The View from the Hill: Boris in Wonderland

By Kenneth Maxwell

Mid-Devon might seem isolated from the concerns of the wider world in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the global outcry of “Black Lives Matter.”

But here on my hill overlooking the mid-point of the River Exe which runs from Exmoor down to the English Channel, we have the family of the Prime Minister, long-time residents at the river’s headwaters on Exmoor in West Somerset, and downriver from here we have the last resting place of an important 18th century writer, John Gabriel Stedman, who provided the most gruesome account of the mistreatment of black slaves in South America.

Moreover, the original notes for his searing account of black slavery are held in Minneapolis no less, and very close to where George Floyd was killed.

History is ever connected.

It is both global and local as it is here along the beautiful valley of the River Exe.

The Prime Minister’s family are “shielding” at their country farm on Exmoor, up the road from here.

Boris’s father, Stanley Johnson, never one to be unnoticed, found that his computer wasn’t working so the private University of Buckingham’s technician with his young son, drove 150 miles during the “lock down” from Oxford to West Somerset, in order to repair Mr. Johnson’s laptop so he could take part in an online discussion with students and Antony Seldon who is Buckingham’s vice-chancellor and is a prime ministerial biographer.

Stanley Johnson (79) is not shy of publicity.

He was an avid participant in the 2017 series of “l’m a Celebrity – Get Me out of Here” which is a British survival reality television series on ITV where a “King” and a “Queen” of the Jungle is the winner having survived snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies to the delight of between 9 and 10 million viewers. It is among ITV’s highest rated programs. But Stanley Johnson did not become the “King of the Jungle” as he was the fifth person eliminated. His daughter, Rachel Johnson, the journalist and TV presenter, is also in “lockdown” at her house on the Johnson family Exmoor compound.

This may be just as well.

The past few weeks has demonstrated how Boris Johnson and his team ministers perform. Their most notable characteristic is their unswerving loyalty to the Great and Wonderful Boris. But like the Great and Wonderful “Wizard of Oz” when the curtain is draw back it has revealed a frantic mop-haired little man desperately pulling the strings of disinformation.

But no one should be surprised by this.  Nevertheless. Mr. Johnson is still assuring us that his response to the Covid-19 pandemic is “world beating.”

The OECD warns that the economic consequences of the global crisis on Britain will be the worse in the developed world.

Britain’s GDP this March shrank by 20%. The governments “furlough” scheme for many workers (where they receive 80% of their salaries) is due to end in August and unemployment is expected to rise thereafter exponentially.

This in an economy which is heavily dependent on services, a sector which has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. And there are the consequences of a decade of chronic underinvestment in schools and the public sector to contend with.

All this while the final terms of the UK’s trade relationship with its largest and closest market, the EU, is still to be fully negotiated, agreed to, and then ratified by the 27 member states of the European Union. Brexit and the free trade deals with the wider world promised for a “global Britain” are both far from being completed.

This is not to mention the poisonous influence of Mr. Johnson’s own Svengali, Dominic Cummings, the Downing Street “senior adviser” who brought us both Brexit and Boris’s electoral victory. He is apparently so indispensable to the Prime Minister who he did so much to install in Downing Street that he cannot now be fired.

This after Cummins broke the “stay at home” rules he helped draw up by driving up to Durham, about as far north as it is possible to drive from London, when he had coronavirus. Then he took his young son and wife on an outing to the beauty spot of Bernard Castle. After he was spotted by a local resident walking his dog Cummings claimed he was “testing his eyesight.” All this while the rest of us have been religiously following the government’s lock down rules.

But Cummings, much like José Mourinho, the famous Portuguese football coach, is evidently “a special one.” He was accorded by the Prime Minster an unparalleled Downing Street “rose garden” forum in order to defend his indefensible actions.

“I think l behaved reasonably” he told the assembled (and socially distanced) journalists. This back garden at Downing Street has been reserved in the past for the announcement of major events which have included the photograph of the war time coalition cabinet led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee on 25 October 194l, or more recently the formation of the coalition government by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in May 2010.

Britain now has the largest number of COVID 19 deaths in Europe. The British government’s response to the pandemic is considered by the public to have been one of the worst in the world.

Boris Johnson’s personal popularity has taken a nose dive. Richard Horton, the editor of the prestigious medical journal “The Lancet” has just launched a book: “The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop it.”

This is an excoriating criticism of the UK government’s response which Horton claims “led to the avoidable deaths of thousands of citizens.” The Covid-19 response of Boris Johnson and his minions Richard Horton argues has been “slow, complacent, and flat footed.” We need he argues to learn the lessons from these “appalling misjudgments.” From not having headed the warnings from China and from Lombardy and from not locking down earlier.

The Boris Johnson government’s serial failures include locking down too late. A failure to continue with a test and trace scheme in March. The failure to test elderly patients before they were released into care homes thus spreading the virus. The failure of the smart phone App which was supposed to alert and trace Covid-19 carriers and their contacts.

The insistence by Jacob Rees Mogg, the insouciant “leader” of the House of Commons that the virtual system of questions by members of the House of Commons which had worked perfectly well during the lockdown be abandoned and that members of the House of Commons be forced to attend and to vote in person in the lobbies, which led to the absurd conga line of members which stretched far out into the Parliamentary yard of the Palace of Westminster.

Not to mention the decision to open schools despite the opposition of the teaching unions and many school districts who said they were not ready. The imposition of a two-week quarantine on all passengers arriving in the UK which was only introduced after over eleven million people had entered the country without any checks whatsoever during the height of the Covis-19 pandemic in the UK. Then the modification of these rules only after angry opposition from the airline industry which had already been devastated by the impact of the pandemic.

The opening up of travel restrictions by the counties which have traditionally received most British tourists in the past and which have a far better R-rate than does the UK (Portugal, Spain and Greece). The continuing failure of any government ministers to appear on the early morning breakfast TV program “Good Morning Britain” to be forensically questioned by Piers Morgan and Suzanna Reed. It goes on.  Many conservative back benchers were grumbling and urging the PM: “Get a Grip”

It is therefore doubly ironic that the “Black Lives Matter” movement should have become the second major global crisis to have emerged at this time of the Covid-19 global pandemic.

It was ignited by the long and agonizing murder of the African-American George Floyd (46) in Minneapolis by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, recorded by cell phone for all to see in full view in a digitalized enabled “globalized” world. The “knee-on-the-neck” has gone viral internationally. And provoked an international response.

The statue of the 17th slave trader (and later city philanthropist) of the Royal Africa Company, Edward Coulson, was toppled in Bristol and hurled into the river where his slave ships once docked. Bristol is a city whose wealth was built on the profits of the Atlantic slave trade.

It’s current mayor, Marvin Rees, is of Jamaican heritage, and is the first mayor of African heritage to be elected to head a major European City. For years people in Bristol had petitioned peacefully for the statue’s removal. 11,000 recently signed a petition to have the statue replaced. The statue of Cecil Rhodes, the arch imperialist and diamond magnate, which adorns the facade of Oriel College in Oxford, has since 2015 been the focus of student led protests by BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) students. This week eventually the college authorities promised that the statue will now be the subject to an “independent inquiry” which is the typical British way of (attempting to diffuse) and to resolve thorny and uncomfortable problems.

Cecil Rhodes was, like Coulson, a great philanthropist. The Rhodes Scholarships established under Rhodes will is the oldest and most prestigious scholarship program in the world. Originally aimed to support students from the “English Speaking World” (later the Commonwealth) and the United States and Germany, it was expanded to include a global intake, as well as after 1977, to include woman for the first time. The Rhodes scholarships brings 32 young Americans to Oxford each year, selected from the 50 states, including in the past Bill Clinton to University College. As well as Susan Rice, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg and Bobby Jindal from the US, and Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull from Australia.

Boris Johnson has seen himself for many years been as a “would-be” Churchill. He is even a biographer of the “Great Man.”

The spray painting of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square in the aftermath of a “Black Lives Matter” protests outside Downing Street in Whitehall which ended in violence between the protesters and the police was a particularly affront to the prime minister. But Churchill has always been a controversial figure.

My grandmother who was a Fabian never forgave Churchill for his action against the suffragettes and his opposition to the struggle for the right of woman to vote, in 1910, when he was the Home Secretary. She argued about Churchill’s merits (or demerits in her view) each lunchtime with my father who was a staunch Churchill supporter while l was growing up. It was an early lesson for me in unreconcilable attempts to resolve unreconcilable political differences.

The conflict is of course historical and existential. It will not go away easily.

And it can also be very local. Lt-Colonel John Gabriel Stedman died in 1798 and is buried in Bickleigh Church in a beautiful village just down the River Exe from here (seen in the featured photo above).

The early seventeen century bridge still spans the River Exe there and is the only crossing of the river between Tiverton and Exeter.

John Gabriel Stedman lived his last years in TIverton at Hensleigh House. Stedman wanted to buried in Bickleigh Church next to Bamfylde Moore Carew, who was known as the self-proclaimed “King of the Gypsies” and with whom Stedman felt an affinity, though in fact Stedman was buried in front of the vestry door at the opposite end of the church.

John Gabriel Steadman (1744-1797) wrote a vivid account of the treatment of black slaves in Dutch Surinam. His “Narrative of a Five Year Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guinea, on the wild coast of South America in the years 1772 to 1777” was published in London in 1796 by Joseph Johnson, a radical publisher who in the 1790s produced many political books on slaves, Jews, woman, prisoners and other oppressed members of society, including works by Mary Wollstonecraft, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Stedman’s “Narrative” was a major literary success and had 27 different editions.

The book was illustrated with 80 engravings based on the drawings by Stedman and executed by Francesco Bartolozzi and William Blake. William Blake and Stedman became close friends.

The engraving is by William Blake (1757-1827) and is of a “Surinam Dutch Planter in his morning cloths”

The “Narrative” was taken up by abolitionists. It described in graphic detail the brutal treatment of black slaves, depicting the atrocities, lashings and torture to which they were subjected, and their sexual exploitation by their masters. But his narrative was a sanitized and romanized version of his original notes which are now in the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis no less.

A very odd historical coincidence given the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Lieutenant-colonial Stedman was born in Holland of Scottish parents and accepted a commission in General John Stuart’s Regiment of Scots Brigade in 1760, when he had to take an oath of abjuration and allegiance to King George.

In 1772 he volunteered to accompany an expedition sent by the States-General of Holland to subdue a revolt of black slaves in Surinam (Dutch Guiana.)

His “Narrative” is an account of the five-year campaign against the “maroons” who fought a guerrilla campaign in the tropical swamps. He formed of a group of “rangers” who were former black slaves who fought with formidable effectiveness again the “maroons.”

Above all Stedman’s notes recount the brutality of the treatment of the black slaves by their Dutch masters. He also describes in great detail the natural history of the region and the economic and social conditions and the chronic and pervasive diseases to which they were all subject. He also records his sexual exploits, or rather his sexual exploitation of the Black and mixed-race slaves, including the beautiful Joanna by whom he had a son, Jonny.

Stedman returned to Holland leaving Joanna and Jonny behind in Surinam.

He married a Dutch woman, Adriana Wiertz van Cochorn, continuing in the Stuart Regiment until it ceased to exist in 1783 when he returned to England and lived in TIverton. He had five children with Adriana, but following the death of Joanna who had remained a slave, his son, Jonny, who had been granted his freedom by the authorities in Surinam in recognition of his father activities there, joined his father in TIverton. He was very much his father’s favorite to the great displeasure of Stedman’s Dutch wife and he was educated at Blundel’s school. He joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman but died at sea off Jamaica.

There is, however, some good news.

The R-rate (The scientific advisory group for emergencies SAGE reproduction rate of Covid-19) in the SW of England dropped this week to the lowest in England (though only a week before it had been the highest in England.) And for a fourth day there were no Covid-19 deaths recorded in hospitals in Devon and Cornwall.

And Marcus Rashford, a twenty-two years old Black striker for Manchester United and England mobilized sufficient public support to force Boris Johnson into another U-turn over the provision of free lunch vouchers for needy school children over the summer. Marcus Rashford’s single mother with five children had needed such support in order to feed her children, Marcus included. He shamed Boris with his tin ear into backing down on his opposition to the free lunch program. Good for Marcus Rashford.

Good for the poor kids needing a meal.

Martin Hammond, Boris Johnson’s housemaster at Eton College wrote to Stanley Johnson on April 10.1982: “l think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception.

“One who should be free of a network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

True then.

True now.