God Save the People: When will Black lives matter?
“As they plundered, exploited and brutally controlled colonies and the people in them, all to enrich Britain as part of the growth of the capitalist project, colonialists swore by the racial hierarchy. Whiteness was not simply a descriptor; it was used to give anchor to the idea that Europe was the place of modernity and civilisation. White Europeans – in particular white upper-class men – were thought inherently modern and sophisticated; their black and brown counterparts, the opposite. The former, human; the latter, not. These ideas live on, subtly drawing a line between the developed and the developing, the advanced and the backward” – Maya Goodfellow, Hostile Environment
In May 2022, community activist and Editor of The Happy Hood Laura Graham posted a video on Instagram (@ItsCharacterBuilding), essentially asking: how could organisations who had previously made Black Lives Matter solidarity statements (in 2020), now be validating the empire project in their support for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee?
With the wealth of the Monarchy largely built from oppressing others, the recent long Jubilee Weekender represents a deep-rooted historical amnesia of an institution that still continues to take the public for fools. Following their ‘support’ at the COP26 conference, an investigation lead by the Independent found they also spent more than £13m of public money on private flights and helicopter journeys, also contributing massively to Britain’s carbon footprint. And while the present Cost-of-Living crisis will prove deadly for some, the revelation of a new £250m royal yacht described as a “floating embassy” adds insult to injury.
This exists in congruence to the fact foodbanks in the UK actually outnumber McDonald’s restaurants. Another symbol of British pride (the National Health Service), also exists while numbers of its staff are pushed to use these foodbanks. The blight of capitalism continues to violently oppress people in devastating ways, where colonial logics are tied to capitalist labour central to white supremacy – these discussions pervade through activist and advocacy circles linked to anti-racism, LGBT+ rights, the class struggle, disability justice and more. Yet, while street parties were in full swing, the Grenfell area held a street party where nobody attended with seventy-two empty seats for the victims of the 2016 tragedy. The Grenfell Inquiry is ongoing. In her op-ed for The Guardian, author-journalist Afua Hirsch also wrote “The platinum jubilee speaks to who we are now, which is obsessively consumption oriented, spending money we don’t have largely on credit. It is estimated that Britons will spend almost £1bn celebrating the bank holiday weekend, in spite of the rapidly advancing economic squeeze.”
Symbols can still cause harm. Just as things like the Nazi swastika are seen with horror and disgust (in most cases), I question why the symbols of the British Crown and colonialism are not unanimously met with the same horror and disgust.Tre Ventour, 2022
“Kojo Karam explains the “Boomerang effect” of Empire. There is no binary between what happened “out there” to black and brown people and the insane levels of class inequality we experience in Britain. Everyone suffering economic injustice is at the mercy of the same system of privatisation, the weaponisation of the English legal system, offshoring and amnesia, among other phenomena- this is such an important book.”
Some may think the Jubilee was just harmless fun, bunting, and street parties, but it was about the practices and thinking that sit behind them. A culture and tradition of thought we have been taught to exemplify without thinking – while institutions that have implemented anti-racist commitments in the form of projects against the hostile environment (for example), were also supporting the Jubilee Weekend. But as academic Renée Landell said in an interview with Al-Jazeera, “The Windrush Scandal is a repetition of imperial violence that has caused a reckoning within ourselves, with the different generations rising up!” And Laura Graham’s video was really about demanding consistency from our institutions, standing by your words, and the ethics of supporting The Crown.
Speaking to Laura, she also told me: “If organisations are serious about their Black Lives Matter statements, they need to put their money where their mouth is. Those who have actively supported the Jubilee are telling Black and Brown people: ‘we didn’t mean what we said’. It’s time to think critically about the Monarchy. These aren’t harmless people pulling in tourists, they’re the personification of white supremacy and an ongoing legacy of racist colonial oppression.”
Symbols can still cause harm. Just as things like the Nazi swastika are seen with horror and disgust (in most cases), I question why the symbols of the British Crown and colonialism are not unanimously met with the same horror and disgust. Our education system has been so underfunded and bureaucratised to the extremes, few of us really know our own history (and despite being a historian, I am still learning all the time, as education is never finished). The state has run an enterprise of historical erasure par excellence! And symbols matter, as Renee Landell further states “even symbolic power is power because symbols give out messages to the world.”
So, this article will mainly discuss this historic institution in the context of Black Lives Matter in response to the numbers of organisations that made anti-racism solidarity statements in 2020 who then supported the Jubilee. However, I find it more useful to speak in terms of institutions not individuals so that is what I will be doing. This will also largely speak from the context of enslavement of people of African descent and its legacy. This is not to erase others who were also victimised, but to keep it streamlined (and this article is most certainly an introduction, not complete or by any means definitive). Lots of organisations that that made statements showed support for an institution that for centuries has viewed Black lives as less than human. I highlight Laura’s video because it represents the baseline I expect from white people and white organisations in their allyship (if they aim to be allies). When you have spheres of influence, use them responsibly.
While the Monarchy is also an inherently classist institution and discriminates against other marginalised groups, these recent celebrations also arrived after the anti-colonial backlash to the royal visits earlier in the year. For centuries, the Crown has been instrumental in the subjugation of many nations that are now part of the Commonwealth in the Global South.
As journalist Nadine White also tweeted: “Interesting commentary about the “beautiful portrayal” of multicultural Britain on the BBC. Royal author Robert Hardman credits the Queen with uniting the “extraordinary tapestry of nations” that is the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is largely comprised of former British colonies. Many were already united, bonded, by the trauma of that experience.”
Moreover, it is also worth further thinking about how the act of ‘owning enslaved people’ as Corinne Fowler notes “… involved 6% of the British population (those who show up in the emancipation records).” Nonetheless, empire was challenged at every point both. For example, Priyamvada Gopal in Insurgent Empire also discusses the Indian Rebellion of 1857, while in Mutiny at the Margins Andrea Major and Crispin Bates further state:
“Despite the enduring myth of a nineteenth-century Pax Britannica, British rule in India and across the empire was punctuated by revolts, rebellions, insurrection and instability. So endemic were such challenges to British imperial rule that the events of the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 have been described as ‘unique only in their scale’.”
Under the empire project, British enslavement for example was entwined with institutionalising white supremacy to a devastating effecting – inconvenient details and facts of history often pushed to the margins of polite conversation (yes, other countries enslaved, but here I am turning the critique inward to Britain). The role of the Monarchy has largely escaped criticism and it is time that changed, especially following the toppling of enslaver Edward Colston who was employed by the Royal African Company [RAC] – the largest human trafficking company in the history of ‘colonial’ enslavement. Now two years on, after the Black Lives Matter protests, many organisations came out in solidarity with the Monarchy who have been implicated in white supremacy since at least the 17th century. Meanwhile, King Charles II (the equivalent of the RAC’s CEO) stands atop All Saints Church. Have a think!
Seemingly, organisations care more for a national holiday, a pint in the sunshine, and white British pride than they do for standing by their commitments to equality. Although many organisations made “commitments”, it appears those solidarity statements were dependent on political convenience. Historical amnesia does not begin to describe it. As historian Shashi Tharoor said in 2017, “There is so much historical amnesia about what the British Empire really entailed. The fact that you don’t really teach colonial history in your schools. […] There is no real awareness of the atrocities.”
As I go to venues I have loved since childhood, I am now forced to question the ethics of accountability with organisations who postured anti-racism commitments but are now supporting an institution that is structurally positioned against the lives of Black people and other marginalised groups. Walking through Northampton seeing local fascination with the Crown collectively expressed in consciousness through posters and bunting etc etc – this also undermines the anti-racism statements many made two summers ago. However, it must be said that the funding of many Black and Brown groups (especially when funding is so insecure) can sometimes be contingent on their support of such “symbols” of Britishness (the rules of engagement aren’t the same for them).
Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council CEO Anjona Roy told me: “Some of the anti-racist language is easier for white communities to accept than others. The lack of acceptance of empire as a violent oppressive construct intrinsically linked to murder, rape, slavery is a significant part of the problem. There are big institutions and huge amounts of capital that are dedicated to preserving the Monarchy and generally the status quo. All this colossal machinery makes the pivoting from Black Lives Matter to celebrating the Jubilee unsurprising.”
Some of the anti-racist language is easier for white communities to accept than othersNorthamptonshire Rights & Equality Council CEO Anjona Roy
Recently someone called me “hypercritical” for asking questions of our institutions in the way I do. They further described me as “anti-Britain” and that “you should leave if you don’t like it” This is an example of a racial microaggression, where I know I am not alone in experiencing this. With conversations around the Windrush Scandal, as well as the Nationality and Borders Bill – such comments are racist and upsetting. I love this country (lots of my work is in British arts and humanities … I wouldn’t commit to that if I didn’t love something about it) but I do not share a love for establishmentarianism.
Growing up, it was interesting to observe that many people saw my dislike for monarchies and establishments as anti-white and anti-British. Through my work as a poet as well – where I have also critiqued British racism via conversations about patriotism and nationalism – I have been called “anti-Britain” because my work is open in its critiques. Of course, many organisations have hazy memories of the conversations that were being had in 2020. Nationally, we have a selective memory when it comes to the Monarchy. What happens when we call them monarchs rather than colonisers? The irony is, the violent history of the Monarchy also stretches further with violence against working-class people, including the white working-class in not just England but also Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Most of us have common cause!
By the by, acceptance of such symbols of violence are more challenging not when it comes from strangers, but when it comes from your friends – people that you trust(ed) who were posting black squares now dazzled by the white gaze. And ‘liberal’ white organisations that celebrated their own “doing” of anti-racism, now can’t see how their support of the Monarchy comes at the cost of the Black and Brown people who are still dying in numbers from the legacies colonialism left behind: capitalism, the emotional impact of racial trauma in media, the hostile environment, police terrorism – the list is endless, cost of living is high, and Black Lives Matter is trending again.
Reading the work of historians, journalists, and other thinkers, I found much writing that shows why organisations that postured anti-racism statements should think twice before supporting the Monarchy wholescale. At the beginning of one of the most important books about Black British history Staying Power (ironically by a white man Peter Fryer), he discusses Elizabeth I’s working relationship with John Hawkins. The National Archives also speaks of how Elizabeth “assisted early merchant adventurers in 1561 by supplying ships and provisions […]” With this ‘success’, the National Archives also say the Queen saw “the economic value of … overseas trade [granting] a patent to eight merchants … to trade exclusively with Senegambia, between the Senegal and Gambia rivers, for a 10-year period.” This represents a sort-of relationship England (at least) had with Africans before it start trafficking Black Africans across the Atlantic.
Furthermore, Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish) in-part discusses a history of Britain that has largely been erased from popular public consciousness implicating the late Tudor queen in how the English came to be in the “business” of human trafficking:
“From 1562, when Sir John Hawkins began the industrial-scale exploitation of Africans, transporting Britain’s first ‘cargo’ … from West Africa to the Americas – a venture which so impressed Queen Elizabeth I she funded a return trip – every British monarch to George III gave his or her direct support to the transatlantic slave trade. The relationship between the monarchy and slavery was formalised in 1672 with King Charles II’s establishment of … the Royal African Company. It’s no exaggeration to say that the wealth of the royal family, much like the wealth of the nation itself, was built on the back of slavery and related trade, investment and industry.”
UCL’s ‘The Legacies of British Slavery’ database – curated by Catherine Hall and colleagues – also shows how enslavement was something everybody did, not just establishment classes. The work of scholars, novelist, poets, and other thinkers, including: Olivette Otele, Paul Gilroy, CLR James, Angela Saini, Eric Williams, Guilaine Kinouani, Akala, Walter Rodney, Katie Donington, Hilary Beckles, Andrea Levy, Roger Robinson, Sylvia Wynter, John Agard, Nick Draper, Onni Gust, Kerry Sinanan, Caroline Bressey and others are also vital to discussions about race/racism, colonialism, and / or enslavement. PhD students of history and other disciplines – including in the arts and social sciences as well – are doing great and important work, such as Renée Landell whom I mentioned earlier.
Thinking about representations of the Crown in the British imagination, this has been consumed by images of people like Elizabeth I as separate from colonialism and racial thinking (not instrumental parts of it). Though as Santham Senghera writes in Empireland “… it was Queen Elizabeth I who granted the East India Company a royal charter and lent to slave trader John Hawkins her own vessel ‘specifically for the purpose of capturing Africans on the West African coast …” Through my work as a poet-historian, I am simultaneously met with amazement and sometimes violence when I inform people of the horrors committed in the name of The Crown. The irony is not the conservative people who unabashedly support the Monarchy, but the numbers of people who I know identify as socialist, but support them too!
Amid the Queen’s Jubilee, particularly “white British people as white British people” are able to see themselves included within the regalia of bunting and union jack confetti. As spectacular as her 70th anniversary might appear, this is not a win. While the patron saint of England Saint George is reportedly of Turkish heritage, specifically the red and white flag itself has been repurposed by far-right groups such as Britain First and the English Defence League. Events such as royal occasions and England’s international football matches are a tough time for me – with punters mixing alcohol and patriotism / nationalism amid – of course – the usual racism that follows.
During the Euro final, Northampton was no different to the rest of this country on losing against Italy. However, the things I love most about Northampton is its diversity and that people from different parts of the world have chosen to call this place home. It reminds me how things like diaspora have shaped what it means to be Northamptonian. For example, my great-grandparents Toile and Edison Noel arrived in the early 1960s, whose lives like many Caribbean elders were shaped by the colonial and postcolonial experience. Yet, due to this sort of Britishness not being wrapped in red, white, and blue and because this history isn’t justifying colonialism or kissing the feet of the Crown or Churchill, this Britishness is not seen as love for country.
I was grateful that the Black Lives Matter protests on Abington Street in June 2020 was a multiracial protest and not being exclusively lead by Black people. In our anti-racism boycotting the Monarchy is a base requirement, considering its history of systematic exclusion and contemporary realities of racism (including against Meghan Markle). Moreover, the Royal Family’s 1960s colour bar for management positions, further to ‘excusing’ themselves from the Equality Act 2010. This contemporary culture at the palace reflects a historical reality where the same people who the palace now excludes, were also historically viewed by The Crown as less than human. By the by, following anti-colonial uprisings in the Caribbean to the royal visits, I was troubled by Jubilee celebrations lead by organisations that previously made anti-racism statements. Here, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind is so relevant as institutions appear paralysed by colonised thinking.
During a pandemic that has devastated business (especially independent), I appreciate they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. However, the backhanded replies I have received from larger local organisations when I challenged them on their pro-Monarchy position could only be described as what George Yancy implies as ‘white denial.’ It is not about whether these organisations have investment from the Monarchy (economic or otherwise), but whether these organisations are investing in the Monarchy (especially socially and culturally). This summer coming, I feel will be long and arduous for the white, Black, and Brown practitioners who try to be consistent in their work. In a UK post-Sewell Report (that claimed there was no evidence of institutional racism in the UK), convincing organisations that were already shaky on anti-racism that the Monarchy is violent will be challenging still.
In his article ‘Queen Victoria’s Maharajas: An Introduction’, Northampton historian Josh West gives a further insight into how Britain managed to control India for nearly two hundred years:
“Following the  Rebellion, the East India Company had proven its ineptitude at governing such an important possession as India. To maintain control and ensure India’s riches remained in British hands, Parliament passed the Government of India Act on 2 August 1858; it liquidated the East India Company and transferred all its property, assets, land, and functions to the crown. India was now the possession of Queen Victoria and the British government, beginning a new era called the British Raj.”
How can we decolonise anything when we have yet to decolonise ourselves? West’s comment revisits the Monarchy’s investment in empire, and Shashi Tharoor’s book Inglorious Empire is a good starting point to learn about Britain’s relationship with India. The saying went the sun never set on the British Empire because at one point, the British Empire covered 25% of the world. On one side, I would love to exclusively blame under/miseducation for the widespread celebration of the coloniser-in-chief (it would be much easier if it was only this), but we must also consider how critical thinking is not really taught in schools – the tools to challenge systems that simultaneously harm us and govern our lives. And really, are systems of oppression going to give you the tools to liberate yourself?
In the same year the Colston Four were acquitted by a public jury, the public celebrates another symbol of white supremacy. His statue was not put there until 1895 (over one hundred and fifty years after he died). Despite people saying the Queen did not benefit from colonialism, her reign has overlapped with numerous events including the Mau Mau Uprisings, further to violent fights for independence intertwined with Caribbean Black Power Movements. A survivor of the Mau Mau Uprisings in Kenya, Muthoni Mathenge, wants compensation. This is not about the Queen as an individual, but what she represents and how these mechanics of violence endure.
Speaking to journalist Serena Richards, she told me: “If we think about the history of Britain, and the Monarchy, where most of their riches come due to colonisation, and colonialism, then there would be a lack of celebration and more of concern of what the Queen has done regarding giving back what was lost from these countries during her reign in the last seventy years.”
The Royal Family at the very least, as a starting point, should use their global platform to educate people about their involvement with slavery across several generationsUniversity professor Corinne Fowler
The British Crown, however, is a constitutional monarchy, so, the Queen holds little power as an individual, yet the institution she represents is no less violent than the Church, policing, prisons, education, and others. We need to do more to educate others on the long-reaching history of Britain’s establishment institutions. The Crown is just one of them.
Local schoolteacher Tom Collins told me: “The culture war that we are engaged in, which is undoubtedly pervading state school life, wants to reclaim ideas of white supremacy related to the British Empire, the adulation of Churchill as a hero of WWII, and the worship of the Crown and the monarchy. People setting these agendas – the government civil servants writing the education white papers, designing curriculums, Ofsted, and education leaders as well as governors – are undoubtedly part of this process, and classroom teachers have very little say.”
Moreover, when I spoke to Corinne Fowler, she told me “The Royal Family at the very least, as a starting point, should use their global platform to educate people about their involvement with slavery across several generations.” In 2020, the university professor and Green Unpleasant Land author was also at the centre of an ‘anti-woke’ row amid the Government’s culture war after the publication of the National Trust’s report – an audit into many of their properties’ links with enslavement and colonialism which she co-authored with other academics.
Whilst many of us were taught about Queen Victoria and Churchill, what about juxtaposed histories of the working-class? Such examples include but are not limited to British Black Panthers, the Grunwick Strikes, the Chartists, and the Levellers. For the longest time when I was a child, I had assumed William Cuffay (the leader of the 18th century Chartist Movement) was a white man, when he was in fact Black. It is also very easy to talk about the present-day multiracial anti-racist movements as a new phenomenon, but they are not. In the 1970s the Anti-Nazi League was also multiracial, and in 1979, activist-schoolteacher Blair Peach was killed (most likely by the police) whilst at a rally in Southall demonstrating against the National Front. The Met’s policing of the demo impaired community relations in the area – and since 1979 the Met have been part of many incidents and shoddily-lead investigations including New Cross Fire (1981), the Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1993), the Death of Jean Charles de Menezes (2005), the Death of Ian Tomlinson (2006), and the Death of Mark Duggan (2011). Moreover, Child Q (2020) further explored in the 2022 report.
As a historian, I also do not pretend to know all. However, remaining curious is an underrated trait in pursuit of knowledge, a trait that is conditioned out of us as children. For all this country’s flag-waving, we not only know very little about present goings-on of The Crown, but also little about our own national story beyond the “official history.” Wandering these cobbled streets, I feel suffocated under the crushing presence of union jacks and St George’s flags, symbols of violence I associate with colonialism and the far right. To many white people (many who live in a country that has never really contested their right to Britishness) it may be harmless, but to me it is a reminder that I am unwelcome in this country (and town) and my Britishness comes with qualifiers. With bits of bunting flapping in the breeze, it is saying “Make Britain White” again. But the worst thing of all is when you see things like this accepted, condoned, and unchallenged by your friends.
Identified by Lord Macpherson in The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the practice of “institutional racism” goes back centuries. Queen Elizabeth I introduced the Royal Proclamation which could be cited as the second act of institutional racism on British soil, as historian Peter Fryer writes in Staying Power, she demanded “Blackamores be expelled from her kingdom.” Moreover, DeMontfort Students Union’s research into the knight Simon DeMontfort, also found the man DMU was named after was an anti-Semite – because in 1193, he expelled the Jews from Leicester City.
While I have named Elizabeth I, the Georgian and Victorian monarchs are also implicated in historic cases of inhumanity. In his 2016 book Black and British, historian David Olusoga writes: “Between the 1670s and the 1730s around … [150,000] men, women and children passed through [the Royal African Company’s] coastal fortresses on their way to lives of miserable slavery. […] The Royal African Company was a royal chartered monopoly and as such was able to call on the services of the Royal Navy to protect its monopoly, defend its fortresses and intercept the ships of so-called interlopers who attempted to muscle in on the trade. […]
The ‘Royal’ in the company’s title was not a mere honorific. Among the company’s founders were King Charles II and his brother James Duke of York, the future King James II … who was actively involved in its administration. […] So profitable were the activities of the Royal African Company that when in 1689, after he had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution and replaced with William of Orange and his wife Queen Mary, James II dispatched a representative to London to liquidate his shares, the former king’s profits amounted to £5,730 and were used to help fund his comfortable exile in Paris.”
From as early as the late Tudors in the 1560s we can see how the British Crown (thus establishments) sustained white supremacy in the trafficking of enslaved Africans (as well as sustaining other forms of racism in other parts of the empire). The emancipation of enslavement in the 1830s did not bring an end to empire, but saw Britain looking elsewhere, including India (thus the 1857 Indian Rebellion) and the African continent with the Scramble for Africa which saw a joint European colonisation of various parts of the continent.
You must hand it to the British state, brainwashing is their forte. With the long Jubilee weekend, however, I was upset to see numbers of organisations who were making anti-racism statements and posting black squares in the summer of 2020, now validating the empire itself – especially colleagues I held / hold in high esteem. I was very disappointed. This is an everlasting reminder of not just the legacies of colonialism but also the economic violence, with Crown and government as feudalistic overlords of the working-class – where in 2016, during her speech opening parliament, the Crown via the Queen told us “to live within our means.”
Nonetheless, as someone that was very active that summer in 2020 (as many local activists also have been prior and since), I have been tested lately. When those that are supposed to be your friends and allies are supporting institutions that are structurally against your existence, it gets very awkward. If you are a monarchist and / or your organisation is pro-Monarchy, by all means stand your ground and by your values. However, do not try to be these things while also posturing black squares and hopping on anti-racism hashtags. For institutions to pontificate about their anti-racist work while supporting the Monarchy in a Cost of Living crisis, that’s too far … and I must ask who is measuring your commitments to equality – Dr Strangelove, Thanos, and Darth Vader?
If the conversations you were having on Black Lives Matter in 2020 did not radicalise you, I must ask what conversations you were having? You can’t talk about anti-racism without also talking about the climate emergency (for example) and anti-capitalism, where ‘ownership’ is fundamental to whiteness as Cheryl Harris writes (thus, whiteness is fundamental to the establishment). So, if you are even remotely pro-equality, I would ask you think about your stance on the Monarchy as an institution (as for example, according to a Freedom of Information request done by the Independent, the Queen asked to use a state poverty fund to heat the royal palaces).
While we must not lay blame on individuals, we must also ask what sort of country we are if we are still talking about the Monarchy in 2022? No less than its legacies implicated in colonialism, economic extraction, white supremacy, exclusion, elitism and more. The fight against racism is also a fight against capitalism, including wealth-hoarders and inherited colonial wealth. To be anti-racist we must also be anti-capitalist (fundamental to other social justice movements including LGBT+ rights, class, climate, and disability justice).
The way we think about colonialism needs to change from a ‘historical relic’ into something that is ongoing and very much alive. My maternal family come from Grenada, a country that wasn’t independent until 1974 – where through the 1960s and 1970s many countries were in independence struggles. Between the 1950s and 1970s, the British state was also part of Operation Legacy which saw them hide and destroy colonial documents to stop them falling into the hands of now “independent” nations. Author-schoolteacher Jeffrey Boakye writes about this further in his book Musical Truth. Colonialism is not over. The legacies colonialism left behind still live to cause harm. We need to imagine a better fairer world and having a contextual knowledge about the history of resistance in Britain and elsewhere is a starting point to understanding our current situation. As Reap the Forgotten Harvest author Remi Kapo said: “If you look back in history (and we’re still repeating that history), the price of change has always been paid in blood.”