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A celebrated composer explains to BBC Songs of Praise Boss Cat Lewis why her words on Rule Britainnia are grossly offensive and factually incoherent

Tom Winnifrith
Friday 28 August 2020

I explained in a long podcast HERE why Rule Britannia was not racist, imperialist, or a reference to the slave trade and why the BBC has it so wrong. Songs of Praise producer, Cat Lewis, is one BBC staffer on a bloated stipend who is still battling in a way which is both offensive and ignorant as I flagged up HERE. My work has prompted celebrated composer, Graham Lack, to offer me his thoughts which I am delighted, at his request, to publish below.  I wonder if Cat or anyone at the woeful BBC might be able to respond to what follows. Somehow I doubt it.

The recent statements made by the Executive Director of the BBC’s “Songs of Praise” on Twitter, ones which compare British colonial history with the Shoa, are historically illiterate and there are many, not only in the Jewish community, who would find them deeply offensive. 


The slave trade and the holocaust have nothing in common, other than that they reveal an inherent deep inhumanity. Jamestown was not Auschwitz. Again, to compare an aria from a masque by Thomas Arne — one written in 1740 — with neo-Nazis shouting “we will never be forced into a gas chamber” is, for an educated, experienced and privileged person as Cat Lewis, really quite crass. 


She fails to differentiate between: 1) the content and libretto of Alfred, which is about the 9th century king of the Anglo-Saxons, 2) the time of composition, for the first audience was an 18th century court in exile from the metropolitan heart of London, popular amongst the general public, but without any prospects of government; two of the most important members of this group of peers, politicians, poets and a prince had recently died, and with them any cohesive identity; thus, Alfred is both a desperate plea for unity, a rallying cry which forcefully restated the key tenets of this group’s identity, and must be seen as a delayed expression of patriotic celebration, one that has intimately to do with the accession of the House of Hanover at the time, and which, ironically, points towards what will be post-Brexit Britain, and the possible accession of Scotland to the EU coupled with the concomitant breakup of the UK, and 3) the way both words and music of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ became — not so long ago —  somehow synonymous with the expansionist, triumphalist, and imperialist Britain symbolized by fluttering Union Flags on the Last Night of the Proms. 


Moreover, the word “slaves” that occurs in the line “Britons never will be slaves” is used in the sense of exhortation; there is a difference between futurity and volition (think shall, will, will, and shall, will, will in 1st and 2nd person singular whilst conjugating the verb, not will, shall, shall and will, shall, shall).

To believe that ‘Rule, Britannia!’ is a celebration of Britain’s role in the slave trade is a straw-man tenet of such manifest ignorance that we should dwell awhile upon the comma after ‘Rule’, and the exclamation mark after ‘Britannia’: the anthem is an imperative to spread the cause of freedom, and an exhortation to global liberty, not a gloating about conquest and oppression. Without the Royal Navy ruling the waves and intercepting ships laden human cargo, slavery would never have been abolished. 


If anyone wishes to know more, and would like to pronounce on these things again in the future, the following literature is recommended: 

Christopher Lloyd, The Navy and the Slave Trade: The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century(London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1968). It remains one of the key texts for the history of slave-trade suppression. 

R. W. Beachey, The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa (London: Rex Collings Ltd., 1976)

Raymond Howell, The Royal Navy and the Slave Trade (London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1987)

Robert J. Blyth, ‘Britain, the Royal Navy and the Suppression of Slave Trades in the Nineteenth Century’ in Douglas Hamilton and Robert J. Blyth (eds), Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives in the Collections of the National Maritime Museum (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2007), pp. 78-91. 

William Ward, The Royal Navy and The Slavers (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1969). This for the transatlantic campaign.

As for mentioning gas chambers and the enslaved (these in Ms Lewis own imagination) in one breath, well, one tweet at least, this kind of relativism simply beggars belief, and belittles the fate of some six million jews during the holocaust. I would sincerely ask her to withdraw your remarks. 


I shall, however, leave you with a quote:

“Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which. … The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live. A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms. … He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.” 

— Richard Dimbleby, 15th April 1945
Graham Lack

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
[email protected]
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