‘Some made chains, some wore them.’
It’s odd that I should have just published The Chainmakers’ Daughter – the white slaves of England at a time when the subject of race relations and slavery raises its head again. It’s understandably a very emotive subject, and racial discrimination is an issue that has to be tackled if we are to have a peaceful, equal, and prosperous society. We tend to think slavery is in the distant past of countries other than Britain, and that prejudice and discrimination is constrained to race or skin colour, but it isn’t so.
I doubt if any of our great monuments, infrastructures, or grand listed buildings were built without the sweat of ‘slave’ labour. I put that in inverted commas because you don’t necessarily have to wear chains or have a black skin to be a slave.
I live close to Picton Castle, in Pembrokeshire, the home of the Picton family, and I had no idea their wealth came from the slave trade. That the man is honoured is obviously an overlooked mistake in today’s world – back then, such things were accepted – it was a different world and one we need educating about so that these things never happen again.
My novel exposes a different kind of slavery, the sweated labour of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but there are similarities. The arrogance of the white western male in the 19th century almost certainly comes from the assurance that God put all things on earth for the use of humans, and as Jesus was depicted as white… It gave them a free hand to kill, plunder, fight, enslave, and despoil with a clear conscience – God is on my side – what arrogant crap.
Women, and British women were no exception to those being considered moral plunder, have, over the course of the last two hundred years, had to fight the same discrimination and prejudice that black people are still fighting today. They had no vote and no rights, not even have rights over their own bodies if they were married. In the 1900s a member of parliament said women shouldn’t stand for parliament because they couldn’t hold an argument, and he abhorred the thought of a petticoat government. In the 1840s, men believed if a woman thought too much their heads would explode – don’t worry your pretty little head about it – Patronising or what? (Oh, was that my head exploding?)
In the 1900s, the women chainmakers in the The Chainmakers’ Daughter survive on little more than bread and bacon fat and even working ten or twelve hours a day, are still paupers. Rosie, my heroine, looking at a slave chain her grandmother had made before slavery was abolished, remarks that ‘at least the slaves were fed and housed to keep them healthy, which was more than she was.’ She tries not to see herself as a slave, but in effect, all the men, women, and children who worked for starvation wages in terrible conditions while their masters grew fat and built huge monuments to greed were slaves. The women chainmakers’ fight for a decent living wage in 1910 is one that has been largely forgotten, yet our present National Minimum Wage is a direct result of it – peaceful protest won the war against the chain masters and built a better, fairer Britain.
If only we human animals could see ourselves as just that. One species, and not a very bright one at that, who share our planet with other animals that are a heck of a lot cleverer. Why do I say that? Ants work together for the common good. Bees, work together for the good of the swarm. Herbivores post guards and look out for the safety of their herd. They are so much wiser than we are. Humans could do wondrous things if we could put greed, fear, crime, and prejudice aside, kill only to eat, and see one another as people. Just people with families and friends all trying to survive in an uncertain world.
Douglas Adams in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy rated Earth as ‘Mostly harmless‘. ‘Do no harm‘ isn’t a bad tenet to live by. The world could be a much better place if we thought before we acted or spoke. Who or what will this harm? ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.‘ was wisdom passed down from my mother, so I always try to make comment constructive and good intentioned.
Doing no harm isn’t easy, given that we are omnivores by nature, and we can’t all be Buddhists and sweep the ground before us of insects as we walk, but we can make sure that the species we rely on to survive are respected and cared for, that the soil is kept in good heart, and our wild places are protected for those species that need them. Education is the key here. How can we expect our children to be respectful of others or of their environment if parents and schools, especially parents, don’t teach respect? Children learn by example and the future is in their hands.
And think of this. Every billionaire has accumulated his wealth at the expense of others and has probably ridden roughshod over his fellow man. Most of the wealth of the world is in the hands of a frighteningly small number of people. Much of the destruction of our planet is driven by the search for profit at the expense of the lives of every species. While it’s true that some billionaires and world leaders are philanthropic, and many provide jobs for thousands of others, the cost to the poorest is unacceptably high.
Poverty is hard to escape, but faced with discrimination, we can do things to help ourselves. If I use violence, I’ll be assumed dangerous. If I dress as a tramp, I’ll be seen as a tramp. If I dress as a prostitute and stand on a street corner, I must expect to be propositioned. While I don’t believe wearing a short skirt is an invitation for rape, I do believe that how we present ourselves to other people informs their opinion of us. If they don’t know who we are, they quite understandably make assumptions, probably wrong ones. If criminals are portrayed as young males wearing hoodies, it doesn’t take much imagination to take that perception that a step further, be it rightly or wrongly. It shouldn’t matter how we appear on the outside, but it is how we instinctively assess people for our own personal safety.
I’m not sure, as a species, we’ve learnt much since the days of colonialism, sweated labour, and the slave trade. Greed, fear, prejudice, and discrimination still drive us to the detriment of humanity. It’s long past time for change, for education, and we can each do small things, small brave acts of kindness, generosity, and understanding that will bring on peaceful and positive change.