Tag: black

Book review: Railways and The Raj by Christian Wolmar

railways_and_the_rajTwo interests combine with this book, Railways and The Raj by Christian Wolmar. I picked it up after a recommendation in Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera, which is about the British Empire from an Indian perspective but I’m also interested in railways. I have reviewed Wolmar’s Fire & Steam and The Subterranean Railway in the past. The Indian railway system has been sold as a benefit of colonialism, so I was interested to find out more.

Although the first railways in India were built as early as 1836, not long after those elsewhere, and for similar purposes: for shifting heavy loads short-distances at mines or similar, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that railway building in earnest started. This followed two reports written by the Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie, in 1850 and 1853. In contrast to the chaotic growth of railways in Britain and elsewhere, Dalhousie’s plans, formulated a little after the first rush of railway building, presented a rational and coherent plan for the development of Indian railways.

The start to railway building was slow, with opposition from the East India Company in the first instance, furthermore physical conditions in India were challenging particularly the monsoon season which played havoc with railway bridges over rivers, and whose embankments disturbed the irrigation and drainage in surrounding areas. There were also serious mountain ranges to address.

The Indian railways were built very much for the benefit of the British, most of the rail companies were run from Britain, the levels of return on investment (made from Britain) were guaranteed by the Indian tax payer, most of the equipment (including rails and often sleepers) was sourced from Britain and the economic benefits of the freight transported by the railways were largely in Britain. Not only this, under the Raj, the senior positions in managing and running the railways were held by British people or Eurasians, and this extended to the train staff with drivers predominately British or Eurasian. The British travelling on the railways did so in luxurious first and second class carriages whereas the great majority of Indians travelled in a fairly grim third class.

Class, religious and gender differences were built into the fabric of the railway with various facilities provided separately for Muslim and Hindu passengers, and various castes. I struggle to decide how much this was a deliberate "divide and rule" policy of the British (which was later to have terrible consequences during Partition) or whether it was the right thing to do to respect local sensibilities (although it is fair to say "respecting local sensibilities" was not greatly in evidence during Britain’s colonial period).

There was some development of railways for famine relief – a recurring issue in Indian where millions died through famine in parts of the country. Beyond about 50 miles oxen, the main alternative for transporting food, consume more food than they can carry. The Victorian view was that the railway would carry food to be sold at the market rate from areas of surplus to those suffering famine, which did not greatly help the many poor unable to afford food.

There were lines built for military purposes, particularly in the north west in the direction of Afghanistan from where it was feared a Russian threat would come. More generally, as the railways developed the Indian Rebellion of 1857 was still fresh in the mind of the British and it was felt the railway could help move troops around to quell future rebellions – many early stations were built like fortresses. The railways were important during the two world wars but suffered in these periods from overuse and under-investment.

In a book with a number of shocks for white British sensibilities, I think I found the part on Partition most shocking most probably because it is not something I had thought about before: I knew India had gained independence after the Second World War and that Pakistan, and Bangladesh were part. I had not absorbed that it meant the displacement of between 10 and 20 million people, and the deaths of up to 2 million. 20 million people is a third the population of the United Kingdom and 2 million people is the population of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham combined.

After Independence and Partition, the successful running of the railways was seen as an important symbol of the success of Independence. Despite the rather hasty British exit, and the lack of home-grown talent and supply chains the post-Independence Indian Railway was quickly much improved.

One recurring theme of the book is the enormous scale of Indian Railways, it employs currently 1.3 million people – globally ranking alongside various Chinese state bodies, McDonald’s, Walmart and the NHS. In the early days the Indian Railways set up company towns in part to service white British employees but also for Indian employees because the railway works were often in otherwise isolated areas. Even now Indian Railways owns huge amounts of property in which its employees live, and also hospitals and schools. It remains central to transport in Indian where the capacity of the airline routes is limited, and the road network is relatively under-developed.

I enjoyed this book as a story of the development of the railway in India, but also as a sketch of Indian history from the middle of the 19th century. To answer my original question, the railway did benefit India ultimately, after Independence, but under colonial rule it was largely a benefit to Britain.

Book review: Natives by Akala

nativesA return to the Black Lives Matter theme with Natives by Akala. Natives is an autobiography which illustrates many of the points made in Why I am no longer talking to white people by Reni Eddo-Lodge and Black and British by David Olusoga. Akala highlights that his working class origins are as much an issue as his race.

Akala is a rapper, poet, journalist, songwriter, author and activist – see their wikipedia page here. I don’t know what the etiquette is for using someone’s "birth name" when they publish under a pen name. Although I had not heard of Akala previously, I am familiar with the work of his older sister Ms Dynamite.

Akala has a white Scottish-German mother and a black Jamaican father. He grew up in Camden in the late Eighties. As he points out this is as some of the overt racism in Britain, which his fathers generation had experienced, had started to recede. He went to Jamaica once as a child but subsequently has visited many times. Alongside Black America, Jamaica and Shakespeare are his major cultural influences. He visited also visited the family in the Outer Hebrides, finding Scotland less racist than England.

He clearly remembers the occasion on which he realised that his mother was white, talking about coming home school having been racially abused at the age of five by another child. For racists there is no mixed-race, no being a little bit Black – for them it is all or nothing. This is reflected in the South African apartheid era laws. So although Akala is mixed-race this is pretty much meaningless since he is considered Black by the white world. Interestingly there are gradations in the Black community where in the Caribbean the paler skinned are seen as a higher social class (I think the same may be true in India), and in South Africa being successful is "acting the white man". At secondary school a teacher once stated to him in an argument that "The Ku Klux Klan stopped crime by killing black people" – this incident gets a whole chapter, you perhaps won’t be surprised that there were no adverse consequences for the teacher.

As a child Akala was academically gifted, going to various extra classes and a pan-African school at the weekend. This was a result of his mother’s drive but does not seem to have been uncommon for Black families.

I think the thing that really hit me was that when my (white, middle-class) son, aged 9, demonstrates his academic ability we get an email from his teacher praising him. When Akala achieved academically at school he was criticised (and was actually in a special needs class at one point). A recent incident with a friend of ours suggests this attitude for children who are not white has not completely gone from the teaching profession.

Despite these academic talents he still fell into something of the gang culture for a period, as he describes it he simply snapped out of it at the age of about 25 – something he says is typical. His less fortune cohort were either imprisoned or killed by this point. This is an odd juxtaposition of someone who has friends who are classical music composers and hospital consultants, but at the same time know people who are in prison or have been killed in street violence. 

Why was Akala and his cohort susceptible to gang culture? He sees it as a working class problem, rather than a race problem – citing the high levels of gang violence elsewhere in the UK where the black population is small. A second factor is the utter distrust of the police in the black community, driven by years of prejudice. They simply don’t see the police as there for them (with pretty good reason).

You can see this happening today in the UK. There is a steady stream of stories in the press of successful black people stopped in their cars (car not registered here, this car looks too expensive for you to own it), and stopped in the street (crime by a man matching your description). As a middle aged white man I don’t get stopped by the police because I don’t look right.

Tony Blair was happy to talk about "black on black" violence, although he would never describe violence in Northern Ireland or in Glasgow or Newcastle as white on white violence.  In fact I was surprised to learn that violence in Glasgow is a bigger problem than in London but the media like to report the violence in London and imply it is about the black population. The Labour party are happy to talk about the difficulties of "white working class boys" ignoring the fact that this is largely down to class not colour.

Akala talks a bit about South Africa and Cuba, it’s interesting the emphasis that he puts on the role of Cuba in ending apartheid with their military support against the South African regime in neighbouring countries. Overall his view of Cuba is more positive than mine. I think I have been corrupted by 50 years of anti-Castro propaganda. On Mandela and the ANC he is not quite so positive as your average middle-aged white man.

I found Natives a useful complement to Black and British by David Olusoga and Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge because it talks of the individual impacts of what these other books described in a more abstract way.

Book review: Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

empireA return to reading about race with Empireland by Sathnam, subtitled How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain. I think the best way of thinking about this book is as a perspective on the British Empire and its impact on present day Britain by a British Sikh. Although the coverage is global there is a focus on India, which reflects Sanghera’s background. I’m used to reading history by white British or American authors, so this is a refreshing change.

The signs of Empire are all around us, not least in the multicultural, multi-ethnic society we find in Britain which impacts our food, our religious observances and our art. A range of quintessentially British companies had their origins in the trade with India such as Shell who originally sold shells from India! Or Liberty original founded for the India trade. There are also a range of processed foods which were developed for the empire, to remind the colonists of home or taken up following colonial origins (rum, pale ale, madeira, gin and tonic). There is some argument that our welfare state had its origins in Empire, in providing "men fit to fight" which was a concern after the Boer War. We also borrowed a significant number of words into English from the empire: bungalow, shampoo, zombie, toboggan… 

The Empire, and Imperial history is not clear cut, there are two very broad phases – the American and contemporary phase and the 19th century India and Africa phase. The Empire was not the result of a strategic plan, or governed in a unified manner, in contrast to the Roman Empire. As John Robert Seeley said: "We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind". It seems also that the Empire was not front of mind for the British public for almost its entire span, in the days before a global media with relatively few British people involved with the Empire in Britain or even in the Empire this is perhaps unsurprising.

A recurring theme is how British actions in the empire were criticised at the time, on issues like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the looting of Tibet. Key figures in the Empire, like Robert Clive and Cecil Rhodes were similarly criticised. The rehabilitation of Edward Colston is a case in point – he was not greatly celebrated during his life and the subscription to raise his statue some 200 years after his death was not filled. It is only with the recent en-harbouring of his statue that he has gained support. History that seeks an unalloyed positive view of the Empire just isn’t history. 

Looting gets a whole chapter of its own, it focuses on the case of Tibet which was invaded by the British in 1903/4 – interestingly the invasion was commonly referred to as the "British Expedition to Tibet" or the "Younghusband expedition to Tibet" – note the rather passive language. It is clear that looting was seen as part of military operations and was formalised. There is a degree of greyness in the process since troops were on occasion censured for looting, and there were budgets for the purchase of artefacts. However, there were clear processes for the handling of artefacts looted during invasions and the sums set aside for purchasing artefacts were completely incompatible with the amount of loot returned to Britain. In Africa human body parts were taken by British soldiers as trophies, something which caused disgust in Britain at the time.

The sad thing is that most of the looted artefacts in British museums are not actually on display, and in the more distant past they were scarcely valued at all. Sanghera points out that the British establishment finds it impossible to return looted artefacts from British museums to their rightful homes but has quite the opposite attitude to people with established lives and families, as long as their skin is dark.

Immigration was often at invitation, citizens of the British Empire were just that but whilst white members of the Commonwealth have always had a welcome in Britain, those of colour have not. Conversely Britain has a large emigrant – outbound – population. It is part of the deal. Sanghera writes a bit about Britons abroad, the Brit transplanting their lifestyle to Spain is seen as a continuation of the colonial times.

Sanghera talks about racism and white supremacy in the British Empire. This is pretty explicit, the leading figures in the Empire were very clear that they saw the white British as superior and indigenous populations as naturally inferior, in need of the firm hand of white rule. White rule, sometimes meant massacre or even genocide, as was the case for the indigenous Tasmanian population.

Sanghera ends on a somewhat positive note, although Britain is not at the forefront, countries like Germany, France and the US have started talking about the return of looted artefacts, reparations for slavery, and some degree of contrition for their actions during their colonial period. The British government is trailing in this, although the public Black Lives Matters protests, and private initiatives to return looted artefacts, and discuss more frankly our troublesome past are taking place.

I think this was a useful step on my journey in understanding my country, and all the people that live here.

Book review: Precolonial Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop

diopMy next book follows on from reading Black and British by David Olusoga. It is Precolonial Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop. I was looking for an overview of African history from an African perspective. Diop’s relatively short book focuses on West Africa. It turns out he is a very interesting figure in himself, building several political parties, doing research in history as well as physics and chemistry and having a university named after him. Some of his ideas on African history are controversial (you can see the wikipedia page relating to him here).

The core of the controversy is two fold, one is his claim that ancient Egyptians were black, and the second is that there is a historical unity in West Africa civilisation with migration from the east of Africa populating the continent. The basis for this thesis relies quite heavily on similarities in totemic names across the region as well as cultural similarities. These days there is some support for the migration of populations out of the Nile basin to West Africa from DNA evidence.

Most of the discussion in this book is oriented around the area of West Africa where Diop grew up, in Senegal, with some mentions of Eygypt and Sudan. Diop draws parallels in the internal organisations across the empires of Ghana, Mossi, Mali and Songhai. The Empire of Ghana stretched beyond the boundaries of the modern country, and stood for 1250 years. Mossi was to the east and south, in the area of modern Burkino Faso, Mali and Songhai were a little to the north encompassing the modern Timbucktu. Looking at wikipedia these empires appear to have overlapped to a degree both in time and space. Precolonial Black Africa covers the period from about 300AD to the 17th century although it does not make much reference to dates.

There is almost no mention even of the area of Nigeria, a little to the east, or Southern Africa. I was nearly half way through the book before I realised that Sudan referred to two different places: Sudan the modern state in North East Africa, and the Sudan Empire which stretches across the southern margin of the Sahara in the West of Africa.

The books starts with a description of the caste system, emphasising the two-way nature of the system and contrasting it to a degree with the caste system in India.

Precolonial Black Africa contrasts Africa with Europe, in the period covered by the book Europe was based on city-states which evolved into feudal structures, with Roman geographical divisions, where defence from marauders by the lord in the castle was important. Land ownership was core of this political system whereas Africa evolved more along Egyptian lines which saw countries divided into regions with regional governance and no tradition of land ownership.

These empires were led by kings with a small cabinet of advisors who had both a regional responsibility and a specialism (like a minister for finance, or the army). Although not republics, nor democratic in the modern Western sense, Diop claims that these governments were more representative than their Western European equivalents of the time.

The technological expertise of the ancient Romans and Greeks was carried through the Middle Ages by the Arab world. It is no coincidence that Spain was once a technology leader, given the Muslim rule of Spain. Islamization of West Africa is a recurring theme of the book, and Arab writers feature regularly in the lists of sources for the early history of Africa. Islam was important in education through to the present day, this is in part responsible for slowed technological progress in the region. Islamic schools did not place a great emphasis on what they consider pagan history, nor so much on modern science.

Precolonial Black Africa covers technology relatively briefly, mentioning architecture and the Great Zimbabwe – a significant stone-built city in present day Zimbabwe whose early excavation was plagued by the then Rhodesian governments view that it could not be constructed by Black Africans. Coins, and metalworking are also mentioned – West Africa made relatively little use of the familiar coinage of European. Gold dust was used as currency, as were Cowrie shells. The Benin Bronzes dating from the 13th century demonstrate there was significant metalworking skill in West Africa (the Bronzes are currently in the news as the UK refuses to return them to Benin). Little of technology and writing seems to have survived from precolonial times, I suspect this is a combination of the environment which is not conducive to the preservation of paper (or even metal), successive colonisations by Islam and then Europeans and relatively little archaeological activity.Trade seemed quite significant across West Africa, even in the absence of conventional coinage.

The interesting thing reading this book is the contrast with flaws that Western history has had in the past, being focussed on great men, the idea of the natural superiority of the white man, and leaning heavily on Classical heritage for legitimacy. I suspect these points of view are generally not prevalent in modern academic history but they certainly hold sway with the current UK government and a coterie of right-wing historians. To a degree Diop suffers the same types of prejudices but from a different perspective – the superiority of the Black African. My view of African history is still heavily influenced by those old Western European foundations.  

After a rocky start I came to enjoy this book, I found the book alien in a couple of respects firstly in its discussion of history from an African perspective, and also simply that it is African history. What I know of Africa is largely through a colonial lens.