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   Andrew Bradford​

The story of Charlie and Kathy Bradford​

Some Thoughts About Slavery and the Culture Wars

Slavery has been part of human life since the dawn of history. It is still with us today, as shown by American singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens’s twenty-first century re-write of ‘Barbados’, an eighteenth century poem by the abolitionist William Cowper.

Cooper Wrote:

What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans

It's almost enough to draw pity from stones

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum

For how could we do without sugar and rum?

Especially sugar, so needful we see?

What? Give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?!

Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes

Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains

If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will

And tortures and groans will be multiplied still

And Giddens re-wrote those lines as:

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum

For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium?

The garments we wear, the electronics we own?

What? Give up our tablets, our laptops, and phones?!

Besides, if we do, the prices will soar

And who could afford to pay one dollar more?

Sitting here typing it seems well worth the price

And you there, listening on your favorite device

This bargain we're in, well, it's not quite illicit

So relax, my friend, we're not all complicit


It might be argued that today’s western consumer, who also enjoys the ability to vote and influence political discourse, knows and cares far less about slavery than his or her eighteenth century counterparts. Our forebears, who by and large, were unable to vote, regularly packed town squares and churches to protest against slavery and used their economic power to boycott slave-produced sugar and rum. Why doesn’t the twentieth-century consumer do the same? Could we make a difference if every time we bought a garment from a high-street store, we asked whether it was made from cotton produced by coerced Uighur labour in China, for example?

However, to argue that slavery has always been, and by inference will always be, part of humanity, runs the danger of minimising what happened to thirteen million Africans at the hands of white Europeans from the sixteenth until, in the case of the Belgian Congo, the early part of the twentieth century. More than a million died on the journey to the New World, and those who were enslaved in the West Indian sugar plantations, once sent to work in the field, measured their life expectancy in months not years.

Today, a lot of political discourse is centred around the so-called ‘culture wars’. Crudely, the culture wars are presented as a conflict between older people, who are concerned about familiar and loved local landmarks being renamed or demolished; and younger people who are accused of trying to ‘re-write history’. The National Trust has come in for a lot of criticism for daring to examine the relationship between many of its properties and collections. Specifically, the Trust is researching whether the wealth that established some of its large estates was created by the ownership of other humans. This criticism is, in my opinion, entirely malevolent and unjustified. What is the point of a body such as the NT if it doesn’t carry out historical research on its assets? Why should some areas of research be deemed acceptable while others are considered beyond the pale?

In 1784 Samuel Greg opened Quarry Bank Mill in the remote village of Styal, which is now on the outskirts of Manchester. The Mill took cotton that was produced by West Indian slaves and spun it into thread using water-power from the River Bollin. Greg needed a labour force to work the new machinery, and within Britain itself, slavery was not acceptable. Greg needed to find a way of subduing labour without enslaving it, and the solution was to tour the workhouses of London to find children as young as eight years old to work ten-hour days in the mill. These children lived in the cramped Apprentice House, which was controlled by superintendents who, to be fair, did their best to educate them. However, industrial accidents such as severed fingers were common.

Quarry Bank Mill has been owned by the National Trust for many years, and the Trust has always presented visitors with an honest and balanced visitor experience about the role of coerced child labour in the mill’s early history. But how was the Mill financed in the first place? The Trust’s research concludes that the initial capital came from the Greg family’s ownership, over several generations, of slave plantations in Dominica and St. Vincent. When slavery was finally abolished in 1833, Samuel Greg’s son Thomas claimed £5,080 - more than half a million pounds in today’s money – as compensation for the loss of 210 slaves.

Slavery is only the most extreme form of coerced labour. The young boys and girls who were sent to Quarry Bank Mill’s Apprentice House from the workhouses of Hackney and Chelsea were also coerced, but by a lesser degree. In terms of the culture wars, those who criticise the trust should answer the question why they consider it acceptable to point out the Greg family’s involvement in the exploitation of children but unacceptable to point out their involvement in slavery. For a nation both to have an honest record of its history, and to understand its place in the modern world, we need to be able to hear, and be prepared to listen to, both stories.

Reflections:

Earlier this month I retired after 13 very fulfilling years as a board member and former Chairperson of

@FaceFrontUK

. Here are my thoughts:

https://www.facefront.org/reflections-on-stepping-down-from-the-board-after-almost-13-years/

Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies

In July, just one month before my seventy-third birthday, I heard that I’d been awarded my BA in History from Birkbeck, University of London. A ‘second-class upper division’ (or 2.1) to be precise. So, my student career is over. I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met many really interesting people of all ages who have come from many countries to teach or learn in London. How lucky we are to live so close to such a dynamic, cosmopolitan city.


Of course, the whole learning process was disrupted by Covid. In March 2020, towards the end of my second year, teaching moved online, and stayed that way until the end of my third and final year. I know that the teaching staff moved heaven and earth to make the process of mass online learning as fruitful as they could, but it’s just not the same from the student perspective. Online learning is a solitary experience. The main thing that you miss is chatting with fellow students before and after the lecture. From the teachers’ perspective, it must be even more frustrating as the teacher has so few body language clues about how his or her message is getting across. In theory, this year’s graduates should be attending a graduation ceremony in November, but we don’t know whether that too will be forced online. I will be really disappointed if it is.


In the first year of the course, students choose to study history by period, and there are nine periods to choose from, from classical times to the twentieth century, I chose to study three periods of world history covering from 1500 to the present day. My main interest is twentieth-century history, but I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the early modern world (from 1500 to 1789), which is of course the period when Europeans first encountered other civilisations. Spaghetti Bolognese is a quintessentially European staple, but what would it taste like without pasta - from China - or tomatoes and chilli peppers - from the Americas - or basil - from Africa? What would be left on the plate?


In return for the indigenous Americans introducing us Europeans to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, maize, and a whole host of other food staples, we gave them horses, which they found quite useful; but we also introduced them to measles and influenza, which may have killed more than forty million of them. If that wasn’t enough, we then sent thirteen million Africans to the Americas to be enslaved, but several million of them never arrived on American shores, because the journey was so dangerous. So much modern history is about slavery and genocide that it was a great relief to choose, as one of my second-year modules, a course called ‘Being Good in the Modern Age’ which is history of altruism and morality. This course began by examining why the Enlightenment philosophers considered kindness and politeness to be important, and went on to cover, inter-alia, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaigns of the nineteenth century feminists, and, from the twentieth century, the disability rights movement, environmentalism, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that if I had to choose the course that I enjoyed the most, it would be this one.


In the third and final year I wrote my dissertation. Those of you that are already familiar with my blog  will know that one of my interests is disability rights, and that I have written the life stories of my parents, both of whom were disabled by polio as young children. So, you won’t be surprised at my choice of research project, which was a study of the foundation of the British Polio Fellowship in 1939 and its work between 1939 and 1970. This charity was a self-help movement which in many ways was years ahead of its time; as most charities with this kind of ethos did not emerge until the 1960s. Writing a dissertation during various stages of lockdown is not to be recommended; the library that holds most of the relevant material for a dissertation about polio is the Wellcome Library in Central London, but at no point when I was working on this project was this library open to new readers. Other students will have had similar problems, so I guess we’re all in the same boat. Anyway, these are trivial problems compared to what many other people have had to endure during the pandemic. At least it was my final year of university that was disrupted. I feel a lot of sympathy for those eighteen-year-olds who had to endure the stress of the 2020 A-level examinations fiasco, and then go into a university hall of residence to be solely taught online. They deserved better, and it’s not the fault of the colleges that things weren’t better for them.


The question that I’m asked most often is what next? Am I interested in a master’s degree? I have to say that the answer is no. There is no government funding for the over -sixties to go further, and while there are scholarships, I think that there are many younger people who deserve them more than I do. I will carry on writing and start to update my seriously unloved and dated blog more often, starting now. But would I recommend going to Uni to other seventy-somethings. You bet I would! 




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My Next Book

Posted on October 16, 2013 at 7:00 AM Comments comments (75)

About two weeks ago Marilyn and I were tidying up the front garden in Bishops Stortford and a passer-by asked us if we knew anything about the history of our house.


We only moved to our current home in April, so we said that we didn't. The passer-by introduced himself as David, and told us something that really surprised us. Basically he gave me the idea for a true story, and a target date for publication, the anniversary of the events he told us about are just eighteen months away - 14 March 2015.


So here's a sneak preview of the story that David told me:


In the early hours of Sunday 14 March 1915 Private George Harrison of the Sherwood Foresters died as a result of inhaling his own vomit. He died at the house where I now live, and where I am writing this story. George Harrison was a twenty-seven year old soldier from Nottingham who was attached to the North Midland Divisional Cyclists’ Corps. Seven members if his unit were billeted at my house the previous evening.


Harrison's senior officer, nineteen year old Second Lieutenant Albert Ball was also billeted here. Ball was also from Nottingham and would go on to join the Royal Flying Corps, where he became the most decorated airman of World War I. Ball was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Military Cross and three Distinguished Service Orders. He was killed in action a few months before his twenty-first birthday on May 7th 1917.


I intend to write something about these two men, and the five fellow soldiers they were sharing our house with. Ball's story is well documented, as is the sad but brief tale of George Harrison. But what about the other five? did any of them survive the War; are there people still alive who remember them?


It's very early days in my quest to write something about these men and those times. At the moment I'm not sure whether to write pure history or to try to fictionalise something about that evening.


I'll keep you posted as I go along.