Walter Rodney in the Highlands

Welcome to my first blog post on ‘The Empire at Home’! I’m Dr Seamus MacPherson, a historian at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for History, and I’ll be using this blog to reflect on my growing interest in connections between the Highlands and Empire.

This week’s highlight has been a visit to Timespan museum in Helmsdale, Sutherland. Timespan is a wonderful cultural institution in the Highlands, and has a long tradition of interpreting the region’s past in global and often quite radical contexts. Their current exhibition ‘No Colour Bar: Highland Remix: Clearances to Colonialism‘ is no exception. It recreates the Walter Rodney bookshop at the heart of an exhibition about the work of Jessica and Eric Huntley in black radical politics. The Huntleys founded the Bogle-L’Ouverture bookshop in London in 1974, later re-naming it after Walter Rodney following his assassination in 1980. The bookshop and its associated press were at centre of radical activism in Britain and beyond and Timespan’s exhibition captures the vibrancy of this movement through posters, archival material and books.

I’ve mentioned the exhibition to a number of folks this week, whose reaction is initially one of puzzlement. Why is this exhibition being put on in the Highlands? What has black radicalism got to do with the far north of Scotland? As the exhibition makes clear, it is designed to be an intervention in Highland culture and history, seeking to provoke new ways of thinking about the region and its place in the world, ‘to learn from the histories of resistance to colonialism and to connect to and clarify the present political crises we face’.

I was fortunate enough to be shown around the Walter Rodney Bookshop and exhibition by Sadie Young and Jacquie Aitken, two of the dynamic team at Timespan. Sadie, the Director, enthusiastically explained the rationale for bringing the Walter Rodney exhibition to the Highlands and thrust a number of books from the collection at me (rather excitingly, the exhibition is also a working research space and its books can be borrowed). I came away from Timespan with an armful of books by A. Sivanandan, the great black British radical thinker and activist, who spent decades as the influential and inspirational leader of the Institute for Race Relations.

A selection of Sivanandan’s books, borrowed from the Walter Rodney Bookshop at Timespan

Bringing the Walter Rodney bookshop to the Highlands helps us to understand the colonial connections which bind the region to the rest of the world. Of course, the region and its people have often been at the sharp end of imposing colonial rule on others. Work by David Alston and others has documented the extensive involvement of Highlanders in the slave plantation economies of the Caribbean and the manifold ways in which the region benefited from the profits of slavery. However, thinking about the Highlands with black radicalism and using the analytical framework of colonialism helps us to interpret the region differently.

Black radical thinkers such as Walter Rodney and Cedric Robinson (whose work also features in the exhibition – including a splendid letter written to the Huntleys in his distinctive and beautiful hand) have long argued that the development of capitalist society was facilitated by colonialism. From the early modern period onwards, capitalist growth was intimately entwined with colonial expansion, where resource extraction and the exploitation of labour was enforced by the power structures of colonialism. While such a process is starkly clear cut in the case of Atlantic slavery, it’s less obvious – but no less present – in the development of the Highlands from the eighteenth century onwards. As Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and others have argued, the Highlands were subject to a process of internal colonisation during this period, in which capitalist ways of thinking and organising society emerged in the region. Through agricultural ‘improvement’ and the clearance of its local populations, the land became the principal driver of economic growth and chief provider of swelling profits for the landed interest, their ranks led by the social elite of the Highlands as Matthew Dziennik’s recent work demonstrates. And, of course, much of this radical re-ordering of Highland society was made possible through capital injections derived from Atlantic slave plantation economies.

In an important recent article, Mairi McFayden makes a call for radical change in the Highlands. Addressing the imminent global climate catastrophe, she argues that the power structures of colonialism are no ghost of the past:

The climate crisis cannot be addressed until we come to terms with the history that climate change, coloniality and capital share. The campaign for land reform in the Highlands must be seen as part of a global struggle to overthrow the system – the colonial matrix of power and capital – that is destroying our world.

Mairi McFayden, ‘You Can’t Forget What You Don’t Know‘, Bella Caledonia, 21 April 2019.

This interconnection between the Highlands and black radical thought has been thrown sharply into relief by Timespan’s Walter Rodney exhibition. By helping us to think about and question the connections between our capitalist society and the oppression of colonialism, the exhibition opens up a tool box of black radical thought, ideas which can then be used to better understand the Highlands and to suggest ways in which change can happen.

A couple of days after my visit to the inspirational folks at Timespan, I had the pleasure of exploring these ideas with some of our undergraduate students at UHI. We were talking about Alexander MacEwen, the first leader of the Scottish National Party and Provost of Inverness in the late 1920s and early 1930s. MacEwen’s an intriguing, sometimes quite paradoxical character, who promoted independence for Scotland within an imperial framework. Like so many Highlanders of this period, MacEwen’s affection for and belief in the Empire was shaped by some substantial connections to the imperial and colonial world. MacEwen had been born in India as a result of his father’s position as the Recorder of Rangoon. Once back in Inverness, MacEwen maintained his links to empire through commerce. One of our students has carried out some excellent research on MacEwen and has established that he and his family had a considerable financial investment in the tea plantations of Ceylon. Which brings us nicely back to the Walter Rodney exhibition at Timespan and the books I borrowed on their recommendation.

Sivanandan’s work is radical, revolutionary stuff. Few writers are so clear on the tangled nature of colonialism, capitalism and racism. As set to music by Asian Dub Foundation,

Today, the colour line
Is the power line
Is the poverty line

Racism and imperialism work in tandem
And poverty is their handmaiden

Sivanandan developed these ideas because he was left with little choice but to think radically about his place in the world. He had fled the 1958 anti-Tamil pogroms in Colombo only to arrive in London at time of the Notting Hill riots. These two examples of racist violence were, for Sivanandan, intimately connected to empire. His famous explanation of post-war migration to Britain – ‘we are here because you were there’ – can also be applied to the transmission and circulation of ideas. Sivanandan’s family were descended from indentured labourers brought by the British from India to Ceylon to work in the tea plantations – the very same colonial environment from which Alexander MacEwen and his family in Inverness derived a good portion of their wealth.

Black radical thought of the kind articulated by Sivanandan has a place ‘here’ precisely because ‘we were there’. In acknowledging the exploitation and suffering inflicted by the colonial actions of Highlanders in the past, we can draw upon black radicalism to explain the links between capitalism and colonialism – which, crucially, also had its effects on the economy, society and culture of the region. This, then, is an ‘imperial blowback’ of ideas, where we take the thought of Sivanandan and others and use it to interpret our current position in the world.

Sivanandan’s analysis of colonialism, racism and capitalism becomes a tool with which to decolonise the Highlands. Timespan’s Walter Rodney exhibition provides a practical illustration of how we can apply these ideas in our quest for radical change and the development of better, more sustainable ways of living and being in this region and in the world.

Selfie with Walter Rodney

The ‘No Colour Bar: Highland Remix: Clearances to Colonialism’ exhibition is on at Timespan until 9 June 2019.

In addition, there are a series of events on at Timespan in the next couple of months, including a Cultural Solidarity and Internationalism Weekender, 31st May – 2nd June, featuring elders from the black radical community speaking on Internationalism and the British Struggle and the rapper Lowkey headlining a hip-hop and reggae gig on the Saturday night.

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