The recent violent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA, has re-ignited centuries-old anger over racial injustice both in the USA and elsewhere. His last words - ‘I can’t breathe’ – have become symbolic of the violent oppression of black people which goes back to the days of slavery.
An American problem, then? Perhaps not; two current TV series point elsewhere. Michael Portillo, tired of travelling the world’s railways in rainbow-coloured jackets, has become a soberly-dressed explorer of Britain’s colonial heritage. His C5 series on the British Empire has highlighted the often brutal and racist methods by which, having ruled the waves, Britannia settled and subdued India, much of Africa and eventually – into my lifetime – a quarter of the world’s surface. Portillo’s look at the Caribbean and its importance as the source of slave-produced sugar was shocking; similarly his account of the East India Company’s violent takeover of India.
But a gentler presenter, David Olusago, in BBC2’s ‘A House Through Time’, has quietly illuminated how a modest, C18th Bristol town house built with the proceeds of the slave trade, makes clear that city’s dependence on slaving. No-one told me about that when I studied at the university there many years ago. Only now am I beginning to realise that the racial conflicts of the USA, rooted in racism, can be traced back to our forebears and their involvement in slavery. One prayer alone comes to mind: ‘Lord, have mercy.’