Review: “Black and British: A Forgotten History” by David Olusoga (BBC) – Towards participatory history


Unveiling of plaque to Jamaican-born slave, Francis Barber, by descendant, Cedric, outside Dr Samuel Johnson’s house, London (photo by Michael Ohajuru @michael1952)

“One thing that the British public does not realise adequately is that we are a coloured empire. You cannot prevent the black man from coming here. You could no more tell him that he must not come to Liverpool, London or Cardiff then he has the right to tell you that you must not go to Lagos or Durban or Johannesburg.”

So read a fifth generation Liverpudlian woman of black heritage in the last episode of David Olusoga’s BBC series, “Black and British: A Forgotten History.” The event was the commemoration and unveiling of a plaque for the life of a black sailor, Charles Wotten who was a victim of Liverpool’s racial tensions in 1919. Wotten was rushed by a white mob, including police, and ended up drowning in the River Mersey at Queen’s Dock.

The woman at the commemoration of Wotten was quoting the words of John Hobbis Harris, an early 20th century Baptist missionary and secretary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society. She was speaking to a gathering of the Liverpool community at Queen’s Dock, nearly one hundred years later. The hallmark of Olusoga’s Black and British series is that he engages communities and ordinary people and strives to make them meaningful participants in the documentary.

Olusoga’s series shows that the history – and in many cases, the ancestry – of the British people is very much “coloured” too. In the first programme, he discusses the presence, in the 3rd century AD, of a unit of Africans or “Aurelian Moors” guarding Hadrian’s Wall during the Roman occupation of Britain. This earliest known African community in Britain is commemorated as part of the programme by a plaque in what is now the village of Burgh-by-Sands, Cumbria. The local community, including schoolchildren and members of the African community are brought together for the unveiling.

As Olusoga continues his critical examination of British history, we learn of the third century remains found of an African woman in the quintessentially British town of Eastbourne. ‘Beachy Head Woman’ may have been of African descent but the studies of her remains reveal that she was brought up in East Sussex.

African blood runs deep in Britain. Episode one introduces Cedric Barber, an apparently white man who is, in fact, a descendant of the Jamaican, Francis Barber – Jamaican-born slave and, later, beneficiary of Dr Samuel Johnson’s will. Cedric was largely unaware of his personal black history until late in his life.

In episode four, Olusoga visits Aberysychan in Wales to meet women who are descendants of African-American US GIs stationed in the UK during WW2. The history of the so-called “brown babies” was suppressed by families. In the programme, the GIs are finally recognised by the community with a plaque unveiled by their descendants.

Olusoga investigates the slave trade, visiting the 16th century slave fortress of Bunce Island, Sierra Leone. He charts Britain’s rise as the greatest slave trading nation in the world and its rapid industrialisation on the back of white working class Brits working in the textile trade that, in turn, relied on slave-picked cotton. When the American Civil war caused cotton supplies to fall, livelihoods were destroyed, particularly amongst the millworkers and factory workers of North-west England. Despite their desperation and poverty, workers in Rochdale chose to refuse to handle slave-picked cotton in an act of solidarity.

The series shows, despite the slave trade and racism, black people, through the ages, have found support from white Brits. In episode four, the story of the three Christian kings of Bechuanaland Protectorate is told. Threatened by Cecil Rhodes expansionist desires, the kings came to England not only to petition Queen Victoria for protection but, also, to tour the country for support amongst the British public. They were successful in both cases and their nation, now Botswana, never did join the Rhodes’ empire.

The unveiling of the specially commissioned BBC plaques to commemorate individuals and communities, not only in Britain, but Africa and the Caribbean, takes the documentary beyond mere history-telling and into the realms of real participatory history.

Author and museum director, Nina Simon defines a participatory cultural institution as “a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content.” Olusoga’s documentary-making process achieves much of that, as interviewees are more than just exhibits of evidence to corroborate his argument – but active participants in bringing their community together. Black, white, adults and children and brought together at the ceremonies and, no doubt, the plaques will live a life beyond the documentary.

Further information:

– Black and British was made in partnership with the BBC, The National Archives, The Black Cultural Archives, Heritage Lottery Fund England, Historic England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

– The four episodes of “Black and British: A Forgotten History”: First Encounters, Freedom, Moral Mission and The Homecoming are available to view for a limited time on BBC IPlayer with a UK TV licence.

– Information from the BBC about the individual episodes can be found by clicking the links: 1. First Encounters, 2. Freedom, 3. Moral Mission and 4.The Homecoming.

– David Olusoga introduces his series, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

“The first historians of black history in the UK, who began work back in the 1960s and 1970s, dedicated themselves to the reclaiming of a lost past. Through their work, a great pantheon of black Britons was brought to greater attention by the early black histories. The next stage, in my view, is to better integrate them and the worlds they occupied into the main narrative of the British and imperial past. Black and British – A Forgotten History, is, we hope, more than just a TV series. It is a call to arms.”

Interview with Cedric Barber, descendant of Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s slave and virtually, adopted son.

“I spoke to an international group about my feelings when I first felt this,” he continues, “and just blurted out ‘I want to be black!’. A young American black woman came up to me afterwards and said ‘I’ve never met anyone like you before!’. This wasn’t quite the compliment it sounded. She meant that many of the black folks in the USA wanted to be white like Michael Jackson!”

– Guardian review of the series accompanying book, “Black and British” by David Olusoga. Colin Grant asks if the book is “too temperate.”

“Finally I closed the book and thought: “Where’s Marcus Garvey?” Setting aside my bias in having written a book about him, Garvey, who led a mass movement of millions of black people, from his London headquarters between 1935 and 1940, is without doubt one of the most significant black men in Britain ever, but he doesn’t even merit a footnote.”


Loyalist Murder Weapon Found at IWM

VZ58 assault gun found at the Imperial War Museum (BBC)

VZ58 assault gun found at the Imperial War Museum (BBC)

A potentially important piece of evidence of British participation in loyalist paramilitary terrorism in Northern Ireland has been discovered in a display case in the Imperial War Museum London.

A BBC panorama show has revealed that a VZ58 automatic assault gun, until recently held on display by the Museum, has been identified by investigators as a weapon used in the loyalist paramilitary attack on a bookmakers in south Belfast. On 5th February 1992, two gunmen entered Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road and gunned down five civilians, including a fifteen year old who died from his injuries in hospital.

The unsolved killings have long been suspected as a case of collusion by state forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabularly (RUC) and British Army military intelligence, with the paramilitary force that claimed the killing, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), also known as the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Investigations by Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Stevens Inquiry III  had discovered that, in 1989, RUC Special Branch had received a 5mm Browning handgun from an agent who operated in the UDA, only to return it to the group, supposedly in a deactivated state. However, the gun was then used in two further attacks which killed six people, including the five innocent civilians in Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road.

The other murder weapon, the VZ58 Czech-made assault gun was allegedly destroyed by the RUC. However, Darragh McIntyre in his BBC Panorama show reveals that the gun has been on display in the Imperial War Museum in London. Officers from Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman have reportedly taken possession of the weapon for tests.

The gun could directly connect British intelligence to the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings, as well as the murders of two Catholic men in 1988 to which the gun is linked. British military intelligence are known to have hired a UDA operative, Brian Nelson, to travel to South Africa in 1985 to meet an arms dealer. Two years later, in December 1987, a shipment of weapons, including a large quantity of VZ58s, arrived at Belfast.

British sources say that the shipment slipped through the radar of their surveillance. Whilst some of the weapons were recovered by the RUC, the rearmament intensified loyalist attacks. According to The Guardian, in the six years before the shipment, loyalists had killed around 70 people. In the subsequent six years around 230 were killed.

The VZ58 assault gun found at IWM is also linked to the 1988 murders of Seamus Morris and Peter Dolan by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), as well as the attempted murder of Gerard Burns in March of that year. The UDA were in possession of the weapon when their members carried out the Bookmakers killings before the RUC supposedly destroyed it.

As in a number of other cases, it is suspected that not only was at least one of the murder weapons procured with direct British assistance but that a British agent was amongst the murderers. One of prime suspects in the Bookmakers killings was never arrested or publicly identified, despite being known to intelligence.

In 2012, relatives of the six victims of the 1994 loyalist attack in Loughinisland, County Down, brought legal action against the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI) over collusion in the deaths. A VZ58 assault gun was used in the shootings and part of the families’ claim focuses on British involvement in arming the killers.

This year, families of more than 100 victims have brought a challenge to the chief constable of the PSNI in the courts. The High Court heard from a HET senior investigating officer that a draft report into collusion during the 1970s between state forces and loyalist paramilitary groups had been shelved without explanation.

The discovery of the gun at IWM could support such cases, as well as justify the re-opening of the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings case. The position of the victims’ families has also been strengthened by the legal victory last year that forced the handing over of intelligence files on informers by the PSNI to the Police Ombudsman.

Amnesty International have called for an independent investigation into a “policy where the police, army and MI5 worked with illegal paramilitary groups, resulting in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of people.”


BBC “Afghanistan: The Lion’s Last Roar” – Ep 1 – Review

Afghanistan: The Lion’s Last Roar: There is a tried and tested model followed by documentarians who want to excuse the criminality of failed aggressive wars. Ten Alps plc’s production companies (in this case, Blakeway) churn them out prodigiously for the BBC. First, it is important to skate over the fundamental legal and moral precepts violated in the initial act of aggression. Then, for the rest of the programme, unleash a series of high-ranking officials from the aggressors’ military and government to tell the story.

What you get is a story of strategic muddle. None of them are really to blame. True, the politicians and high officials didn’t understand Afghanistan. They put the British military into impossible situations, underresourced and poorly directed. But intelligence is imperfect, they acted in good faith to support a demanding ally, in the US, and defend our nations on two fronts (Iraq and Afghanistan).

“The Lion’s Last Roar” is primarily from the British military perspective in Afghanistan. If the programme deviates at all from the archetype, it is in subordinating political voices in favour of military ones. As a result, there is an overt criticism of the Iraq war being based on “fallacious” claims and an open recognition that the West allied in Afghanistan with warlords who were as bad, if not worse, than the Taliban.

However, there is no consideration of the legality and morality of attacking Afghanistan. It is presumed that we all agree it was the ‘Good War’. The programme sets the scene by telling us that Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaida attacked the US on 9/11 and that they were based in Afghanistan and being harboured by the Taliban.

It is important that these documentaries avoid certain information that may cast doubt on the Western states’ right to attack. For example, that the Taliban tried to enter into negotiations with the US for the handing over of bin Laden to a third-party if evidence of his culpability was provided. The US refused to provide any evidence or enter into negotiations, instead, predictably, assumed that its military might entitled it to by-pass law. The US and its allies chose not to get explicit UN security council approval for any attack.

Moreover, in 2002, FBI director, Robert Mueller, told the press that, after investigations, he only “believed” that the 9/11 attacks had been hatched in Afghanistan and implemented in Germany and the UAE. This suggests that the US and its allies attacked Afghanistan in 2001 without clear evidence of a link with 9/11.

The initial war aim of the US and Britain was to attack and destroy Al Qaida in Afghanistan. It was only once bombing had commenced that the overthrow of the Taliban regime was introduced as a justification for aggression. This is a clear indicator that the concerns about bringing democracy and human rights to Afghanistan were not priorities – backed up by the Western alliances with warlords.

Naturally, with such documentaries (and unlike those presented by the BBC’s Yalda Hakim, for instance) the experiences and views of ordinary Afghanis – the group who have suffered the most – are of no value whatsoever. Except for some words by an alleged Taliban fighter, some Western-backed Afghani officials and a village elder, Afghanis don’t have much of a voice. Certainly, the suffering of the ordinary people, those displaced by the millions, killed by the thousands, have no real platform.

Even the families of the 453 British servicemen and women killed have no direct voice in these documentaries. Such programmes are designed to defend important reputations, obfuscate the facts of criminality and enable the next excursion.