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The Shipwreck of Grenfell Tower

by Guillermo Fernandez 4 years ago in history

How an Eighteenth Century Ship and a Building in Central London Are Connected

"Reverse Planking" Is Method Used to Chain Slaves to Ships for Transport from Africa (1788)

We are living in strange times and we constantly look for newfangled ideas or concepts that help us understand and put into context what is happening around us. Thus, concepts such as Post-truth, Alt-right, Anthropocene, Speculative Realism, Accelerationism, and Universal Basic Income have become part of the usual repertoire utilized in academic and non-academic articles, journals, and newspapers. Against this tendency which states that everything is invented, that all is plagiarism or imitation, that we just rehash other people ideas and that just by looking back and dusting out old theories, we might be able to explain anything. The prolific coining of new concepts arises, opening up new paths and supporting infinite new discussions. However, frequently (and most of the times, sadly) we need to deal with old concepts that we would rather push back to oblivion, such as racism, colonialism, fascism, and so on.

It's been more than three months since the fire at Grenfell Tower killed a yet-to-be determined number of people, although 69 have been confirmed dead and police have said they expect more than 80. After the logical consternation of the first hours, everyone started to slowly understand that what we are witnessing is not something easy to digest and not just because of the destruction of the fire and the loss of so many lives. It goes without saying that almost all victims of the fire, the residents of the tower, are racially "non-white" or non-British.

As we learn more details about the tragedy, we find out that the fire spread rapidly because of an extremely flammable cladding installed in order to improve the aesthetics of the building, making it more suitable for the wealthy environment around Grenfell tower and the people living in the area. We discover that the building did not satisfy a significant number of safety measures and that constant complaints were delivered to the Council over the last five years, but all of them were negligently unattended.

North Kensington is a neighbourhood usually considered a rich area in London, but it would be more accurate to define it as an unequal area. Mansions valued in more than four million pounds share space with many council housing buildings and tiny apartments like those inside Grenfell Tower. Just the materials used for scaffolding to protect construction site of upcoming new house in North Kensington are probably more expensive than any council house around the area. Quite ironically, the investment made in these provisional deployments seems to be much bigger than those made in social housing or shelters for homeless people. To get an idea of the amount of money that development and real estate wield in a place like London, you do not even need to see the buildings post-completion, or even visit their luxurious interior. Just take a look at the structures used during the construction, plenty of fine woods, glass, steel, tv screens, all kind of lights and fake plants that grow on the walls to give an unusual and unnecessary harmony to a construction site. It is easy to imagine the profits that will be harvested from the building after it is finished and it is in this kind of context where poor people have become increasingly used to euphemisms such as regeneration or redevelopment — policies that are supposed to improve housing conditions but are just disguised strategies to remove poor populations from rich neighbourhoods, where plots are always a succulent loot for real estate speculators.

The kind of segregation that is practiced in North Kensington reminds us of the darkest colonial past and makes clear that there is nothing casual in history. That attitudes and behaviour patterns are mirrored and enacted over and over by the same protagonists. The combination of racial segregation, class barriers, the politics of space and urbanization, while mimicking the worst colonial practices, lead to subjugated cities in which non-white populations are always expiatory victims of obscure political interests and gentrification. Immigrants and non-white people are permanently harassed and over-policed in a sinister game of regulation/ deregulation that always ends the same way, with entire neighbourhoods being relocated and real-estate developers increasing their profits exponentially through the complacency and support of the local council authorities or governments. A wealthy neighbourhood in London requires cheap workforces to work in houses, services, and supermarkets, but the reality is that nobody wants to live close to them or witness this poverty. The workers and their families walk and work inconspicuously unnoticed in this area of the city in which massive Grenfellian towers are built to house them. However, these towers break the Victorian harmony of the place, so even though security measures are constantly delayed and dismissed whether buildings are extremely inflammable, the focus is on improving the aesthetics of the building and the area, making them visually bearable but always keeping in mind those outside the tower but not inside, resulting in flammable cladding installed on the building exteriors with the well-known consequences.

The colonial past is persistently denied in Britain and parts of the population still benefit from it, without doubting for a minute that such privileges are a symptom of a diseased egalitarian and democratic society. History books project a terribly biased narrative of financial trade, picturesque landscapes, and exotic travels, ornate with glorious naval deeds, epic battles, and resplendent uniforms. If the lack of acknowledgment of 300 years of colonial exploitation is by itself a grievous offence, the fact that such demeanour are being reproduced in the present, disguised as development, urban reshaping, inclusion policies seasoned with euphemisms and neoliberal political correctness stresses the need for accepting responsibilities and then, and only then, looking into the future in pursuit of reconciliation.

It is known that some of the victims of the fire in Grenfell Tower were war refugees from Syria. The tragic journey of a refugee who flees a war from areas most devastated by European colonialism, to only end up dying in a fire in North London, summarizes the magnitude of the paradox. This is not a mere coincidence, but a direct consequence which points to British History as deeply implicated, and the main protagonist of some of the most tragic events regarding relocation of populations, fight for land and space, racial segregation, diaspora and migration. Many more could be mentioned but three of them are particularly relevant: Apartheid in South Africa, the India-Pakistan partition, and the creation of the state of Israel and its consequences for the Palestinian people.

The conditions and circumstances of each of them are obviously different but there are common traits that knit them close together. What is common to all of them, is the unasked intervention of British colonial authorities over matters which deeply affect the local population, above all involving living-spaces, borders, and (re)distribution of population according to class and race.

In South Africa, the majoritarian black population was forced for many years to live in ghetto-like areas, with zones reserved exclusively for the Afrikaans white population and to suffer the negation of their rights almost until the end of the twentieth century. The Natives' Land Act of 1913 severely restricted ownership of land by blacks; at that stage, natives controlled only 7 percent of the country. In 1948, the National Party was elected to power and it strengthened the racial segregation that began under Dutch and British colonial rule. The Nationalist Government classified all peoples into three races and developed rights and limitations for each race. The white minority (less than 20 percent of the population) controlled the vastly larger black majority. While whites enjoyed the highest standard of living in all of Africa, comparable to First World Western nations, the black majority remained disadvantaged by almost every standard, including income, education, housing, and life expectancy. Until today, the white minority continues to control the highest share of the wealth belonging to the country while the black community no longer segregated by law suffers economic disadvantages inherited over centuries.

In India, the quick succession of affairs triggered by the Independence movement forced the British government and the Governor of India to take cursory decisions that led to the creation of a new state of Pakistan on the basis of religious difference. The consequence of this resolution, which led to the most large-scale migration in history in which thousands of muslims and hindus were segregated and massacred for religious reasons, and evicted from their property, land and houses. Families were divided by new frontiers erected suddenly between two newborn countries, they lost their houses and land, and were forced to start a new life in an unknown place, with the added injury of having suffered tragedy of loss of family members and leaving behind all that belonged to them. The seeds of this conflict are so deeply rooted that even today, we can clearly observe its influence on the current political situation. Hindu nationalism Hindutva that was born during the process of Indian Independence, has progressively gained ground in the Indian political scenario, so much so that the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known to be involved to some extent in the Gujarat riots of 2002, which ended with more than 1,000 people dead and 2,500 injured, although sources differ, he was accused of initiating the communal violence.

Likewise, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Palestinian diaspora generated perfect breeding grounds for conflicts which are still ongoing, a constant reminder of the meddling Western politics, a melancholic rejection to erase the colonial past, re-enacted hand-in-hand by European countries and USA, it is the case of the colony that became a functional colonizer. The tragedies that shook Jewish people in the Second World War pushed International forces to a search for compensation. Therefore, the artificial creation of a State, out of nowhere, and nothing, and this becomes the origins of an endless number of problems, most of them never seen before and responsible for innumerable clashes in the Middle East, terror campaigns, refugees, exiles, and violations of human rights. After the war in 1967, the politics of expansion of the Israeli government utilised every possible means to occupy Palestinian land and forced Palestinian people to abandon, migrate and stack themselves in improvised camps. Again, architecture and urban policies become part of the warfare, and Jewish settlements are used as strongholds, involving civilian population in surveillance and informing about Palestinian people movements. Water supply, electricity, and roads are used as means to force eviction and illegally grab Palestinian land.

In spite of the obvious differences in all these cases, there are significant connections between these events and the current situation in the United Kingdom, after Grenfell Tower fire, particularly in London. The reason behind the colonial enterprise was fundamentally economic, and so European countries initiated a fierce competition for goods, land, and workforce but the colonial enterprise was not exclusively limited to commerce and exchange of goods. In fact, colonialism carried with it a heavy ideological charge which was designed to change the colonised countries on a social, political, and cultural level, firstly as a way to facilitate a more comfortable life for expatriates and colonisers, and secondly wielding a signature ideological component, that defined the obligation to educate in the customs of the coloniser. If the surrender of all the economic and material benefits obtained from the colonies was an difficult loss, renouncing the role of condescending patriarch seemed to be an even tougher loss. Observing and analyzing the decisions taken by the British in the moment of departing from the colonies, what is obvious is their desire to perpetuate the legacy inherited from colonial oppression and not to squander the efforts to 'educate' with in the goodnesses of the Western Civilization as many colonial nations states as possible. This hypocritical self-serving belief that colonies were established for the welfare of colonies, who consequently also needed to be loaded with infrastructures, business, jobs, economic growth, culture, education, and wealth, explains the measures which were meant to leave perennialfootprint in the social and political imagination of the newborn independent countries, that were 'too naive' and 'inexperienced' to decide their own futures.

On the contrary and quite paradoxically, this over-patronizing attitude does not extend to the situation when reverse-migration occurred and people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Caribbean, South Africa, Kenya, etc, started to come to Britain. A direct consequence of years of colonial expansion and the economic exploitation in the British rule in the colonies, failed to inform an important sector of British society that just did not accept migration from the former Empire. Migration has been origin of debates and the numerous legislations to restrict it, curtail it, it has been the excuse for violent demonstrations, and alibi for racist practices and conducts. In this context, the declaration "we are here because you were there," pronounced by A. Sivanandan and commonly attributed to Stuart Hall, epitomises the feelings of the emigrants arriving in Britain from its former colonies after perceiving that they are not precisely welcome.

The fact that innumerable houses (many of them can be defined quite accurately as mansions) are empty in North Kensington area while at the same time families are living without space or facilities just a few meters of distance give us an idea of how many different layers are hidden in the fabric which form our cities. Suddenly, we realise how time and space can become instruments for class and race discrimination. A few days after the Grenfell tower tragedy happened, I found an image that introduces this article. The scheme represents the distribution of men and women on the ships which trade slaves from Africa to the West Indies and North America to work on sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations. The slaves were piled up on the ship's hold, the darkest and remotest part of the ship, under inhuman conditions for weeks and even months, hidden from human gaze. The only condition for transporting the slaves was that they should arrive at their destination alive, and not even the vested economic interest could prevent the numerous deaths on each trip. After plans of the distribution of Grenfell tower were published, showing how tightly apartments were packed in, we were able to understand the conditions in which these people were living and how kafkaesque the route that the residents had to navigate to try to find their way to the building's only fire escape. When I first saw the image of the building’s distribution, my mind immediately fled to the of lower deck in the slave ship, and, what in the beginning was only a visual resemblance, a resemblance of two overcrowded places, with narrow passages, lack of air and intimacy, two places initially designed to be inhabited, but fundamentally designed to make profits trafficking with people’s life, bodies, rights, and dignity, it became the realisation of how many things which remain in darkness need to come to the open till noone can say again: "I did not know that that was happening."

Greenfell Tower Plan


Guillermo Fernandez

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