Back in 2014 I briefed readers on my interpreting adventures addressing the tumultuous mainly Polish audience for Last Night of The Proms in Krakow:
This is a jolly annual gala occasion where Krakow Poles gather en masse lustily to sing Land of Hope and Glory and wave Union Flags and generally have a heady Britophilic experience. Tradition has it that the UK Ambassador to Warsaw joins the occasion and addresses the throng before it all starts.
My Polish is adequate for many reading purposes but pretty rotten and trending towards zero for extempore speaking, especially when people might be listening. Hence I felt that I needed an interpreter. But how best to do this to achieve success on the night in front of a packed concert hall? Hmm…
The obvious easy safe idea is to speak in English and get someone smart like Malgorzata to translate into Polish.
So, let’s do the unobvious idea instead.
It transpires that the lusty renditions of Rule Britannia that so many people enjoy at LNOTP are raaaaacist and celebrate slaaaavery and the British Holocaust. Ooops. A woke drivel too far?
Over at NRO John O’Sullivan does a handy job in reminding us about some usually ignored facts about slavery:
Context is needed here.
“Rule Britannia” was written in 1740 when slavery was a near-universal institution worldwide. It had not existed in England since the 13th century, but Britons were frequently captured by raiding Barbary pirates, with Devon and Cornwall especially badly hit, and sold as slaves in the vast slave markets of North Africa. More than one million Europeans were enslaved in this way over 200 years.
It was a major political topic in the countries concerned; charities were founded to buy back their enslaved compatriots; and both Britain and the United States launched raids to free captives and punish pirates. All this went on fitfully until 1824 when a British fleet bombarded Algiers and 1830 when the French conquered Algeria.
Slavery was not just something that the Brits, like everyone else, did, it was also something that they suffered too. So it was natural that they should celebrate the fact that as a nation with growing power “they never, never, never shall be slaves.” That helped to feed a growing national sentiment that slavery was a great evil rather than simply a profitable business and that Britain’s participation in the slave trade was accordingly a great disgrace …
The Anti–Slavery Society in London ran what was the first human-rights campaign in history by distributing a medallion that showed a black man in chains and the words “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” It was worn on lapels, as bracelets, and as a blend of declaration and decoration it spread the message of abolition throughout the world. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, insisted on a clause in its treaty committing all the signatory powers to end slavery. That itself was a major step in international law.
What? John O’Sullivan is an almost dead white man, so this sort of irrelevant argument based on so-called ‘facts’ is privileged, hugely problematic and basically racist too.
The key passage in John’s piece recalls his own visit to LNOTP in Krakow:
For myself I would say “Rule Britannia” is a song of comic self-congratulation akin to a pastiche rather than a satire.
That’s why the event is pretty popular with foreigners. I remember one occasion when I was a guest of Charles Crawford, the British ambassador to Poland, at a Last Night of the Proms beamed into the concert hall from Kensington to Cracow.
The mainly Polish audience, equipped with Union flags, bowler hats, and other emblems of Britishness such as umbrellas, all sang along, half-knowing, half-reading the lyrics, and waving their flags at what they guessed were appropriate intervals. After which Charles made a witty speech in praise of Polish plumbers and we all departed peacefully into the night.