Baring our dark past;Platform;Opinion

1st October 1999 at 01:00
History books remain oblivious to Britain's black

ancestry, with its pre-1900s inter-racial mixing and collusion over slavery. So says Trevor Phillips who presents his findings in a new Channel 4 series

I DON'T know exactly what goes on in history classrooms, but I am beginning to wonder if it is turning me into a non-person.

For the past three years I've been studying the place of black people in Britain's history. What the teams I've worked with have turned up has been a long and rich contribution to the life of Britain as we know it. Yet there seems little reflection of that ebony thread in the tapestry of pre-20th century British history as it is taught in schools, nor is there recognition of how tightly woven that thread is to Britons' national and personal histories.

This should, of course be high on the Government's agenda. A little-noticed recommendation of the Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence must have fallen like a lead weight onto the desks of those at the Department for Education and Employment responsible for what is taught in the nation's schools.

Macpherson called for amendments in the national curriculum to reflect the needs of a diverse society. It is not a new idea. Four decades ago, a small group of black parents in north London took their local authorities to task over the chronic under-achievement of black children. Part of their campaign was the complaint that the content of the curriculum effectively excluded black children - how could students be enthusiastic about their studies when the curriculum effectively ignored their existence?

Over time considerable attention has focused on history teaching. I know from direct experience that teachers in multi-racial classrooms, especially those in inner cities, have thrown themselves into the task of finding a place for black people in their lessons. But they've been hampered by an absence of material to work from.

The events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Empire Windrush last year gave everyone a new opportunity to talk about the issue. But one look at the DFEE review of the national curriculum makes the heart sink. It's not just that we have a long way to go, we appear to be on completely the wrong road. And this should not just be an issue for those with black faces in class. Take, for example, the consultation document on key stage 3. Clearly some attention has been paid to trying to make the curriculum broader than the kings and queens of England.

Examples of the topics under study include Islamic civilisations as a possible pre-1900s world study. "Black peoples of the Americas" show up in the same section. Yet you will search in vain for anything that registers the possibility of a black contribution to British history. The closest the document comes is "the abolition of slavery and the slave trade". You can almost guess what this is about: the moral crusade led by William Wilberforce to free the poor, suffering negroes in the colonies. This isn't the whole story.

Research conducted for Britain's Slave Trade - a four-part series for Channel 4's Untold season - shows that other factors had an effect just as

powerful as the Christian reformers' campaign. In economic terms, planters had grasped that a slightly less brutal regime could raise the slaves' birth rate from the unbelievably low rate of one live birth per 100 women each year. Growing your own turned out to be cheaper than importing slaves.

In Britain's slaving ports, opposition grew because of the high fatality rate among British merchant seamen. Above all, the political establishment, which ignored Wilberforce for more than 30 years, finally experienced what you might call a Napoleonic conversion. The abolition of the British slave trade was a small price to pay in order to gain the moral high ground over the French enemy. And of course, a series of slave revolts made life pretty uncomfortable for the planters.

The role of slavery has been airbrushed out of British history. There will be few courses in our schools which acknowledge that much of the investment which made the industrial revolution possible came from the slaving economy. Cambridge academic Robin Blackburn estimates that for much of the period of slavery, British colonies benefited each year from 3 billion hours of slave labour - a pound;30 billion subsidy in today's terms.

A complete history would acknowledge that this was a trade of equals - between British and African kings. Both of them embarked on the trade in human cargo as a purely commercial transaction, designed to shore up their shaky finances. And it might even show that the first slaves in the Caribbean were, in fact, white men, convicts transported after rebellions.

Our series has also demonstrated that many "white" Britons, with a little effort, may find that among their own ancestors there is someone shadowy, unacknowledged and probably nameless. In some cases that person is an African slave. The racial intermixing has left the British people - to use the Channel 4 slogan - "blacker than you think". The loss of these strands of history is not just an exclusion for black children, it may be robbing all children, black and white, of a vital and fascinating aspect of their own histories.

TES columnist Trevor Phillips presents 'Britain's Slave Trade', a four-part series which begins on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm

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