Centuries ago, as Europeans travelled, colonised and conquered different parts of the planet, they projected their fears, fantasies and desires on to the very geography of the land that they chanced upon. In a map from 1424, drawn by a Venetian cartographer, an island called Antilia appears. It isn’t a real island, but it was of great interest to many at the time, and would later give name to the Antilles archipelago. Antilia appeared over several centuries on the maps of many European cartographers, until the 16th century, when it started to slowly sink into the Atlantic, and out of consciousness.
‘Landing in London is landing in the familiar. The British must have built every place they settled in according to the same city plan as London. How else would I know that walking down each main street I would come to a roundabout, that streets would angle and twist into an inner square, that the width of streets would summon in me a particular stride, that Charing Cross Road would be right where it was?– Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return’¹
I walk around a city that was built off the backs of enslaved people. The streets bear the names of owners, of plantations, of islands. It could be any city on the long, jagged contours of this nation. To some, the golden stone, which glows almost neon in the harsh winter sunshine, is beautiful, its European design a work of beauty and elegance. But these buildings take on a strange, nightmarish quality when the truth of why they exist is revealed. They are the concrete evidence of a violent history, although their stories are often ignored, silenced, or purposefully erased. Many are now expensive, high end city centre apartments, or buildings shut off for ceremonial usage, for enjoyment by a select few – another form of violence.
British country houses, archetypes of English excess, speak volumes of violent histories, and decades of convenient erasure. Harewood House (near Leeds), for example, is a significant place for many people of Afro-Barbadian descent like myself whose families bear the surname Harewood. Belonging still to the Harewood-Lascelles family, the house still stands proudly in lush green acres of Yorkshire countryside, a house filled with the sound of the old quiet. I feel a sense of privilege that I can trace my ancestry so closely, not even to a region, or a town, but an actual house that still stands to this day. The evidence of this violent history is concrete, and although the truth has been systematically disguised and erased from public knowledge (many of the tens of thousands of visitors to the house do not know the story of its past), the physical impression of this history is still embedded in our landscape. Visiting Harewood House was a strange and uncomfortable experience; the artistic and decorative features that others would consider perhaps ornate and decadent became macabre and lonely, the musty and stale air became inhospitable, and it was a relief to step outside into the autumnal grounds.
The Harewood family, like much of the British aristocracy, owned multiple sugar plantations in Barbados, Jamaica and Grenada, many of which lie in ruin today. Conservative MP Richard Drax recently inherited Drax Hall, a working plantation and house in Barbados, from his father. The house was built by the Drax family in 1650, and it is estimated that 30,000 enslaved people died on the family’s sugar plantations in the period leading to the abolition of slavery in 1833. Hilary Beckles, chairman of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission, says that Richard Drax should pay reparations in order to make amends for the extreme ‘harm and violence to the black people of Barbados’. ² While many former plantations stand in ruin, being slowly eaten by nature, the evidence of the Drax family’s horrendous endeavours is still visible for all to see.
Whether it’s the Portuguese slave fort at Elmina in Ghana, the menacing grey facade of Drax Hall, or the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, there is a macabre quality about this architecture, no matter what condition they are left in. In the former colonies, they still stand in various states of decay, a troubling reminder of the evil that occurred, a mausoleum of trauma. They haunt coasts and islands, menacing and gigantic but totally redundant, carcasses of long centuries of brutal rule. Meanwhile, in the UK, our colonial architecture is anything but crumbling; it is treasured and celebrated, and tied still to aspirations of wealth and privilege. It is surreal to see the same architecture in the nations that used to form the British empire neglected and rotting, very much a reflection of the neglect that Britain instituted in its former colonies.
I have always found country houses to have an unsettling quality, and I now understand that this subliminal discomfort that I experience has a very real cause. It isn’t only because of their haunting similarity to colonial architecture in the Caribbean and elsewhere, but because of the evil source of such wealth and grandeur. A report released in 2020, titled Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links With Historic Slavery, examined some of these historical connections between slavery and the houses of the aristocracy. The evidence was glaringly obvious, even before the release of the report, but was conveniently not in the public domain.
The release of the report coincided with the resurgence of the global Black Lives Matter movement, demanding an urgent end to anti-Black violence and discrimination across the world. In the UK, the visibility of BLM movement was used as ammunition for politicians and the right-wing, with the usual stereotypes suggesting that the protesters were angry, militant and dangerous. In a perfect example of this, and speaking in relation to the aforementioned report, Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen told the Times that the National Trust had been “overtaken by divisive Black Lives Matter supporters”. ³ The lead researcher of the report, Corinne Fowler warned of a ‘political agenda to misrepresent, mischaracterise, malign and intimidate those involved in the project’, and that ‘the levels of intolerance and hostilities towards outsiders and those we consider as the ‘other’ have risen in the past few years.’ 4
The outrage at the findings of the report very clearly reflected where British people currently stand in relation to the UK’s imperial history. A poll earlier in 2020 found that 30% of British people thought that Britain’s ex-colonies were better off under the empire5 ,making the UK more nostalgic for its colonial past than other European colonial former-powers. Only in a nation so invested in upholding white supremacy could a nostalgia for this kind of suffering be publicly accepted and shared.
The relentless transmission of images of Black death and suffering, as well as the backlash in the streets and the media, is having a massive impact on the mental and physical health of people of African descent, and this intersects with the disproportionate number of people of colour dying of Covid-19. Decades of poverty, inadequate healthcare and government incompetence has led directly to these high death rates, and now the fingers are being pointed at these same communities for their distrust of the UK’s vaccine rollout. In the global vaccination rollout response, we are also seeing the same colonial systems at play, with countries in the global south (and on the African continent especially) being offered less vaccinations, at a higher price. This is despite the fact that people in countries such as South Africa were the volunteers in the vaccine trials for AstraZeneca and other pharmaceutical companies, part of a long history of African people being used in trials for medicines destined primarily for Europe and America.
The year 2016 featured many dreadful phrases – ‘Empire goes for gold’ was one of them. It was posted on Twitter by a Conservative MP alongside a map of the UK’s former colonies, and a chart showing the total number of medals won by the UK and the Commonwealth nations. Posted during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, just weeks after the EU referendum in the UK, it was a bizarre premonition for, well, the opposite. Today, in the middle of a global pandemic (with one of the worst death tolls in the world), mid-winter, and now out of the European Union, there is very little that is golden. The reality of what Britain is -a small island flung out into the beginnings of the grey Atlantic – has started to become apparent. It is as if the UK has cast itself adrift, having rejected Europe, towards America, a place where many British people appear to identify with more. In an ironic twist of fate, the American president, Joe Biden, whose family left Ireland during the 19th century famine (caused by the British imperial project), begins his presidency in the same month that Britain leaves the European Union. We are yet to see the consequences of Brexit Britain’s disregard for Ireland’s future. Evah pig got a Saturday.*
This bizarre period in Britain’s history has not happened out of coincidence; it has been manufactured by a number of players who have capitalised on decades of discontent from various corners and communities of the UK, luring these communities in with a strong message of undeniable and unquestionable British exceptionalism. It seems that so much of this exceptionalism was fuelled by nostalgia for imperial ‘greatness’, and a sadness that this was no longer a reality. This is what Paul Gilroy calls postcolonial melancholia. The events of 2020, including the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people of colour, have brought the continuing anti-Black conditions of our world to the forefront. In the UK we have seen appalling police brutality, a relentlessly racist justice system and the deportation of Black British people continue. Statues were toppled, histories were unearthed and conversations were started but then came the backlash, from politicians, the far right, and empire-apologists. The nostalgia for empire and a denial of its horrendous impacts on people of colour is still very much alive and kicking in 2021.
‘In the line at Heathrow we all know each other, then. We have the same road maps in our heads. We’ve walked the same streets of colony.’ – Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return 6
I’ve just landed in the UK. It’s mid-December and the bitter cold I annually dread is yet to sweep in from the North. I usually have mixed feelings about returning to the UK, but this time there is only a distinct and unsettling melancholia. The UK is about to leave the European Union, and the brief reprieve from the pandemic in summer; where many were lured into believing it was retreating, now seems as distant as ever.
I wait in the baggage reclaim in Heathrow, and stare at the arrivals board, admiring where all the flights are arriving from, already anticipating where I would like to be next.
Lagos, Johannesburg, Kingston, Bridgetown, Accra…
I am shaken from my trance and watch with powerless annoyance, as a border force worker interrogates a Black couple who have just arrived – she is speaking slowly, elongating syllables, gesturing heavily, despite the fact that the couple can clearly speak English better than most English people can.
*Evah pig got a Saturday. – This typically direct Barbadian saying means you reap what you sow, essentially.
1Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 77
3 The Guardian, 20th December 2020 – https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/20/ive-been-unfairly-targeted-says-academic-at-heart-of-national-trust-woke-row
4 The Guardian, 20th December 2020 – https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/20/ive-been-unfairly-targeted-says-academic-at-heart-of-national-trust-woke-row
5The Guardian, 11th March 2020 – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/11/uk-more-nostalgic-for-empire-than-other-ex-colonial-powers
6Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 77
Harvey Dimond (b.1997) is a British-Barbadian visual artist, writer and researcher based between the UK and South Africa. Working primarily with video and print, their practice works with queer(ed) pre and post-colonial histories in the Caribbean and Southern Africa to imagine alternative realities for queer people of African descent. Their research focuses on queer histories and realities in the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa, in relation to the geopolitics of natural disasters and the ongoing implications of neo-colonialism in the global south.
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