"Rivers of Blood" -- what Enoch Powell didn't say
But we’ve just had another example of some hapless or malevolent Tory (and I find it increasingly hard to tell the hapless from the malevolent in the Tory party) being forced to fall on his sword because he’s admitted to thinking that Powell, in that in famous speech, had a point. To be precise, Nigel Hastilow – prospective Tory candidate for Halesowen – has stood down, after appearing to agree with the Powell idea that uncontrolled immigration would change the country dramatically, and for the worse. It's a "Powell was right" line shared by the British National Party (who actually manufacture badges with that slogan).
Let me say straight away that I am emphatically NOT on Powell’s side. Though the sanctimonious attitude of New Labour on the issue is pretty hard to take too. What was being said by members of both main political parties in 1968 about immigration now seems light years away. If you can imagine it, Labour politicians were then capable of punning on the idea Sikhs’ human “rights” and their “rites” – both referring to wearing a turban (or at least that was John Stonehouse, quoted in the Powell speech..
But what seems so very odd to me is that, despite its usual title, Powell never actually used the phrase “Rivers of Blood” in this speech. Churchill had done so, so had Thomas Jefferson (the first, at least, in the context of urging others to avoid them). The closest Powell came to it was a famous, but significantly different, quote from Virgil’s Aeneid.
Roman writers were quite keen on river metaphors when it came to discussions of cultural mixing. The first-century AD satirist Juvenal (Satire 3, 62)complained that the “Syrian river Orontes had long since been flowing into the Tiber” (roughly the equivalent of saying that the Ganges has long since been flowing into the Thames). The Jewish turncoat and historian, Josephus (7, 5), wrote of the spoils of victory (over the Jews) flowing into Rome “like a river”.
Powell was a first rate classicist, and became Professor of Classics at Sydney University at age 25. He made a definite choice not to go down the Juvenal or Josephus route. What he actually said was ‘like the Roman, I seem to see "the River Tiber foaming with much blood."’ – in other words he's using Virgil, Aeneid VI, 87, a quote that comes half way through that great epic on Rome’s foundation by the Trojan refugee Aeneas.
The words were spoken by the prophetic priestess, the Sibyl from Cumae (why Powell said “the Roman” isn’t entirely clear – perhaps he meant Virgil), just before she gave Aeneas the secret of going to the Underworld, where he would meet his dead father and learn of the destiny of Rome. She was prophesying the battles that Aeneas would face with the indigenous peoples of Italy before he would be able to found his brand new, multicultural city. (That's a Renaissance version of her on the right.)
Virgil was offering a long-term message about ethnically mixed states: Rome would become a joint, shared comunity after all the bloodshed. But this was not what Powell had in mind. He was, I imagine, exploiting this quote because it was spoken by a divine prophetess who knew the truth about the future: he was going for classical legitimation for his own Sibylline prophecy about immigration.
Powell was characteristically unrepentant about this speech, though it did cost him his ministerial job. But he did say later that he wished he had used the quote in the original Latin: Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno.Then at least everyone would have seen that it was a classical reference.