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Why Black History Matters

In this post, published to mark Black History Month and in keeping with the themes of the International Decade for People of African Descent, the MME Council’s Maurice Macartney looks at how the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the significance of an understanding of black history.


The year 2020 will not only be remembered for the impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic. A number of events will have lasting historical resonance: apocalyptic wildfires in Australia and California; a US election of global significance; and the revival and global spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the shocking killing of George Floyd by police officers in the United States in May.

One perhaps unexpected expression of protest by the movement was the removal, sometimes by agreement, sometimes by force, of statues of people associated with the slave trade – such as the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, which, in June, protestors dumped unceremoniously in the harbour where his infamous ships were launched.

This was only one of many examples from a range of countries; but it was curious that the toppling of statues seemed to spark off as much debate as the police killing of Floyd, and other black people.

Disapproving remarks emanated from people in power – from the USA’s Donald Trump to the UK’s Home Secretary Priti Patel. Others found the attacks on statues so outrageous that they took to the streets themselves: when far-right, anti-black lives matter activists began to organise, in part it was, so the claim went, to ‘protect’ cultural items like statues from being damaged by the BLM protesters.

Here in Northern Ireland, controversial decisions were made by authorities to police and fine public expressions of solidarity with BLM, in contrast with the rather deferential treatment of supposed counter-protests in Belfast, raising questions about who and what is criminalised here.

For many between the two seeming extremes, the reaction may have been bewilderment: why topple a statue that has been there, largely unnoticed, for decades, if not centuries? But to the question “Why topple these statues?”, one could raise the obvious counter-question: “Why, this far into the 21st century, do self-described democracies like the UK still display public statues of enslavers?”.

The answer to this question is at the heart of the issue of why black history matters. If you don’t know nor understand history, you cannot understand the world today. And if you don’t understand black history, you don’t understand history at all.

Those dominant states of the 19th century - European countries like France, Belgium and, above all, England - and the dominant state of the 20th - the USA - did not, and could not have accumulated the wealth and power they achieved without the resources extracted by the enslavement of people and theft of land through the colonial exploitation and settlement of countries in Africa, Australasia and the Americas.

In short, the British and then American Empires achieved global dominance either by taking people off their land (as in the transatlantic slave trade of 16th to 19th centuries) or by taking the land and its materials off the people (the European conquest of much of the globe; the US doctrine of ‘Manifest Destiny).

Yet much of this history remains unknown to, or at any rate underexplored by, many people today living in those states who benefitted from such exploitation. This ignorance is reflected in the responses to the question about the statue of Edward Colston.

It’s not just that few on our shores (at least outside Bristol) had ever heard of him; it’s that few know anything about the company of which he was deputy governor in 1689-90: the RAC. It’s impossible to read that acronym and not think of the car breakdown rescue people: but this was in fact the Royal African Company, set up by the Stuarts (the family of the English monarch at the time) and a number of London merchants to engage in ‘trade’ on the continent of Africa. The form of trade they specialised in was that in enslaved African people.

More people were shipped to the Americas from Africa on boats bearing the RAC company mark than by any other institution. Some of these enslaved African people were branded with the letters ‘RAC’ as a mark of their loss of autonomy.

It was in part through this trade in people, reduced to such branded commodities, that Colston acquired the wealth to live a life of plenty in London, and to become known in England as a ‘philanthropist’, for his charitable work in supporting schools and almshouses in his birthplace Bristol. Indeed, even as recently as 1999, when a pamphlet on Colston was published, it devoted far more of its pages to his philanthropic legacy than to his involvement in slavery.

He was not alone, of course. Many even more wealthy people at the time grew rich either directly through the trade in enslaved people, their forced labour, or indirectly through trade associated with maintaining, for example, sugar plantations in the Caribbean on which enslaved people laboured. Others grew wealthy by rising through the ranks of the Empire’s wider social institutions, and returning as ‘Nabobs’ with fortunes, of dubious origin, to spend in Britain.

And that is why we have to look beyond the statues to see that the material legacy of the era of enslavement and Empire is still very much with us.

Step out of the Museum of London in the docklands, located as it is in a former warehouse that stocked slave-grown sugar from West Indian plantations, and to your left you will see the shining towers of London’s Canary Wharf, one of the thriving centres of global finance. This is no coincidence. Buildings, factories, and businesses all over the UK were first built with money brought back during the colonial and slave trading period.

In other words, life in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the UK, and other European countries, to say nothing of the US, bears direct, if almost always overlooked, material connections with the era of Empire and enslavement. The statues are only some of the most visible aspects, markers of what was seen as valued from this legacy.

But surely we have left that era behind? Surely, so long after the success of the movement for the abolition of slavery, and after the struggle for Civil Rights, we have overcome the worst aspects of that legacy? And surely, our historical knowledge has not erased it from public consciousness?

While it may be inconceivable that we would return to any form of publicly sanctioned human trade, such as the transatlantic slave trade, it is also arguable that we are faced with problems of a similar scale and nature.

Think of the Zong Massacre.

The reduction of people to the status of disposable property found one of its most shocking expressions a century or so after Colston. Luke Collingwood, the captain of the Zong, facing disease and malnutrition on board and seeing his ship was running short of drinking water, decided to throw some of his ‘cargo’ overboard. That the jettisoned ‘cargo’ consisted of 133 people made no difference, as far as he was concerned. Insurance claims, the thinking went, could be raised on any ‘commodities’ lost on their way to being sold into slavery.

The case was so shocking that it was arguably one of the key drivers of the Abolitionist movement – Granville Sharp, a key figure in that movement, tried, unsuccessfully, to sue Collingwood and owners of the Zong, after being alerted to the case by former slave Olaudah Equiano, who had read reports of the dispute over the insurance claim. Perhaps most chilling is how the murdered people were used by the insurers, to avoid payment, and the objectifying language used of them by some of those within the mainstream legal system in England.

Surely this would be inconceivable today – and yet, can we not detect similarities in any number of reports in our own newspapers? Have we not seen thousands of people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea each year for much of the last decade? Do African countries not still suffer from a ‘resource curse’, whereby, paradoxically, the very mineral wealth within their borders leaves them with colonial-era politico-economic structures, and at the mercy of the fluctuations of global commodity markets?

Perhaps most pertinent of all, look at the way the fossil fuel giants, despite evidence their own researchers had uncovered, continued to deny and obfuscate the scale of the problem of carbon emissions in order to protect their profits. Meanwhile, those who least to contribute to the problem – the people of the global South – are the first and the hardest hit by the climate breakdown unleashed in no small part by those same profitable oil companies. What proportion, one wonders, of the lavish bonuses handed out in London’s shining financial district comes at the cost of desertification in 46 percent of Africa, or of flooding in Bangladesh, or climate related disasters in other regions of the global South?

Of course, the one big piece missing from the story here is the action and leadership of the people within the global South and that of their descendants in the minority world, from the above-mentioned Equiano, through other formerly enslaved campaigners like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as those who led campaigns against colonial exploitation, right down to current times.

It’s hard to think of a more luminous example of leadership in the cause of environmental justice that that of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who led the campaign against the toxic effects of oil extraction in the Niger Delta - a campaign against power that cost his life. Think of Nobel Laureate Dr Wangari Maathi’s Green Belt Movement, the Network of African Women Environmentalists (NAWE) launched last year, and the global reach of the Via Campesina movement or the global workers’ union IndustriALL.

Examples of such courage, ingenuity, and leadership abound. However, they are far less well-known to us in Northern Ireland than they ought to be. Perhaps that is something we can at last begin to correct through consciousness raising and commemorative events, such as Black History Month.

Like Black Lives Matter, Black History Month started in the USA (where it is celebrated in February), but was later taken up by other countries such as the UK, Canada, Ireland and the Netherlands.

The organisation behind the UK events aims to provide all of us with an “opportunity to be part of the national celebrations and events to honour the too-often unheralded accomplishments of Black Britons in every area of endeavour throughout our history”.

Perhaps now, at the mid-point of the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent, and as the tarnished bronze memorials to those who profited from enslavement are beginning to come down, we should take this opportunity to participate actively in building living history, shoulder to shoulder with those who promote justice, recognition and development, and who embody the movements towards global justice.

Maurice Macartney

(With thanks to Dr Dina Belluigi, MME Council Research lead, for many insightful suggestions).

1 October 2020


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