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Of Barges and Banishments: what the Bibby Stockholm reveals about the UK’s dark history

There are some places in Britain rendered iconic through their role as the nation’s gatekeepers: the country’s arterial ports for arrivals and departures. Dover’s cliffs; Heathrow’s terminals; Liverpool’s docks.

Then there is Portland Island. Indeed, an island off an island – the British isles. A place of imposed arrivals and departures and whose name defines its purpose.

This isle of 13,500 lies off the Dorset coast and has become, in recent months, a hotspot in the national debate about migration. Mainly because, without much discussion with the local population, the Home Office decided they would moor a barge of asylum seekers off there. To place 500 them in the ‘Bibby Stockholm’, docked off the Portlandian harbour: a handy off-shore solution to process the country’s so-called ‘illegal migrants’.

Portland’s private harbour

It’s not the first time Portland has had to deal with the dramas of comings and goings. The Vikings first invaded Britain here in 789, four years before they torched Lindisfarne. The King’s reeve tried to collect taxes from the ships, and soon became Britain’s first Viking murder victim. Perhaps that historic memory led another king to see Portland as a deterrent in warding off another feared invasion. The castle that dominates the island like a heavy stone eagle, spread upon its sad heights, was built by King Henry VIII in 1539 against a French attack that never came.

Now the port has become the point of the spear against what Suella Braverman recently labeled the ‘hurricane’ of invading migrants that supposedly threaten this sceptred isle.

She has chosen Portland as the midway point from which the invading “small boat” people can be launched to the landlocked East African nation, Rwanda. It’s also where the Home Office, after shutting down an asylum processing centre here, created a sex offender’s prison in its stead.

Portland is also a place from whence dispatches are born. It was from here many of the boats in the D-Day landings departed. Here, too, untold tonnes of Portland stone were quarried and dispersed across Britain’s Empire. Half a million of Britain’s war dead lie under the shadow of a neat, white Portland gravestone. Portland stone also helped build the United Nation’s headquarters in New York; under whose white walls, voices rise condemning Britain’s treatments of its refugees.

Such history, though, is not easily seen when visiting the island. For a place that boasts two prisons and an ‘illegal migrants’ barge, the place bristles with barbed wire and no access signs. Out of sight, out of mind is very much the intent here.

So it is, with the satisfaction that often comes when watchmen deny you entry, the security guards of the private port say you cannot go and see the barge. They do not have the number for anyone who can give you access. Their manager is in a meeting. Find the contact details on the website, they say. And the website leads to a person who tells you that, to get access, you need to contact the media manager, whose name they will not give and whose number they will not say. Emails go unanswered.

This is no surprise. The more unpalatable a thing, the more governments shield it from scrutiny. They do so in the name of security and privacy. The offshoring of a migrant ‘problem’ to a private port is purposeful.

Likewise, when Robert Jenrick, Minister for Immigration, said in August “if you process (refugee) claims quickly (it…) encourages more people to come,” he did so without fear of scrutiny. Why? Because if you ask the Home Office for evidence to support Jenrick’s claims, they refuse to. To give such evidence, they say, is not in the public interest. A sceptic might think the real reason is because the evidence does not exist.

So, as it is not in the public interest to let anyone go near the barge, you have to go to the island’s tabletop plateau to see it. Through a fortified tunnel, past the sex offender’s prison and up to a café run by day-release prisoners. There, on the edge of a precipice, you can look down at the source of all this debate.

In the distance, upon a dark harbour sea, float the imagined barbarians at the gates. The threat that needs expunging: the people that need expelling.

England has been here before. The Georgian age, like the Carolinian age, harboured this desire to banish. In 1776, when Lord North presented to Parliament 16 Geo. III, c. 43, he was to do exactly what Suella Braverman seeks to do today: to offshore the nation’s problems.

The Bibby barge – seen from afar

Faced with overcrowded jails, a consequence of Britain’s inability to send its unwanted criminals to America (owing to the fact that Independent America didn’t want anything to do with Britain), North’s ‘Hulks Act’ created a line of prisons off the south coast. Ancient men-o’-war, without masts, were taken over and turned into floating penitentiaries with names like ‘Justitia’, ‘Retribution’ and, of course, ‘Portland’.

It was a stop gap. The Georgian government, like our modern-day Carolingians, wanted to extend much further the distance of the offshoring. So they imagined sending their criminal classes (if stealing bread to save yourself from starvation was criminal) to the rim of the world, to the great unknown continent that Cook had only recently discovered. The government’s solution was a convict programme that laid down the creation of modern-day Australia.

Today, the promise to banish our asylum seekers to Rwanda serves the same purpose. A country largely unknown in the British imagination, where the Rwandan government has just given a ministerial role to a military general who stands accused of overseeing the massacre of refugees back in 1994. A country whose government, according to Human Rights Watch’s most recent report, runs systematic repressive campaigns against political activists and dissidents at home and abroad, but is acceptable for Britain to offload its unwanted to.

Exchange the word ‘hulks’ for ‘barges’ and ‘Australia’ for ‘Rwanda’, it seems history does repeat itself. But this second time round, it is not as farce. It’s as tragedy.

This all has a terrible, circular quality to it. The Georgian ambition for high-seas trading created the foundations of the British Empire. Today, people from many of the countries Britain sought to conquer (or has launched recent wars in) boomerang back, enticed by the promises of Britain’s propaganda.

For in its imperial conquest, Britain laid down this lure. In seeking to conquer others with the claim that its civilisation was so superior, it set out to justify the unpalatable blood-letting that accompanied the conquering. We are better than you, the Empire builders said: let us rule you and you will rise under our civilised leadership.

It’s no wonder that this lie persists. The refugees who travel on small boats to Britain do so, in part, because our armies and traders once travelled to their nations in bigger boats, and took with them the hazy ideal of Britain as a place of civilisation, where the preservation of the rights of man was as solid as Portland stone.

Today, Portland’s stone witnesses the exposure of that lie. At least to those asylum seekers who made it there. In Britain, the best of us have long known this ideal of civilised superiority never existed. Certainly not from a nation who dreamt up the Bibby barge, the prison hulks, the threatened flights to Rwanda, and the convicts of Australia.

A civilised nation would never have done such things in the first place. It’s a tragedy the inhabitants of the barge didn’t know this before they came seeking our humanity.