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The Myth of Fairness

Colin Holmes assesses racial violence in Britain from 1911-19.

The British are no less prone to the creation of myths than any other national group. This has been evident as much in their discussions of racial ethnic minorities as in anything else. Hence, for example, the reference to 'the fairness of the British' and 'their infuriating tolerance' with which the Sunday Times greeted the emergence of Powellism in 1968.

Claims about the toleration of the British, however, sound hollow in the ears of others. It was a characteristic which could suddenly evaporate in the outposts of the Empire where violence towards the colonised and imperialised was an everyday occurrence. At times, indeed, it took place on a considerable scale. 'In October 1865', it has been written, 'there took place an uprising of Negro peasantry upon the island colony of Jamaica in the British West Indies. The uprising was speedily suppressed by troops under the direction of the colonial Governor, Edward Eyre'. But what exactly did happen? In round terms 'during a month long reign of terror, a thousand houses were burnt, nearly five hundred Negroes were killed and more than that number were flogged and tortured'. Moreover, in restoring order Eyre 'managed to secure the court martial and execution of a personal and political enemy, a mulatto member of the Jamaica House of Assembly'. When the events became known in England a major debate occurred, in the course of which public opinion was sharply divided.

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