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  • Lawrence Bailey

We're all affected by injustice

Like everyone else, I’ve watched the Black Lives Matter movement evolve into something pivotal.

Sure, you can argue that all lives matter; if that’s something you sincerely believe and it’s not just intended as a snappy comeback. For me though, the issue is how we confront injustice.

I belong to a generation that loudly protested when the Springboks came to Swansea in 1969 and got smacked in the guts with a truncheon for my trouble. I later stood outside the old Arms Park ground in the rain singing “We shall overcome” and got spat on. I watched with undisguised emotion when Nelson Mandela took that walk from the prison gates.

This victory wasn’t about symbolism. Apartheid had been the epitome of injustice. It was institutionalised racism and, like all forms of state-enforced oppression, it was rooted in unsustainable economics.

Over the centuries, the callous treatment of 'lesser' people as an expendable commodity has marred human progress, often debasing the oppressors as much as the oppressed. Even those considered as enlightened in their dealings have been found to be flawed.

It’s likely that you’ve never heard of Pascoe St Leger Grenfell. That’s not surprising.

The esteemed gentleman came to Swansea in about 1844 and took up management of a large section of the copper-smelting industry. He was a model employer by 19th century standards who chose to locate in the eastside rather than across the river in a less polluted part of town. It is claimed that during his tenure there was not a single works strike or lock-out.

According to official accounts, his family built All Saints Church, Kilvey and he taught at the Sunday school for 30 years. He was active in civic affairs and provided workers accommodation. He left behind street names such as Grenfell Town, St Leger Crescent and Taplow Terrace (the last named after the family’s Taplow estate in Buckinghamshire)

And yet, the extensive Grenfell family business interests were closely linked with the copper mines of El Cobre, Cuba. These were notorious slave-labour operations and reports of the kind of brutality used there are simply horrific.

One academic wrote that just as the industrialisation of Lancashire held people in bondage in the cotton-growing states of Alabama and Mississippi, so the industrial supremacy of the Swansea region kept people captive in eastern Cuba.

What I’m illustrating is that history is messy and any subsequent views as to how should we regard the Grenfells and their tainted legacy is inevitably going to be divisive.

The strong abolitionist tradition which thrived in these parts at the time actually counted for little among local workers. Yet before we show modern-day disdain for our forebears, maybe we should first ask under what conditions that remarkably cheap item of clothing we’ve just bought was made?

Attacking statues has its place in terms of protest but it ignores that individuals on top of the plinth tend to be just a complex as their circumstances that put them there.

Churchill was a remarkable and often inspirational leader. Yet his career included decidedly shabby episodes, such as the forced repatriation of tens of thousands of anti-communist Cossacks after the war who were later exterminated under Stalin.

Things can be more straightforward, of course. For whatever patriotic gloss is applied, the hallmark of British imperialism has basically been about invading other people’s countries and subjugating them.

The Boer Wars were overt acts of shameless colonialism. What started as profit-driven conflicts contrived by the likes of Cecil Rhodes morphed into expedient government policy. The result was attrition tactics of scorched earth and concentration camps inflicted upon civilians. So, what is our response if we are minded to remedy this injustice? Do we cover up the war memorials?

These are not meant as flippant questions, by any means. Each of us has to decide how we take the next steps, although I find myself returning to the words of the black historian who contends that when you remove something that symbolises injustice from public view then you also run the risk of removing the memory that it ever happened.

I'd suggest however that daily life provides enough of a reminder of injustice for too many people. Surely that must be where we start.



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