#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 7

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 -Day 4.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 6.

On the last day of Diverse Book Week 2020, Sunday 14 June, I read chapter 8 which looks at the activity of the Royal Navy, in particular the West Africa Squadron, to tackle slave trading from the coast of West Africa. This day is also the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, and I read the book with the prayers, thoughts and music from the live-steamed anniversary service to commemorate the 72 victims of that tragic event still resonating in my mind.

Prof. Olusoga gives a lively and well-sourced account of the actions of the West Africa Squadron, as well as the various ruses that slave traders used to evade their attentions. I particularly liked the extended direct quotes from accounts of the time.

Some of the key protagonists have a similar ambiguity surrounding their role as the historical figures I mentioned in my last update. In this case, Lord Palmerston was a prime mover in the efforts to tackle slave trading at its source. This stands in historical contrast to his record of colonialism: a champion of freedom from slavery, but only under British rule and in the British interest. In the current climate of change, the underlines the need to reassess the record of many of the historical figures of this age.

The chapter relates one of the main criticisms of the British efforts against slave trading at this time, that it was under resourced and half-hearted. While the crews and their commanders made great efforts and secured notable successes, the ships of the West Africa Squadron were few in number, old, often in poor repair and technologically outclassed by those of the slave traders.

Others may regard this as a non sequitur, but I couldn’t help make the comparison with the modern world. In the same way that a public commitment was made to ending the slave trade, but then hobbled by underfunding, so too have many of our post-war aspirations been thwarted. Then and now, the consequences of this are felt not by the decision makers, but the most vulnerable. Two of the tangible outcomes of the Beveridge Report, and the post-war consensus were the foundation of the NHS and the largest social housing building programme in British history. Subsequent lack of investment and cost-cutting have sadly caused huge damage.

In the face of the pandemic, and despite warnings, our healthcare system was underprepared and under resourced. The Grenfell fire resulted in tragedy because cost-cutting resulted in inferior – and lethal – cheap cladding materials were used and warnings were ignored by local authority officials. In both cases the group that has been most vulnerable, and has suffered most, is the one which has been subject to prejudice, denied opportunity, and held back economically – the BAME community.

Sunday was the last day of Diverse Book Week, but I finished the final chapters of the book in the following week. You can read my final update here.

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