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Since Black Lives Matter hit the news, we’ve all been more shocked than ever as the extent to which racism has underpinned British society has been trawled through the newspaper headlines.
We’re all probably aware how London was built on the profits of sugar and slavery and how London’s brandy-sipping gentlemen and businessmen made millions from it.
But even this stops short of the kind of horrific racial genocide that was employed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s – so things can’t have been that bad right?
Wrong! There’s one utterly racist British Government policy of the era that has eerie similarities to Nazi policy.
One Nazi plan that never got off the drawing board was to resettle the Jews to Madagascar.
Yet not many people know this was almost a carbon copy of an earlier British policy.
In 1788, the British Government actually came up with the idea of settling 4,000 black Londoners in what is now the West African country of Sierra Leone, because it wanted to get them out of the way.
It’s hard to even contemplate such blatant racial persecution now, but we have to remember that the British aristocracy was imbued with it.
It all started on the grim streets of London in the 1780s.
Sailors who worked for the East India company sailing British ships between India and London, were often promised they would be transported back home.
But unsurprisingly they were often simply left wandering the streets, completely destitute.
A similar fate befell many of the West Indian soldiers who had fought for the British in the American war of independence and had returned to Britain with the defeated forces in 1783.
Out of work Black sailors and servants were also often destitute. Ignored by the Government.
They too lived penniless, often in terrible conditions.
It fell to some charitable souls to set up the the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, to try to do something about it.
This group met regularly at Batson’s Coffee House in London to assess the problems and organise a solution. It also began handing out food and sixpence per person daily.
But then the underlying racism in British society was revealed.
A botanist and businessmen called Henry Smeathman decided it would be a good idea to send “troublesome” Black people on ships to Sierra Leone.
Not surprisingly, they didn’t want to go.
They were in fact terrified of being sent to a country they knew nothing about and where they feared being sold into slavery by African chiefs or slavers.
Ridiculously, the Government decided to “encourage” them by limiting their welfare payments to those who agreed to go and signing documents for the would-be settlers offering them protection – though it turned out these weren’t legally binding!
Three ships, Vernon, Belisarius and Atlantic, put to sea even though many of the Black people had sensibly refused to board them.
They were then delayed in the Thames where the conditions onboard were horrific.
The writer and Black leader Ottobah Cugoano, who opposed the scheme, described how “many perished with cold and other disorders” while waiting to leave.
The passenger lists group the colonists under a number of descriptions – the most common one is “single Black man”.
But there were also:
The ships left England on April 9, 1787 with 350 Black passengers onboard rather than the 4,000 originally planned. During the horrific voyage, 35 of them died.
When the three ships reached Sierra Leone, conditions were grim.
Heavy rains made it difficult to build homes or grow food. The rations brought from England were exhausted. Many of the new arrivals died of disease.
Their settlement was destroyed by fighting between slave traders and a local ruler. By 1791, only 60 settlers survived.
Their original settlement, named Granville Town was razed to the ground in 1789 by the forces of a local Temne ruler after a long-running dispute.
But some of the brave settlers struggled on and built a new Granville Town – now the Cline district of Freetown.
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The British press of the time of course were completely oblivious to their suffering.
In 1795 the Oxford Journal reported the settlers were in “exceeding good health”!
Though the truth is there if you look. The same paper reported in its shipping news in 1793: “This evening arrived here Captain Hall, from Sierra Leone, after a passage of eight weeks. By this ship we are sorry to find that the New Settlers are very unhealthy.”
Saunder’s New Letter printed in 1797 a great example of the British unwillingness to look facts in the face.
“A Grand Court of the Sierra Leone Company held at the Paul’s Head Tavern, on Thursday last, when a report was read by the chairman, giving a very favourable account of the health, of the colony during the year which, though the settlers had experienced repeated attacks from disorders incident and climate they had in general recovered, without differing materially either in their conflitutions or external appearances, and not one white had died.”
It papered over what was an absolute disaster and showed the British had completely abandoned the settlers to their fate.
Notably they had simply failed to make any sort of relations with the local African chiefs or slavers to make sure the people would be protected.
It was one of the most shameful chapters in London’s history and one which has been largely forgotten.
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This content was originally published here.