Monday, 17 January 2022

Priyamvada Gopal wrong on Fredrick Douglass

Priyamvada Gopal in her latest book writes of a famous speech by Fredrick Douglass- 

On 4 August 1857, some three months after the commencement of the insurgency in India, though it is unlikely he was aware of it at the time,

Why? The NYT had begun writing about it a month previously. Douglass was trying to show, firstly, that Britain was on the abolitionist side and, secondly, African Americans were sensible and law-abiding and thus a potential source of national strength. Sadly, the British victory was seen as a sign of hope for the Southern States. Europeans were so inherently superior to Blacks that they could easily put down a slave revolt even if the slaves were the majority. 

the former slave and American abolitionist Frederick Douglass

who ran a newspaper and thus read all the newspapers and other dispatches available 

gave a speech in Rochester, in New York, felicitating a different revolutionary moment. Nearly 25 years before, in ‘one complete transaction of vast and sublime significance’, slaves in the British West Indies had finally been deemed human beings, restored to their rightful stature as free men and women. Three decades after the 1807 abolition of the British slave trade, often confused with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Britain’s human chattel on the vast sugar and cotton plantations of the West Indies had officially ceased to be slaves, though they would remain compulsorily apprenticed to their owners for another five years. In the United States, however, slavery still flourished – as indeed it did in other parts of the world such as Brazil, where it carried on to the end of that century. Douglass was speaking to fellow abolitionists, gathered in Rochester to commemorate the West India emancipation, and he took pains to contrast Britain’s significant achievement with the ‘devilish brutality’ he saw around him in a formally democratic and republican land. The act of abolition, deriving though it did from ‘the moral sky of Britain’, had universal ramifications since, Douglass insisted, it ‘belongs not exclusively to England and English people, but to lovers of Liberty and mankind everywhere.’

Why is Gopal mentioning this? The fact is, all the Northern States had abolished or were abolishing slavery by 1804. But Canada, which remained under the British Crown, had also done so in 1793 as Douglass's ally or rival, Garrison who was from Canada, well knew . The reason Douglass was talking about abolition in the West Indies was  because

1) It was resisted by the local elite

2) It was financed by the metropole and turned out to be profitable for those local elites. Moreover, the emancipated Jamaicans etc. proved industrious and peaceful. 

In other words, Douglass was pointing to a peaceful, 'capitalist', way forward which would benefit his enslaved brethren while also releasing financial capital from Southern plantations and making it available for industrial expansion. 

Since Gopal is a stupid racist, she thinks Douglass was ignorant- he couldn't even read the Newspaper- and that stuff that happened in the British Empire mattered to him. The truth is quite different. Douglass was smart not despite his being Black but because he was Black and truly representative of the enslaved community. Gopal may not believe this because she is a bigot, but such is in fact the case. 

Consider the following-

Douglass’s speech paid due homage to the august ranks of British abolitionists. For those who had claimed that only Englishmen could ‘properly celebrate’ the West Indian Emancipation, he had a message: in that case all those who love freedom can ‘claim to be Englishmen, Englishmen in the love of Justice and Liberty, Englishmen in magnanimous efforts to protect the weak against the strong and the slave against the slaveholder’.

Douglass had lived in England for two years in the 1840s. He had met some of the old abolitionists. Indeed, the English took up a subscription so that his freedom could be purchased from what remained his legal master. All this was well known to Douglass's audience. What he is hinting at here is

1) the possibility of an alliance with Britain (in the context of the Crimean War and a possible revolt in India and elsewhere). This also had to do with some Southern States- e.g. Louisiana- which wanted to annex Cuba, even going it alone to do so, in defiance of Britain and France

2) British capital helping finance emancipation in return for infrastructure and other investment in cotton and other primary products needful for both the North as well as Britain itself. 

Douglass knew that the Brits hadn't abolished slavery in India. He also knew that there was no prospect of the North allying with a rival industrial power. However, he was in a subtle and nuanced 'heresthetic' manner creating room for maneuver such that the argument that Britain would side with the South in a Civil War was combatted. No doubt, the Southern gentleman claimed to be in the mold of the English squire or Cavalier; but the North might with greater plausibility claim a kinship with what was after all the leading industrial and financial power of the time.  

Thereafter, however, his speech took a curious turn. Douglass had also to counter the charge, made by some of his fellow American blacks, that to commemorate the West Indian Emancipation was to celebrate the achievements of others, specifically the deeds of white people, ‘a race by which we are despised’.

Douglass was castigated for his policy of dialogue even with slave-owners. However, African Americans understood that their autonomy increased if they were not wholly reliant on a bunch of White ranters or religious nutcases. 

In a two-pronged response, Douglass noted that, while in the North American struggle against slavery, ‘we, the coloured people’, had not yet played a significant role, this was not the case with Emancipation in the British West Indies. To the extent that they had been able to, the ‘rebellious chattel’ in Britain’s Caribbean colonies had strenuously resisted their oppression, and so ‘a share of the credit of the result falls justly to the slaves themselves’.

There had been slave rebellions which required the intervention of Imperial forces. The problem was that the American South could suppress any such revolt on their own. 

It is this insight that then leads Douglass to make his famous pronouncement: ‘The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle

Who didn't know this? Americans? Had they really forgotten their Revolutionary War? On the other hand, 'earnest struggle' was what had fucked up the less technologically advanced polities and what would fuck them up even more as the technological gap increased.  

… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.’ With an irony he was probably unaware of at the time – news of the Indian ‘Mutiny’ was only slowly making its way to and around Europe and America

Why couldn't this cretin just Google- 'first American newspaper report of Indian Mutiny'- before writing this stupid shit? She would immediately have seen that Douglass had already been apprised of the facts for a month before he made this speech.  

– Douglass quietly observed that some white abolitionists actively discouraged black initiative, expecting black abolitionists to ‘fight like the Sepoys of India, under white officers’.

Gopal may be too ignorant to know that more 'sepoys' fought for the Brits during the Mutiny, then against them. What Douglass is saying is clear. Even if some White ranters think that Blacks will provide cannon fodder for their cause- and even if they get some seemingly obedient 'Sepoys'- still those Sepoys might mutiny if it were in their interest to do so. Essentially, Douglass is hinting that emancipated Blacks would not automatically be part of any existing political camp. In other words, there could be broad, non partisan, support for this cause. 

This, Douglass says, must not deter him and others who would struggle for their own freedom; it is ‘no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats’. As he was speaking, of course, the ‘sepoys’ had, in fact, risen against their white officers in a bloody insurgency

of which he and his audience were fully aware because they read the newspapers 

that would alter the shape of the British Empire for good, ending the rule of the marauding East India Company in the subcontinent as the Crown took over full governance of British India.

 In other words, the fiction of Mughal rule was dispensed with. Why does Gopal think this was an improvement? 

Well over the century and a half since Douglass gave that speech, the notion that freedom from both slavery and imperial rule emerged thanks to the benevolence of the rulers continues to exercise a tenacious hold within certain influential strands of British imperial history and in the popular imagination.

No it doesn't. This is a convenient strawman for Gopal. However, the fact remains that some victories over slavery or foreign rule were conceded without much of a fight because a military solution could not pay for itself. But we can see that sort of thing happening in Afghanistan and Iraq and so forth.  

Both abolition and decolonisation – twin outcomes of Britain’s expansionary colonial project over three centuries – are all too frequently regarded as deriving chiefly from the campaigning consciences of white British reformers or as the logical outcome of the liberal and liberalising project that empire ostensibly always was, conquering in order to free.

Gopal may be correct about certain worthless University Departments which should be defunded or abolished. On the other hand, if we accept her argument, the corollary would be that we should ignore virtue signalers and 'progressive' intellectuals because they achieved nothing in the past and will achieve nothing in the future. They are a nuisance simply.  

Despite an abundance of histories of resistance, and not only from a nationalist perspective, which make clear the constitutive role of resistance to the imperial project, ‘imperial initiative’ – colonies ‘given’ their freedom when they were deemed ready for it – as the motive force of decolonisation remains stubbornly entrenched in much political and public discourse in Britain.

Why? Because it was true. Unlike France or Holland, the Brits didn't quit only after a long, expensive, and ultimately doomed attempt to crush the Nationalists. This turned out to be a very profitable strategy.  

Where, for Douglass, the story of Emancipation specifically, and freedom more generally, was one of universal aspiration and shared struggles,

but Douglass was a pragmatist who ditched the Feminists so as to get the vote for Black men because the Nation was not ready for female suffrage.  

in its most influential and popular versions it continues to be figured as a capacious British, or now Anglo-American, franchise generously extended to peoples across the globe.

What it certainly wasn't was the product of the nuisance created by bullshitting ranters like Gopal.

Edward Said observed correctly that ‘a standard imperialist misrepresentation has it that exclusively Western ideas of freedom led the fight against colonial rule, which mischievously overlooks the reserves in Indian and Arab culture that always resisted imperialism, and claims the fight against imperialism as one of imperialism’s major triumphs’.

Said was an American citizen coz his daddy joined the American Expeditionary Force at a time when America was far more racist than any country it was fighting. There were no 'reserves' of 'Arab culture' in his own Eurocentric shite. The fucker thought the Zahirites were onto a good thing. Why not Salafis or Boko Haramis who would slit his own Protestant throat? 

Writing in the 1930s, G.M. Trevelyan, Regius professor of history at Cambridge, understood such extensions to be ‘pre-eminently a result of our free institutions, our freedom of speech and association, and all that habit of voluntaryism and private initiative’.

So, Gopal's magpie mind links Said to Trevelyan. The odd thing here is that Otto Trevelyan had written a famous book back in the 1860's showing that 'Anglo-Saxon' carpet-baggers were 'marauding' all over Post-Mutiny Bihar.  

Today, where imperial initiative is not actively given the credit for decolonisation, we are offered the claim, here articulated by David Cannadine, that the Empire ‘was given away in a fit of collective indifference’.

Cannadine, unlike Gopal, knows a lot about Britain and its history. Facts are facts. The Dutch and the French sent troops to fight in Indonesia and Vietnam. The Brits couldn't get their men out fast enough from India. Why? The Brits were indifferent to India's fate. They were welcome to starve or slaughter each other under leaders of their own. There is a story about Enoch Powell telling R.A Butler that he just needed a couple of Gurkha regiments to reconquer India. Butler thought the fellow mad- which of course he was.  

John Darwin, meanwhile, paraphrases that school of thought in terms of the notion that ‘the British colonial empire was liberated more by the indifference of its masters than the struggle of its subjects’.

Perfectly fair. Churchill, it is true, wasn't quite sane about India but he preferred to take a shilling off Income Tax rather than spend it on the Navy- thus safeguarding the Empire. What changed during the Second World War was Netaji Bose's ability to get Indian soldiers to change their loyalty. The Naval Ratings mutiny was the final nail in the coffin. The fact is, the British tax-payer- unlike the Dutch or French tax-payer- wasn't prepared to spend a penny on keeping India. That's what 'indifference' means. 

This does not mean that the 'struggle' of 'subjects' didn't matter. However, the Empire only existed because those subjects were mainly interested in struggling against each other thus requiring a British Umpire to maintain Pax Britannica. 

In either event, the ‘granting’ or ‘giving’ of independence to British colonies once they were deemed ‘ready’ for it, remains a cause for national self-congratulation;

Nations should congratulate themselves. It is foolish to say 'As a Nation we have a habit of eating our own shit.'  

it fits neatly into an equally familiar establishment mythology about ‘English capacities to reform without violence or rejecting valuable past practice’.

This mythology is useful to us Brits. Gopal may think we should have an alternative mythology in which Nelson was constantly sticking his hands into the seat of his pants and pulling out handfuls of his own feces which he proceeded to eat at Trafalgar. But Gopal isn't British- unless she has become a naturalized subject of the Crown since moving here.  

Like all mythologies, this too relies on the selective elision of key strands in the story.

But Gopal is incapable of understanding those 'key strands'. She has read the same speech of Fredric Douglass that we all did. But she jumped to the wrong conclusion- viz. that Douglass didn't know about the Siege of Kanpur though American newspapers (he himself edited one such) carried the news about a month before he gave this speech- and then went on to write ignorant nonsense in a manner that disgraces the Academy. 

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