Monday, August 24, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
            I’m not going to say it was an epiphany, because I had thought about it often before. But when I saw my thoughts confirmed in black-and-white, I felt oddly comforted that the world had moved on a little.
Let me put this into context.
We were staying with our son in the North of England. He lives in a village outside Durham but, twice a week, he commutes to and from his work in Lancaster – a drive of two hours or so each way, almost from coast to coast. He invited us one day to accompany him on his drive. So we found ourselves whizzing across England; past a pub which our son assured us sold the best ale in the north; past two or three ruined castles with villages straggling about them; past fertile farmlands and the obscenely huge estate of the ennobled Raby family, where the road has to run for miles in a ring, and out of its direct course, around the walls enclosing Raby land; and later past huge, daunting and infertile moors.
Arriving in Lancaster, our son headed for his office and left us to ramble around the town for the day.
It may, once upon a time, have been one of the busiest ports in England and it is officially a city, but walking its streets, it is hard to think of it as anything other than a large town.
We headed for a café first, of course. We climbed up to the formidable rose-coloured Lancaster Castle, which, until just a few decades ago, was still functioning as one of Her Majesty’s Prisons. We looked into the old medieval priory church, protestantised since the creation of the Anglican Church, but still with a placard saying prayers were offered for this church at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, so suggesting a strong Anglo-Catholic tendency. And, though the day was overcast and rather drizzly, we wandered by the canals, admiring the painted houseboats and barges floating on what had once been one of the great feats of the early Industrial Revolution, before the railways
came along and trumped the canals as a system of long-distance haulage. By the canalside, a good restaurant served us a good lunch – bouillabaisse and a Spanish red wine for her; battered bass and a large local stout for me. Are there any greater culinary delights after you have been sightseeing?
But amidst all this was the near-epiphany.
Near the heart of the old town, and down by the riverside among a row of dour-looking early nineteenth century houses, there is the city’s Maritime Museum. A modest place, as all local museums are, and honouring the area’s mariners and fishermen and seafarers and sea-going merchants. Let me say at once, its heroes are strictly local heroes, most probably unknown outside Lancaster and its immediate environs. But it was fun to look at charts instructing children on how to tie sailors’ knots; and to view old photographs of locals walking the wide sandy reaches at low tide; and to hear the ancient recorded voices of fishing families discussing their vanished occupation and its skills.
And then the section honouring the 18th century entrepreneurs, who had made the town the prosperous mercantile centre that it once was. In old frames, their respectable faces stared out from their commissioned portraits, and the faces of their comfortable and well-dressed wives. Held up for our admiration were the solid, industrious people who had once made personal fortunes, built their mansions, engaged in philanthropy and made Lancaster great.
Most of them made their fortunes in Virginia and the West Indies, discreet placards told us.
At which point my sceptical and condescending mind went into overdrive. “Is this little local museum going to be honest and tell us exactly how they made their fortunes?”, I wondered, knowing full well that anyone making a fortune in Virginia and the West Indies in the 18th century must have been engaged in the slave trade.
I was too quick off the mark, for turning a corner, I discovered a whole room openly and honestly acknowledging the reality of slavery. There were prints of West Indian slave plantations, the well-known cutaway image of how slaves were crammed into the holds of slavers’ ships, and much accurate historical data. A large wall-chart showed the notorious traders’ “triangle” – from England down to West Africa to buy (or kidnap) slaves; over to Virginia and the West Indies to sell the slaves, and to buy cotton or tobacco or other marketable commodities; and then back to England to sell the cotton or tobacco at a huge profit before repeating the voyage.
Thus were Lancashire mills supplied with cotton. Thus did the Industrial Revolution get powered. Thus were fortunes made by those solid entrepreneurs. Thus were local philanthropies funded. The hard reality, openly admitted here, was that for at least two centuries slavery was one of the mainstays of the economy of Britain (and other European countries). Lancaster and other thriving ports throve because of slavery.
So often I have been bemused by the fact that traditional English history books trumpeted the achievements of the likes of William Wilberforce for bringing an end to the British slave trade, and yet hardly mentioned that trade before they get to its abolition. It was an interesting historical legerdemain. Wilberforce et al were (quite justifiably) praised, but the centrality of slavery to the old British economy was virtually ignored. This was transparently in the interests of suggesting the unblemished fairness and “decency” of the English.
So this was my (sort of) epiphany. The happy realization that even a local English museum, set on lauding its local heroes, is nowadays not above facing the morally indefensible side of its history. It is good to know that the old glossing of evil is no longer acceptable.
The little museum did contain a few mitigating phrases in its expose. It noted that, as the slave trade was then an everyday reality, it was easy for the families and dependents of entrepreneurs to ignore its reality. Besides, slavery was far away, did not impinge directly upon most English lives, and could easily be pushed to the back of everybody’s minds, in just the same way that we ignore the Asian and South American sweatshops that make our cheap goods. The only images of slavery most English people (not directly involved in the trade) ever saw were prints and paintings, which presented British slave colonies in almost romantic and bucolic terms. Even today, looking at such images conveys to us a beguiling unreality. We have to look hard and think hard before we realize that we are looking at the enslaved and their privileged owners.
Lancaster’s Maritime Museum is not a place that tourists are ever likely to flock to. But it is proof that, in its attitudes, one corner of the world has moved on.

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