Featured Webinar

The Costs of Abolition

hr Webinar

This is the first-ever History Reclaimed webinar, chaired by Professor Robert Tombs. We’re very pleased to have Professor Doug Stokes, who is a Professor at the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter and the author of an excellent book called Against Decolonisation: The Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West.


Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen, to the first-ever History Reclaimed webinar. As you may know, at least I hope you know as you’ve signed into today’s webinar, we’re going to have a series of webinars on some of the most important and controversial historical topics which form today’s public debates. And thanks to all of you who have supported us financially, by reading our publications and also by writing to us quite frequently. Without you, this would not be possible.

To start us off, we’re very pleased to have Professor Doug Stokes, who is a Professor at the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter and the author of an excellent book (I know it’s excellent because I’ve read it in typescript) which is called Against Decolonisation and subtitled The Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West. He will give us a general introduction to set the scene and provide us with a context for our future webinar series. We’re very grateful to him for doing that.

We’re going to have Doug speak for about half an hour and then for you, Ladies and Gentlemen, if you wish, to ask questions. To do that, please use your chat command to write your questions in, and I shall then see them, and I’ll be able to select the questions and pass them on to Professor Stokes. So, without any more delay, I’m going to ask him now to begin and set the scene for our cultural webinars.

Thank you very much, Robert, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be here and, not least, to be the first speaker on this webinar series. History Reclaimed has done some fantastic things, so I’m very much honoured. I’m not an academic historian; I should put that upfront; my main specialism is in International Security and Strategy, but I have written quite a lot of stuff around issues around decolonisation and as Robert said, my new book comes out next year which looks at the role of decolonisation across British institutions. I also engage with that ideological movement’s history and historical narratives. These are very interesting ideas.

Today’s talk will then be on decolonisation and some of its key claims, and then I’ll briefly touch upon some of the histories it draws upon. And then the final part of the talk will be on the ideological effects of decolonisation, which can set the frame for the later historical debates that we’ll be examining in this webinar series.

So essentially, especially post George Floyd, we’ve seen a movement emerge in British universities, in particular, a very strong movement calling for the decolonisation of British history and the decolonisation of British institutions, and this essentially draws upon various academic theories, mostly post-modern and post-colonial theories, so Foucault and Derrida and Edward Said, Etc it’s developing body and developed and mature body in fact of academic work in this area that draws upon this idea or postmodern ideas of the role of knowledge and knowledge production and how knowledge can impose its own sets of power relationships upon the world.

So the key claim, is that in the West, at least in the UK, we have these Legacy effects of these Imperial Colonial discourses and ideological ways of understanding the world. We are ultimately to deconstruct these ideas and these discourses and, even so doing, also deconstruct in many senses Western Civilisation some of the assumptions upon which Western hegemony rests.

And so inherent to this decolonising ideology are various sets of claims. The first one, and more quite popularly put, Kehinde Andrews, a professor at the University of Birmingham, talks about the idea of the West, and it’s quite a common discourse; in fact, the West is founded on genocide, slavery and colonialism. So there’s almost a castigation of Western history and the view at least that the Western civilization, the UK, and the anglophone world, in particular, America as well as the UK, is founded on a system of hierarchical racialised injustice. More broadly, and again drawing on post-modern ideas about the tainted nature of the Enlightenment, and in particular, it sees the enlightenment less as progressing civilisation, progressing humanity, and sees the tools of the Enlightenment, so for example, reason, the rationality of science and even the quest for truth and objectivity and scientific understanding, it sees these within a post-modern framework, as very much as tools of oppression and this process of the imposition of a dominant Western Way of seeing the world on the oppressed of the world essentially.

Now in the book, Robert and I have discussed this in detail too. Still, in the book, I argue that this, in many ways, this what was often pejoratively and properly called ‘woke’ or ‘intersectionality’ or ‘decolonisation’, really conforms very strongly to almost a quasi-religious script. And it’s noticeable that we see these ideas very strongly in the anglophone states, America, and the UK. I would argue there’s an almost like a Protestant element to this quasi-cultural script that we’re now seeing within the elite culture and British institutions.

So, for example, you have the original sin of Western Civilisation and how you absolve yourself of sin. Ultimately you have to confess, there’s a confession of whiteness and white privilege, and you become an ally through that process of confession. An ally to the oppressed of the world. Ultimately, within this dominant decolonising worldview, it also posits the various ‘structural evils’ at work. So this ‘structural racism’ is ubiquitous. Then there are various sacralised groups within this dominant hegemonic ideology, sacralised groups, often historically oppressed minorities, that the enlightened saviours will ultimately save particular mostly white progressive and white liberals within institutions that will save and deliver redemption if you will. So it’s almost a redemptive moment or utopian equity through institutional decolonisation. You have an emerging ideological hegemony. We’re seeing it very strongly within the university system but also British institutions. It rests as it is upo a postmodern epistemology, a rejection of the Enlightenment tradition of reason, science and Truth (seen as almost tools of white supremacy) and a very one-sidew of British history. The history of Great Britain is seen as tainted and is based upon genocide, slavery and colonialism. And from that moral force of that argument, that historical narrative, that gives it an impetus for this process of decolonisation.

I’ll just briefly then talk about some of the ideas and historical aspects of this. The most obvious point to make about British history and this will be discussed in later webinars too is that extraterritorial conquest and slavery have characterised human history. There’s nothing unique to the UK in relation to extraterritorial Conquest as we’ve seen now for example in Ukraine with Russia’s a ‘Special Military Operation’. Again, slavery has also been ubiquitous throughout human history. I think the International Labour Organisation has concluded that there’s 36 million slaves in today’s world, the majority of which are in India, but also Qatar is a major slave state. So essentially, the point is “slavery doesn’t belong to one country or one civilization; it’s been ubiquitous throughout human history”, and we need to bear that in mind when we talk about the slave trade and Britain’s role in it. Also, the second point we should think about, which will be developed in later weeks, is the pre-existence of slavery within the African continent itself. The dominant narrative tends to be the decolonising narrative that Europeans were responsible for the slave trade within Africa, but that’s just not the case. Intra-African slavery was ubiquitous throughout Africa. Slaves tended to be taken as a result of conquest and through war. Victors would take slaves as part of their bounty system. Intra-African slavery existed throughout the African continent before European contact and slaves were taken as a result of conquest and War.

Similarly, there was a very advanced and mature Arab slave trade throughout Africa prior to European contact. There were various African slave kingdoms. So, for example Dahomey, the kingdom of Dahomey was a slave Society. The Sokoto caliphate in what is now Nigeria was a massive slave society. Essentially about two 2.53 million slaves worked in the plantations there. And most obviously concerning European history, we have Barbary slavery to the Barbary slave states of Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. They practised piracy and slavery and mainly raided off the coasts of the Western European nations. At one point, they got as far as Iceland, for example, and estimates vary, but broadly speaking between one to two million white slaves were taken as a result of Barbary slavery and indeed the U.S, one of its first Naval Wars ever was launched against the Barbary slave trade to end Barbary slavery. So essentially, the major point is that slavery isn’t a British invention. There was extensive slavery throughout Africa before European contact, there were numerous African kingdoms based upon slavery and obviously in Europe itself this country has been subject to slave raids, most notably the Barbary slave trade.

At least the third point concerning contesting some of the ideas of decolonising narrative is the British role in slavery. And again, we have a fantastic webinar in a couple of weeks on this series. But 200 years of the transatlantic slave trade but then this country banned the slave trade and then went about eliminating it from large parts of the world. So for example, in the 1840s, there were about 35 anti-slaving ships off the coast of West Africa, and the slave trade to Brazil, the largest market in the southern hemisphere, was ended by the Royal Navy. So again, it’s something to be cognisant of when we think about British history and the role of the UK within the broader milieu of transatlantic slavery and Britain’s role in ending slavery.

A fourth major point concerning some of the decolonising claims about British history is if you look at some of the academic literature, and I think I’ll be making some slides available that I think it will be distributed by a History Reclaimed and I can I’ll put references within them. Still, there’s some fantastic work for example done by Engelman who look at some of the economic data concerning the British commerce and its role in its transatlantic slavery. They argue, for example, in 1792, which was the most significant year for transatlantic slavery within the British economy, 1.5% of British ships and 3% of tonnage were involved in the slave trade overall. And they quote “if economic activity on so modest a scale could contribute significantly to industrialisation, then we might expect Europe’s first industrial economy to have been Portugal and not Britain”. In other words, industrialisation and British wealth isn’t linked to the slave trade per se. And there’s quite a lot of literature on that.

Is industrialisation, science, is British history all based upon the wealth of slavery? Well, academic literature again is highly contested. But it would seem to indicate that this is not the case. What is undoubtable, I mean incontestable, is that the wealth of a tiny elite within the UK, made huge amounts of money from the transatlantic slave trade. So for example in 1833 about 20 million was given over to those participating in the slave trade. It was about 3 000 people essentially. 40% of the entire budget to pull them out of the slave trade. A payment to compensate them, as distasteful as that is to us in the present day, it was to accelerate the ending of the transatlantic slave trade by basically paying them off, to pacify the very powerful interests within Great Britain itself. No doubt a tiny elite did make a lot of money from the slave trade, no doubt about that, but in terms of how that works at the aggregate level and across the UK, not least within the context of mass deprivation, the urban slums, the clearances etc. So, it’s not exactly like the entire British population were sipping Pina Coladas due to the pernicious slave trade. I mean this idea that this country’s wealth is directly related to the trade itself, it’s just not the case. That’s not what the academic literature says, essentially. So, you have to tease these points out a bit more. no doubt a tiny elite did make huge amounts of money, and as distasteful as that is, the British population did not. It wasn’t generalised across the British population. I think even the mortality rate of the British population at the time by the ending of slavery was 40 years old, so I’d be long dead but by that point. So, you need to bear that in mind in terms of a more socio-economic analysis of the nature of the British economy.

So, we have these key claims: decolonisation, this argument about the West is deeply implicated in this terrible legacy, and these ideas, these racialised ideas and racial hierarchies that have legacy effects on the present day. It rests upon a highly contested history that is not as black and white as ‘the UK is evil’ etc. It is a far more contested theme. But this is the problem with this decolonising narrative. These ideas they have broader effects. Given our complex history, they have broader political effects in the present day. And it’s interesting what these effects are. So, let’s briefly talk about that now.

Some of the effects we might see, and we see this quite a lot, is this collective guilt tripping that we’ve seen across British Society. Essentially, we see the re-emergence of casual anti-white racism, in my opinion, and many other people’s opinions. That’s just emerging. We see it very much in the university system, talking about this idea of ‘whiteness’ and in fact indeed there’s a whole there’s a whole sub-genre called ‘whiteness studies’ which essentially seems to basically talk about the role of ‘whiteness’ as an evil and a malign effect. Kehinde Andrews, I’ve mentioned him before, is one of the leading critical race theorists. And he’s seen as this Guru of this broad decolonising movement. He talks about ‘whiteness’ as a psychosis, essentially, almost like a psychotic mindset and so we’re seeing this now, there’s a collective guilt tripping of ‘whiteness’ and debates and his ideas around ‘white privilege’. And that has, I would argue, weakening effects for a very successful, multi-racial, liberal democracy. It very divisive and it’s playing people off against each other. And then when we think about what the actual data says, so we’ve got the claims of decolonising activists that this country right now is deeply racist. Still, if you actually look at the opinion polling and you look at the data, it just doesn’t bear this out in any way. So, for example some of the highest earners in the UK are from ethnic minorities.

I think Chinese men now out-earn white men by 30%. Indians, also some of the highest educational outcomes. Again, even with the universities sector, it’s very diverse there’s an over-representation of BAME students, which I think is a great thing. So, this idea that everything’s characterised by ‘systemic racism’ and ‘structural whiteness’ just isn’t the case. And in fact, as we as most people know now, essentially the people that are in the University sector, at least most locked out of it, are the white working class. There’s been a historic and decades long now under representation of the white working class in British higher education.

So, it’s an interesting mix, we’ve got academics arguing that we need to decolonise even further and diversify even further in in the context of already a very diverse higher education system, but also this collective guilt tripping of endorsing ideas around ‘white privilege’ and ‘whiteness’ when the data shows that some of the most disadvantaged people are white working-class people in particular.

The second major ideological effect I think of decolonizing is it’s a it reinforces almost a narcissistic eurocentrism ironically they argue they want to decentre eurocentrism but I think it almost it’s a narcissistic re-centring of Europe that reinforces this idea that Europe has been the centre of the world. It reinforces the dominant hegemonic critique that we see of colonialism so reinforces the View that the global South has been acted upon it’s almost like they that doesn’t have its own histories complex histories its complex civilizations and complex cultures or even like their own instrumental interests in fact so it erases large chunks of global history to reinforce a very one-sided Eurocentric view of the West as this perfidious and malign influence of world history. I mean one only has to look for example at the role of the Ottoman Empire I mentioned earlier. One for example: the Barbary States. They became part of the Ottoman Empire’s Navy the Ottoman Empire just go to Eastern Europe. Huge chunks of Eastern Europe were colonised by the Ottoman Empire. European State formation was intimately bound up with Ottoman expansion and dissolution. So again, I think the call from History Reclaimed is that we need to see the world in this complex mix and we can’t keep them infantilising non-European people and placing Europe at the centre of everything. We must see the world, warts and all, and other cultures and civilisations.

A third major element related to the decolonising scheme is we’ve seen this in the universities we’ve seen this cooperation institutions: the National Trust, in the church Etc. This I think then re-energises the power of technocrats within these institutions to follow through on what I’d argue is a form of therapeutic authoritarianism where vulnerable ‘populations have to be protected and coddled from these sets of ubiquitous and very hard to spot evils structural things etc out there’. It’s this moral panic around racism, after the shocking killing of George Floyd.

So, in a sense then, the ideological effect of this decolonising movement and the broader wokery that it calls upon really is to advance, I think, the bureaucratic power of technocrats and creeping authoritarianism wrapped around a politics or vulnerability so essentially we have these vulnerable populations that we have to intervene on basically so it essentially re-energises the moral authority and the moral energy of those that are running British institutions. It’s a process of virtue signalling and an instrumental power seeking. “We have to extend our remit, we have to extend our power to chase out these demons that exist out there”. And a form a therapeutic authoritarianism which has all kinds of highly illiberal effects. So for example we see now Oxbridge institutions doing unconscious bias training all the time to make sure you undergo a reprogramming of your mind. Microaggressions as well is another very odd concept where you have all these microaggressions that exist and if you look at some of the data on this stuff, a microaggression can be anything from the way you look at somebody or the way you stand. So it’s highly illiberal what we’re seeing now this new racial moral panic and the politics are decolonising and drawing up on this history, garbled history, leading to new forms of therapeutical authoritarianism. I think it’s very dangerous and illiberal therapeutic authoritarianism within British institutions. I think is very dangerous.

And the fourth point, I’ll end on this point because my time is running out, is: we also have to recognise that Western civilisation in the UK if you look at the actual opinion of polling data, not what you read in Guardian headlines, the UK is one of the least racist societies on Earth. And that’s very well borne out in opinion poll upon opinion poll. An incredibly diverse, incredibly inclusive and incredibly open and tolerant society.

But also, we have to recognise that we have been a progressive arc in British history moving towards much more progressive attitudes and anti-discrimination norms, which is a great thing. But we’re also existing within a broader International System. For example, we’ve seen now that the shift in economic power, away from the West, we’re entering into a post-liberal Global Order, partially related to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine but also the rise of China. Therefore, the UK we are no longer in this era of American unipolarity. The West’s geopolitics underpinned by American power. The irony is that a lot of this stuff you see from decolonising and probably the woke ideology is predicated on American unipolarity, which is now shifting. The institutional settlement that we have enjoyed in the West and the UK as well, in the post-war International System, is now shifting as China rises and great power competition comes back. So interestingly, and again the book touches upon this, we’re seeing the deliberate weaponisation of wokery and these ideas of decolonising as part of influence campaigns by highly illiberal states.

So the major point is this: if the UK is one of the least racist most progressive civilisations we had in human history, very diverse, very inclusive, look at the norms, look at the opinion polling data, and yet we have the rise of highly illiberal authoritarian states, which are highly technologically capable by the way, and a shift in the economic centre of gravity away from the West to a China-centered, for example, East Asia. So in other words, great power competition is coming back. A prerequisite for defending our civilisation and the broader International System is a degree of civilisational confidence. And I think that’s why the work that History Reclaimed is doing is so important. It’s about pushing back against these highly divisive narratives that rest on an institutional settlement that is now radically changing. In other words, you need to be careful what you wish for. If you want to decolonise and deconstruct the West, what waits in the wings? Thank you, I’ll leave it there.


Robert I think you’re on mute.

Thanks very much Doug for a very rich presentation. There is a great deal that we can discuss, and we indeed will discuss, for a few minutes if you’re willing to give us the time.

I’m allowed to ask the first question, so I’m going to ask you to be more, let’s say, more brutally frank about one of the things you’ve alluded to. And that’s to say: who benefits from this trend? This decolonisation fashion. And I wonder if you think its real motive power comes from psychology. You know you talked about ‘collective guilt tripping’ or from politics, maybe, political interest in pushing this, or from some sociological explanation too. Who are the kinds of people who are benefiting from this, both well domestically, I suppose I’m asking now because you’ve already suggested that the people who are benefiting in the international arena are not our friends, so you know what’s pushing this, do you think, and who’s benefiting from it?

Well, you have to look at these things in the round and this multi-layered mono-causal analysis never works. If I was going to give you my absolute brutal answer to this, I would say that it is a whole set of things. The first thing, I think, is that human beings on a on a deep level, have to have a sense of meaning. Meaning it gives you a sense of directionality, and I think in our society now we do have a loss of traditional values and spirituality and it’s about the individual, it’s hyper liberalism all right. I did mention it, I think that the wokery that we see now has a very strong, I’d say, Protestant script within it, almost Calvinistic, you know. One of punishment, abasement and redemption through allyship Etc. I think you have this search for meaning on a meta level, whether it’s unconscious or a deeper transcendental level. This ideology gives you that certainty, it’s very much a black and white world, it gives you a sense of place, it gives you a sense of political directionality, so I think you’ve got that. I think that’s the deeper human malaise that I think we see that helps to drive this, number one. I think you also have just a collapse of traditional authority within institutions. I think that part of this is a rejection of authority, essentially if you buy the Foucaultdian idea that everything is about knowledge and there’s no such thing as truth, or Robert Tombs has no more right to talk about the history of France than Joe Bloggs down the road. I mean who’s he? He’s just a white guy and it’s all about power and there’s no truth anyway. You see what I mean? So if we buy that philosophical argument, which is ultimately claimed about epistemology, then everything becomes horizontalised so therefore then we had the collapse of truth, we had the collapse of intellectual authority and I think that that’s part of this deeper post-modern transformation within the social sciences and humanities which have been bubbling along now for decades and spewed out millions of graduates, and that now has spread I think throughout society to quite a large extent. So I think that that’s also part of it.

And then you have the classic grifters and people within it. As I alluded to you’ve got institutions that want to re-energise themselves. In a collapse, in some sense, of the traditional role, so they re-energize themselves through this form of virtue signalling and this moral certainty. Sometimes it reaches ridiculous proportions that we’ve seeing for example in Qatar recently with multi-millionaire footballers taking the money from Qatar and wearing an armband and a woke capitalism, this sort of thing. I think that’s part of it too.

And then on the micro level there’s also a deeper legal value matrix that underpins this in the UK. We have for example, the equality act, we can go into that if you want to talk about the equality Act. The equality act has certain elements to it, the public sector equality in section 149 that has provided the beach head upon which a lot of wokery has infected institutions, in other words, people can use the very specific interpretations, bad interpretations of that law to push through these EDI bureaucracies and broader changes. So it’s related to what a whole range of issues.

Well thanks. Now ladies and gentlemen if you want to ask a question, write in using the Q and A button at the bottom of your screen. Somebody has written in to ask whether you think, and I think you think this because I think this is something that you were saying, decolonisation would be better described as de-westernisation? And maybe I could follow it up by saying: how is it possible for people who are pushing this line to be denying, it seems to me, that there is such a thing as universal ideas, which they associate with the enlightenment, with colonial oppression and yet they’re pushing their ideas as being of universal validity, is it saying nobody’s ideas are true except my ideas? But anyway, the de-westernisation is the is the general point.

Yes, I think you’re right, I think it is saying de-westernisation but again it is doing this within a very privileged context. So essentially, we got de-westernise and decolonise, but it doesn’t mean you cut off my Wi-Fi, my takeaway, my iPhone, my Deliveroos, it does not. It’s very banal, a very privileged discourse, and I just think that what we’ve got in the West at least is quite special, and I’ve lived in you know places. Civilisation can fall apart quickly and I think a lot of people don’t realise how quickly it can fall apart and then what the consequences of that are. So I think it is about de-westernisation but in a very privileged and playful sense. I think most of these activists or people pushing these ideas should go and go live outside the West and then, you know, ultimately put their money where their mouth is. Interestingly, most pushing these ideas tend to have very nice cushy numbers, cushy jobs in often very nice universities. So that would be my thing.

On Robert’s point about the rejection of universalism. I think what these ideas draw is called post-structural, post-modernist ideas. It would reject this idea of universal truth, in fact people would reject truth altogether. It’s a social constructivist epistemology, I don’t want to get too complicated philosophically, but ultimately it says there’s no such thing as truth. You know there’s no such thing outside our systems of meaning. So it’s fundamentally, it’s epistemologically relativist right but it’s also judgmentally relativist as well otherwise not only is everything is all knowledge relative but you can’t judge any other knowledge essentially as more true. No knowledge has more validity. That’s the key claim, it’s a judgmental relativism which is a very odd one and a very dodgy one. So for example you wouldn’t go to a brain surgeon or you wouldn’t go into a hospital and say ‘well I tell you what, I’m not going to use the doctor here, I want to use the person making a sandwich to do this operation’ of course there’s a hierarchy of knowledge. Still, it’s judgmental relativism, I think.

We have another question, I’m going to pass on to you, which is: do you think it is a tool for destruction of identity? Again, I think this is something you touched on, and I suppose part of the question is: why in particular countries? As you said it’s particularly in English-speaking countries, so why in those countries? And is this perhaps deliberately or even if not deliberately is this a way of destroying a common identity?

I think it is, but I wouldn’t posit that this is conspiratorial. I don’t think it’s that organised or works that way. It doesn’t mean the effects of it aren’t the same I.E the destruction of identity or social cohesion. You can have a political outcome without necessarily an organising committee. So I wouldn’t see it in those strictly instrumental terms. Still, I think it does lead to a lack of social cohesion and the potential rise of resentment and as I tried to allude to at the end, if we are entering into a period where we’re moving out of the post-war institutional settlement, and now the rise of Greater International economic competition and great power competition, military competition, potentially both in Europe but also in East Asia, for example, we are going to enter into a harder time and so therefore: what is the glue that holds the West together? What is this common narrative, this common story, that helps to cohere? I mean during the Cold War we had the anti-communism, it worked because the Soviet Union was real, and you know it was very powerful. So now what story can we tell ourselves about our role and place?

The second point I’d make is that a lot of this stuff is imported from America. I’m a great fan of America, I think it’s a fantastic country. Still, I feel the last couple of years, in particular, that we need to develop relative autonomy from America’s cultural exports. We import a lot of this stuff from America, this racial discourses and stuff like this and I think this it’s having a very negative and malign effect on a country like the UK, which is very different from America, we have our history, a very different setup here so I think that that’s part of it too. Again, final point, that’s an irony isn’t it, most people championing these ideas tend to perceive themselves on the progressive left I mean they are championing the ideas of America which they see as a highly oppressive state. So it’s an interesting irony there.

Another question, rather interesting question, long question so I’m going to paraphrase it, from another one of our other listeners, he talks about the importance of agency and how much of this popular narrative denies the role of agency to anyone who’s not European. And he mentions the TV series ‘Roots’ in which the prototypical African slave is taken off the beach rather than bought from African slave owners. And as he says the evil agency of the West is central to the whole decolonising discourse, and is denying the ability of other societies to make their history which I guess you’d agree with. Still, I mean is this is this is this part of the aim? Is it an excuse? Because we can’t blame African countries for any of this because we’re on their side, so we are perfectly willing to deny them agency and regard them as helpless and passive because that makes them innocence of any participation in what we think is bad.

Yeah I think I completely agree. I think that’s part of one of my big drives for this. I just think the infantilisation of the decolonising and broader wokery is both domestically therapeutic authoritarianism where everyone is coddled in this politics of grievance and vulnerability, you can do these highly illiberal things and authoritarian things because these are vulnerable populations, if we don’t they’re going to hurt themselves or they’re going to get hurt feelings. It’s very dangerous. It’s almost become ubiquitous across British politics now.

So you got that, but I think the treating of non-western and non-European people’s culture state and civilisations almost like children like they’re only ever acted upon by Europeans is quite odd. If you read Edward Said, I mean he did it but it’s interesting book on orientalism. Still, he says I’ve not looked at other Empires because I’m from Palestine but there’s more literary tradition in the anglophone west and therefore I’ve got more sources to call upon. But he’s one of the major theorists of the post-Colonial and decolonising theorists. That’s interesting you talk about slavery. Transatlantic slavery has a very strong and popular consciousness as it rightly should, right. It’s an incredibly important part of history, no doubt about that. But then you ask how people know about Barbary slavery of Europeans. They were taken off the beaches of Cornwall. Millions of millions were taken and stolen by the Barbary pirates. That’s not common knowledge. It’s an odd thing, and then the Ottoman Empire swept across huge parts of Eastern Europe, colonised huge parts of Eastern Europe, massive slave system there, and we can go on and on. So I think the person who asked the question is right. I think there is this danger of infantilisation and this Eurocentric narcissism where we constantly make the west the centre of world history. And we’re not the centre of world history, there are other people States cultures out there that we should respect and see the world history in this diverse richness


One, in our audience, mentioned ‘microaggression’ as you did, and I suppose that somehow sums up this infantilisation. We’re not talking about real aggression we’re talking about largely imaginary aggression, and indeed this kept me awake at night when I got a circular from the authorities in my university, which was saying to students from ethnic minorities you may not be aware, you probably haven’t noticed that you’ve been the victim of microaggressions, but think about it think about it very carefully and you’ll probably find out that you have been. So people who are not aware of their victimhood were being encouraged to invent it it’s what it comes down to.

Questions are coming rather thick and fast now so if you we’ll carry on if we may if you’re okay with that. How would you explain the lack of moral backbone amongst trustees and CEOs Etc? That’s one question. I’ll give you another one too: What are the apologisers, for example companies, what are they supposed to do? Do they owe something to people who were, in the past, victims? What’s the use in apologising for actions that people who no longer exist did? Indeed, did them to people who no longer exists too. So it’s about apology. What’s the effect of apology? What about the lack of moral backbone among those who often do these apologies?

That’s a really interesting point. I think it comes down to a range of things. I’ve been quite prominent in the last couple of years. I seem to emerge as somebody who has done some stuff on decolonising the curriculum, I’ve done stuff on academic freedom, I seem to have emerged within that space, pushing back against some of what I think is highly illiberal and authoritarian ideas that we’ve seen now and are quite ubiquitous across the UK. Every time I speak or do something, I get hundreds of emails from people all across the country saying: “oh Doug I liked what you said, and I agree with everything you said, by the way, but I can’t say it in my workplace. I call them ‘email liberals’. I think people are becoming a bit more aware and pushing back a bit more on that. But I think it’s a range of things. I think that it’s just you want a quiet life and so you can virtue signal very easily, so I think that’s part of it. I think there is also a large role that University education has played in this. We’ve churned out millions of social science and Humanities graduates, and I think it’s fair to say that these ideas form Gramscian hegemonic common sense of large parts of the social science and Humanities. I think that they are politically homogenous. I think that that’s part of it too. I don’t know if that answers the question, I think it’s complicated but it’s a range of all those factors.

I suppose part of the answer might be to the person who asks the question about what’s the point of apologising is that indeed there is now a growing demand, it comes and it goes but it seems to be coming at the moment, for reparations. Because climate change reparations were in the news recently, there are also demands for reparations from several states. Do you think this is a significant movement and is it something that we’ll have to somehow try to deal with?

Well I’m not an expert on those but it’s an odd. Where do you stop? What you’re going to do is you’re going to take money from hard-working families, the vast majority of this country come from very poor peasant stock. Go back 200 years, most of them are in fields or urban slums. Most of this country are like that. So you’re going to take the descendant who had nothing to do with slavery, made no money from slavery, were often in their graves by the age of 40 years old, so you’re going to take the money from hard-working families that are now struggling with the cost of living crisis, you’re going to take the money from them and give that money to states, like for example Nigeria, which itself is composed of various sub-states which were also directly involved in slavery. It’s a real hard one to square. Good luck with that politically. I think that it’s a very odd thing again. Suppose somebody wanted to go to a family that made directly money from transatlantic slave trade. In that case, you can make an argument there, but again to generalise, to socialise this, and then where’s my cheque from Libya? I want some money from Libya. Where do you stop? Given the ubiquitous nature of extra-territorial conquest and slavery throughout human history, where do you stop?


It takes us back to one of your first points which is that if you can argue that Britain’s wealth today, I mean our collective wealth, because we’re richer than Jamaica. After all, we’re richer per capita than Nigeria, you could say “well all your wealth is based on slavery and therefore you as a collective you know as a nation owe US a lot of money” as you were saying, well I mean I won’t repeat what you said except that the influence of slavery on the economies was very small. But then that’s surely part of the importance of that argument that some people make very strongly.

Yes. I’m not an academic historian but I did a lot of research for the book with a chapter dedicated to history. I did a lot of research on that I’m sure you could tell a better story than I could Robert, and your guests in later weeks will do a lot a lot of better job than I will do, but the scholarship seems pretty definite that that essentially industrialisation, the benefits from transatlantic slavery was for a tiny elite. That wasn’t aggregated or generalised across the British economy. Think for example about the role of slavery in the West Indies. It’s primarily about the cultivation of sugar. Is it mocha? m-o-k-y-r. There is a very interesting book by a very well-established academic historian who said if you took that out, then essentially the Elites would have non-sweetened tea at the time. But it’s not fundamental. What made the British economy was that the certain sets of complements of ideas certain other elements within British society but in terms of commodities and resources it’s primarily coal, tin, agricultural products, not sugar which is marginal at best. Altus and Engleman as well said in relation to the British wealth said: 1790 was the most significant year of the Transatlantic slave trade you know 1.5 percent of British ships and three percent of tonnage were involved in the slave trade. Direct quote: “if economic activity on such modest a scale could contribute significantly to industrialisation, we might expect Europe’s first industrial economy to have been Portugal, not Britain”. Portugal was a much bigger slave state. If slavery is the key accelerant to wealth, and slavery is ubiquitous throughout human history, why aren’t all the other slave states out there, why isn’t Libya now rolling in Dosh? Why isn’t Nigeria rolling in Dosh? Do you see what I mean? So slavery per se is not is not the accelerant of wealth.


Quite, I agree with that. Lots of questions are coming in. We may not have time to deal with them, but we still have another five minutes or so. Now someone is making a suggestion which I think is very interesting in some ways but I wonder how you could do it. Anyway the suggestion is that we should place less emphasis on historic slavery and as you did in part of your talk, focus much more on the people who are suffering from slavery today.

But then I suppose that doesn’t serve the interests of the people pushing the decolonisation.

Well yes, I agree with that. Suppose we are genuinely concerned about human betterment. In that case, I think our efforts, whilst we always have to recognise the role of History, including transatlantic trade within the history of this country, surely our efforts are much better put into dealing with contemporary slavery. I think Mauritania, Qatar, India which an amazing country, incredible culture Etc but India has the largest slave population, not least because it’s got a massive population, but India I think today has some eight million official slaves according to the various slavery indexes Etc. And that’s before you even look at the caste system in India, the dialect system Etc which is quote unquote an interesting system. So absolutely but then what do you do about that?  This is the interesting dynamic we’ve seen in the Qatar thing.

On the one hand, these people claim to be anti-imperialists. They want to decolonise all this stuff. But essentially they are ultimately championing the progressive imperialism, mainly American-centric imperialism. The value set if you buy the idea that there are different cultural interpretations, they are pushing a very culturally specific worldview, right? So if you go to Qatar, a very conservative Islamic State, you’re essentially pushing your own imperialism on them. When you’re talking about LGBTQ rights. Or you’re talking about anti-slavery. If you buy the post-modern argument, what gives you the right to go to Qatar and tell them that their slavery is bad, and they should be they should accept your views on homosexuality? If everything’s about contestation and knowledge and there’s no such thing as truth and everything’s judgmentally well, what right do you have to tell Qatar that they should be doing what they’re doing? This is where you start to get into that dodgy territory.

Well I agree with that. As I said earlier it’s as if they’re saying well nobody has any truth except our truth. It’s not a very rigorous or honest way of proceeding.  And as you say people are not worried about slavery they are worried about a particular kind of slavery. Part of that is another question from the audience: what do you think about the argument that’s often heard that the Atlantic slavery, chattel slavery as practiced in the Atlantic economy, is far worse than other forms of slavery? I’ve always thought it’s dodgy to talk about good and bad forms of slavery, but I wonder what you think about that?

Well, I wouldn’t want to get into that because transatlantic slavery is morally repugnant and how to compare the human suffering of that on that scale with the human suffering for example of the Arab slave trade throughout Africa that predated the European or to compare that to Barbary slavery and one of the first things that Barbary slaves ever did when they took man in particular is that they castrated them. The Galley ships you know were literally like whipping across the back they expose the spine and throw them in the sea and get rid of them. They castrated them to pacify them so I wouldn’t want to go down that line because I think it’s a bit it’s morally very dubious. I think we should recognise the horror of it all.

Yes, I agree with that and I guess had most of us had the choice we would probably have gone for the plantation rather than castration, and of course for women sex slavery in effect. Sometimes some people say, ” Oh well, you know it was okay really because if they had a baby then they’d be better treated and so on and the men, after all, could become civil servants and all the rest. But you might think it’s a rather a steep price to pay.

Again, I’m not an academic historian on in this specific area so I hesitate to say this but you do often see, for example it’s very common in academic literature when you look at for example Islamic slavery, ubiquitous, very common, they don’t analyse it in such moral terms or deconstruct it if you will because they say well the slaves could rise through the system. They say Arab Islamic slavery was more benign whereas Western slavery was far worse. So again, you do get that moral grey area in the academic literature, but you could say the same about you know even though the plantation slavery. You had house slaves, they were treated a lot better, some black slaves were freed than they ended up owning slaves in the American South for example. I have seen that in Academia vis-à-vis the Arab slave trade this argument it’s more benign because the slaves could occasionally rise. Well, don’t know, tell that to a galley slave or whoever.

I think you’re right yes. Now, we’re going to have to come to an end. I think we’ve dealt with most of the questions, not everyone, but most of the questions that our audience have asked. So, thank you to all those who contributed your ideas and questions. We are coming up very neatly to the end of our scheduled time which is an hour. We weren’t sure we would go on for an hour. But thanks to all the questions and the interest that Doug has inspired, we’ve done exactly that. I want to thank you very much, Doug, for having led us in our first webinar. Thank you to all those who participated.

You will find the rest of the schedule for our present series of seminars on our website, and you’re very welcome to come to the next one or all of them. Next year, we plan to have a longer series of webinars on the history of slavery, the universal history of slavery, when we’ll be going in in more detail into some of the things that Doug’s been talking about: slavery in the Arab world, slavery in Asia, also indigenous slavery in the Americas, and so on and of course in Africa, and then we shall probably, if we haven’t all run out of eight patience, we’ll probably have a series on the history of race. Because as Doug was saying earlier it’s often said, in fact people do say this very specifically, that race was a European invention of the 18th century, or it was it was something that grew out of the of the slave trade, the Atlantic slave trade. And we’re going to look at the history of race over a long period and see whether this accusation is true. So for now thank you and au revoir on behalf of History Reclaimed. Thank you again Doug, and we look forward to seeing you at our future webinars. Good night everybody, thanks.

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About the author

Doug Stokes

Doug Stokes

Doug Stokes is a Senior Advisor at the Legatum Institute, Professor & Head of Research and Development, Strategy and Security Institute (SSI), University of Exeter; The Thomas Telford Associate Fellow at the Council on Geo-Strategy; and an advisory council member of the Free Speech Union.

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).