent attitudes, divisions and injustices.
The road to a world free of racism, where the structural elements have been dismantled, has to include a process of grappling with the implications of the impact of our colonial past on the present. And that has to begin simply with knowing about it. It has to include acknowledging and embracing the idea – the fact – that the stories of William I, King, William McCormick, merchant and slave owner and Little William, Houseboy, all play a part in making Britain what it was and what it is; in making British people who we were and who we are.
Extra info from my mum: Julia McCormick’s grandfather did come from Scotland, but his wife was half French (someone escaping the Revolution I think) and half Irish, and her mother Maria must have been the one with Spanish origins like many in Puerto Rico, so Julia was quite a mixture – and then she married a Danish man who still ran his business in Danish even though they all grew up speaking English.