Not just one idiot historian
Slavery involved the loss of life on a staggering scale, and it was bound up with the capitalist mode of production, writes Eddie Ford
Last week “the rudest man in Britain” made the news again. Appearing on a YouTube show entitled Dr David Starkey: Black Lives Matter aims to delegitimate British history, the famous TV historian commented: “Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or Britain, would there?”1 He went on to claim that the BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd had been characterised by “violence” and “victimhood”, describing so-called ‘cancel culture’ and the pulling down of statues as “deranged”. For good measure, Starkey concluded by saying “there’s no point in arguing against globalisation or western civilisation”, as “we are all products of it”.
This unleashed a storm of condemnation, which the obnoxious Starkey fully deserved. The uproar also gave us another display of the anti-racist ideology paraded by official Britain. Not that this registers with large parts of the left, who still seem to be living in the 1960s. The reality of capitalism’s reliance on divide and rule, colonialism and slavery were excused with the invention of various racist ideologies. But, especially when it comes to the nation-state, capitalist politicians also seek to gain support on the basis that ‘we are all in it together’, that all classes, all ethnic groups, need to unite against foreign foes and competitors. Subsequent mass migrations, especially from south Asia and the Caribbean, necessitated the invention by capitalist politicians of a bourgeois anti-racism.
It was, of course, no surprise that Sajid Javid, former chancellor and son of a bus driver from Pakistan - as he constantly reminds us - attacked Starkey’s “racist comments” that serve as “a reminder of the appalling views that still exist”. Nor was it a surprise to hear the views of another popular - this time a good - TV historian, David Olusoga. He described Starkey’s comments as “truly disgusting”. Olusoga also rightly observed that “by the same ridiculous, twisted logic the holocaust would not be counted as a genocide”.
So after the YouTube programme we had all manner of institutions and companies rushing to disassociate themselves from David Starkey - now a pariah. The Mary Rose Trust accepted his resignation from the board of trustees and the Historical Association withdrew the Medlicott Medal awarded to him 20 years previously - did Starkey have to post it back? As for the Royal Historical Society, it demanded his resignation, as did the Society of Antiquaries of London. Priding itself on “leading the way in Cambridge in opening access to higher education for underrepresented groups”, Fitzwilliam College accepted Starkey’s resignation as an honorary fellow - though he had no teaching role, having retired years ago. Meanwhile, more punishment: HarperCollins said it would terminate an ongoing book deal with Starkey - nor will his previous publishers take his books any more, it seems. Almost airbrushed from history.
Starkey himself eventually apologised “unreservedly” for his “deplorably inflammatory” words which had been spoken “with awful clumsiness” - one way of putting it. In the statement, he said he had “paid a heavy price” for “one offensive word with the loss of every distinction and honour acquired in a long career”. When it came to the phrase, “so many damn blacks”, what he had “intended to emphasise” was “the numbers who survived the horrors of the slave trade”. Instead, alas, “it came across as a term of racial abuse”.
Specialising in the Tudors, David Starkey is an extremely conventional, but waspish historian who believes that great individuals - kings and queens - make history, not the masses or objective socio-economic determinants. Or, in his words, “the core of history is narrative and biography”. He has long complained that the curriculum in Britain has “downgraded” the importance of knowledge in its obsession with teaching “life skills” and personal development.2
Of course, more importantly, Starkey is a professional controversialist who has form when it comes to inflammatory remarks. After all, it pays - he has allegedly told friends that his rude character is part of a “convenient image” that is “worth at least £100,000 a year”. And as such he was consistently promoted by the leftwing (!) BBC. Starkey did a long stint on the insufferable Moral maze radio show, alongside the likes of Mad Melanie Philips, creepy Roger Scruton and Claire Fox (once of the Revolutionary Communist Party and then of the Brexit Party) - hard to know who to dislike the most. Essentially, Starkey was fielded by the BBC to spout ‘common sense’ against woolly liberals and daft leftists. He certainly sees himself as the gallant defender of Middle England from the scourge of Islamic extremism and cultural Marxism.
But bourgeois ‘common sense’ has been changing. What was once seen as just slightly off field in one period becomes unacceptable in another period. Hence Starkey got into trouble in August 2011 after discussing the riots of that year on the BBC’s Newsnight programme. Speaking about how he had been rereading Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of blood’ speech, Starkey warned of a “a profound cultural change” - the Tiber did not foam with blood: rather “flames lambent”, which “wrapped around Tottenham and Clapham”. There was not inter-community violence, as originally prophesised by Powell, but (gesturing towards Owen Jones, who was also on the programme) “what has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs that you wrote about have become black”. Warming to his theme, Starkey fulminated about “this Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England”, and “this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country”. Dreadfully for Starkey, listening to the voice of David Lammy, the black MP for Tottenham, where the riots occurred, he said, “You would think he was white” - whilst “the whites have become black”, part of “a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture”.
The BBC was flooded with a record number of complaints. Starkey’s contribution also provoked 102 university historians to write an open letter demanding that he no longer be described as a “historian” on anything other than his specialist subject. Then again, you could say that about a lot of other historians as well - not to mention academics in all manner of subjects. Brilliant in one field, idiotic about other things.
Nor did he endear himself to many with his remark in the pages of The Daily Telegraph that statistics “appeared” to show a black “propensity” towards violence. In June 2012 Starkey stated that the perpetrators of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring had values “entrenched in the foothills of the Punjab or wherever it is” and were “acting within their cultural norm”. A few years later Starkey claimed that “nothing important” had been written in Arabic for over 500 years, before going on to imply that a female victim of a child sexual abuse grooming gang was at fault for the abuse she had experienced. Another choice comment was that Alex Salmond is a “Caledonian Hitler” who thinks that “the English, like the Jews, are everywhere”.
But such stuff wins few friends nowadays … apart from the far, far right.
Of course, the aim of the slave traders was not to wipe out all black people. Nor was it their aim to wipe out the black people they had captured - no, this human cargo was a valuable commodity, a source of tremendous profits. So the Atlantic slave trade was not motivated by genocide. Nevertheless, the death toll was staggering. Millions must have died as a result of slave raids, local wars and during the forced march to coastal castles and ports, where the captives were penned and then sold, or bartered, to European slavers. The capturing of people was done in part by the rulers of various west African kingdoms and their agents and middlemen.
Current estimates are that about 12 to 13 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic over a span of 400 years. The actual number purchased by the traders was considerably higher, of course, with up to 2.4 million dying during the voyage - if disease breaks out, just kick them overboard. Millions more died in ‘seasoning camps’ in the Caribbean after arrival in the New World and huge numbers perished again in the first few years working on the plantations. The official United Nations estimate is 17 million deaths. After trial and error, the preferred human cargo was that of agricultural workers (or peasants), as opposed to hunter-gatherers - when the latter got to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, they were well equipped to make their escape into the hills and live as maroons, giving the British authorities a hard time.
From the viewpoint of the plantation owners, if your slave was fit and lasted five years, then you were in the money - to invest in more slaves and make even more money. A magic money tree. As the statue wars have reminded us, many aristocratic fortunes were made during the slave trade - look at the big fine houses and the generous philanthropy. The port cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow rapidly developed as a result of the slave trade - sending slaves over to the Americas and then bringing back cotton, sugar, tobacco, etc. Some people never had it so good.
It is interesting to note the different reactions in Britain to the Second Revolution in America. During the civil war, the working class supported the north, as it was perceived to be anti-slavery, whilst the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie wanted to back the confederacy due to its links to the south in terms of cotton, tobacco and so on. This history ought to be remembered as a moral imperative, not allowed to slip away back into the past - where it can always be safely neutralised. The subject should be taught in schools, giving kids and everybody else a good understanding of the role of British colonialism and the real nature of capitalist prosperity - which definitely did not bring wellbeing to the working class in Britain.
In fact, the condition of the working class was not that far removed from slavery. Indeed, as Marx frequently pointed out, it could actually be worse being a wage-slave than a chattel-slave - simply because the master had far more of an interest in your survival if you were their property. But you could always get another wage-slave without any effort - whether they could afford to eat or clothe themselves was a matter of complete indifference to you. For precisely this reason Marx did not view the large-scale enslavement of Africans by Europeans like the English or Portuguese, which began in the early 16th century in the Caribbean, as a repeat of Roman or Arab slavery: it was something new that combined ancient forms of brutality with the quintessentially modern social form of value production.