Reading and freedom

Open book with quote from Frederick Douglass: ‘Once you learn to read you will be forever Free.’

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) escaped from slavery to become a famous abolitionist and social reformer in the United States. He became known for his powerful oratory and writing, including his bestselling autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. This is available for free download, in a number of formats, from Project Gutenberg.

You can find more inspirational quotes in my post Looking for a Little Inspiration?


Supporting Learning: History of Medicine

A new series of resources that I have been working on is designed to support teaching of the history of medicine.

Moments in Medicine was originally conceived as a workshop session for school groups visiting the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. We have now adapted it as a series of free resources available online on the Bodleian’s website.

The series draws on original sources held at the Bodleian. These range from medieval works covering topics such as uroscopy and medicinal herbs, through to the birth of the NHS. Items include significant texts such as Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine, the first edition of the Pharmocopoeia Londinensis, and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, but also more ephemeral items that give an insight into everyday life such as a leaflet sent to householders in 1948 telling them about the new National Health Service.

Circular medieval uroscopy chart showing eight urine flasks.
Medieval uroscopy chart

Each resource includes a brief description explaining the background to the text, which helps place it in context, and questions which prompt students to explore the source and its significance to the development of public health in Britain. There are also links to digitised versions of the texts and to further reading on the topic.

The resources have been evaluated by a range of volunteer test users and have been piloted in schools. Each resource is fully accessible to assistive technology – such as screen readers – and all the images have explanatory alt text.

I hope that Moments in Medicine will complement any GCSE History course, and will also be of wider interest. I am developing further resources in the series, including insights into the role of subscription hospitals in the nineteenth century and national public health approaches during the twentieth century. Please let me know if there is anything else you would like to see included.

If you found this useful, you might also be interested in my earlier blog posts on resources to teach study skills.

Images: The Bodleian Libraries

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 8

For Diverse Book Week this year, I have been reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explained why I chose this book at the start of the week. This is my concluding update. I know a week doesn’t have 8 days, but I needed a little longer to finish! You can catch up with 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.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 7.

The final chapters of the book take us from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. This was a period of huge social change in Britain and themes that run through this section are a nation uncertain of its identity in the light of these changes, and differing views among individuals about what it means to be British.

The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of social Darwinism and other ‘scientific’ approaches to ‘race’. As a biologist, I find this an extremely uncomfortable aspect of scientific history. There is no biological basis for the assertion that there are different races within humanity, yet this period saw many applying dubious methods to make not just that claim, but that some races were superior to others. Unsurprisingly, the purveyors of such ideas placed themselves at the top of any supposed hierarchy.

This came to a head in horrific enactment of eugenic policies in Nazi-occupied areas before and during the Second World War. Because the horrors of the holocaust turned the world against such ideas, it is now easy to forget how prevalent they were beforehand, both in Europe and the United States. This resulted in vicious forms of discrimination based on entirely false ideas and was often used as a justification for prejudiced views. The horror with which many British people reacted to the prejudice of white American GIs against their black comrades is particularly well recounted. It is evident that what induced the most aggressive response among these racists was the prospect of inter-racial sexual relations, an irrational fear based in the ridiculous notion of ‘racial purity’.

Sadly, while British citizens may have deplored the violence Black GIs were subjected to, it is clear that in post-war Britain many held the view that children of mixed parentage were somehow inferior and ‘neither one thing nor the other’. This, despite the long history of intermarriage both in Britain and throughout territories under her influence. Such views were rooted in the same irrational pseudoscience of race originally constructed to justify the exploitation of black populations. While it’s clear that only a minority of The British population held prejudiced views, its also apparent that, for too long, a much larger group was not prepared to contest them.

In the light of the long history covered in this book, the struggle for equality in the post war period, which still continues, can be seen not only in the context of contemporary issues such as employment or the influence of individual politicians, but also as the resolution to the various legacies of our past. It seems that both politicians and sections of the populace seemed genuinely surprised that black people of the Empire/commonwealth should want to live in Britain. The subsequent response to that wish in immigration law, employment, Education, social segregation, and day-to-day prejudice (not to mention hate crime perpetrated by extreme right-wing organisations) created a long-standing wound in British society.

That wound is evident now. Those living in substandard and disgracefully unsafe housing of the type that led to the Grenfell fire are more likely to be from BAME groups. These same groups are more likely to be employed in medical and caring roles at the forefront of tackling COVID-19, and at the same time more likely to succumb to it.

I hope it is not too optimistic to think that the current Black Lives Matter protests offer us all an opportunity for real lasting change. Looking back over almost 2000 years of history as this book does, it seems clear that the vibrant mix of ethnicities and cultures we see in modern Britain is exactly the joyous outcome we should expect to result from our history. The fact that so many still see Britain as a land of opportunity is something we should celebrate.

Black and British: A Forgotten History has shown me that it’s time to remember our history, both it’s courageous highlights and it’s more uncomfortable truths, in order that we can at last shuffle off the vestiges of myth, propaganda and prejudice from the past that too often hold us back from building our future.

#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.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 6

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.

In this post, I’m thinking about my reading of chapter 7 which considers moves by abolitionists to tackle slavery in the United States, following their successes in doing so first within Britain, and then British territories overseas. if the need for a better understanding of history needed emphasising, current events couldn’t make the point better. The media on Saturday was full of stories of protest. While hundreds of thousands of people took part in peaceful Black Lives Matters protests in UK cities, towns and villages, a few hundred fascists (I think that’s what an ‘anti-anti fascist’ is) ‘defended’ monuments in London by giving Nazi salutes, chanting ‘we’re racist and that’s the way we like it’ and attacking the police.

While the abolitionists threw themselves into this new challenge, American plantation owners were not going to relinquish their lucrative businesses without a fight. At the same time that former slaves, and enslaved Americans toured Britain relating tales of the violence and brutality of those plantations (to considerable effect), other lobbyists were portraying them as inferior.

These twin messages inter played in the already ambiguous attitudes among the white British public, even among some of the abolutionists, some of whom viewed slavery as morally reprehensible, but also preferred to see former slaves as passive beneficiaries of their goodwill, rather than active agents in their own emancipation. Prof. Olusoga cites Charles Dickens as an example: a passionate advocate of abolition but finding people of colour so distasteful that he actually tore out a portrait of Frederick Douglass from the autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, that he was sending to a friend in support of that cause.

Other ambiguities existed, and persisted into the twentieth century, in forms such as minstrelsy, which became hugely popular among the Victorians, and the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe. Minstrels introduced Victorian England to songs and music derived from the plantations of the southern US states, but also grossly parodied the supposed voices, mannerisms and behaviour of black Americans and served to denigrate them. The best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved a powerfully persuasive in conveying the brutal reality of the lives of slaves, but portrayed the central character as passive in the face of them.

While slave owners were unsuccessful in convincing the public of their incredible claim that Africans were actually better off enslaved the underlying message of inferiority in many ways aligned with the abolitionists portrayal of a people needing to be ‘rescued’ by white philanthropy. This was despite the many examples of equality of intellect and ability, provided by those former slaves campaigning for their cause.

I wonder if there is a parallel here with modern charitable giving? Victorian abolutionists sometimes raised money to free individual slaves (and the government had compensated British slave owners in 1833) delivering undoubted immediate benefit to those individuals, but risking the reinforcement of the very system they sought to end. Modern charitable campaigns often present Africans as passive victims of famine or disease, in need of the benevolence of ‘white saviours’. When we give to such campaigns we too undoubtedly provide immediate respite, but do we also reinforce damaging stereotypes? How often do we tackle the underlying causes, which lie in long-standing global iniquity?

You can read the day 7 update here.