We are black, it is true, but tell us, gentlemen, you who are so judicious, what is the law that says that the black man must belong to and be the property of the white man? ... Yes, gentleman, we are free like you, and it is only by your avarice and our ignorance that anyone is still held in slavery up to this day, and we can neither see nor find the right that you pretend to have over us ... We are your equals then, by natural right, and if nature pleases itself to diversify colours within the human race, it is not a crime to be born black nor an advantage to be white.
This excerpt is from a letter written in July 1792 by the leaders of the revolution of Haitian slaves. The letter has been republished in the collection of writings of the black leader Toussaint L'Overture, The Haitian Revolution, which includes also the correspondence between him and Napoleon Bonaparte. In the late eighteenth century, Toussaint L'Overture and his supporters established the first black republic in the world.
In the United Kingdom, October is Black History Month. The celebration was originally introduced in 1926 on the initiative of Carter G. Woodson, the editor of the Journal of Negro History. In 2007, no fewer than 6,000 events were held in the UK as part of its programme. Here are some key Verso titles past and present that are relevant to the study and celebration of African and Caribbean history.
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Can truth really be stranger than fiction? If anyone can answer that question definitively, it is Thomas Friedman, who occupies pride of place in the Counterblasts series in The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work by Belén Fernández.
Starting today, to celebrate the publication of Verso's new Counterblasts series, we will be posting three quotations every day relating to each of these three neoliberal defenders of empire and capital. All you need to do is spot the real one from among the fakes.
The prize is the full set of Counterblasts - Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? by Derrick O'Keefe, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work by Belén Fernández and The Impostor: BHL in Wonderland by Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de la Porte - AND Britain's Empire by Richard Gott and Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo.
There was no year, between 1750 and 1860, in which the history of the British Empire was not tainted by "conflicts, large and small wars, uprisings, repression and reprisals of astonishing brutality." This is what the reader can learn from Richard Gott's Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, Richard Drayton writes in a review for the Guardian. In his words,
Gott's achievement is to show, as no historian has done before, that violence was a central, constant and ubiquitous part of the making and keeping of the British empire.
Such a searing, detailed critique of imperial history is "newer than it seems," Drayton points out. Apologist historians have never stopped "to profitably sell happy stories of the empire to the British public," and the only other book that has rigorously challenged their narratives is John Newsinger's The Blood Never Dried (2006).
Whatever one thinks about the British imperial past and its legacy, the circumstantial evidence of the crimes committed by British troops and officers overseas collected by Richard Gott in his Britain's Empire: Resistance, Rebellion and Repression can no longer be ignored. As Gavin Bowd points out in a review for the Scotland on Sunday, Britain's Empire is "a pungent and provocative book ... a rich compendium of revolt." Gott sheds light on how the British Empire was "the fruit of military conquest and brutal wars involving physical and cultural extermination of subject people." Reminding us of horrific episodes (e.g. the fact that white settlers in Australia "put strychnine in flour for Aborigines"), Britain's Empire powerfully debunks "the kind of glorious ‘narrative history' that Michael Gove has been calling for in British schools."
The distance between Gott's account and the official narrative on the British Empire is also stressed by Stephen Howe in a review for the Independent. In Howe's view, Britain's Empire is "much at odds with what remains of the mainstream view" about the British Empire—that is to say, the apologetic narrative that claims that the Empire was a civilizing enterprise. Writing from the perspective of the academic historian, Howe, a Professor in the History and Cultures of Colonialism at Bristol University, finds some shortcomings in Gott's book: for example, he points to the allegedly patchy nature of the bibliographic references. Nonetheless, Britain's Empire stands out as a passionate counter-history of the British imperial past, especially compared with other recent books geared to the general public such as Jeremy Paxman's Empire: What the World Did to the British and Kwasi Kwarteng's Ghosts of Empire. In his review, Howe points out how
Paxman seems more concerned to recall horrors committed on ‘us' by the ‘natives', and to reassure that most of those who ran the empire were not really such bad chaps after all.