The Great Degreebling of History
There are a lot of morally difficult decisions to make. Should I save the drowning child, even though it will ruin my shoes? Should I buy the cool jacket, even though it is made with slave labour? Should thousands of British and American soldiers be sent to Afghanistan to uphold women’s rights? Generally, we take a very mature view of these sorts of choices. We carefully balance the pros and cons: on the one hand a kid probably died making this denim, on the other hand, I look great in it and might get laid if I wear it around enough women. These competing claims are weighed in our minds and we always make the correct decision.
The past is a different matter. A few weeks ago I was in Edinburgh, the capital of North Britain, and I saw a statue. The statue was Henry Dundas, a politician from the late eighteenth-century. He was in charge of the navy during Pitt the Younger’s government and the statue was put up after he died by a consortium of sailors who liked him. Like most eighteenth-century politicians, he was tremendously corrupt. Eighteenth-century politics was basically about controlling seats and using them to help the government maintain its majority in exchange for a job where you didn’t have to do anything and got loads of money, but more about that in a future pamphlet. Anyway, Dundas controlled basically all the Scottish seats, which made him a valuable asset for Pitt, hence his job as head of the navy. I suspect this makes him unpopular in SNP circles and I wonder if this explains his new plaque.
The new plaque puts his role in the slave trade front and centre. This is fair enough, from our perspective the evils of slavery are far more important than anything else he might have done in his career (most of which seems to have been good old fashioned corruption!) So what exactly did Dundas do to prolong slavery? Well, in 1791, William Wilberforce proposed a bill in Parliament to put an end to the slave trade. It was voted down. In 1792, he proposed another bill. Dundas moved to amend the bill to add the world ‘gradually’ and the bill passed. Later he proposed some more bills to fix a definite date, and the Commons ended up deciding on putting and end to the slave trade in 1796. The House of Lords refused to approve this until 1807, when the slave trade was abolished (although not slavery, which was banned in the British Empire in 1833.) So did Dundas really delay the end of slavery? Well, I’m getting most of my information from Wikipedia, so I can’t give a definitive answer, but there were certainly forces bigger than Dundas at work. There was no election between the two tablings of Wilberforce’s bill, so while the mood of Parliament may have changed in favour of abolition, it can’t have changed that much. Some historians think that the commons would never have voted for the bill if it hadn’t been for the amendment.
This pamphlet isn’t supposed to be about Henry Dundas, it’s supposed to be about Greebles. Greebles are the funky things that make everything a bit more complicated than you might want it to be. Consider this image, which my butler has sourced from ‘wikipedia’. One of these cubes is nice and easy to understand, you can write down its
coordinates and picture it in your head, even rotate it if you like, the other is a bit funkier, just try rotating that one! In the same way, we can imagine the events of the past as a nice simple cube. Slavery was a bad thing, the good guys tried to put a stop to it, the bad guys tried to carry on doing it, or just made it end slowly. Our own moral decisions are full of greebles. You might be in favour of vaccines, but you tolerate your anti-vax uncle because you don’t want to make a scene. Are you making the right decision? Maybe not, maybe the world would be better off if you just had the argument, at least that way the granny at the bakery wouldn’t die. There is also the possibility that your nutty uncle is right, and vaccines really are a ploy by amphibious creatures to inject us all with fly DNA so they can eat us up with their big long tongues. In that case maybe you’re making the right decision in so far as not arguing with your uncle is concerned, but the wrong one in that you’ve got a vaccine yourself and have not stocked up on nearly enough tinned ham and beans (and I bet you don’t have enough fire power to take on even ONE INSECT HORDE.) The point is, your moral dilemma is a lot more complicated in the moment than it is in retrospect. Once Granny Flebb from the bakery is dead, we can all mock you for refusing to start a tiny family argument, if Granny Flebb survives and you do start some dumb argument, we can mock you for that and if you get eaten by lizard people, well, we’ll probably all be dead by then, but we’ll be laughing in the spirit land.
Let’s consider some more history for a moment. Let’s take our old friend Chamberlain. Neville Chamberlain was the Prime Minister of the UK before World War Two. Today, he’s mainly remembered for his policy of appeasing Hitler. He didn’t move muscle in 1936 when Germany and Austria declared their union. And he even supported Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 by signing the Treaty of Munich. Even when Hitler went back on that treaty and took the rest of Czechoslovakia later, he remained neutral. It wasn’t until the German invasion of Poland that ol’ Neville finally decided that this Hitler fellow wasn’t such a great chap and went to war. Then a bunch of politics happened and Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, a man who had been saying that Hitler was something of a rotten egg all along, if only we’d listened to him! we might also consider Anthony Eden. He resigned as foreign secretary under Chamberlain because the chap was too soft on the baddies. As prime minister in the 50s he saw the mistakes of history repeat themselves with Nasser, surely a Hitler in the making. When Nasser invaded the Suez Canal, territory that was held by Britain, Eden launched a counter attack with help from our old pals the French and Israel. The Invasion failed because the US, under Eisenhower, didn’t want to support it and the whole thing ended up as a disaster.
So, were these two chaps rotters? Well maybe, but they had their reasons. Chamberlain has some defenders today, they say that while Britain was inactive in actively opposing Hitler, it did use the time to build up its military, especially (if my recollection serves) its airforce. This might be right, but we also have to consider the impact of the First World War, in which Chamberlain served, a lot of people died in that war, and it didn’t even achieve anything. Chamberlain was haunted by this, and hoped to avoid another war if it was at all possible. This is a pretty understandable thing to do, but as it turned out, Chamberlain erred by sacrificing too much to avoid such a repeat. Eden was similarly haunted by the past, he had supported a stronger policy against Hitler and, in the 50s, he thought he saw a repeat with Nasser. Just as Chamberlain had compromised with Hitler by letting him conquer Austria, Eden thought the same could happen with Nasser and the Suez Canal. He decided it would be best to nip the danger in the bud and strike now. As it turned out, he was wrong, Nasser did not conquer the world, he didn’t even unite the Arabs. Both of these guys were wrong, and an astute observer at the time would probably have been able to tell why. The point isn’t to defend these sorts of people, but to point out that it isn’t always so easy to spot the right option in the dark.
One other event that has some relevance is the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1833. One of the elements of this, which has come into especial criticism lately, was that the government gave people money in exchange for freeing their slaves. Slavery is wrong, and if people do something that is wrong they should not benefit from it, this is pretty basic morality and it’s easy to say that therefore this decision was Wrong and Bad. In some sense, you are right about this. But we might imagine a different series of events, imagine if Parliament had just freed the slaves and offered nothing to the owners. Probably there would have been a lot of resistance, maybe Britain would have found itself at war with some slave owners in the empire. It might have still ended up worth it, a few British lives in exchange for millions of freed slaves, but it isn’t such an easy decision to make.
There are two types of people in the world, the Wrong and the Bad. The Bad go about the place making Bad things happen. They really don’t care about morality and are generally the sorts of chaps you want to stay away from. The other sorts are merely Wrong. These types go about the place appearing to be somewhat moral, but then they end up prolonging slavery or helping Hitler. As an outside observer it’s easy to see how they could have simply not done those things. But these people had to make some pretty tough choices. From our perspective, half a million lives in 1860 mean almost nothing compared to ending slavery in the United States, but at the time, they were people’s brothers and fathers and their lives might not have even meant the end of slavery. People also have more to consider in their lives than the grand historical victories that we see looking back, and sometimes, those victories were really compromises with the Bad Guys than dramatic charges over the hill by uncompromising men.