It is important to record the true history, and not just the story of the victors
“Why are you so angry? Is it because you have been locked up or locked down for so long because of the coronavirus? Tell me, please tell me, I am worried about you.”
This is what a friend asked me over the phone yesterday.
I told my friend that I was so upset to see the headlines about traders in Dhaka stockpiling oxygen cylinders while patients die, and that hospitals which should have central oxygen facilities not having installed them.
What have these hospitals and what have the government authorities been doing for the last three months? There are clearly many people and institutions that should be prosecuted for criminal negligence. The lives of many people could have been saved.
However, everyone thinks of things in their own way. Near the Gulshan-2 traffic lights yesterday, there was a group of four young men chatting. All had face masks resting on their chins. By pointing at my own mask, I asked them to wear their masks properly. The reply I got was that “everyone has to die sometime, so it is not a big deal.”
They also added that people like President Trump do not wear masks, so why should they? I told them that Trump, for some reason, does not want to set a good example and, by the way, he has medical staff available for him 24 hours a day.
Also, and connected to my anger, yesterday, a Bangladeshi friend asked me to discuss the controversies surrounding the slave trade which have been strongly highlighted as a result of George Floyd’s brutal murder in Minneapolis over two weeks ago. I told my friend that I would need many days to discuss the issues surrounding the slave trade, because it was connected to imperialism.
I pointed out that Britain’s wealth increased all the time that they occupied different parts of the world, the parts of the world that were in “pink” colour in the atlases when I was in primary school.
To begin with, it was the East India Company and later the British Crown. I was surprised by the reply I got from my friend: “The British may have been in British India, largely for trading purposes, but they gave us many things, such as rule of law, democracy, education system, and the railways.”
I gave my opinion that perhaps the railways were very helpful so that the British could easily control things in India.
Our discussion went on, related to slavery, and my friend was of the opinion that this historic issue of slavery was a problem of the US only. I told him that slavery exists in many countries of the world including Bangladesh, only it has a more modern name, “bonded labour.” Even now, in 2020, there are occupations where children are hired on low wages with their salaries sent to their parents.
Often, the employer advances money to the parents of the children and so the children are held to work against the debt. I told my friend that children in Bangladesh are trapped in the worst forms of child labour, including forced child labour in the production of dried fish and brickmaking.
Children also perform dangerous tasks in the production of garments and leather goods, often in sub-contracted workshops.
Related to “bonded labour” or child labour, I asked my friend if he and his wife employed anyone at home. “Yes, we have a servant girl who lives in and does all kinds of work. She is about 13 years old. We do not pay her a salary but she eats the same food as us and we give her clothing and other necessities like soap, oil, etc.”
He went on to say that by keeping her in Dhaka, her family has saved a lot of money. “In addition,” he said, “We have promised to pay for her marriage.” Laughing he said: “You can say it is benevolent slavery.”
Going back to the reaction worldwide to the brutal death of George Floyd, there has been an immediate demand in the UK to remove statues of people known to have been involved in “slave-trading.” A statue of Edward Colston was removed by the public in Bristol. When I read up about Edward Colston, I found out that he had built a palatial house in M ortlake, London where he died.
I said to myself: “I grew up in Mortlake and East Sheen and I remember a Colston Road.” I expect the name of that road will be changed although it is not, in fact, a very important road. It runs behind a line of high street shops so is the road for deliveries and also to remove rubbish.
It is important that history books anywhere record the true history and not just what the victors or erstwhile rulers wanted to record. It is also extremely important to really eradicate slavery.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.