Friday, 22 August 2014

On Paisley, hens, and Scotland's Empire

This is "Paisley" pattern

It's a picture of twisted teardrops, woven into brilliantly coloured fabrics. The pattern is not originally from Paisley - it was brought there by Scottish soldiers and merchants who had seen the originals in India and Persia. Paisley weavers reproduced the cloth mechanically, on looms, and the Scottish merchants went back to successfully sell the patterned cloth to the then Indian colonies. In modern terms, they took the Intellectual Property (IP), and turned it into a profit.

A lot of profit. The evidence is all over Scotland, where our public buildings (Gallery of Modern Art, Hutchesons' School, and Hospital in Glasgow, amongst many others) were donated by people made wealthy by the imperial trade.   We benefit today from public goods, ranging from art galleries to schools, built from imperial profits.

Glasgow's landmark Necropolis, a hilltop covered in the ornate gravestones and memorials of our rich 18th and 19th century merchants - the time when Glasgow was the Empire's second richest city - reminds us that Glaswegians lived, profited and died all over the Empire.  Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) said: "It has been my lot to have found myself in many distant lands. I have never been in one without finding a Scotchman, and I never found a Scotchman who was not at the head of the poll."

The Imperial trade was not simple burglary, or just swapping trinkets for gold. There was exchange, even if it was not between equals. And it is too simplistic to say it was just evil white men; I've been to the West African seaboard, and I know that slaves from what is now Mali were traded by people who would now be Ghanaian.

There were exchanges that benefited both sides. Here is one with a Catalan connection:  In farms in Minorca you'll see fat black chickens scampering about the farmyards. Good layers, and good to eat, these are Menorquin hens.  The chickens are here thanks to the wife of the British Governor of colonial Minorca. This was probably Ann, wife of James Murray, the Scottish-born Governor or Minorca from 1774-1782. She took some scrawny black hens home to Britain, spent years improving them (presumably with a bit of good breeding) and returned them to the island's farmers. Generations of Menorcans have benefited from her imperial philanthropy.

The Scottish Referendum reminds us of Empire, because at various points in the debate it has felt like Scotland is the colony. When George Osborne said that we could not have the pound it sounded like the Empire speaking. How dare he! That pound is built on Scottish wealth as well as English; he cannot simply take it away. And when we are told that Scotland should continue to hand over its oil to support the UK treasury, we're being treated like a colony, only relevant so long as the Imperial power can extract valuable raw materials.

Now we know, just a little, how it feels to be colonised .

So now is the time to face up to our imperial past. That means justice,  education and reparation. Education in its very widest sense, so that we the public learn that our good stuff, much of it, was built on bad stuff - on injustice, pain, death and cruelty. Education designed to remind us, before we purchase that new mobile, that new dress or those shoes, that these objects are made in the Empire of today, the multinational trading empire, and that they are made in the pain of the Coltan mine or the dangers of the sweatshop.

And reparation meaning that we go back to the communities we abused and repair some of the harm we caused. We will arrive far too late, and in far too tiny a way; we will not find the skilled Persian embroiderer who made the first twisted teardrop. But we must seize this moment when we are, for a while, a colony of England, to start to repair the ruin of Empire.

Disraeli quote from The Scottish Enlightenment, Arthur Herman, Fourth Estate, London, 2002, page 294
Poultry for Anyone, Victoria Roberts, Whittet Books, Suffolk, 1998
The Minorca Club - poultry

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