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It takes more than removing a name

11 June, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Joshua Reynold’s portrait of William Beckford, circa 1770

WHY should statues of men who made their filthy riches from slavery centuries ago be pulled down? Should schools named after slave owners be changed?

The answer isn’t all that straightforward. If it were, society would have changed things a long time ago.

Has the key been turned by the convergence of the Covid disease, the lockdown and the release of years of frustration felt by ethnic minorities causing a dynamic shift in public mood?

It was a step in the right direction when Camden Labour councillors decided on Tuesday to ask teachers and parents at Beckford Primary School, West Hampstead, whether they felt its name should be changed.

The school had ended up with the name of Beckford in the late 1920s when officials and councillors of the defunct London County Council appeared to name it after the Beckford family from West Hampstead who had gone to Jamaica in the 18th century and acquired enormous wealth through the murderous exploit­ation of enslaved black men, women and children shipped from Africa.

They slaved for the Beckfords – and died in many cases in direst conditions – on the Beckford estates in Jamaica where even today several are known as the Beckford Kraal. But is all well if the name of Beckford is buried forever?

Whatever was privately discussed by councillors this week I would hope they also looked inwards – to see if there hadn’t existed a bias over the years in, for instance, the council’s education department that runs schools in the borough.

It didn’t excel itself more than a year ago when I questioned in this column its relatively poor analysis of the scandal of nearly 1,000 exclusions of black and brown children from Camden’s schools?

I had been astonished when I dropped in at a children’s committee meeting and saw a poorly constructed report that somehow produced columns of statistics about school exclusions without any analysis of ethnicity or gender – when a disproportionate number of pupils were black.

The evening the report went before councillors there was no reaction from councillors to this aberration.

After I reported events, the committee, to its credit, set up a special panel to investigate the scandal. It is still plodding its way – interviewing teachers, parents and some children themselves.

But why had it stumbled in the first place? This, I am sure, is not a question of racial bias but a blinkered view of the social significance of statistics, a failure to see the causes and effects of history.

Historically, councillors should look back to Camden in the 1970s and early 80s when the borough led the way in Britain in public discussions on race, mediated through the creation of various race organisations led by Salman Rushdie who then lived in Kentish Town and later became the famous writer he is today, as well as Eric Jay who has recently died.

But all this was hollowed out by Thatcherism leaving a feeling of resentment and disempowerment by ethnic immigrants brought to these shores to do the low-paid jobs in transport, hospitals and restaurants especially in Holborn.

It was this that boiled over in the past few weeks – and leading councillors and Labour politicians who failed to respond to it tended to criticise the young black protesters for failing to “socially distance” themselves in demonstrations or simply consider their actions, for instance, in destroying the Colston statue in Bristol as “wrong”. Some of them simply saw acts of criminality without looking at causes and effects. Just as committee councillors had simply looked at statistics on exclusions without seeing the social causes behind them. Thus they ended up, unintentionally, on the same side as their opponents who make up the ruling political class.

A much wider dis­cussion on race should now be embarked on by all political parties and social activists in the borough.

Giving institutions new names does not go far enough. The slave trade goes back 400 years and was an act of genocide. It should not be allowed to disappear from public discussion any more than the Holocaust engineered by the Nazis.

Here is an opportunity for education councillors to start discussion on the history of the slave trade to be taught in schools – and where better to start than at Beckford?

Another neglected part of the curriculum at schools is the contested subject of the British empire – its brutally long and bloody effect on Africa and India little of which is taught at school.

A discussion could lead to a democratisation of the local authority with parents and the commun­ity being given a wider role than hitherto.

Why cannot members of the older Windrush genera­tion be encouraged to give talks in schools about their discrimination suffered in this country, perhaps some of them could talk about the slave trade not only in senior schools but primaries as well?

This is the only road to a transformation of knowledge, values and behaviour. Simply removing names will hardly turn the page. A discussion on the slave trade, the empire, the capital it all generated for the industrialisation of Britain, all this will shine a light on dark corners for far too long concealed from view.

Cruel reality behind the Beckford fortune

WILLIAM Beckford was one of the biggest slave owners of the British Empire, an MP and both Lord Mayor and Sheriff of London.

Beckford owed his vast wealth and political influence to the blood, sweat and tears of more than 3,000 slaves who laboured on his extensive sugar plantations in Jamaica in the 17th and 18th centuries.

He cultivated a reputation as a refined English gentleman. But he was also known as a tyrannical man whose family wealth grew to £1.5million in the 18th century, worth billions today.

An absentee planter, his great profits were at the expense of the brutal treatment of his slaves. In 1760 more than 400 slaves were killed in a rebellion – the leader was burnt alive and two of his lieutenants were hung up in irons to die slowly.

Beckford was an influential figure in British political life. Portraits of him – one by the great painter Joshua Reynolds – hang in various country homes.

As his riches grew he bought the Fonthill mansion in Wiltshire. Today there is a Fonthill Road in Finsbury Park which bears the same name as his new home at the time.

According to Dr Kate Donington, a speaker at a lecture five years ago at the Conway Hall, Holborn, though they were connoisseurs of the arts the Beckfords were pro-slavers and regarded others as “lesser beings”. Donington is a member of a ground­breaking UCL-based project that has set up a database of 46,000 British slave owners.

As the Abolition movement gathered pace – in 1807 the trade in slaves was outlawed in the British Empire – Beck­ford became a leading voice in the campaign for slave owners to be compensated for “loss of property”.

When chattel slavery was finally abolished in 1833 slave owners received compensation amounting to £17bn in today’s money, representing 40 per cent of government expenditure. Before the bank bailout of 2009, this was the largest payout in British history.

The slaves themselves received nothing, said Donnington. And although slavery was ended in 1833 it didn’t create an equal society. “In fact deeply unequal societies went on to emerge under imperialism and colonialism, and the legacy of racial thinking that was developed as a defensive position to the abolitionists continues to this day.” The lectures at Conway Hall were curated by the late historian Deborah Lavin on behalf of Conway Hall and the Socialist History Society. Years ago her daughter attended Beckford Primary School in West Hampstead, which began life as plain Broomsleigh Street School when it opened in 1886 but was renamed in 1927.

“It is absolutely extraordinary that they decided to name the school after Beckford,” she said. “They probably did so because of his wealth and philanthropy, totally forgetting the fact that he owned slaves. This amnesia about slave ownership still goes on today.”

• This background article is based on a feature by Angela Cobbinah that appeared in the New Journal in October 2015; and on notes from various researchers


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