20 Oct 2020, 12:05 a.m.
It is not about distorting history; it is about the reality of history that should be taught. That means understanding what the slave trade was about, what the brutality of colonialism is and the way in which people were treated.
There are many in this House who say that William Wilberforce was wonderful in his presentation of the abolition legislation in this very Chamber—excellent—and that Thomas Clarkson risked all to tour the whole country explaining to people just how evil the slave trade was, showing them the accoutrements of torture that he took with him throughout the country, but the reality is that the slave trade was abolished and slavery was abolished by the selfless bravery of slaves who rejected it in the plantations in the Caribbean, the Americas and elsewhere. I want children in our schools to understand what those people—such as Paul Bogle, who led the Morant Bay uprising and, of course, Sam Sharpe, who led the rebellion in western Jamaica in 1832, as brilliantly chronicled by my late, great friend Richard Hart in his book “Slaves Who Abolished Slavery”—went through.
When Sam Sharpe was taken to the gallows, before he was executed he said that he accepted the laws under which he was going to be executed and went on to say:
“I depend for salvation upon the Redeemer, who shed his blood upon Calvary for sinners.”
He was then executed because of his part in leading the rebellion against the slave owners and the sugar plantations of western Jamaica. But at that point the sugar industry was in dire straits: people were losing money in London because the sugar was not coming because of the uprising. That speeded up the process of abolition. To its eternal shame, this House then voted to pay what would now be billions in compensation to slave owners, but not to the slaves themselves.
There are many other books that I want our children to read. My great friend Remi Kapo wrote the “Reap the Forgotten Harvest” trilogy of novels about the slave trade. These are the books that I want our children to learn.
In conclusion, history is divisive at one level. It is endlessly controversial and, to me, endlessly fascinating. History educates, history empowers, but history also forms attitudes and opinions, so our children should be brought up understanding that maths and science comes, yes, from Europe, but also from Africa and from the civilisations of what is now called Latin America, and that it comes from China and it comes from so many parts of the world. Our standard of living comes from those people who used their brains to invent so much all over the world, but too often it is taught in the process of some kind of European supremacy over the rest of the world. It does not have to be taught that way; it should be taught in the way of the thirst for knowledge that empowers us all.
We should also teach and recognise that the great writers and poets who have come from the Caribbean and south Asia have enriched our lives massively. I love the work of Andrea Levy. She lived in my constituency before she died. We unveiled a plaque in her memory and her family all came to a little reception we held afterwards, where I met one of her nieces who did not realise quite how famous she was. She was in school and the teacher read out a part of one of Andrea Levy’s books to the class and said, “What do you think of that?” There were a load of blank faces, and the teacher said, “That was written by Andrea Levy.” This girl’s hand went up and she said, “Yeah, that was my auntie.” She did not realise she had been the great writer at that time. We need to popularise the literature by so many writers who have come to this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) mentioned CLR James, and I would mention also Derek Walcott and the great Asian poets such as Tagore and so many others.
Let us give our children the space and the opportunity to learn the history of this country, and to learn the popular history of this country—of ordinary people’s demands to get fair legislation such as trade union rights, factory Acts and so on—but also to understand what colonialism did and what colonialism did to its victims. That way they will have a better understanding of why the world is as it is at the present time.
That, to me, is what Black History Month should be about, but I would like us not to have Black History Month but to have black history as a central part of our history curriculum all year round for all our children.