Is it true that the people of theses islands were all overstuffed on a rich diet ripped from hapless colonies? If so then everyone of us apparently owes a huge debt to any descendants of the former Empire. As someone who was born in 1965, years after many had shed British rule and at least a few slender years from the very last I’m interested to know why and how much I may owe. In looking it would appear that for the vast majority of Brits the golden years of the Empire were more a case of rags than riches.
These days Brits seem to be ashamed of their rather grimy ancestors, at least there are serious moves to cast a dark shadow over the integrity and achievements of those stern men with moustaches and those over fluffed ladies in Victorian garb. There are calls for Nelsons column to be torn down, Cecil Rhodes of Rhodesia fame was in jeopardy of having his statue turned to rubble in Oxford. Are these justified attempts at illustrating the villainy, normally flaming with modern calls of racism, of rich and violent exploiters?
According to, for example, Afua Hirsch in the Guardian ( Toppling Statues) Nelson was a slavery supporter and his successes in defending Great Britain from the French should be eclipsed by that. After all to support slavery cannot be justified by the era you supported it. Not at all but I didn’t know he had urged against the abolition of slavery in the House of Lords until Afue told me he had. I, and I suspect everyone who looks at the column thought he was there for blasting the French out of the briney at Trafalgar.
I’ll leave Cecil Rhodes to another time and would not particularly shout the odds for Nelson. No I’m not that bothered because the problems that the long dead rich have with their decaying reputations have nothing to do with the far from privileged circumstances of my family. What does concern me is I have a suspicion that this obsession with labelling everything in Britain’s past as either dipped in racism and the oppression of people, goes hand in hand with the increasingly common moves to demonise British identity generally.
I’ll pull away from an identity politics argument because I am not convinced there is a need for one. What I can illustrate here is that far from being oppressors the ordinary and by far the majority of Brits were as oppressed as any in the colonies, were just as poor and just as exploited.
This group of islands has a very complex history and in the story that leads to the United Kingdom of 2018 are the efforts of millions upon millions of people. Only a small comparative number rode in the ornate carriages of high standing. Most more grubbed about and scratched a living. First they were in the often blighted countryside back in the days when cities were so only in name and by comparison with our sprawls would rate as towns at best today. With the advent of the steam age the fields shed much of their people as they went in search of better opportunities in the towns. Now this would have been the time that Nelson was chortling on in favour of the West African slave trade and voicing his concern for the coffers of his friends in the West Indies.
Our ancestors were white poor, the sons and daughters of poor. They were largely illiterate , often hungry sometimes starving. The existence of medical care was out of their reach, not that it was up to much anyway. Their opportunities were stinking cramped housing, early death and the chance to watch many of their underweight children go to the grave before them.
One good example of their lives is that of the Mudlarks. These were emaciated children that gathered a few miserable pennies from salvaging debris from the mud of the Thames. Yes our privilege included the ability to earn coin from collecting dog turds for tanneries and prostitution in the days before most sexually transmitted diseases had any respite never mind cure. Those better placed could save their virtue to run coaches doing 17 hours a day or send their kids up chimneys that needed cleaning. How about the sweat shops were women could sew all day for pennies and blooded fingers or stitch sacks so late into the night they had to stand under the gas street lamps for enough light to work by.
Interwoven with all this was illness and misfortune. I was speaking to a lady from Zimbabwe a few years ago who said that as children they had been taught that all Britons had high tea from China plates everyday. Not even back in what is often portrayed as the gentile era of the Empire. There was no sick pay or welfare cheque. If you did not work you starved. To avoid starvation there was only one other option, the workhouse.
The workhouses were all over the country and varied in the humane standards offered. There are many terrible stories about them. If you went in as a family you were separated and even the smallest child could be pressed to work for sustenance. There also went the mentally disabled, the blind and the infirmed. The amount of food you got depended on what you could do. They were brutal, often corrupt places that saw families return to again and again.
Disease was rife in the 19th and 20th centuries only finally coming under some control with the introduction of our now beleaguered health service in 1947. My own Grandmother lost twins to diphtheria before the Second World War, the further back you go the worse the history for the poor becomes. Cholera, water borne and thriving on the fetid ignorance of mixing drinking water with sewage was a big killer. Starting in Sunderland before the 19th century had reached half way it took 52,000 lives over 30 years. Finally a genius called John Snow managed to convince those that could make a difference that the disease was not air but water borne. Where had most of those lives been taken from? The poorer areas, such was cholera’s preferred poor victims that rumour went around that the rich were deliberately poisoning their dishevelled masses.
Where cholera and its pals like typhoid, tuberculosis, measles and dysentery failed to get every victim the working practises of the day attempted to pick up the slack. Bovine TB reeked havoc on the internal health of children as they took in unpasteurised milk, about half a million are estimated to have died from this in the Victorian period. Bread had substances like Alum added in order to give a loaf extra weight, that did nothing for your longevity. Buildings were old and dilapidated and dangerously close and I have not even gone into the crime that went with the conditions.
An illustration of how lousy the health of the city inhabitants was comes from the fact that at times of war the army struggled to pass recruits fit when they came from the towns. It is one reason that recruiters loved the impoverished rural Irish and the country youngsters from the Shires. The poor of the metropolis were often to emaciated and sick to fight.
Finally I turn to the army because that is a group of poor that potentially should answer for the colonial excesses of the age. After all were they not the ones wielding the bayonets at the behest of the Monarch? First every nation, every region, every community in the world has a history of violence. They have either perpetrated it on their neighbour or suffered from it or both. There is no collective historical innocence. Even the West African slave trade has a particularly interesting multicultural history in this regard and I would urge any who have not yet read up on it to do so.
In the case of our lower ranks I put up in mitigation the above mentioned threat of starvation. Who wouldn’t have joined rather than gone hungry? In addition this was not an age of suck it and see. There were many methods of getting a young man into the famed redcoat or adrift in the Royal Navy and recruiters were not renowned for their scruples. Poverty was not something you could opt out of and for many it was not something that hard work and diligence could necessarily stave off. It was an ever present threat and the military was as close to any insurance against the worst as was available.
As a footnote I would also like to point out that slavery was abolished long before many nations followed suit. Then our Navy patrolled the coast of Africa targeting slave ships. Forget that though a rich bloke once said it shouldn’t be… that is our history and achievements made irrelevant then.