Watch: “Britons never, never have been slaves?”
Words: Edson Burton
Annotation: Adam Cantwell-Corn
Illustration: Jazz Thompson
At the height of the trans-atlantic slave trade, the patriotic song Rule Brittania was first performed in 1740 to German-born Fredrick, the Prince of Wales, with the key line “Britons never will be slaves”.
With an increasingly fraught debate about Britain’s history, and the current state of racism and inequality, in this poem Edson Burton uses the song to explore the past and present, and whether in fact Britons themselves have ever been slaves.
Video by Paula Romero, Produced by Priyanka Raval
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves Hanging gardens of rotting rebel serfs Shackled first hands to clear land cut cane Cleared from Highlands home lands Press ganged under threat of the cat ‘o nine Britons never, never, never shall be slaves Asleep wake as mills churn without rest The pony more precious than men down pit Phossy jaw just one item in our industrial glory The prising hand waiting for girls in service Britons never, never, never shall be slaves The horse and sabre for the workers rise Batons and starvation for those who strike Opioid Imperialism to snuff out their plight In time for noble dressed trench ‘sacrifice’ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves
Tagged factory mice racing across warehouse
Piss pot ready to ensure parcels arrive on time Cut throat care as carers paid by the clock. Deregulated closing times – yet work continues Britons never, never, never shall be slaves Junior partner in joint criminal war enterprise Smile and grimace to secure trade from #dolt45 Huawei-Gate capitulation in US-China trade war. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves Silent to secure oil from murderous Prince Mute retort to nerve agent in Salisbury Democracy made a sham by covert algorithms Powerless playground for tax avoiding billionaires. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves Asset stripped, unions broken, workers softened Britain is open for business to the highest bidder Post-pandemic will bring even better bargains. Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
Edson Burton, 29th August 2020
During the Peasants Revolt of 1831, peasants rose up against more taxes levied by King Richard II. 1,500 participants were hanged or killed. White British people, including many from Bristol, were used as forced labourers in the Americas and Caribbean before the trans-Atlantic slave trade took hold. The forced land evictions of Gaelic people by landlords, known as the Highland clear- ances, were between 1750 to 1860. ‘Press ganged’ was the practise of forcing men into the Royal Navy during the 17th and 18th centuries. The ‘cat o’ nine tails’ was a whip used to punish sailors. Phossy Jaw was a disease affecting those who worked with white phosphorus without proper safeguards in the match- stick industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Deadly miltary force was used to put down calls for better con- ditions or democracy, including the Peterloo Massacre and the Bristol Riots of 1831. Now referring to the zero- hour contracts and gig economy of modern times. Referring to Britain’s relation- ship with the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia