I hear again and again words from advocates of Black Consciousness, including South Africa’s current state president, UCT award-winning academic authors and a Students Representative Council president, about how their folk/race was uniquely oppressed for hundreds of years by brutal colonists. In doing this, they ignore the histories of similar oppressions. For example, my folk/race was conquered and colonized in the 12th century and oppressed for over 700 years. The colonizers viewed my oppressed ancestors as a distinct “race” classifying them as “half black” “savages” inherently “morally evil, selfish, perverse and turbulent in character”. They were prohibited by the penal laws from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society.
Despite this horrific persecution, often under martial law, and enforced land displacement/confiscation implemented by thousands of ‘racially distinct’ settlers from the colonial homeland, the oppressed continuously fought to retain/regain their religious, cultural and political independence. At various stages of this colonisation, up to a third of my folk’s population was exterminated or in exile. Furthermore, tens of thousands were transported for forced labour in oppressor’s other colonies as prisoners or indentured servants. Worse still, during a seven-year period of famine in the 19th century, because he felt that “there were at least a million or two too many [of these oppressed] people” to care for, the colonial leader charged with overseeing emergency food supplies to help those affected withheld relief that led to the deaths of a million of the oppressed and the emigration of a million more.
The result was an abrupt 20-25% decrease of my homeland’s population. All of this occurred while taxes, rents, and enormous food exports were being collected/harvested from my folk and sent to absentee landlords back “home”. Furthermore, while this was happening, the overseer described this genocide as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil” due to “the judgement of God sent to teach those concerned a lesson.”
By now you might have identified my folk/race as the Irish. What you almost certainly don’t know was that the English overseer, Charles Trevelyan, was knighted by Queen Victoria for his “achievements” during the famine.
How did my folk deal with this oppression? Well, those that survived and stayed in Ireland after the Great Famine struggled on without international aid against their oppressors for more than a century and ultimately achieved independence. Subsequent to independence, five eminent Irish authors and scientists have earned Nobel Prizes and the national rugby team is currently rated among the top five internationally. In recent years, when there was a severe economic downturn, the Irish dug themselves out of debt without seeking donations from elsewhere.
Those of my folk who fled oppression and emigrated to the USA endured additional decades of discrimination. My grandfather, who ended up in Boston, related being excluded from businesses that displayed signs that read “No dogs, N-word or Irishmen”. Yet, starting from nothing, with hard work and some entrepreneurship, he ended up owning a fine home and raising 12 children and more than 40 grandchildren. Indeed, within three generations after arriving in the USA, another family of Boston-Irish immigrants, the Kennedys, produced a US president and two senators who played pivotal roles (two were assassinated) in amending the US Constitution to promote civil rights for African-Americans.
Never did my folk, on the basis of their centuries of ‘racial’ oppression, demand reparations or special treatment at the expense of real (colonists and supporters of apartheid) and perceived (supporters of liberalism and individual, merit-based democracy) oppressors under the threat of violent and destructive revolution. They achieved whatever success they have earned through hard work, self-sacrifice, strong family and ethical values mediated through the democratic process.