Last month, in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters in Bristol, England, toppled the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston and dumped it into the harbour. Dozens of other statues and monuments in the UK and elsewhere are facing fresh scrutiny. The fall of Colston and his fellow enslavers and colonisers reminds us that the current crisis is a product of history, and that history needs to be addressed.
Floyd’s murder was a grim milestone in what seems like an endless onslaught of public executions by police and vigilantes: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks (in the US) and Joy Gardner, Sheku Bayoh, Mark Duggan (in the UK), among so many more. This epidemic of anti-black policing is not a recent development nor the fault of a few bad actors. It is the deliberate and inevitable result of a system designed to oppress and exploit people of colour. In the US, the modern police force has deep historical roots in the need to surveil and control an enslaved population, maintain white power, and enforce Jim Crow segregation. The origins of the UK police force are likewise mired in slavery and colonialism.
A culture of hyper-vigilantism and the conflation of skin colour with criminality did not begin with the abolition of slavery or with the current age of mass incarceration. It began with newspaper advertisements and metal chains. In 1749, author and magistrate Henry Fielding established the Bow Street Runners in London, considered Britain’s first organised police force, and his brother John took over after his death in 1754. John Fielding’s portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, where the description emphasises his disability (he was blinded as a teenager) and his commitment to Christianity and the Law. A philanthropist and jurist, he is credited with the ‘professionalisation’ of policing. However, he also wrote legal opinions defending the rights of British slavers. As a magistrate, Fielding’s name appeared on at least twenty-four advertisements placed in the eighteenth-century press asking members of the public to accost, apprehend and forcibly return enslaved people to his control.
In 1757, a young man who called himself Henry Win escaped from slavery in Monmouthshire in southern Wales. His enslaver, John Gardner, made a claim on him through a notice in the Public Advertiser:
The advertisement detailed the servant’s garb Win took with him, but also his body and the scars deliberately inflicted upon him. In each document like this – and there were countless thousands published across the Atlantic World – the subject is ‘recognised as human, but criminalized by state discourses’. It was a public appeal, a signal to all white people: the ancestor of the creep who stalks the kid wearing a hoodie; the white woman who calls the authorities on a bird watcher; the thugs who gun down a jogger in a leafy residential neighbourhood.
We have a plausible image of Henry Win. He came from Jamaica, from one of Gardner’s estates, to Monmouthshire, across the Atlantic. He was barely more than a teenager when the advertisement was placed, so he was likely branded as a child. He was slim. He took some spoons, so he knew their value. He lived at Bertholey House, in Llantrisant, close to Usk. It was a five or six hour walk to Monmouth, if indeed that was his destination. Did he know someone there? Win was not the only Black person in Wales in the mid-eighteenth century, though they were few and scattered. Owners of foreign plantations frequently bought desirable rural residences as a retreat from Bristol. Some of them, like Gardner, may have transported people from the Caribbean to serve in their British homes.
Advertisements sometimes mention the hardware used to subdue and control their subjects. While in the US, slave shackles evoke images of crude and rough restraints, in the UK, silver, brass and steel collars and cuffs were carefully crafted and occasionally engraved with the names of enslavers (a practice dating back to ancient Rome). There was a teenager with a ‘Silver Collar about his Neck, engraved, Capt. Tho. Mitchel’s Negroe’, an adolescent boy with a steel device announcing ‘Quaw, belonging to Mr. G. Woodcraft, Attorney at Law in the Poultry, London’, and a young man whose collar read simply ‘Paul Moon in Bristol’. There was Ann who escaped in Glasgow ‘with a green Gown and a Brass Collar about her Neck’ and Jack from Chelsea, who bore a collar reading ‘Mr Moses Goodyeare’; that is ‘unless it be lately filed off’.
Some of these grisly artefacts survive in museum stores. A single steel shackle is archived in the Blaise Castle Museum, near Bristol. It is engraved HIATT, a Birmingham-based company established in 1780. Hiatt had a longstanding relationship with the London Metropolitan Police and shipped ‘vast numbers’ of fetters to America, India, China, and continental Europe. They also made handcuffs, gang chains and collars for the enslaved, supplying the African slave trade well into the nineteenth century and long after it had been outlawed in Britain. Listed as a leg shackle, this museum object looks similar to the neck collars depicted in many portraits of enslaved people in Britain. A combination of torture device, means of identification, and marker of status, items such as this were an integral part of the surveillance apparatus for the public policing of enslaved people’s movements.
Runaway advertisements and metal collars are powerful reminders that the legacy of slavery is not just about police brutality. It also survives in the brutality of citizen policing: the militia-like vigilance of everyday people who violently enforce white supremacy in public spaces. The crimes of driving while black, shopping while black, sleeping while black, and so on, are the result. Consider the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr in 2009. Returning to his home in suburban Massachusetts, the eminent scholar of African American history and culture found himself locked out, and a passer-by (a neighbour, a citizen-on-patrol) reported a potential burglary to the police. Despite providing proof of his residency, officers arrested him on his front porch.
The incident caused a public storm, which led to a summit at the White House with President Barack Obama. It continues to make headlines. In an interview last week, former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to Professor Gates as ‘some criminal’. Especially after the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing waves of international protest, it is a cruel reminder that racism remains embedded in the highest levels of American policing. Even a world-famous intellectual, TV host and educator is not immune. Fully exonerated, a decade later, he is still just ‘some criminal’.
There is another remarkable fact about this case. Seeking to preserve the memory of his ordeal for posterity, Gates donated the handcuffs used during his arrest to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington DC. They were manufactured in Birmingham, England, by Hiatt and Company, the former suppliers of steel collars for the enslaved, and they were engraved ‘Crowley’, the family name of the arresting officer.
The history embedded in these handcuffs is a foundational element of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK. Indeed, it is impossible to understand current events in either country as separable from their shared, centuries-long legacy of terrorising, usurping and devaluing black lives. It should be no surprise that the UK continues to suffer from racist policing. With black and brown folks dying or disabled or impoverished in vastly disproportionate numbers, we all remain ensnared in the world created by the slave trade. Whether it is coronavirus, the police, housing discrimination, or educational inequality, racism describes the ‘social distribution of death’, the artificial circumscription of opportunities, the premature ending of lives and dreams.
The only solution to this seemingly endless cycle of violence and oppression is to confront our shared history and, like the statues and monuments now falling around us, begin to dismantle it. Piecemeal reforms, such as banning choke holds or implicit bias training, are a small step in the right direction, but not enough. As with the ongoing pandemic, a systemic threat requires a systemic response.
The first step in any programme of repair, according to the current movement, is to defund the police and redirect that money back into the communities it was meant to serve. Minneapolis, fittingly, is leading the way, with public schools, universities and cultural institutions divesting from the local police and the city council vowing to dismantle the entire force. In the UK, there is a rich tradition of resistance to the criminal justice system, coupled with an awareness of its international dimensions. Last month, a broad coalition of MPs demanded an immediate end to export licenses for millions of pounds worth of teargas, bullets, guns, and other weapons used for militarised policing. The next step may be to defund the military itself, which would free up hundreds of billions of dollars to reinvest in the communities hardest hit by a compounding history of injustice. Whatever path we choose, we should remember that actions speak louder than words. By moving beyond statements of grief and displays of outrage to embrace systemic change, both the US and the UK can begin a liberating and long-overdue process of reparation for the centuries of damage they have inflicted.
Joseph Yannielli and Christine Whyte lead Connecting Digital Histories of Fugitive Slaves, a research network sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and several other museums and universities on both sides of the Atlantic. The authors would like to thank the network members for their excellent and timely contributions and suggestions on this piece.