Thoughts on Segregation from its Cradle

London is perhaps the most important cradle of modern urban segregation. It was here, in the late seventeenth century on the city’s West Side, that aristocrats and later wealthy merchants first sought to create class-exclusive zones, first by legislation, which failed, then by insertion of covenants into their land-use deeds that stipulated that houses built on the West End’s squares all had to look as palatial as those “on the Pall Mall”–where the city’s richest lived.

Such covenants, and the extensive jurisprudence they inspired in English courts, later inspired a key practice among race segregationists in South Africa and the U.S among other places, namely racial restrictive covenants.

Also, of course, London was the seat of the two greatest segregationist institutions in world history, the British East India Company and the British Empire. From 1700, when East India Company colonial officials first divided the South Asian city of Madras into the world’s first black town and white town, to the 19th century when British conquerors replicated segregated towns across India, China, and then Africa–and culminating in South Africa–British officials mulled over, and most often approved, segregationist policies in more places than any other government.

These thoughts will be a part of a lecture series I will begin tomorrow October 17th at Cambridge University, which will be continued at Leicester University on theĀ  18th, Sciences-Po in Paris at 10 am on 22nd, the Socialist Society of Edinburgh at 8pm on the evening of the same day, and finishing at Edinburgh University on Thursday the 23rd.

The main theme of this lecture series is why American style segregation outlived apartheid. It answers this question, much like in the book Segregation, by placing the connections that linked South Africa and the US to Britain into the context of the broader paradoxes and dialectics of the broader history of city-splitting that takes us much further back than 17th century London, to the very dawn of cities in Southern Mesopotamia.

London is a good place to contemplate even such ancient roots of segregationist urban planning. Thanks to roving architecture buffs who worked for the British Empire, the British Museum contains terrific stone carvings from ancient Assyria showing some of the earliest city walls under fierce siege. Both such walls, which divided city dwellers form the country dwellers and locals from foreigners, and the monumental architecture inside those wall,s which divided god kings from mere mortals, represent the most elemental forms of unequal divisions of urban space.

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