Scottish, Trinidadian and British – not proud but grateful

Scottish, Trinidadian and British – not proud but grateful

by Mark Openshaw
article from Tuesday 23, June, 2020

THE TRAGIC DEATH at the hands of police of George Floyd and others in the USA and before that of Sheku Bayoh in Scotland, have understandably triggered protests and examination of race relations and attitudes in Britain. The question of British and Scottish historical culpability for slavery and colonialism has inevitably resurfaced with an undercurrent of opinion that being British is a matter for shame and not pride.

Definitions of ‘pride’ include ‘a feeling of pleasure on something worthily done, too great self-esteem, haughtiness, a scorn of what is unworthy’. None of these seem to be appropriate or becoming when applied to nationality.  For most of us, our nationality is an accident of birth, depending on that of our parents. The idea that we can have pride in being Scottish or British – when we had no choice in the matter is, I suggest, ludicrous.

By contrast, a refugee from Syria, who fled for their life, possibly risked death through drowning at sea, suffocation in a shipping container, arrived in Scotland, learned the language, the culture and assimilated into the community, should justifiably be proud to be considered Scottish. For those of us who had no choice, took no risk, and made no effort to achieve their nationality, perhaps ‘grateful’ would be better term to use.

Similarly, if ‘shame’ can be defined as “a painful feeling of distress or humiliation caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour” then for most people who had no choice in their nationality, feeling ashamed of the actions of previous generations is illogical.

Arguably, words such as ‘glad, grateful and fortunate’ or alternatively ‘unlucky, unfortunate or disadvantaged’ would better describe feelings about nationality. Using the evidence of my life to date I have reached the conclusion that I am glad and grateful to be British for the reasons I will explain. 

I was born in colonial Trinidad to an English seaman who had ended up in British Guiana, (now Guyana) after the war, met and married a daughter of a local sugar estate supervisor then decided to stay. He eventually found work in Trinidad and they moved there. Later, when those countries gained independence, I had entitlement to three nationalities, choosing British, then later claiming dual Trinidadian citizenship. 

My father’s family were mill workers from Lancashire, my mother’s had relocated from Barbados to Guyana several generations earlier to work in the Demerara sugar plantations and according to family legend were descended from both slaves and slave overseers. My mother’s early colonial documentation described her as “white native”.  Steamer passenger records record her ancestors variously as white, coloured or negro – often for the same person. Unaware of this at the time, I went through early childhood in Trinidad thinking of myself as white. Trinidad’s independence in 1962 meant my father was now a foreigner and by 1967, having trained up his local successor, he had to return to the UK. Arriving in the late 1960s aged 13, and starting school in Wales, I was surprised to be called “Black Bastard”, “Slave”, “Sambo”, and “Nigger” and to have my accent mocked whenever I spoke. I was not overly upset about this, seeing it as an improvement on ‘Rat’ which had been my nickname in Trinidad (due to prominent front teeth - put right by orthodontics).  I also saw others singled out for abuse for anything that differentiated them from the norm – so just accepted it. As it turns out, my teenage tormenters were remarkably perceptive, my later DNA analysis indicating a significant proportion of African DNA - proving the family stories. The combination of puberty and ignorance of UK teenage culture in everything from slang and football to TV soaps and regional identities made integration a steep learning curve.

This I must have managed quite well, because after three years, when I was moved to a school in Norfolk where my parents had settled, I was no longer seen as a foreigner but as a mere ‘new boy’ and found assimilation a lot easier.

By the age of 17, I had experienced colonial life, independence from Britain, immigration (of sorts) to Britain and exposure to life in Wales and in England where I completed my education.  My early impression of the Scots was shaped by an incident when I was unjustly (in my opinion) caned by an ex-pat Scottish teacher in Trinidad. My protests to my parents met with little sympathy but I do remember my mother saying, as if by way of explanation, that the “Scots overseers on the sugar plantations were always the harshest” – as if this was just to be expected.

After starting working life in England, I enjoyed a long weekend visit with friends in Aberdeen, then in the early stages of the oil boom. The place and people made such an impression that I returned to England, quit my job and headed back north, initially doing casual labour before securing a job as a painter then roustabout (labourer) with an offshore drilling company. While forging a career based In Aberdeen, I married a girl from Glasgow, a daughter of a railwayman whose family had been crofter/fishers from the Achiltibuie area and a mother from rural Perthshire. She had moved to Aberdeen aged 10, later trained as a teacher, starting teaching in Glasgow’s east End before returning to Aberdeen. All of this gave me good exposure to Scotland’s culture and regional differences allowing me to think of my adopted Scottishness as a sort of ‘enhanced Britishness’ or, if it were part of a Brexit negotiation, ‘British plus plus’. My children’s great grandfather’s croft now has the same heritage significance to me as my West Indian roots. When outside Scotland and asked where I am from, I say “Scotland”. If I am in Scotland I say “Trinidad”, but if asked my nationality I say “British”.

And then came the Scottish Independence movement.

Suddenly, many people who were enjoying a standard of living as part of the Britain that had plundered, enslaved and ruled others, were now pretending to be themselves a downtrodden people, unjustly ruled by the evil English. All the while they were surrounded by the opulent evidence of empire reflected in the magnificent buildings, stately homes, estates, industries and even the street names of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Arguably, even the icons of the NHS and Welfare State are an indirect result of the industrial revolution fuelled by the effort of all my ancestors – or, if I was being dramatic, tainted with the blood of slaves. I was appalled at how many people thought Scotland was either not part of this or had been forced into it. My West Indian ancestors would have laughed at the audacity if it were not so seriously misleading. The separatists made a subtle but concerted effort to distance Scotland from the wrongs of empire – as if Britain (England to them) had been unique in its territorial ambition at the time rather than the more successful of the European countries competing to do the same. David Hayman’s documentary  ‘Slavery: Scotland’s hidden shame’ exposing Scotland’s disproportionately large involvement in and profiteering from slavery went some way towards putting the record straight but it is questionable how many of those who had swallowed the misleading propaganda would have watched it. 

Last year I read about Glasgow University’s agreement with the University of the West Indies to fund a £20 million research centre described as slavery reparations with mixed feelings. I do not feel personal shame at what some of my slave driving ancestors may have done, any more than I can personally feel the pain suffered by those ancestors who were slaves. Descendants of both these groups can now attend these universities. Payments by non-perpetrators to non-victims seems to be more about virtue signalling than about putting right any actual wrongdoing  By all means do it if benefits both Universities, but don’t call it reparations! Rather than renaming Glasgow’s Wilson Street  ‘Rosa Parks’ Street, it would be better to leave the original name along with others and educate Scots as to how these things came about. Rosa Parks was a fine example in American history but a street with her name does nothing to illustrate our uncomfortable Scottish historical truths.

What I do feel about my ancestry and my British identity is gratitude. I am glad that some of my ancestors survived the evils of slavery and that the others who had abused them became sufficiently enlightened to free them. I am grateful their survivors chose not to tear down everything that the British Empire had developed, but changed what was considered bad, built on what was considered good and in the main created free and fair societies in which descendants of those same oppressed people enjoy full representation and occupy senior governmental and economic positions. My family has extended further and intermarried with descendants of Jewish refugees from the Nazis, people from Thailand, and of Indian and Eastern European origin and have spread to different countries. The one thing they all have in common is that despite having entitlements to be citizens of other countries, they have all chosen to live in Britain or in countries that were previously British colonies but are now supported by stable democratic and legal systems evolving from those inherited at Independence. 

Working in the oil industry gave me the opportunity to live and work for short periods in several other countries. This allowed me to not only compare quality of life, but ‘to see oursels as ithers see us’. Except for one 18-month period when we were all abroad, my wife and family continued to live, work and be educated in Scotland (and yes, I paid all my taxes in Scotland). They visited me during school holidays when they could. We knew our Scottish quality of life was good but were open to opportunities. We were fortunate to sample life in countries normally considered desirable places to live such as Australia, Netherlands, Singapore and Norway. Although all had their good points, and my job would have enabled me to live in these places permanently had I wanted, there were none that we considered to have a better overall quality of life and opportunity than we had in Scotland-UK. In those countries where I was considered a social and economic equal, and even in Norway where I was effectively a cheap (relatively) foreign worker, I was never aware of any downside due to being British. In fact, quite the opposite, most people have a high regard for Britain and its culture. Even in countries such as Indonesia and Brunei where I was considered a foreign boss, with echoes of colonialism, there was no detectable animosity.

Another piece of evidence I factor into my assessment is that of continued migration. Before the pandemic, and despite looming Brexit, EU citizens wanted to come here. Many refugees and asylum seekers who had already made it into the relative safety and security of the EU further risk their lives to get across the channel to Britain. Surely this is a good indication of how others view us.

In examining ourselves and our attitudes to racial equality, let us educate children about our past mistakes and successes, recognising that it is the imperfect but stable base on which we will build. Protest peacefully against injustice and inequality, but don’t tear down the foundation that allows us to make that protest.

It is what we do from now on that is important and not what happened in the past.  Every penny spent tearing down, relocating or renaming relics of the colonial past would be better spent on putting right the many entrenched attitudes and injustices. It’s up to all of us, as individuals and voters, to make this happen. As the pandemic eases and Indyref rears its ugly head, no doubt someone will attempt to use history shaming as a reason, but it is the the least credible of many unconvincing arguments for separation and should be dismissed with the facts.

© Mark Openshaw 2020 

Photo: St Ann's & Greyfriar's Church of Scotland, Trinidad, a remnant from the past still opens it doors to worshippers


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