British History and #BlackLivesMatter
White supremacy is one of the founding sins of the British historical profession.
I was taught at school to be suspicious of the Whig interpretation of history: the approach that dominated British scholarship in the mid- to late-nineteenth century when the modern historical profession was being built in the United Kingdom.
My teachers explained to me that the Whig historians’ great sin was “teleology”… a word that is justifiably obscure to the general public but is designed to send shivers down the spines of undergraduates. Teleology, the belief that history is directed toward some inevitable end recognisable in the present, was considered one of the most grievous intellectual failures that a historian could make. It encouraged analysis that lacked sensitivity toward contingency, irony, accident, nuance, that ignored backward steps, and failed to recognise the role of chance, unplanned progress.
By seeing the past only through the lens of the present, Herbert Butterfield argued in his assault upon the Whigs in 1931, the historian “is bound to lead to an over-simplification of the relations between events and a complete misapprehension of the relations between past and present… In other words it represents a fallacy and an unexamined habit of mind into which we fall when we treat of history on the broad scale.”
A problematic historical method, then, was the reason the founders of British history lost credibility among their successors in the twentieth century. On occasion, it was noted that this interpretative flaw was compounded by a nationalistic bias that saw the direction of history as moving towards a state that not coincidentally resembled British constitutionalism. What noticeably did not appear among their sins, however, was their commitment to white supremacy.
Yet this was a more consistent part of their worldview than the Whiggery caricatured by Butterfield. If you browse the pages of ‘The Expansion of England’ (1883), the canonical lectures given by Cambridge’s ninth Regius Professor of History, John Robert Seeley, for instance, we find him arguing that the crucial historical trajectory of England was not the spread of democracy and liberty, which he described as but fortunate possessions of the nation, but rather the historical extension of “the English name into other countries of the globe” — in other words, empire.
This “mighty phenomenon”, he suggested, represented at core “the diffusion of our race” across the world. The white colonies in Africa, Asia and America represented, therefore, something markedly different from other empires, whose weakness lay in the fact that they were “a mere mechanical forced union of alien nationalities.” It also distinguished them from the British government in India, whose people were “of alien race and religion” rather than “of our own blood,” and were thus simply recipients of good British government rather than a true part of a Greater Britain. The Native Australians, meanwhile, were “so low on the ethnological scale” that “they could never give the least trouble.”
Seeley’s lectures on whiteness and empire played a key part in earning him a knighthood. Two years after his death in 1895, Cambridge renamed its history library in his honour. Rebuilt in the 1960s, the library retains his name to the present.
Edward Augustus Freeman took up the Regius Professorship at Oxford in 1884, a year after Seeley’s empire lectures. He offered a response in a lecture in Edinburgh entitled ‘Greater Greece and Greater Britain’ (1886).
Though the two disagreed on the role of federalism within the empire, both shared similar views on the affinity between Britain and its white colonies. The paths of assimilation through which barbarians had become Greek citizens in the ancient world were never duplicated in the British case, he argued. “The nearest approach to these elements to be found in any English colony,” he said, “must be looked for in the grotesque imitation of English ways where real assimilation is impossible” by “another race of barbarians whom they afterward imported for their own ends [i.e., Africans].” In other words, the descendants of enslaved Africans could never hope to truly acquire British liberty, they could only hope to imitate the outward forms of British behaviour.
Surely Lord Acton — perhaps the most archetypical historian of liberty, who replaced Seeley at Cambridge upon the latter’s death and is most famous for his epigram linking power and corruption — cannot have had the same ethnocentric proclivities? Well, in one piece of writing he condemned Mexico as a polity degraded by “a half-barbarous population” of “millions of a strange and inferior race which … [the Spanish could] neither assimilate nor absorb.” So there’s that.
In fact, this supposed apostle of liberty had been an ardent supporter of the Confederacy during the American Civil War and early in the conflict had argued against the moral necessity of immediate abolition. Writing to General Robert E. Lee after the South’s defeat, Acton declared that he had seen the South’s secession “not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy… I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization: and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.”
Even if the Civil War was about slavery, rather than states’ rights — a point that Acton, like modern white supremacists, fulsomely rejected — then, he argued, it should still be seen “that by one part of the nation it was wickedly defended, and by the other as wickedly removed”:
The Union which was founded and sustained by the attachment of the people has been restored by force, and the Constitution which was the idol of Americans is obeyed by millions of humbled and indignant men, whose families it has decimated, whose property it has ravaged, and whose prospects it has ruined forever.
A substantial portion of that “ravaged” property, of course, were humans who had been held as chattel and were freed by a combination of the Union army and their own determined efforts.
It is worth emphasising a key point here. Racist thinking was near universal and largely unquestioned in nineteenth century Europe, but this was not just a matter of leading historians who happened to be independently committed to ideas that today we find offensive. Even when it wasn’t spoken about explicitly, racial supremacist thinking was bound up intimately with their vision of historical change itself.
Indeed, in an act of jaw-dropping sophistry, Acton even suggested that slavery had served a positive role in the history of liberty’s expansion. He accepted that in its robust and vocal defence of slavery the South had become a society that accepted “inequality, not as the natural product of property, descent and merit, but as its very foundation.” But, he suggested, in an abstruse passage of writing that reflected the slipperiness of his reasoning, these commitments also caused southerners to resist the tyrannical power of the majority that had come to dominate in the North. “Therefore the very defect of the social system preserved them from those political errors which were transforming the original characters of the Northern Republics. The decomposition of Democracy was arrested in the South by the indirect influence of slavery.”
Typically, the connection between white supremacy and the Whig view of English liberty was quite explicit. Englishness, whiteness and empire were inextricably bound together; white supremacy was the logical extension of their arguments about the genius of the English constitution.
This can be seen quite clearly in the writing and political activities of two other late-nineteenth-century Oxbridge professors: Charles Kingsley and James Anthony Froude.
Kingsley had been Regius Professor of History at Cambridge between 1860 and 1869, occupying the position immediately before Seeley took it up. His reputation as an intellectual had been built through a series of popular novels and historical works, including Westward Ho!, which offered a heroic account of the British conquest of the West Indies, though today he is best known for his 1863 novel, The Water-Babies.
Kingsley had felt a romantic attachment to the British Caribbean since childhood, having being raised on adventure stories of Raleigh and Drake (both of whom had connections to the slave trade). In 1866, he accepted a position as a member of the committee set up by Thomas Carlyle to defend Edward Eyre. Eyre, the Governor of Jamaica, had brutally repressed the Morant Bay Rebellion a year earlier, resulting in the deaths of over four hundred Jamaicans and the brutalisation of many hundreds more. Outrage over the violence of his response had encouraged John Stuart Mill and other reformers to set up the Jamaica Committee to call for Eyre’s prosecution. Carlyle, Kingsley, and others, however, argued that Eyre’s actions had preserved order and good government on the island.
Three years later Kingsley visited the Caribbean, spending seven weeks there, primarily on Trinidad. Without British control over the island, he insisted, it would either have persisted with slavery as Cuba had done under Spanish rule, or would have fallen into the hands of Venezuela, a nation that was “combining every vice of civilisation with every vice of savagery.”
White Britons not only deserved praise for advancing liberty through the promotion of abolition, he argued, but also for controlling the “savage” instincts of non-white peoples after emancipation took place. Kingsley argued that the government of Trinidad should establish a system of public education that would train the locals in “loyalty and order”, since the population was “either degraded or still savage” and therefore unready for anything more expansive.
Where Cambridge goes, so Oxford follows. Sir James Anthony Froude, a disciple (and latterly literary executor) of Thomas Carlyle and relation by marriage of Kingsley, was in 1892 appointed Regius Professor of History at Oxford. By that time he had become something approaching a “national landmark” and was one of the nation’s best-selling historians. Before taking up that position, he also travelled across the empire. He was well known for his contempt of the Irish. While in South Africa he attracted controversy by calling for the use of the Xhosa people as forced labour. In the West Indies, he echoed Kingsley’s calls for a revitalisation of the British imperial influence, which he believed had been in decay since slavery had come to an end.
For these historians, the progressive development of the English constitution never stood alone as a singular, linear pathway through history in the sense that is often assumed today when we talk of these nineteenth-century historians; it was counter-posed against negative possibilities of historical degeneration in which race typically played a central role.
In the West Indies, this alternative path was represented by Haiti, whose history since winning independence from the French had been blighted by endemic poverty, foreign exploitation, and political crisis. By the end of the century, Haiti had become a watchword among white supremacists of what would happen to the rest of the Caribbean if people of colour were allowed a role in governing society. Froude declared that the British West Indies therefore had not one but two possible futures: “either an English administration pure and simple like the East Indian, or a falling eventually into a state like that of Hayti, where they eat the babies, and no white man can own a yard of land.” (Froude’s blue plaque can be found outside his Chelsea residence, if you’re interested.)
Historians have been actively involved in the public conversation around Black Lives Matter in Britain, uncovering the historical legacy of slavery and empire, and have weighed in in debates over how we might engage with statues of public figures associated with these historical crimes against humanity. We have much still to offer, I hope.
However, we should also spend some time revisiting the individuals who originated our own professional discipline and ask questions about how our profession’s roots lie with a cohort of men as deeply committed to white rule as “English liberty.” Perhaps we even might ask whether they have left legacies in our institutions that we still need to address to this day.