DECOLONISE WALES: I

by Jonathan Lee 

Content warning: this article mentions racism, discrimination, oppression, and racial / cultural slurs. 

If the Welsh are striking over hunger, we must fill their bellies with lead” are the famous words Winston Churchill never spoke, about sending in the Lancashire Fusiliers to put a swift end to the 1910 Tonypandy miners’ strike.

Though he never advocated firing on the miners, he did send the soldiers to the picket line, and was definitely still an imperialist, eugenically-minded war criminal. The only reason the quote is mistakenly attributed to him so commonly is because it is so utterly believable. It typifies the contemptuous colonial attitudes held by the man himself, and the English parliament, for the Welsh and the working class.

Wales was England’s first colony – the template for later British imperialism. Many of its basic strategies were forged here in England’s closest and very first colonial asset, before being exported all over the world.

Over the centuries, Wales has been the target of frontier conquest, settler colonialism, assimilatory practices, and vast resource exploitation to the detriment of the local population. Yet there is a reluctance to view Wales through a post-colonial lens. This is, in itself, symptomatic of colonisation: a collective denial on the part of the colonised. It is also because the greatest horrors of British colonialism were perpetrated in the modern age, and against non-white cultures. This isn’t to say that our Welsh ancestors didn’t also endure horrific cruelties hundreds of years ago, only, that if the Tonypandy miners had been black or brown, they would likely have suffered a much harsher fate. Additionally, the fact that Wales was colonised in a piecemeal way over hundreds of years, means the scars of colonisation are nowhere near as far reaching here, compared to people living in more modern post-colonial countries today.

there is a reluctance to view Wales through a post-colonial lens

The initial conquest of Wales was formally completed by Edward I in the 13th century. Wales has the highest concentration of castles in the world, and they bear witness to the curious half-colonisation of Wales, which is said to have never been conquered above 600 ft. For nearly five hundred years, there was a  necessity for the continual re-conquest of the country, which required not only permanent military outposts, but planter settlements to Anglicise the country.

(Tonypandy Miners via libcom – ‘Cambrian Combine miners strike and Tonypandy riot, 1910’)

The first plantations in Wales settled populations of English and Flemings into newly created towns, ethnically dividing Wales into lowland ‘Englishries’ and highland ‘Welshries’. It took a century or two before these groups were integrated and intermarried, but the split between town and country was done. In culture, economy, occupation, legal status, and infrastructure: the English settlements boomed while the upland Welshries stagnated.

After the conquest, the primary conduit for cultural assimilation was through the church. There was a necessity in assimilating the unruly Welsh Christians who questioned the canon law of the papacy. These Christians permitted divorce, allowed their priests to marry and have children, allowed women greater freedoms,  and inheritance for illegitimate children. The loosely unified Welsh church was quickly assimilated into the hierarchy of English parishes. Local saints like Catwg, Illtud, Barwg, and Meuthin were replaced with more universal ones, and many religious sites renamed. St.David’s monasticism cum ascetic-cooperative – which encouraged egalitarianism, familial abbies and vegetarianism – was dismantled and replaced with Benedictine monasteries in the shadow of the fortified towns and castles.

In 1533, the Ecclesiastical Appeals Act meant a split from the Papal See in Rome, and signalled to the world “that this realm of England is an empire.” Henry VIII’s increasingly nationalist reformation took on a colonial nature in Wales, with a concerted campaign to destroy Welsh religious images, and force an English protestant bible on a monolingual, catholic population.

The Welsh language, even today, seems to irrationally infuriate the Anglo-Imperial mind.

The assimilation of church went hand in hand with all-out-attack on the Welsh language, which symbolised the most glaring failure of Anglicisation in the country. A 1563 Act of Parliament ordered the translation of the Anglican Bible into Welsh, and it’s placement in every parish church so that the Welsh people “may by conferring both tongues together, the sooner attain to the knowledge of the English Tongue.” Only a few decades earlier, the Act of Union had declared English the only language which was to be heard in courts, and denied Welsh-speakers access to public offices. The English goal of creating a local Welsh ruling class, who were fluent in English, meant that the language eventually became relegated to that of the working class, which heavily influenced later public attitudes to it.

The Welsh language, even today, seems to irrationally infuriate the Anglo-Imperial mind. It’s close geographical proximity, yet irritatingly alien sound is an assiduous affront to all that is English. The oldest language of this island, its very existence is exasperating, and the most condescending attitudes towards it can be traced back to the Victorians.

Victorian English attitudes on Welsh ranged from pompous paternalism to outrage and incredulity. The 1847 Royal Commission on Welsh Education (Y Brad y Llyfrau Gleision) reported on the language that “it is not easy to overestimate its evil effects” and described it as “a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people.” In 1870 the Elementary Education Act was passed, making English the compulsory language of schools in Wales. Children caught speaking Welsh were commonly forced to wear the now infamous Welsh Not, a wooden tablet inscribed with the letter “WN”. Schoolchildren were encouraged to betray their classmates by passing the Welsh Not to anyone else they heard speaking Welsh. Whoever was wearing it by the end of the day was beaten with a stick.

Schoolchildren were encouraged to betray their classmates by passing the Welsh Not to anyone else they heard speaking Welsh.

The Victorians war on Welsh was not purely an exercise in linguistic cleansing. The aftermath of the Newport and Merthyr Risings, Rebecca Riots and the simmering Welsh Chartist Movement had caused significant concern amongst the English establishment, who saw the threat of an emergent Welsh-speaking Socialist stronghold in South Wales. William Lamb, then Home Secretary, declared South Wales to be “the worst and most formidable district in the kingdom”. In addition to stamping out the language, there was a political pragmatism to encouraging views which portrayed England’s Celtic neighbours as being of primitive, inferior cultures. The popular nursery rhyme “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thiefsummed up English stereotypes of the untrustworthy and lazy Welshman.

(A busker infront of the now demolished Chartist mural in Newport, South Wales via WalesOnline)

Writings which compared Welsh and Irish to non-white colonial subjects also started appearing: along the lines of earlier pamphlets warning of “Indians at home, Indians at Cornwall, Indians in Wales, Indians in Ireland”. The word ‘Indian’ stood for barbarism, and was considered a cultural trait, as easily transferable to the colonial mind as ‘English civility’. In 1862 the racist anthropologist, John Beddoe, even concluded that the Welsh, Irish and Western Scots bore features which marked them as “Africanoid”, making them racially inferior to the English on his Index of Negrescence of the races of the British Isles. Cultural stereotypes dominated the prevailing views on Wales and its apparent lack of progress as a people. In 1866 The Times described Wales as being inhabited by “an unenterprising people”, though conceded it “possesses valuable minerals, but these have chiefly been developed by English energy and for the supply of English wants.”

These valuable minerals soon became the focus of the third and last wave of English colonisation. It was not a coincidence that anti-Welsh attitudes were flaring up again just as Wales was becoming industrialised. The final act of colonial exploitation was to plunder the mineral wealth from under our feet, turning Wales into the largest mine on earth… [continued in Decolonise Wales: Part II, coming soon ]

Featured image: Police officers blocking a street during the Tonypandy Riots of 1910-1911.
Credit: Wikipedia / Public Domain.


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