Historian quits after slavery comments
David Starkey, one of Britain’s most eminent but controversial historians, has been forced to resign as an Honorary Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, after he had told a Right wing website: “Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there? An awful lot of them survived.”
This would have been an unwise remark at the best of time, but Starkey, 75, who excels in being as provocative as possible, appeared deliberately to invite a backlash in the heightened tension created by the Black Lives Matter movement. And he got it.
Fitzwilliam College, where Starkey once took a First in history as an undergraduate, was supposed to discuss its links with the historian at a meeting on Wednesday.
But after a chat with the college’s master, Sally Morgan, on Friday, it issued a statement: “The Master has accepted Dr David Starkey’s resignation of his honorary fellowship with immediate effect.
“Fitzwilliam prides itself in leading the way in Cambridge in opening access to higher education for under-represented groups. Our student and academic bodies are diverse and welcoming to all. We do not tolerate racism.” In other words, Starkey jumped before he was pushed.
Incidentally, Fitzwilliam Hall, the precursor to Fitzwilliam College, includes Subhas Chandra Bose among its alumni from 1919. He is said to have written home at his surprise — and pleasure — at finding white staff polishing his shoes. But that was then and this is now.
Starkey is also being dropped by his publishers, HarperCollins, because of his “abhorrent” views, while Hodder & Stoughton, which published Starkey’s 2015 book Magna Carta, said it would also not publish him again.
Canterbury Christ Church University’s vice-chancellor Rama Thirunamachandran announced Starkey’s role as visiting professor was being terminated with immediate effect. And Lancaster University launched a review of Starkey’s status as an honorary graduate.
The Mary Rose Trust, which runs a museum, said it was “appalled” by Starkey’s comments, adding it had accepted his resignation.
The former Pakistani origin chancellor Sajid Javid upped the stakes by tweeting: “We are the most successful multi-racial democracy in the world and have much to be proud of. But David Starkey’s racist comments are a reminder of the appalling views that still exist.”
Nicholas Guyatt, a lecturer at Cambridge, added: “Can’t speak for my employer but as someone who teaches history at Cambridge I’m ashamed of our connections with David Starkey and urge both the university and Fitzwilliam College to cut all ties with him.”
There are those on the right who will invariably stick up for Starkey: “Whither free speech if a white academic is not allowed to voice his opinions, however unpalatable?”
Speaking by video from his home, Starkey, who has been a prominent historian on radio and television, made his ill-judged comments on Tuesday on a programme called Reasoned, which is hosted by Darren Grimes, the founder of pro-Brexit campaign group BeLeave.
During the interview, Starkey, who is known for his books on Tudor England, claimed that the Black Lives Matter protests, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, had been characterised by “violence” and “victimhood”.
He described the pulling down of statues as “deranged”.
Talking about US race relations, he said: “Slavery in the South was substituted for by a system of organised repression – economic, social and everything else – in the form of segregation. But that’s never been true in Britain. In other words, we’re having a false history forced upon us.”
Starkey said: “As for the idea that slavery is this kind of terrible disease that dare not speak its name, it only dare not speak its name, Darren, because we settled it nearly 200 years ago.
“We don’t normally go on about the fact that Roman Catholics once upon a time didn’t have the vote and weren’t allowed to have their own churches because we had Catholic emancipation.”
He pointed out: “An awful lot of them (black people) survived and again there’s no point in arguing against globalisation or Western civilisation. They are all products of it, we are all products of it.
“The honest teaching of the British Empire is to say, quite simply, it is the first key stage of our globalisation. It is probably the most important moment in human history and it is still with us.”
When asked what he would say to BLM activists who want to “decolonise the curriculum”, Starkey replied: “You cannot decolonise the curriculum because you, Black Lives Matter, are wholly and entirely a product of white colonisation. You are not culturally black Africans. You would die in seconds if you were dumped back in black Africa because you wouldn’t know how to cope. You’re a product yourselves of cultural and racial mix.”
It’s not the first time Starkey has been involved in a public race row. In 2011, the BBC received nearly 700 complaints about Starkey’s claim that “whites have become black”, during a BBC TV Newsnight discussion about riots in the UK.