Racial Capitalism and the End of Empire Files

Jasmine Holding Brown

PhD student, Falling Though the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


My research on child migration from Britain, and Indigenous child removal within Canada during the twentieth century, is particularly concerned with race. From a theoretical point of view, I am interested in what these schemes might demonstrate in terms of understanding ‘racial capitalism’. Connections between historic child welfare, and what academics term the ‘colonial global economy’ might not seem obvious, but both fuse questions of morality with relationships defined by imbalances of power, and an intent to gauge whose interests are being protected.

‘Racial capitalism’ is a concept attributed to the late Cedric Robinson, alongside other key figures associated with the Black Radical Tradition, recently receiving renewed interest from scholars and activists. In its most basic sense, it proposes an inextricable relationship between racism and capitalism.

Robinson argued that racialised exploitation was foundational to the development of capitalism within Europe, before the introduction of transatlantic slavery, in processes he considered colonial. He demonstrated that historically Europe’s working-classes contained racialisedsubjects, including Irish, Roma, Slav and Jewish people, whose exploitation was broadly accepted on account of their apparent cultural or ethnic inferiority.

Contemporary sociologists suggest that the capitalist tendency to differentiate workers along racial lines is frequently underestimated in accounts of how the modern world developed. We have to ask what is the work that racism does – over time and across place, for whose benefit and why – and set this alongside postcolonial theorists, who address the colonial processes fundamental to the reproduction of plural racisms.

In my research, racialisation, essentially the identification of particular people as ‘races’ has clear significance. When Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ North America in the fifteenthcentury, he apparently labelled its people ‘Indian’ because he mistakenly believed he had reached Asia. Five hundred years later, children from ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds were forced to attend ‘Indian Residential Schools’, in an attempt to erase their ‘Indian’ heritage and assimilate them into Western-European culture, a legacy of this crude ‘pan-Indian’ construction and the colonial systems that manufactured and defined its terms.

How racial codes are constructed and transformed was something I considered when looking at the British Documents on the End of Empire series, an annotated collection of government records chronicling Britain’s withdrawal from its colonial territories. The following quotes are all taken from these files, with the headings indicating which volume. I would urge anyone interested in Britain’s recent colonial history to have a look at them.

The Labour Government and the End of Empire 1945-1951: Part IV, pp. 144-155.

After the Second World War, the disintegration of Britain’s old imperial identity is reflected in discussions over Canada’s rejection of the ‘phrase if not the content of Dominion status’, now considered to imply domination. The model was India, ‘which only twenty years ago clamoured for Dominion status, now demands independence’. In a letter to India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Nehru in 1949, one year after gaining independence, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee emphasised the ‘power of words’ and the changing dynamics of Britain’s former empire, remarking how Canada first ‘called itself a Dominion having taken the term from some phrase in the Bible’. He lamented the fact that ‘we in this country are rather insensitive to the content of names’.

Imperial Policy and Colonial Practice 1925-1945: Part II, pp. 291-306.

Racial sensitivities, or lack thereof, are detailed in one compelling memo written in 1940 by B.E. Carman, Director of Education in British Honduras (now Belize), regarding ‘offensive passages in school textbooks’. Reflecting upon British racism, colonial policy, and the influence of the former on the colonies, Carman urged the Colonial Office to review the distribution of books authored by British academics, as their contents, ‘though not necessarily actually offensive, are yet irritating to local people’.

Carman cites the following extract to highlight what he terms the hypocrisy of ‘Western standards’ that claim cultural differences as ‘an accident of geography’ rather than racial inheritance, while still viewing non-white people ‘as some strange inferior species’.

The original people were negroes of a backward type […] But they have mixed to some extent with the better tribes farther north and so have been improved. (Laborde, The Southern Lands, 1931).

Carman also suggests that racial hierarchies between colonised populations be considered: ‘books written for West Africa cannot be used in the West Indies since the people here rightly regard themselves as being more advanced than their African relatives, particularly if they happen to be comparatively fair-skinned.’

Carman’s proposed solution, with hindsight, appears extraordinarily naïve. He suggested that if British scholars were only more ‘careful of what they write’, they could spare not only the feelings of Britain’s colonial subjects, but potentially reverse racial prejudices ‘developing in England [which] would be checked and probably even killed’.

This understanding of British racism as ‘purely a social problem’ recurs, demonstrating an important contention of postcolonial theory, and what is considered a false distinction between economic/political systems and social relations. The racism integrated in the former is denied by emphasising the latter. In the minutes of Colonial Office meetings in the early 1940s, the problem of domestic racial prejudice, characterised as ‘a disinclination on the part of white people to be brought into close association, socially, with coloured people’, is contrasted favourably with the seemingly intractable colonial ‘colour bar’, and explicitly racist legislation favouring their white European minorities. Despite these cases being, ‘very difficult to answer by a government which attempts to take its stand against colour prejudice’, in Africa especially, such discrimination was still considered ‘to be, and is, in the interests of the natives themselves.’

The Conservative Government and the End of Empire 1951-1957, Part III, pp. 393-395.

Hope that Britain’s racist inclinations could, in Carman’s words, simply be ‘brought up to date’ had been firmly dispelled by the 1950s, although the hypocrisy of publicly portraying anti-racist sentiments while tacitly condoning colonial racism, and here implementing racist policies, remained consistent. In the words of Lord Salisbury in a 1954 letter to Lord Swinton, ‘if we legislate on immigration, though we can draft it in non-discriminatory terms, we cannot conceal the obvious fact that the object is to keep out coloured people’.

This was in relation to the increasing migration of British subjects from the West Indies, foreshadowing the recent Windrush scandals. Salisbury remarked: ‘It is for me not merely a question of whether criminal negroes should be allowed in or not; it is a question whether great quantities of negroes, criminal or not, should be allowed to come…’

He was suggesting, derisively, that ‘this sudden increase of the inflow of Blacks is of course the welfare state’. Arguably this is true, since these were people actively recruited in their thousands to help rebuild Britain’s economy after the war, including to its new National Health Service.  


Because of its usage in contexts similar to the above, ‘negro’ is a term now considered deeply offensive. In the 1920s however, W.E.B. Du Bois, forefather of the sociology of race, advocated its use by black people over ‘coloured’ for political reasons. Thinking about the currency of race – the work racialised constructions do, who uses them, how they change and why – is significant in research that hopes to understand racial capitalism and, ultimately, how the exploitation of particular people is often justified.

Samuel Selvon © 1956. Published under a Creative Commons License.
“The Lonely Londoners is regarded as the first – and definitive – novel to represent the Black migrant experience in England.” British Library.