Objective history

Can we be objective about the British Empire?

The Times complained that the National Trust encouraged children to “lament Britain’s history”. There’s a group of “members, supporters and friends” of the National Trust that wanted “an objective assessment of history”, and thought such denigration wrong.

What does Restore Trust want? To avoid demonizing anyone’s history or heritage. To enjoy the beauty of the stately homes without “intrusive interpretation”. To focus on the property, and the families who created them. To use history as a tool for understanding, not as a weapon.

For the Colonial Countryside project, children wrote poems about Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, and The Times reports that one such poem “has been removed” from the Trust’s website. Children were upset about the uses of animals by the families involved.

I wondered if it were possible to be objective about history, to take a God’s eye view. I do want to demonize Richard Drax MP, who inherited his family’s sugar plantation in Barbados. From 1640 to 1838 the family used slaves on that estate. He has inherited the profits of slavery. He may have breached company law, and has breached House of Commons rules. He voted for a reduction in welfare benefits, and against measures to prevent climate change. From these facts I find Drax to be a bad man.

The Times refers to the “Indian mutiny”, choosing not to use the term “First War of Independence”. I don’t know if objectivity is possible. “Mutiny” calls the Indian soldiers bad. “War of Independence” casts them as heroes. Language might denote the struggles of Imperialists and the local peoples who resisted them, without implying that one side or the other were morally superior, but the language the Imperialists used claimed their superiority in every way- morally, intellectually, physically, spiritually, culturally and technologically. So an objective view requires new language, which conservatives might dislike.

Between 1850 and 1947 the Indian economy grew an average of 0.55% a year, because wealth was taken from India to Britain, and used for the benefit of those wealthy families. At the same time, those families and others in their ruling class exploited British workers, and took common land which previously all could use for their benefit. My political view is that this exploitation is wrong, and should be demonized.

I suppose a political view that exploitation is unavoidable, and we should celebrate those who do it most successfully, is possible, but I don’t think it is objective.

Even if you write an account of wars, conquests and independence victories, with as neutral language as possible, it is a choice to pay attention to that, rather than to technological advances. Whether war produces technological advance better than peace can be assessed objectively with evidence, but does not mean war is preferable.

News reporting is about choices too. That a child’s poem was on a website, and now is not, is not news. That people object to that child’s poem is only news if you want to emphasise what they say. I am pleased that children are learning about slavery, and how intrinsic it was to the Empire and British wealth. I consider abhorrence of slavery and anyone who would defend it a simple moral value which shows the advance of humanity as well as any technological advance.

Looking round a great house and its beautiful gardens, seeing its works of art, seeing the servants’ quarters and kitchens and getting an idea of how they, as well as the family, lived, learning of the careers of theft, exploitation and blackguardry that built its wealth or frittered it away- how any of this is presented is a choice.

It is good to promote human flourishing, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. History which shows how that is achieved or prevented is worthwhile. History that hides it, to make white British people proud of our Empire and its achievements, is bad history. All history is political. I love the politics of Colonial Countryside. That its opponents have to take refuge in calling it “subjective” rather than pointing out anything untrue or immoral in it shows the strength of its position.

George Cruikshank

At the end of British Black History month, I present this cartoon by George Cruikshank.

Here is a larger version on the British Museum website, which claims copyright.

The cartoon, from July 1826, calls the slavery abolition campaigners “canting humbugs”. In Cruikshank’s view, the Caribbean “planters” host happy, well-fed, fat black people, who are portrayed making music, dancing and drinking rum. The Abolitionists are deceiving decent British people to take an interest in slavery when there are poor whites in Britain, needing charity but ignored.

Oh, George! Cruikshank’s cartoons are still worth looking at, and I note his sympathy with starving people- a genuine concern- but the lies about slavery shame me now. Britain made a vast amount of money from slavery and colonial exploitation. Loving the Tate Galleries, I have just checked they are not directly contaminated by slave profits, which is a relief; but all over Britain the legacies of slave ownership remain. I am not free when anyone is unfree, even when their shackles are very different from my own. It is imperative for me to be an ally, and develop as an ally. I found the cartoon through David Olusoga’s documentary Britain’s forgotten slave owners.

Scriptural and Statistical arguments for Slavery

Am I not a man and a brotherLet me introduce you to Dr. Thornton Stringfellow, D.D., and his work Scriptural and Statistical views in favor of Slavery, the fourth edition of 1856, made available by the University of North Carolina. After explaining how liberal American slave laws are, granting ownership only of the labour, not the person, of the slave, which is no more than indentured servants owe, Dr Stringfellow shows how the letter of the Apostle Peter clearly condemns the Abolitionist cause:

“But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil doer, or as a busy-body in other men’s matters.” Our citizens have been murdered–our property has been stolen, (if the receiver is as bad as the thief,)–our lives have been put in jeopardy–our characters traduced– and attempts made to force political slavery upon us in the place of domestic, by strangers who have no right to meddle with our matters. Instead of meditating generous things to our slaves, as a return for gospel subordination, we have to put on our armor to suppress a rebellious spirit, engendered by “false doctrine,” propagated by men “of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth,” who teach them that the gain of freedom to the slave, is the only proof of godliness in the master. From such, Paul says we must withdraw ourselves; and if we fail to do it, and to rebuke them with all the authority which “the words of our Lord, Jesus Christ” confer, we shall be wanting in duty to them, to ourselves, and to the world.

TStrange Fruithat is, the slave-owners are the victims, and the true Christians, here.

Dr Stringfellow also finds Answers in Genesis: 9:25: Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan [alleged ancestor of Africans] shall be his servant.

Then there are his statistical arguments. New England was colonised by Puritans, and the old Slave states of the South by Cavaliers, with a, well, cavalier attitude to faith; yet with similar population numbers, the South had almost twice as many churches! Further, the New England churches, which seat far fewer worshippers, cost much more. The Doctor questions the expenditure: Does it exhibit the evidence of humility, and a desire to glorify God, by a provision that shall enable all the people to hear the gospel? or does it exhibit the evidence of pride, that seeks to glorify the wealthy contributors, who occupy these costly temples to the exclusion of the humble poor? We must all draw our own conclusions.

No, Doctor, we must not. State plainly what you wish to say.

Everyone despises Dr Stringfellow now, and his  arguments are easily ridiculed. I loathe him: his victimhood was still spilling blood a hundred years later, and he has no Christian love for anyone outside his interest. So my exercise is to find something to admire in him. He has a wide knowledge of Scripture, and a careful way of layering point upon point: exemplary Evangelical argument. If you wanted to believe him, you could find him persuasive. He is standing up for his despised, suffering people: I hear his pain and hurt.

Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Those bible verses in full

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads- Leviticus 20.13. Oh my God they want us dead. Seriously, guys, do you really read that and want to make arguments from it? If so, what do you think of “Exposing the source of a woman’s flow”, v18?

About six Bible passages are cited against gay people. Have a look at the poverty of homophobic arguments:

Genesis 19 has all the men of the city of Sodom, both young and old, surrounding Lot’s house and shouting, Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them. Well, I know gay bars can be a bit rowdy, but one rarely sees gang rape there. In my limited experience, that is, please correct me if you know better.

Romans 1. Paul notes that Rome is filled with temples, and reasons that the inhabitants have clearly seen the nature of God. But instead they worship images, v23. Therefore God gave them over to shameful lusts. Paul is talking about idol worshippers, not gay people. Do read on to chapter 2, though: at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Paul evidently knew that the most vitriolic homophobes are the ones who are suppressing their own sexuality. 

For 1 Timothy 1 we have to delve into the Greek. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practising homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers…

At first face that looks like pseudo-Paul arguing like the homophobes: “homosexuality, paedophilia and bestiality”, they say, as if these things were comparable. Instead, he uses the words pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistes, the third word meaning slave traders or kidnappers. What have slave-traders to do with gay sex? Well, they enslaved men to use as prostitutes, much as Moldovan women are enslaved now. Pornos derives from the verb pernemi, to sell, and it refers to those who sell sex. Arsenokoitai, male-bedders, is a rare word, but appears to mean those who use the male prostitutes.

Lastly, 1 Corinthians 6. Neither…men who have sex with men[a]nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

That footnote: The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts, say the editors, falsely. Instead, they translate arsenokoitai and malakoi: prostitution again.

Lastly, a Biblical argument of equal validity to the arguments against gay marriage. A Friend in company began to talk in support of the slave-trade, and said the negroes were understood to be the offspring of Cain, their blackness being the mark which God set upon him after he murdered Abel his brother; that it was the design of Providence they should be slaves. I am mortified that “Friend” here means Quaker: this is John Woolman’s journal. See page 213 for Woolman’s refutation, and also the argument from Ham.


Should a good, Bible-believing Christian be in favour of slavery?

There are many relevant passages. In Genesis chapter 9, Noah got completely stocious, and collapsed in his tent with his manhood showing. His son Ham thought this hilarious, and told his brothers; but Shem and Japheth, showing respect, went to their father with a cloak to cover him up, and approached him backwards so that they would not see him. Because of this Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan, who would be slave of Shem and Japheth. Again, not the kind of Bible story you hear in Sunday school. The journal of John Woolman recounts that this story was used as a Biblical argument in favour of enslaving Africans, the alleged descendents of Ham, when he was campaigning against it among Quakers in the 18th century.

The slave Onesimus ran away from his master Philemon, and the Apostle Paul got to know him during his imprisonment. Paul, at verse 12, calls Onesimus “my own heart”, a surprisingly intimate image which bears a great deal more resemblance to the loving, monogamous homosexual relationships which equal marriage would recognise than the gang rape and orgies which the Bible condemns. Probably, within a Christian community an escaped slave could make a living as a free man: the State would disapprove, but there would be no way of knowing. However, Paul sends the slave back to his master. This condones slavery.

That is consistent with other sayings about slavery in the epistles. 1 Timothy 6: 1-2:

1 All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves. These are the things you are to teach and insist on.

The verse structure of the texts only dates back to the 16th century. The NIV places that last sentence of verse 2 in the following section, but Robert Estienne and his followers applied it to the words on slavery. Note that the slave owner is not asked to free his slave, and the slave is told to serve his master, whether Christian or not. Consider 1 Corinthians 7:21:

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.

Is this merely a political, pragmatic stance, since Christians would be persecuted far more fiercely if they opposed slavery? No, because Christian masters kept Christian slaves. See also Ephesians 6:5-9:

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. 9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

And slavery is supported when the Israelites ruled themselves. This is not a pragmatic submission to the mores of society, but the legislation of a free people, in Leviticus 25:44:

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.

The answer to my initial question is, of course, no. Good Bible-believing Christians should oppose slavery in all its forms wherever they may find it. However, it is difficult for them to argue that this is a Biblical way of proceeding, when slavery is so enthusiastically supported in the Bible. In the same way, good Bible-believing Christians should enthusiastically welcome equal marriage, given that it celebrates unions as loving and creative as that of Paul with Onesimus. Or, when they condemn gay Christians for showing that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality as much as they pretend, they should realise that they too are reading the Bible to find their own prejudices, rather than reading it to find what it says.