Response to Nigel Biggar, ‘History lessened: Who gets to decide how we see the past?’

Alan Lester


The Spectator emailed me this week to ask if I would record a segment for their Edition podcast with Nigel Biggar the next day, about an article of his that they were about to publish. I spent the evening reading the article and preparing to discuss it, only to be told at 10 pm that night that the podcast had been cancelled. I replied saying that I presumed Nigel Biggar had got cold feet. The Spectator did not deny it, but promised to consider printing my response instead. In the end all they offered was consideration of a standard letter to the editor, which would give no room to explain why so much of what is in the article should be refuted. I have submitted such a letter but will not know if they accept it until the next edition comes out. This is my response in full.

No Connection to Slavery?

Biggar starts his article by saying that he was prompted to write initially to The Times complaining about the Kelvingrove Museum, ‘Glasgow – City of Empire’ exhibition after receiving ‘an SOS from a distressed citizen of Glasgow’. This poor ‘citizen’ could not for the life of him work out why the collector who had donated many of the museum’s assets was being associated with the exploitation of ‘enslaved Africans’. ‘Scraping the barrel of shame’ Biggar writes, the exhibition,

complains of one of Glasgow’s greatest benefactors, William Burrell, that “his business partners exploited enslaved Africans”. Enslaved Africans? Burrell was a shipping magnate around 1900, almost 70 years after slavery’s abolition in the British Empire and at least a generation after emancipation in the United States.

Biggar does not enlighten the Spectator’s readers with the museum’s reasons for making the connection, nor its relevance. To do so would have undermined the article’s key argument – that it is only disaffected communities to whom museum curators listen these days. Of course it is not. Rightly, they consult with the communities who are their users, but they rely on historical experts for their interpretations. In many cases those experts are also members of local Black communities, too. In this case, the curator, Dr Martin Bellamy, was aware of Burrell’s having entered a partnership with William Frederick Burnley in the 1890s. Burnley and his associates had been slave owners. Burnley had arrived in Glasgow in 1820 and in the mid-1830s claimed compensation for 300 enslaved people emancipated in British Guiana and Trinidad. He was the longest surviving of what Stephen Mullen has called the Glasgow sugar aristocracy, living to 1903.[1] The collection of 9,000 pieces that Burrell donated to the museum in 1944 was purchased only because the combined shipping company was so prosperous.

So, there are two reasons why the curators pointed out that Burrell’s ‘business partners exploited enslaved Africans’. First, because it is true, and secondly because it helps explain the existence of the collection.

The broader point of the exhibition was, of course, to bring to light the previously hidden story of Glasgow’s connections with Empire, and particularly with the trans-Atlantic slave plantation system. In his first published complaint about this exhibition in The Times, Biggar pointed out that Glasgow was not a major sugar importer. This is true. But it was a major importer and processor of two other commodities produced on the slave plantations of the southern US states and the Caribbean, tobacco and cotton. These made it one of the wealthiest Atlantic-facing British port cities, and a centre of resistance to abolition. Biggar is correct to point out that some of its inhabitants also campaigned for abolition. Like other antislavery campaigners, they faced a considerable struggle against the city’s vested interests. One group of campaigners wrote in 1791, ‘the inhabitants of Glasgow … whose manufactures and trade are, by the blessing of God, in so thriving a condition, will surely not be averse to supporting the cause of justice and humanity’.[2]

Biggar next complains that a proposed memorial to the Royal Navy’s antislavery squadron in Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth was blocked, ‘[b]ecause Landsec, the commercial owner of the Quays, had consulted their ‘employee diaspora network’, who considered the statue out of keeping with an ‘inclusive environment’, lacking ‘sensitivity to what is a very emotive topic and dark part of our history as a nation’. The landowner’s statement is used to reinforce the article’s main idea that unfounded community grievances are now driving heritage policies. This memorial idea has been politicised from the first, however. It is associated with a campaign by the Daily Mail and Penny Mordaunt to deflect from the attention that slavery has been getting in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement by reiterating the presumed significance of the antislavery patrols initiated by the British government after the 1807 abolition of the slave trade. Its proposed design, shown in the image heading Biggar’s article, could not be a more explicit embodiment of White Saviour syndrome, as a White officer shows an African man and cowed African woman the way to freedom.

Personally, I would have no issue with the erection of such a monument in principle, provided the proposed design and inscription are rethought. The design should reflect African as well as White British involvement in ending the slave ‘trade’, and its inscription should contain accurate and instructive information about the rationale and nature of the patrols, and the fate of the captives they are widely thought to have ‘freed’. But much of the rhetoric surrounding the campaign has been historically misinformed. Colin Kemp, Chairman of the Memorial fund, is acting on the misguided assumption that the squadron saved ‘tens of thousands of people … from a lifetime of servitude and torture’, apparently unaware that the British authorities did not free most of the so-called ‘liberated Africans’, assigning them instead to colonists as unpaid ‘apprentice’ labourers for 10-15 years, or impressing into the British military. As evangelical reformers complained at the time, they were passed from one kind of slavery to another.

We Will Not Listen

It is after this point that the article becomes more sinister, in my view, as it seeks to legitimate an adamant refusal to listen to Black people, to Indigenous people, and to experts.

Biggar’s core assertion is not just that heritage organisations’ interpretations of the past are driven solely by the grievances of Black communities, but also that these grievances are merely imagined. He writes that organisations have

given members of “diverse communities” and a “diaspora network” a veto over the public representation of Britain’s history. The kindest way to understand this runs as follows. Since the voices of ethnic minorities have been marginalised historically, we should listen to them. And since they continue to suffer ill-effects stemming from their ancestors’ enslavement or colonial subjection – perhaps in the form of post-colonial racism – we should defer to them. They now get to have the final word.

Aside from ignoring the input of academic experts, Biggar seeks to undermine what community groups have to say about their own experiences. He states, the ‘empirical evidence’ is that ‘Britain is not generally racist’, predictably citing the widely discredited Sewell Report, whose conclusions were predetermined by Boris Johnson, rather than ONS statistics and other, more reliable sources.

In fact, at the time of the June 2020 protests, the mortality rate from Covid was running at 256 per 100,000 Black men and only 87 per 100,000 White men, due to the over-representation of Black people in low-paid public-facing service roles, along with housing and health inequalities. Black women were dying at the rate of 120 per 100,000, with White women at 52 per 100,000. In 2016 black graduates were paid 23 per cent less than their White counterparts, and since 2010 there had been a 49 per cent increase in the number of unemployed ethnic minority sixteen to twenty-four years olds while the figure for their white counterparts had fallen by 2 per cent. Black people were twice as likely to be murdered and, when accused of crimes, three times more likely to be prosecuted and sentenced than White people.[3] In 2022, Black households were the most likely out of all ethnic groups to have a weekly income of less than £400. People in White British households were consistently the least likely to live in low-income households.

Biggar asks, apparently in all seriousness, why Black people should complain about racism today when he makes no complaint about the persecution of his own Presbyterian ancestors? Surely readers will appreciate that discrimination against Presbyterians is not prevalent today, whereas racism is? Surely most will know that the supposed inherent ‘inferiority’ of Black people, not Presbyterians, has been rationalised in key tracts of European thought over the last three hundred years? That it was Black people, not Presbyterians who suffered the dehumanisation of trans-Atlantic slavery? Did it really not occur to Biggar or the Spectator that making this comparison might be insulting to Black people who experience ongoing racism in their everyday lives?

Not content with this, Biggar ploughs on to echo one of the key arguments that traffickers in enslaved people deployed to justify their activities: that by taking Africans out of Africa to the Americas they were improving the future ‘stock’. Of course he is opposed to the suffering that the captives endured, and, I presume, opposed to the dehumanisation entailed, but, he says, World Bank data on life expectancy, literacy and gross national income per capita in Barbados and Nigeria suggests that ‘some whose ancestors were transported from West Africa to the West Indies are now considerably better off than many whose ancestors stayed behind’. He seems to have overlooked the more relevant comparison, not between the two regions, each plundered of their human potential, but between both these regions and the country responsible. Today, GDP in Barbados is $23,600, in Nigeria $1,100, and in Britain $51,070.

The article’s dismissal of Black communities and of experts is still not enough. We should not believe the survivors of the Canadian Residential School system either. They are, apparently, yet another community with concocted grievances driving a misguided institutional response.

As Canadian historians Adele Perry, Sean Carleton and Omeasoo Wahpasiw explain in The Truth About Empire, ‘between 1883 and 1996, Canada’s federal government partnered with various Christian churches’ to create ‘a school system that separated, often by force, more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their families. The goal was to undermine Indigenous lifeways and assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society’. During the height of its operation, one of its own officials described it as a ‘national crime’. Some children fared well, but many did not. Survivors of the system testify to being mentally, physically, and sexually abused, and there was a relatively high death rate from disease due to the concentration of children in institutions and the refusal to let them return to reserves with their parents when disease broke out. Over 4,000 were buried in graves that are unmarked: an indication of the value placed on their lives.

In 2022, based on the findings of a Royal Commission that had been gathering evidence since the mid-1990s, the federal government officially apologized to Survivors and agreed that the system constitutes a form of genocide, intended to eradicate Indigenous cultures from Canada. The Pope travelled to Canada in 2022, also to acknowledge genocide, and to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role.

The process of discovery and reconciliation is ongoing. Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Erin Millions write that ‘[h]istorians are and will be an important part of piecing this history together, bringing names to places where they have been forgotten or never cared about, bringing numbers to “masses” who starved, teaching topics and research methods that were never considered “real” history, and making meaning of this for the kind of place we want to live in going forward’.[4]

But Biggar prefers not to listen to the Royal Commission’s evidence, the Canadian government, the Canadian Historical Association and, above all, the survivors. What they say cannot, apparently, be true because ‘not a single set of remains of a murdered Indian child has been found in Canada’. He neglects, of course, to explain why. Indigenous communities have asked that the children’s bodies not be disinterred for postmortem, having been abused enough already, so it would be impossible to prove that any had been murdered, even if this was the claim being made. Generally though, it is not. Most of these unnamed children are assumed to have died of disease and neglect.

Biggar takes his lesson in such tactics of misrepresentation and deflection from right-wing Canadian polemicists, who contest the commission’s findings as a ‘hoax’ or a conspiracy theory propagated by ‘mainstream media’. We are in Trumpian territory here. Biggar places his trust in the right-wing political strategist Thomas Flanagan. As Canadian historians, let alone survivors know well, Flanagan and others are ‘engaging in what is known as residential school denialism to twist, distort, and misrepresent basic facts about the system’s history to shake public confidence in the emerging public consensus and protect Canada from a reckoning with its colonial past’.[5] Following their lead, Biggar concludes that it is the witnesses, historians, government, church and mainstream media who are all engaging in ‘politically motivated myths’.

It seems to me that Biggar does not believe the Residential School survivors because they are not telling him what he wants to hear. He does not believe Black people who state that they experience racism within the UK, because it is not what he wants to hear. His work has been criticised by many specialist historians and its omissions and errors pointed out, but he (and indeed the Spectator), seem not listen when experts say things they do not want to hear. How are we ever to move beyond the binary echo chambers of the culture war and engage in a more constructive dialogue about our past, present and future if we do not take the trouble to listen?

[1] My great thanks to Stephen for the ‘emergency’ help he provided, liaising between me and the museum curators on the night that I was preparing for the aborted recording. This kind of scrambled response to right wing culture war activity – culture war ‘whack-a-mole’ – is something that most hard-pressed academic specialists cannot spare the time to indulge in.

[2] Stephen Mullen, (2023). Proslavery Collaborations Between British Outport and Metropole: The Rise of the Glasgow–West India Interest, 1775–1838. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 51(4), 601–643.

[3] David Olusoga, (2021). Black and British: A Forgotten History, London, Picador, 525.

[4] Erin Millions and Mary Jane Logan McCallum, (2021). ‘Toppling Colonialism: Historians, Genocide, and Missing Indigenous Children,’ Prairie History, Summer, 4.

[5] Adele Perry, Sean Carleton, and Omeasoo Wahpasiw, (2024). ‘The Misuse Of Indigenous And Canadian History In Colonialism’, in Alan Lester, ed. The Truth About Empire: Real Histories of British Colonialism, Hurst, 73-92.

1 Comment

  1. asif

    Keep exposing the nonsense!

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