• Thomas Godfrey

“Damn Blacks”: the right way to stop Starkey is by proving why he’s wrong, not blocking his freedoms

David Starkey’s racist deluge shows why free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence.


”They say never meet your idols” declared right-wing, pro-brexit 26 year-old activist Darren Grimes, shortly before interviewing the famous historian David Starkey in what would devolve into the level of car-crash interview not seen since Prince Andrew tried to claim he ‘couldn’t sweat’ and was a regular attendee of Woking’s finest Pizza Express.

Starkey, 75, was already seen as heavy-handed when talking about race; in 2011 he claimed “the whites have become black” whilst reflecting on the London Riots. This didn’t stop Grimes, who recently founded the right-wing blog Reasoned, from hand-picking Starkey as a guest for his online show. Using his free, online platform facilitated by the conservative commentator, Starkey unleashed on Black Lives Matter - calling the denigration of statues “deranged” and asserting that the movement was characterised by “victimhood”. Following that, Starkey went on to baffling declare that “slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn't be so many damn blacks in Africa or Britain would there? An awful lot of them survived."

The historian’s blasé attitude to race may sicken myself among many others, but in any free society his right to say outrageous and inflammatory things should never be restricted. Am I giving anybody a free pass to be racist under the disguise of ‘freedom of speech’? No, of course not. And that’s because freedom of speech, and the cherished right to hold controversial views without fear of state-sponsored censorship, does not exclude the same figures from the consequences brought on by their words.

Already, Starkey’s words are circling round various historical bodies and biting him in the rear. Fitzwilliam, the Cambridge college at which he possesses an honoury fellowship, called his remarks “indefensible” and said it would review his position. The Mary Rose museum, at which he was a board member, accepted his resignation and added they were “appalled” by his remarks. His publishers Harper Collins (who have not published his books since 2010) said they were “reviewing his existing backlist”, noting they would not publish any future works from the Tudor specialist. The swift backlash from various high-ranking institutions proves that just because Starkey has the freedom to unleash his brand of race-baiting diahorrea, lasting damage has likely been done to his legacy and career.

Alternatively, we can buy into a brand of authoritarian censorship designed to moderate what is and isn’t suitable for consumption. In every dictatorship for the last 100 years, from Hitler to Brezhnev, a key factor of control has been limiting extreme or dissenting views. If the United Kingdom, or any developed western nation, was to ever enact a draconian program of mass censorship, those who decided what passed and what was held - the gatekeepers of all conversation - would instantly be the most powerful men and women in the world. Even you, reading this, would you trust somebody else, even your closest family member or friend, to dictate to you what is suitable and unsuitable for consumption?


Whilst what David Starkey said was factually wrong, racist, immoral and obscene, it is vital that his right to be and say language tantamount to all of these things is protected. This is not because of the meaning of his language, but because in a different time, under different governments and in different countries, claiming “Black Lives Matter” itself would be a punishable crime.


There is, of course, one final, beautiful aspect of freedom of speech: it is something we all possess equally.

And I intend to use mine to prove why Dr David Starkey’s reasoning is incorrect.

Ironically, Starkey’s insistence that an “awful lot” of “damn blacks” survived slavery simultaneously forbids it from classification as genocidal draws on no historical validation whatsoever.

By the same logic, Starkey should begin disavowing every genocide that failed to unequivocally wipe out its victim race. Perhaps he can write to the remaining descendants of leading Nazis, retrospectively acquitting their ancestors of genocide on the basis they failed to kill every Jewish inhabitant of the earth as, by his reasoning, the Holocaust, which killed six million Jewish men, women and children in just four years is not a genocide.

Throwing one final ingredient into the stew, Starkey’s insistence that slavery did not constitute genocide may be both semantically and denotationally accurate on the basis purposefully killing slaves would destroy the worth they possessed to their owner - if slaves were purposefully killed, the objective of their existence would be nullified: they wouldn’t be working.

However, pragmatically, it’s undeniable that the conditions in which black slaves lived, were transported and worked led to the avoidable deaths of millions of slaves as a direct result of the slave trade and slave owners’ desire to exploit their slaves to the maximum level. It’s estimated that 1.2-2.4 million died during transport alone, with several millions either killed or permanently and seriously incapacitated by the effects of forced labour.


Linking this reasoning back to the definition of the noun Starkey denies slavery never constituted, which is “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group”, it’s clear to see why Starkey’s denoted assumptions are (in his eyes) correct. Slave owners did not deliberately kill their slaves.


However, the actions of slave owners, transporters and those who facilitated slavery - including for a significant period of time the British state - directly led to the deaths of millions of a specific racial group.

This leaves the ultimate decision hinged upon one key adverb: “deliberate”. As we have already established, slavery killed. So, for one moment, let’s indulge ourselves by drawing a direct correlation between the slavery and death, seeing as a high proportion of slaves died either in the process of forced labour or had their lives truncated due to years of physical abuse.


This rather streamlines the decision into the overarching question: was slavery deliberate?

The answer to this is undeniably yes, therefore it was an accepted consequence on the part of slave owners that millions of slaves would die as a result of their decisions.

In my view, this neglect for human life of a particular racial group constitutes a deliberate acceptance on the part of slavers that either in the process or as a direct result of being enslaved, millions of black slaves died. As a result of this tacit acceptance, I believe slavery does constitute a form of genocide.

Eventually, we may hear Starkey’s own reasoning for why what he said was somehow not racist. Perhaps he will claim it isn’t on the grounds he hasn’t personally racially insulted every black person in the world. Besides, in his mind, there has never been a genocide.

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