The rape of James Bond

On sexual assault, and “realism” in popular culture.

This essay discusses rape of both women and men throughout. No specific real-world cases are mentioned nor are any scenes described graphically, however as it’s about realism, it does necessarily shuttle rapidly between incidents in fairly silly texts and grim facts about the real world.

Spoilers for Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and minor spoilers for various older texts.

Last year, halfway through the second book of the series, I gave up reading A Song of Ice and Fire. I had enjoyed the first novel very much – I liked the sense that the fantastic elements were providing a different lens on the Middle Ages, removing the sense that there was something default or inevitable about mediaeval European culture, and re-revealing the fundamental strangeness of a world of knights and kings. I enjoyed the resonances with specific episodes in real history – the War of the Roses, the Jacobite rebellions. It reminded me of the songs by the Corries that I, a fake Scot, grew up on. I even enjoyed all the freaking heraldry and food.

That sense of history seemed to be dwindling away a bit in the second book, but in the end, that wasn’t what drove me away.

Instead, it was all the rape.

This surprised me. After all, I’d known going in that there was quite a lot of it, and though I was prepared to find its treatment at least somewhat problematic, I’d also expected to be able to handle it. I’m usually able to read fairly graphic scenes without getting more distressed than the story called for, and friends of mine who I thought were more readily upset by that sort of thing had read the books just fine. And, as it turns out, a lot of the rapes in A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t graphic at all.

But.

There.

Are.

Just.

So.

Many.

Of.

Them.

And occasionally they are really graphic. But that they’re mostly not almost made it worse for me. That made it possible for the narrative to load that many more of them by the casual handful into chapter after chapter. Rape as backstory, as plot point, as motivation – however badly handled, I can usually cope with it.

I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.

When there had been two rapes of children (one of whom was also murdered) within about twenty pages of each other, when I realised I was physically tensing up every time a male and female character were in the same scene as each other, because something always happened, even if it was “just” sexualised verbal abuse, it occurred to me I was no longer having any fun with this book.

This is where the fans, whether of G.R.R.M or Rapey Pop Culture in General say, “But! That’s the point! That horrible sense that sexual violence permeates everything — that’s realistic.”

Because it’s not only George R. R. Martin, of course. It’s comics and film and video games and TV. Buffy couldn’t get through her entire series without one drawn-out attempted rape scene and the eventual revelation that sexual violation was the ultimate source of all the Slayer’s powers. In this the series fell into line with a longstanding trend. When rape in fiction isn’t stage-dressing, as it is in so much of A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s frequently a Campbellian Call to Adventure. Your girlfriend was raped, (and probably murdered)? You were raped yourself, but at least you’re alive and the protagonist? Go forth and kick some ass! Recently it was decided that Lara Croft couldn’t get by any longer without some rape in her origin story, because her new incarnation was going to be all rough and dark and gritty.

And “realistic.”

Some feminists counter the “realism” defence with the argument that if your world is full of dragons and magic then it’s nonsense to complain about anything being unrealistic.

I see the point of this argument – it’s certainly true that a lot of readers, male and female, use even would-be “gritty” works for escapism and it’s fair to argue that female readers should get more chances to enjoy that without constantly being reminded of the miserable realities of the real world and, in many cases, their own lives.

But I’m not completely on board. Firstly, I don’t accept the implication that it’s silly to use the word “realism” in relation to SFF and other forms of genre fiction. That a text departs from reality in some way – by introducing magic, or impossible technology, or even just a very improbable premise – doesn’t mean the human characters should stop acting like humans. If it did, Fantasy would be only about escapism, ever, and could never have anything meaningful to say about, well, anything.

Secondly, to make the argument that fantasy is unrealistic anyway so why not extend that unrealism to the depiction of rape, is to accept that what we currently have is realistic, and that it cannot be changed without sacrificing that realism.

So first it should be said that it’s not a given that the Middle Ages were actually a wall-to-wall rape-fest. And while rape is appallingly prevalent in our modern world, it’s still something like a 25 per cent chance a woman will be raped over the course of her life, not a 25 per cent chance that she’ll be raped today. That’s still a majority of women not being raped, though nowhere near as overwhelming a majority as it damn well ought to be.

I think it is true that, sometimes, failing to acknowledge the risk of rape in circumstances where it would be particularly likely to be present can diminish the authenticity of a text. I remember a friend of mine coming home from a modern dance piece about the torture of political prisoners (yes, we were the sort of people who would go to see modern dance piece about political prisoners). The prisoner, in this case, was female; her captors were male. Even in a dance piece, from which “realism” might seem to be even more distant than from a fantasy novel, my friend found it jarringly unrealistic that there was no hint of a threat of sexual violence in the depicted torture, to the extent that it left the whole piece feeling superficial and slight to her, too afraid of its own subject matter to engage with it honestly. “Come on,” my friend said.

“Really?”

I’ve been in the position of plotting out a novel, and suddenly realising I had placed not one but two female characters in circumstances that sexual violence seemed almost overwhelmingly likely. (One of them was, indeed, a political prisoner). Every time I thought hey it was my book and I could just wave my hands and declare that bad stuff would happen, but not that kind of bad stuff, I got an uneasy feeling I wasn’t being honest. It wasn’t true to either the characters or the power-structures I’d depicted. When I thought about having the rape actually happen, I got uneasy in another way again. So what the hell was I to do?

More of that later.

For now, though, let’s just agree that in so called Genre fiction, we love to strip away protection from our characters to give them an interesting job of coping on their own; parents are dead or absent or abusive, homesteads are burned down, authority figures are blinkered or oppressive; you can trust no one, for no one can hear you scream… And all these things will, in the real world, heighten a person’s vulnerability to all forms of violence, including sexual violence. So yes, realism does sometimes mean dealing with that vulnerability somehow or other.

But that heightened vulnerability to sexual violence applies to men too. So where are they, all the raped male characters? People say, it would be unrealistic if she wasn’t raped, but take it for granted that of course he wasn’t.

Why is that?

About one in every 33 men is raped. That’s much lower than the one in four chance that an American woman (sadly I only have US statistics for the most part) faces over the course of her life, but it’s still a significant number.

And that’s your statistically average, real life man. Despite all the privileges and protections of being male, he still faces a non-zero risk of rape.

He also doesn’t have a horde of enemies explicitly dedicated to destroying him. He doesn’t routinely get abducted, and tied up. Facing a megalomaniac psychopath gloating over causing him pain before taking over the world is not the average man’s average day at the office.

All of those things would surely raise one’s risk of being raped. And all of those things happen to fictional male heroes all the time. Not just once per character, but repeatedly.

My go-to example for this used to be James Bond. “Is it realistic that James Bond has never been raped?” I would say. How many times has he found himself utterly at the mercy of men who want to hurt, degrade and humiliate him before killing him? I will accept, on any one such occasion, the odds might be in his favour. I suppose it is plausible for many of his enemies – even most of them – not to think of raping him or having him raped by others, despite having captured him, tied him up and possibly removed some of his clothes. But all of them? Here we have scores of horrible, destructive, evil people, and not a single one of them is evil in that way? Now, all right –it might be unlikely we would actually see a completed rape on screen even if Bond were a woman, the rating system sees to that. But rape is suggested in PG or 12 rated movies all the time, which in practical terms means female characters get threatened with it a lot. Off the top of my head, there’s Marion in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, there’s Elizabeth in at least two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Kristen Stewart’s Snow White, and even Jasmine in Aladdin (or shall we forget what forced marriage/ “enchant her to fall in love with me” means? )! So wouldn’t we expect a female James Bond to be, at least, tied to a chair at gunpoint while the villain unbuttoned her top and suggestively touched her thigh?

Then Skyfall came out. And the villain has Bond tied to a chair at gunpoint, while he unbuttons his top and suggestively touches his thigh.

I found reactions to that scene fascinating. I got the sense a lot of male viewers found it particularly unsettling. Some (and not only men) felt it was homophobic – suggesting the villain was that much more evil because he was “gay.” The fact that entering “Bond Silva” into Google prompts it instantly to offer “Bond Silva Gay” is a genuine concern, though for what it’s worth, the narrative does make clear the character has sex with women. Personally I didn’t think you could tell anything about Javier Bardem’s character’s orientation from the scene – that he got a sexual thrill from a dominating a helpless opponent, yes. But that he’d get the hots for a consenting Bond he met via a dating site for fucked up spies or that he wouldn’t have got that same thrill from dominating an unwilling female opponent… well, at least, I don’t see the film provides any evidence for it. Yet I did see a lot of men reading it as Silva “trying to turn Bond gay” or “seduce” him.

Erm. When you’re tied to a chair and there’s a gun at your head, unless you have very specific tastes and agreed to all this beforehand, that is not a seduction! It is something else, something quite specific. That scene is, to coin a phrase, not about sex, it’s about power. And it is the most literal way I have ever seen a male hero (and the ultra-masculine Bond at that) treated like a female character.

And it only took fifty years.

I was gobsmacked, and I wasn’t the only one. Because it was a man, this has been a Big Thing, even though what happens to Bond in that scene never goes past a few buttons undone and an unwelcomed caress of his thigh. In Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, Marion is subjected to a protracted assault with clothes-tearing and thrusting and gasping – you know, for kids! But that was just normal.

But Bond is far from the only male character who, going by the particularly brutal definition of “realism” we’re using for this post, realistically ought to have been raped by now. In the real world, your risk of becoming a male victim of rape rises dramatically if you go to prison. Again, I only have US figures, and I’d like to hope that here in the UK and elsewhere, the picture may not be quite so bleak, though I fear I may be too optimistic. In any case, in the US, the figure is thought to be somewhere around one in six. That’s much closer to the risk a woman runs over the course of her life. Can life as a superhero really be less dangerous than prison? Wow, imagine if you were a superhero and in prison! And if it was a really lawless, awful, violent prison… oh.

Here we have Batman, in a physical state that left him spectacularly unable to defend himself, at a phase in the story which was supposed to represent the lowest low from which he’d have to fight his way back… and no one, in what was supposed to be the most godforsaken horrific hellhole on the face of the world, thought to take advantage of the vulnerable newcomer? Are we supposed to believe all these men, who sometimes tear people’s faces off for fun, who never ever get out of the prison, are entirely chaste? Or is it that all the sex they are likely to be having with each other is completely consensual? I’m sorry, we were talking about realistic?

Everyone was quite nice to Batman, really.

To briefly return to A Song of Ice and Fire: The Black Watch, an all-male organisation that’s a bit like the Catholic church and a bit like the military, has a bit of a bullying problem. Some of the recruits are explicitly "rapers". But none of the bullying turns sexual, not even from characters who have form as perpetrators of sexual violence. None of the boys suffers rape. Neither do any of the male peasants who are taken prisoner at various points by various factions. Despite being smaller and weaker than most of his male peers, Tyrion does not get raped, nor is he made to fear rape, either when captured by enemy noblemen or surrounded by hundreds of violent, volatile outlaws. They threaten to kill him, even to mutilate him, but not to rape him. Why not? Isn’t this supposed to be a grim, ruthless, realistic world?

Men, if you’re feeling a bit queasy at the idea of so many beloved characters suffering rape – if you’re feeling creeped out by someone enthusiastically arguing in favour of them being raped because it’s too bad if it upsets you, it’s realistic… Well, hi. Welcome to the world of women.

This is not, I promise, the opening of a ghoulish campaign to see more male characters get raped. Not exactly. Though I will confess that I appreciated that in the novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when the male hero wanders like a little lamb in to the lair of a serial killer/serial rapist, and once he has been, to the surprise of no one but himself, overpowered and tied up, the villain immediately shares his plans to rape him before murdering him. Why? Because this man has a bloody dungeon for raping and killing people, and the hero is in it, why would anything else happen? Of course it actually doesn’t. Completed rape remains reserved for the female characters – but I liked that at least threatened rape wasn’t: that Blomqvist was almost raped, diminished a sense that being raped was part of what Lisbeth Salander was for. And I liked that a woman got to do the burst-in-and-save-the-love-interest routine, like Kevin Costner’s Robin did for Marion. I’d been waiting since the age of 12 to see it.

Noticeably, the Swedish film (I haven’t seen the English language one) omits this specific threat against Blomqvist. I’ve always wondered why that was – if it was just about pacing or length, or whether someone felt Blomqvist would be emasculated as a hero, if he were even threatened with what Lisbeth Salander actually undergoes.

But my point. I do have one – in fact, several. My first point is not that I am arguing for all this rape; it’s that if you are going to argue in favour of the current level of fictional rape of women and girls, you should be. You, if you care so much about realism, must demand the rape of Batman and James Bond. In fact, given not only that so many male fictional characters find themselves in such high-risk environments but that male fictional characters outnumber female ones about 2 to 1, we should be seeing nearly as many raped men in fiction as raped women.

But my other point is that there is another way. Even if “realism” does demand that your setting include a lot of rape, there is more than one way you can communicate that to the reader. I want to come back to the anecdote I started with – my friend, who found the dance piece inauthentic because it didn’t address the risk of rape. Two things about that.

1) The fact that I can tell that anecdote says that my friend lives, and I live, in a world where rape is fairly common, no? Look, worldbuilding, no hands. And no rape scene at all.

2) It doesn’t mean my friend wanted to see an explicit rape scene. She wanted to see the threat somehow addressed.

So how can that work?

You can have the victims and potential victims refer to it. Not necessarily at great length or in much detail – if it’s such a huge presence in their lives, a daily risk, they won’t need to. They’ll know what goes on. You can have characters who are less likely to be raped worry about the ones who are more vulnerable. We do not need to watch every rape that happens or can be assumed to have happened in the course of the story. And though from time to time, it may be interesting and revealing to show us how the rapists think about it, if you depict rape mainly from the view of the male perpetrator, the vengeful male lover of the victim, the male witness—and rarely or never from the perspective of the victim – there’s a strong risk you’re reinforcing a social narrative in which rape is fundamentally a power exchange between men (rapist and husband… male author and male reader).

Or, if you’re writing another kind of text, and you use rape as your motivating crisis for a female hero again… well, it can be done brilliantly, inspiringly — but as it has been done so often, you risk adding to a cumulative implication that women’s lives revolve in smaller, more sexualised orbits than men’s, that there’s only one kind of bad experience they can have, the whole rest of the world of potential risk and response is closed off to them. You risk implying that female lives are defined by the presence of rape; almost that an un-raped/unthreatened woman is a boring woman.

These things aren’t harmless.

In the course of writing this post it struck me that unlike Westeros, Romanitas-world has a whole class of people who can be raped with near impunity. “Realistically”, there must be at least an equivalent amount of rape going on, if not more. And yet it never occurred to me that unless I had a rape scene every ten pages or so, my portrayal of that world would be unrealistic.

So I decided I’d count the number of rape scenes that I’d put in my own trilogy and think about the way I treated rape in general. I’ve written up my findings in some detail but this post is already really long and I can summarise pretty easily:

Number of times completed rapes that actually happen on the page in the entire trilogy? One.

(It happens in the course of a short paragraph).

And I do not believe this was unrealistic.

That one rape is by a slave-owner, of a slave. It is plainly neither the first nor the last time; both victim and perpetrator treat it as routine. (though we will later discover that this does not mean the survivor is not profoundly angry about it). The story does not let you assume that that’s somehow the only rape to occur; an unquantifiable number of rapes are shown to have happened, in the way people behave, the situations in which some characters feel at risk, the signs they exhibit of trauma, the way they worry about each other, the assumptions that other characters make about why someone is present or how they can be treated, the language they use. One character outright states that a lot of rape is going on alongside other forms of violence against slaves. I want the reader to know that, to empathise with it. But that doesn’t mean I have to force an endless parade of rape into her brain without regard for what memories or daily fears may already be there.

That one scene is not, actually, the result of the small crisis I mentioned having at the start of this post — the one time I felt “realism” placed two female characters at particularly severe risk of rape, when I thought, “Now what do I do?”

Well, I continued thinking. I thought about it for ages. I talked about it to people. Because the answer wasn’t immediately obvious to me. I seriously wondered if I should have the risk realised, especially in case of one of the two women. But in the end I asked myself, “Is the rest of the story going to be about the repercussions of this rape? Is it going to be at least, an extremely significant narrative strand? No? Then I won’t put the reader through it.

(The threat is made, the risk is not glossed over, it’s made clear it could have happened, but in the end in the end the women manage, partially, to protect each other. The rape would have been realistic, yes, but that doesn’t mean the way it’s averted is unrealistic.)

That question I asked myself, “Is a substantial part of the rest of the story going to be about the repercussions of this rape for the survivor” is a question I would like writers to ask themselves more often before writing rape. Because anything less than that, you might not be taking it seriously enough.

But here are some other questions:

“Do I need to put the reader through this?” Because you have as much as a duty to your reader as you do to “realism”— especially as you may find “realism” a far less solid and singular thing than you might imagine. Your readers are more real than “realism” and can be hurt much more easily.

“Would I ever write a story in which the male hero is raped as part of his origin story, or as the nadir he had to fight back from, or to inspire someone else to take revenge?”

And if you would, yes, I think perhaps you should go ahead and do it. If done very well, and respectfully, it could even help to destigmatise the experience of male survivors. It could help to diminish that sense that rape somehow defines female experience.

And if you would not, ask yourself why not. And if there’s any part of you that answers, that you wouldn’t find a male survivor of rape heroic, that it’s too humiliating to even think about – then, for everyone’s sakes, until you can honestly find a different answer within yourself, you need to not be writing about rape at all.

This essay first appeared on Sophia McDougall's blog, and is crossposted here with her permission

 

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall.

Sophia McDougall is the author of the Romanitas trilogy, set in a world where the Roman Empire never fell. Her first novel for children, Mars Evacuees, is published by Egmont UK on 27 March.

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David Olusoga's look at a forgotten history shows there's always been black in the Union Jack

Black and British: A Forgotten History addresses one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Nineteen eighty-four was a transformative year for David Olusoga. Then a young teenager, he was driven out of his council home, together with his grandmother, mother, two sisters and younger brother, by a sustained campaign of nightly stoning of their windows. When Olusoga recalled the experience before television cameras last year, he wept. His book is a product of that childhood terror, and partly an exploration of his condition as a black Briton. As he states, “The oral history of 20th-century racial violence has never been collected or collated, but it is there and it is shocking.”

Nineteen eighty-four affected him in another way: the publication of Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain introduced him to the scholarship needed to understand his position in Britain. Fryer’s book was monumental, inspiring conferences, publications, the setting up of local history groups, the establishment of Black History Month, and radio and television programmes. It began to alter (slightly) the history curriculum at university level: the first undergraduate one-year course on black British history and culture was taught at the University of Warwick in 1984. It was an apt university to experiment with such developments, since Lord Scarman, who reported on the Brixton riots of 1981, was its chancellor.

Olusoga patterns his narrative after Fryer’s, starting with the North African presence in Roman Britain. He updates Fryer, citing radioisotope analysis of skeletons and craniometrics, which support written documentation of Aurelian Moors guarding Hadrian’s Wall and settling in places such as Yorkshire. Indeed, third-century York may have been more ethnically and racially diverse than present-day York. Roman writers such as Pliny who chronicled – or rather fabricated – African life shaped perceptions of a continent populated by anthropophagi and other fantastic creatures, half-human, half-animal. John Mandeville, whose travelogue (circa 1356) was one of the most widely translated books of the later Middle Ages, presented Africans as naked savages living amid heaps of gold to which they gave no value.

And so, equipped with the fruits of Islamic learning (new navigational instruments, books on astronomy and trigonometry), European explorers set sail for Africa to relieve the natives of their gold. Pope Nicholas V gave his blessing, so long as the Vatican benefited. In the 15th and 16th centuries, thousands of pounds of gold were shipped to Europe. But slaves were more valuable, so the British fought the Spanish for a share in the trade and eventually came to dominate it. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain was granted the right to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, a right then passed on to the South Sea Company. The “South Sea bubble”, the greatest financial crash of the 18th century, was intimately connected to Britain’s dealings with Africa, though this is rarely acknowledged by historians.

The Royal African Company, established by Charles II in 1672, eventually enslaved and transported more Africans than any other company in British history. It built slave forts on the African coast, some such as Bunce Island in Sierra Leone furnished with a “rape house”. Separated from home and family and landed in the West Indies (countless numbers dying of suffocation during the journey, given that the people traffickers were packing the holds to maximise profits), the Africans had no recourse to the law, much less the conscience of their captors. The Barbados slave code of 1661 stripped Africans of all human rights, and set out ways in which they were to be punished, to exert control over their labour (mutilation of the face, slitting of nostrils, castration, execution). After decades of complaints, the Royal African Company lost its monopoly in 1712 and, Olusoga writes, “Independent traders were turned loose upon the shores of Africa.” These traders had argued (“stone-blind to irony”) that the right to enslave Africans was “a defining feature of English freedom” and that the Royal African Company had breached their status as free-born Englishmen. Eventually, 11,000 separate British slave-trading expeditions resulted in the trafficking of three-and-a-half-million Africans to the New World plantations, the greatest forced migration in modern history until the 20th century.

How could Britain, a civilised and Christian nation, indulge in rape, torture, killing and the forced labour of Africans over two centuries? The answer is money. If you had spare cash or could borrow, investment in slavery was a sure winner, never mind slave rebellions or hurricanes that destroyed cane fields. Sugar was king: originally a luxury, it became one of the main sources of calories for the British poor. And so many hundreds of thousands of British workers were directly dependent on slavery (from sailors to those who built, rigged and repaired ships) that it was easy to turn a blind eye to the inhumanity. Once insignificant villages, great cities such as Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow sprang up on the profits of slavery.

But a group of 12 disciples of Christ set out to change things. In 1787, they met in London and set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They included Josiah Wedgwood (the pottery entrepreneur), Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Fired by religious feeling, they embarked on a campaign of public education and political lobbying “unprecedented in scale and revolutionary in nature”. Supported by African authors of slave narratives such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano, they held meetings all over the country, attracting huge crowds. Thousands of petitions were presented to parliament. Women, denied a meaningful role in politics, formed their own organisations, writing tracts, pamphlets and poems, gathering signatures for petitions and fundraising: “At certain times and in certain places they were the engine room of the movement.”

Abolition was the first mass philanthropic movement in Britain, and it ended the slave trade in 1807. It could have ended earlier, but the planter interests in parliament defeated William Wilberforce’s attempts. In 1796, a bill was defeated by only four votes: a group of abolitionist MPs went to the opera and missed the vote. Between that night at the opera and 1807, nearly 800,000 Africans were enslaved.

Women such as Elizabeth Heyrick continued to lobby for the abolition of slavery. They organised a boycott of sugar, produced more petitions and hosted meetings. It was such a brilliantly organised programme of mass protest that slavery was declared abolished in 1833: 46,000 slave owners were given £20m in compensation (£17bn in today’s money), the largest payout in British history and 40 per cent of all government spending that year. The enslaved Africans had to wait another five years for their freedom and were not given a penny.

Long after slavery ended in the British colonies, British people continued to lobby the American government to free their slaves. The many African-American abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, who visited Britain from the 1840s onwards, were well received and, again, thousands of people greeted them and raised money to support their cause.

The publication in 1852 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, swelled national sympathy for the plight of black slaves. More than a million copies were sold in Britain – cheap pirated versions reached a mass readership. The novel became the bestselling book of 19th-century Britain; it was adapted for the theatre and generated mass-produced merchandise – playing cards, jigsaws, tableware. Its extraordinary success rested upon the “foundation of sympathy… laid down during the previous 70 years of abolitionist activity in Britain”.

Yet American slave-produced raw cotton continued to feed the 4,500 mills of Lancashire. In 1860, cotton goods accounted for 40 per cent of all British exports. In 1861, the Economist stated that nearly four million people in Britain depended – directly and indirectly – on the cotton industry; a fifth of the entire population. When the American Civil War interrupted the supply of cotton, hundreds of thousands of British workers were made destitute, dependent on soup kitchens, and the British economy was “dealt a thunderous blow, all because an ocean away the forced labour of four million enslaved black Americans had been disrupted”. Needless to say, the national mood changed. The masses who once supported black freedom now campaigned for the Deep South.

Olusoga brilliantly reveals such contradictions in British society. In dealing with the black contribution to the First World War, for example, he cites popular gratitude and admiration for black Britons – among them Walter Tull, who fought on the Western Front. Tull played professional football for Northampton but instead of signing up for Glasgow Rangers, he enlisted. Rapidly promoted to sergeant, then second lieutenant, he led white British troops into action and died in 1918, having been mentioned in despatches and recommended for the Military Cross. And yet Africans and West Indians were banned from the victory parade in 1919. Anti-black riots broke out in Liverpool that year.

During the Second World War, thousands of black American soldiers stationed in Britain were befriended by white Britons who opposed efforts by the white military to segregate them. West Indians fought with the Allies – more than a hundred were decorated. And yet anti-black race riots broke out in 1948 in Liverpool and in 1958 in Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill. The following decades were taken up with popular and political rhetoric about immigration and parliamentary acts to limit blacks coming to Britain.

Olusoga’s stated purpose is to argue that black British history is not about migration and settlement, whether of black servants in the 18th century or black workers in the Windrush era. It is about the centuries-long engagement with Africa, a consequence of which is the black presence in Britain. Olusoga has benefited from and added significantly to the work of Fryer and other historians such as James Walvin. He has discovered new and exciting research materials in African archives, among them the Register of Liberated Africans in Sierra Leone, which list names, bodily details, ethnicity and origins, thus putting a human face on people otherwise treated as fodder and statistics. Such sources give his writing freshness, originality and compassion.

Like Fryer’s book, Olusoga’s will inspire and will come to be seen as a major effort to address one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Black and British: A Forgotten History
David Olusoga
Macmillan, 624pp, £25

David Dabydeen is a novelist, broadcaster, academic and co-editor of “The Oxford Companion to Black British History” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear