John Gloster-Smith looks into the history of the racial question associated with the British Empire and asks if it is vital to address and learn from Britain’s past rather than assume a pick and mix glorification.

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a policeman has resulted in a massive upsurge in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) protest across the Western world. In Britain and other former colonial countries, it has focused once again not only on the ongoing pattern of prejudice and discrimination experienced daily by these ethnic minorities but also a questioning of the history of colonialism which subjugated whole peoples to white dominance. In Britain’s case, it impinges directly on to the rise of populism, its departure from the EU and its implausible-looking attempts to become an independent and newly assertive “global Britain”, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Denial of the past

As many non-British observers such as Fintan O’Toole have helpfully tried to point out, what has been really happening is a collective failure in Britain to look honestly at its past. The Empire was dismantled and countries given their independence, often not without conflict, but no nation-wide conversation took place about what really happened, unlike for example in Germany. Rather, as seen in the Brexit campaigns of 2016 and afterwards, the tendency has been to glorify the past. Most people are very ignorant about what happened. The history of Empire receives a superficial coverage in schools, many of whom having rolled back the teaching of the subject. The second world war is also seen as a heroic struggle against the forces of German Nazism and the country continues to hold a fascination over the war with regular films and TV programmes. It thus arguably suffers the consequences of being heavily bombed for 5 plus years but not being invaded and defeated. Also the largest Brexit-voting generational cohort in the 2016 referendum was the Boomer generation, those born between 1945 and 1964, brought up in the shadow of war and educated when history teaching was all about chronology, dates and “Great men” (sic), not about an evidence-based assessment of the past. Myth was then more powerful than reality. Thus Brexiter supporters saw the departure from the EU as an opportunity to reassert “British greatness”. This blinkered attitude is often described as a British “exceptionalism”, that Britain had a particular right based on some assumption of uniqueness that to other countries is a source of mystery.

Thus when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations hit the screens, it was to a country with a very limited understanding of the context in which such protest occurred, a sort of collective denial. Of course part of this is historic racism, despite politicians’ assertions that “there is no racism in Britain”, and racism was a potent undercurrent of the 2016 referendum. Yet, the truth is also that Britain’s rise to world pre-eminence was in a large part founded on the slave trade, in which Britain secured a near-monopoly. This was the “Triangular Trade”, goods taken from slaver ports like Bristol and Liverpool to West Africa which were exchanged for slaves often captured from internal conflicts, transported across the Atlantic in horrendous conditions and the survivors sold in the Caribbean or North America, and then produce brought back from those regions to be sold in Britain. A whole pattern of colonies, trading companies, local trading stations and political influence grew on the back of this trade. Bristol, Liverpool and other cities became very prosperous and the wealth generated translated into other wealth-creating activities. The BLM demonstrators are in a very real sense the outcry of pain of the collective agony of their enslaved ancestors. While the slave trade was abolished in 1807, the legacy of humiliation and discrimination has been passed down the ages and today for those families who came to live in the UK, countless barriers exist in housing, education, opportunity, health and employment, and this in spite of much legislation to attempt to protect these people’s interests.

The idea of Empire

The British Empire is closely associated with slavery, and in part arose because of the need to protect British commerce around the globe which included the slave trade. This trade was part and parcel of a much wider world view in which white Christian people were perfectly entitled to seize the lands of other peoples and dictate the very terms of life. This is not the space to detail every aspect, but one can example a few. Sir Walter Raleigh, often seen in Britain historically as a bit of a hero for allegedly standing up to the upstart Stuart King James I, was involved in the suppression of Irish rebellion and the seizure of native Irish land in what was arguably the-then England’s first colony, and then was empowered by “Good Queen Bess”, Elizabeth I, to attempt colonisation of North America and to explore, colonise and rule any “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People,” in return for one-fifth of all the gold and silver that might be mined there. The activities of Raleigh, Drake and Hawkins, and later Oliver Cromwell, to force open access to the Caribbean and North American formed the basis of the British colonies in those regions.

China and the Opium drug trade

China has never forgotten how the British navy was used to force open trade with China to sell opium grown in India and exploit local addiction, despite the Emperor’s attempts to stop it, via the “Opium Wars” of 1839-42 and, with the French, 1856-60. The outcome was not only opium sales but trading stations, “Treaty Ports” and territory. Hong Kong today is a ghostly legacy of this presence.

The Indian Raj

India has a painful and deep memory of the British establishment and expansion of trade and then territory through the East India Company. What was once taught in British schools as a gloriously successful campaign to seize Bengal and drive out the French by “Clive of India” during the Severn Years War (1756-63), was in fact a ruthless campaign to exploit and asset-strip a very prosperous state. India was de-industrialised, exploited and became a source for materials to serve the rapidly expanding industry in the late 18th and 19th century Britain, as well as heavily taxed and the main source of money and troops to enforce Empire in the Eastern hemisphere. India was called “the Jewel in the Crown” of Empire. When Indians tried to rebel, they were effectively suppressed, as in what the British call the “Indian Mutiny” of Indian troops of the East India Company but in India is called the First War of Independence, in 1857-8. Later, when an effective campaign for independence was launched after the First World War, the initial response was a massacre of unarmed Sikhs in Amritsar at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. It took the tireless efforts of Gandhi and the Congress Party led by Nehru to secure independence in 1947. However, for most Britons, India probably has a romantic association with prestige, as when Queen Victoria was made “Empress of India” in 1876, or that Britain united India, brought it “civilisation”, education, a legal system, and “good government”. To an Indian, such attitudes are all but insulting.

The Scramble for Africa and White Supremacism

Many European states have a part in the colonisation of the globe in this period, and perhaps none so dramatically than the “Scramble for Africa” that occurred in the late 19th Century, in which the continent was partitioned by a number of European powers including Britain. One such aspect was the efforts by the businessman, mining magnate and imperialist Cecil Rhodes to establish a British dominance from South Africa up to Egypt, the “Cape to Cairo Red Line”. He believed that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was “the first race in the world” and that “the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”. He is associated with white supremacism and racial discrimination policies that were the forerunner for the post-war policy of Apartheid, or “separate development” of races, in South Africa. It took a long and bitter conflict led by Nelson Mandela to finally rid South Africa of such policies in 1991-4.

Long-term oppression in Ireland

Outside the British Isles it is not always understood that Ireland is a separate state to the UK, and indeed the two countries were ruled by the Westminster, London, Parliament between 1801 and 1921. Ireland was England’s first colony, first invaded by Anglo-Norman lords in 1169-71. The history of Anglo-Irish relations is a long and bitter one, of the confiscation of land by Anglo-Norman and later English and Scottish settlers, of religious domination by minority Protestants and the persecution of Catholicism, exploitation of resources and brutal suppression of resistance. Most notoriously, the Great Famine of 1845-9, when the staple potato crop failed, killed 1 million people and saw a further million emigrate, but very limited assistance from a Liberal, laissez-faire dominated Britain that believed that aid took the form of the coercive New Poor law of the workshop. Thus starving peasants were evicted from their lands, which they always believed to be theirs, for non-payment of rent, and were supposed to get help in a punitive system of workhouses which were, as in Britain, designed to deter people from seeking help. Thus these people literally starved while landowners’ lands nearby were producing plenty of corn which was exported overseas and to Britain. The trauma of the Famine contributed greatly to the rise of independence movements, as well as land reform, and eventually, after the failure of moderate attempts at Home Rule, which was particularly frustrated by the Protestants in the North, a revolutionary party, Sinn Fein, staged a rising in Easter 1916 in Dublin and, after the war fought a successful guerrilla war to drive the British out in 1921.

Defenders of Empire

The above examples tell a sorry tale to the modern-day reader. There were and are defenders of Empire in Britain, who like to stress what Empire achieved, and they would point to the spread of British concepts like the rule of law, the Westminster model of Parliaments, administrative systems, transport infrastructure, or the development of trade and agriculture, to name a few. While it might stretch the imagination of the reader, it should not be forgotten that Empire had its advocates at the time. People like Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, or Joseph Chamberlain in Britain, saw the Empire as a force for good, but also viewed it through a prism of white supremacy and a view that “natives” were inherently inferior. A commonly used expression was that of the Three C’s, Christianity Commerce and Civilisation, that the “natives” would be saved from eternal damnation through Christianity, Commerce would bring “improvement” and people would be “civilised”. Those marching in the BLM demonstrations would today find such notions insulting to their human dignity.

This is not the space to review how other European countries are or are not dealing with their colonial legacies but suffice it to say that others have theirs too, to varying degrees, as the attacks in Belgium on the statues of Leopold II or a study of the Paris banlieues might suggest. Yet to observe Britain today from the outside, one might be tempted to think that it is a country still in denial. One case in point has already been referred to, the politics of Brexit and the myth of British exceptionalism. Another is the symbolism of statues.

The symbolism of statues

During the BLM demonstrations, two points of focus, among others, have been the demolition of a statue to a Bristol 17th Century slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston, which was last week dumped in Bristol harbour, and that of Cecil Rhodes, who adorns the front of Oriel College, Oxford. In both cases, those responsible have refused to remove them despite numerous protests, and in the case of the first the crowd took direct action. When the target of BLM ire was directed at the statue of Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement and, for a while, it seems also a Fascist sympathiser, local people banded together to stand guard and defend it. The campaign to remove these statues has proved very controversial. On one side it can be argued that such statues are an assertion of racism which, while these statues remain, act as a statement of acceptance of or complicity in racism at some level. On the other side, as PM Johnson has argued,

“We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations. They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong. But those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”

To the outside observer, this is not a country at peace with itself. It has just had three divisive years of the Brexit conflict and now has a raging pandemic that is disproportionately hitting BAME people, now to be accompanied both by a very severe economic slump and potentially a No Trade Deal Brexit at the end of transition on 31 December.

For the historian, one is faced with the challenges of an impartial examination of the past. In teaching and academic circles, the historian impartially and thoroughly analyses the evidence and reaches a conclusion based on that evidence. He or she is not persuaded by the politics of the issues in question to present-day audiences. Thus, while a historian might, personally, sympathise with the removal of these statues, especially as such objects reflect what present-day people wish to honour about the past, they might also feel a concern over a substitution of political views, of one side or another, as against an honest representation of what actually happened. As the historian and broadcaster Professor Mary Beard contends, instead of tearing down memorials to controversial figures, “more important is to look history in the eye and reflect on our awkward relationship to it…not to simply photoshop the nasty bits out.”

The challenge of history is indeed to look the past in the eye, and not to avert our gaze. Sometimes it is uncomfortable and can lead to explore disturbing truths. History is about truth. Arguably, however, it is by doing this that a nation can be healed. So far, it is struggling to engage with such a therapy.

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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