‘Apartheid in death’ for Black and Asian troops
Is it too late to apologise for World War One racism? Yesterday, the British government said it deeply regrets the failure to properly commemorate thousands of Black and Asian conscripts.
In southern Kenya, Mwamkon Mwavaka has no place to grieve.
Just over a century ago, at the height of World War One, his grandfather served the British Army. As a porter, his backbreaking work carrying supplies to the frontline was essential – and dangerous. And like many Africans, it is possible Chichole was there because he was threatened, or perhaps even beaten into submission.
When Chichole died, only his hair was returned to his family. Today, nobody knows where his body lies. He has no grave and no memorial.
Mwamkon Mwavaka’s story is shocking. But unfortunately, his experience is not unusual. Yesterday, a new report found that thousands of Black and Asian people who died fighting for the British Empire were not remembered in the same way as White war victims.
The figures are staggering. As many as 350,000 African and Middle Eastern casualties of World War One were not commemorated by name, if at all. And another 45,000 to 54,000 African and Asian victims were “commemorated unequally”, their names recorded only in huge lists of the dead.
The report was clear: “pervasive racism” was to blame for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) failure to stand by its founding principle that all should have equal treatment in their grave.
“Most of the natives who have died are of a semi-savage nature and do not attach any sentiment to the graves of the dead,” declared one document from 1920s Kenya.
Now, the British government has formally apologised. So has the commission: “The events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now.”
Yet for historian David Olusoga, the apologies are too late. “People knew about this,” he says. “This is not something that’s been uncovered by this report. It is being acknowledged by this report.”
The details are devastating, but the unequal treatment of White and non-White soldiers in the early 20th Century will come as no surprise to many scholars.
In 1920, social critic WEB Du Bois described a “new religion of whiteness” that had taken over the world, founded on the belief that “of all the hues of God, whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness and tan”.
Du Bois thought that “whiteness” as a classification of identity had emerged a century earlier, in the 1800s. Now, most historians point to the late 1600s and the attempts of early British colonialists to justify slavery.
At first, slave owners justified depriving Africans of their freedom on the basis that they were not Christian. Then, when enslaved Africans began converting, laws turned to the word “white” instead.
Today, 300 years later, David Olusoga still wonders how the CWGC would have reacted if they had discovered 100,000 white soldiers had been abandoned in mass graves without a memorial. For him, the commission’s actions amount to only one thing: “apartheid in death”.
Is it too late to apologise for World War One racism?
At the going down of the sun
This is too little, too late, say some. World War One ended more than 100 years ago. It is likely that much of the damage done in the early 1920s can now no longer be fixed. It will be impossible now to identify and commemorate many of the thousands of Black and Asian people who died. An apology does nothing to make up for the indignity of being forgotten.
It is never too late to say sorry, others claim. The apology by the commission is not really about the past – after all, nothing can change that now. Instead, it is about the future. It is vital that we recognise that the world was and still can be a deeply racist place. Only by acknowledging and making amends for the past can we work towards a more equal future.
- Will the world ever be totally free of racism?
- Was WEB Du Bois right to say whiteness is like a religion?
- In pairs, imagine you could interview a Black or Asian person who fought for the British Empire. Write down a list of five to ten questions you would ask them.
- In groups, design a new memorial for the Black and Asian victims of World War One. How will your new design show that the people lost were individuals, not just nameless victims?
Some People Say...
“Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this?”WEB Du Bois (1868 – 1963), American sociologist, historian and activist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that soldiers from the British Empire played a major role in World War One, which was fought not just in European trenches, but all over the world. In Africa, Western countries such as Britain, Germany and France involved roughly two million in the war effort as soldiers and labourers. Many were coerced into taking part, and roughly 10% died. And India, which then included Pakistan and Bangladesh, sent more than 1.4 million soldiers to fight.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate surrounds whether Western governments should pay reparations, or economic compensation, for past atrocities. Last year, two candidates in the US Presidential race endorsed paying reparations for the slave trade. In 2015, one Indian politician made a passionate call for Britain to pay reparations to former colonies, saying Britain owed a “moral debt”. Others say reparations are impractical, and that modern Britons should not pay for something they were not a part of.
- British Empire
- At its peak in the early 20th Century, the British Empire covered 25% of the world’s land surface and contained 23% of the world’s population.
- In Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, there are no headstones commemorating an African person who died in World War One.
- After the war, the Directorate of Graves Registration employed 15,000 people to exhume soldiers in France and Belgium. In East Africa, 130 people covered seven countries.
- The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was set up in 1917 and today is responsible for commemorating 1.7 million people in 153 countries.
- David Olusoga
- A Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester and a television presenter and producer. His company produced David Lammy’s documentary on the war graves scandal.
- The head of the CWGC acknowledged that the commission had known about the research of historian Michèle Barrett, who first revealed the issue, for nearly a decade.
- WEB Du Bois
- Du Bois was a prominent civil rights activist and the first African American to earn a doctorate.
- From the Afrikaans word meaning “separateness”, Apartheid was a system of segregation on grounds of race that existed in South Africa in the 20th Century.