by Maya Goodfellow

A statue of Sir Charles Napier stands in Trafalgar Square. Napier looks out over one of London’s most famous tourist sites and is, quite benignly, described as a ‘General’. He was more than that. This man, commemorated in statue-form, was responsible for conquering Sindh in 1843, a province in what was then India and is now Pakistan. He dispossessed indigenous peoples of their land and freedom, having committed this atrocity Napier sent one word back to his superiors: “Peccavi”. The Latin for “I have sinned”. For this, he was memorialised in bronze.

Though they may be acquainted with Napier’s statue, this isn’t a tale with which many are familiar. Colonial history is not examined in all of its brutality in schools, nor is it properly remembered in Britain’s collective consciousness. Missing are the Mau Mau who were burned alive by colonialists, the Boers (themselves colonialists) and black Africans who were kept by the British in the first ever concentration camps, the thousands of Chinese people killed in the Opium Wars, the peaceful protestors who were slaughtered at Jallianwala Bagh massacre by the so-called British Raj, or the millions who died in the 1943 Bengal famine.

Instead, guided by the hands of former Education Secretary Michael Gove, British history in school is revised so that people of colour are few and far between. The scarcity of role models for children of colour translates into the present. Teaching is a white-dominated profession; in 2013 only three black people were accepted to train as history teachers. And so we are told, implicitly, only white Britons make history.

Beyond school walls denial is rife. Politicians issue half apologies for colonial crimes; afterwards it doesn’t take long for the country to shift back to remembering Empire for what it really was. When it cares to remember that this time happened at all. Bloody, murderous realities are traded for tales of swashbuckling colonialists that brought civility to former conquered countries and pride to Britain. Empire: the halcyon days of British history. Pro-Empire figures like Niall Ferguson receive undue prominence in popular culture and policy-making processes, burying the brutality of the colonial past. Though it lingers like invisible ink on the map of our present.

BBC2’s Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

In this climate of omission and misremembering, it comes as little surprise that there is much more to be uncovered in Britain’s colonial history. Last night, a BBC documentary, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, looked under yet another unturned stone. Drawing on research from a project at UCL, we saw a glimpse of the 46,000 slave owners in this country that got rich off of the backs of people of colour. When slavery was nominally abolished in 1833, these slave owners were compensated with a mammoth pay out, equivalent to around £16-17bn, the largest in British history until the bank bailout in 2009. And yet for some time slavery only disappeared in name; many slaves were forced to work 45hour weeks for another four years as compensation to the slave owners.

But it isn’t just the weight of a history from long that falls on us. As the documentary outlined, former slave traders are remembered in country mansion plaques as “West Indian merchants” or “West Indian planters”. These people, like Napier, remain imprinted on the present without us even realising.

And again these realities are not in our schools’ history books.

Neither are some of the other facts revealed through research. Many of this country’s national figures – including George Orwell’s ancestors and former Prime Minister William Gladstone’s father, plus modern figures such as Beneedict Cumberbatch and David Cameron’s families benefitted from enslaving and subjugating people of colour. They too were compensated for their cruelty.

There’s sad irony that Napier and Gladstone have sinister colonial pasts in common. Just over a mile from where the punning General stands in central London there is a statue of William Gladstone. His hands are painted red by activists in a tribute to the female factory workers whose wages were docked to pay for the monument. If only the same principle were applied to memorials across the country. To truly give the scale of death and destruction caused by the British, whole statues, not just hands, would be covered in red.

Instead, Empire tends to be brushed aside or we are nudged to lament its loss. In this world, where colonialism is relatively benign and history is white, people of colour can never be equal.

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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow

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18 thoughts on “How Britain buried the brutality of its colonial past

  1. Railways , infrastructure, and ‘democracy’ were the legacy of British colonialism, these old myths are constantly offered up as the benefits derived by the subjugated indigenous population. No mention of genocide , deliberately created famine , exploitation , repression of indigenous economies , the list is endless . No surprise then, that this history has been buried , British establishment historians , with an eye on a knighthood , know only too well that public revelations of their unpalatable colonial history is a career killer. Again no surprise it is not taught in schools .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely brilliant Tom. I’d like very much to quite you verbatim on my tweets if you don’t mind. Thank you in anticipation of your approval. Prof. Dr. Stanley Collymore. Twitter feed: Stanley Collymore@DerAkademiker.


  2. British colonialism not being taught in British schools means I do not know much about it. I have, however, wondered about it and how it influenced other leaders in History.

    I find the comment of ‘the first ever concentration camps’ interesting because I have often assumed Hitler was inspired by the British Empire and Slavery in America and framing the Nazis this way dramatically alters the telling of events. Rather than a fanatical ideology lead by a mad man, Nazism becomes another form of colonialism that many European countries are guilty of, the racism and hatred encouraged by the Nazis, a tool to allow them subjugate and profit from people.

    I also often consider Transportation, which I did learn a bit about at school. Transportation seems to me to be a lot of effort to deal with petty criminals. Why would a country go to such lengths to send its own people half way across the world unless it was merely a front for more slave labour?

    The British elite have a lot to answer for.


  3. Interesting the way the mention of Ireland gets an instant “irrelevant” response. It rarely is, and the fact that some Irish plebes got killed building the criminal enterprise is irrelevant.


  4. As an Indian, I have to point out that the “peccavi” story is totally apocryphal. Also, the crimes of the Brutish empire in the Indian subcontinent alone far outstrips all those mentioned in this article. The deliberate destruction of native industry, the deliberate creation of communal discord as part of a “divide and rule” policy, compelling peasants to grow indigo and opium instead of food, which in turn led to mass famines about every 30 years – all these were also the reality of colonialism. Scum like Freguson claim that India and other colonies benefited from colonial rule by being given trains and telegraph services. This is totally true, since as we all know, countries like China, Ethiopia or Japan which weren’t colonised by Europeans never got those things. Right? Right?


  5. I agree with message the message of this article. However, I was surprised the author didn’t even mention the Irish or the Irish potato famine of 1850 when the British allowed at least 12% of the Irish population to starve right in their backyard-while simultaneously exporting food from Ireland. Another 13% were forced to emigrate from Ireland. In comparison the Bengal Famine killed about 5% of the Bengal population.

    The treatment of the Irish by the British Empire is also ignored in British schools

    The Irish somehow don’t count?


    1. I’m black and I completely agree about the treatment of the Irish by the British. Although Irish are not ‘people of colour’ their discourse is very much buried and ignored. And BECAUSE they are not ‘of colour’ it is still ignored. That is a wrong that we shouldn’the easily or quickly dismiss.


  6. And it seems Benedict Cumberbatch continues his father’s legacy by pissing on Julian Assange who remains in virtual prison through exposing the crimes of the continuation of this very imperialism in this very day and age. Avoid and boycott this man’s movies and videos.


  7. Britain gave the world a lot more that it took? Wow! Claiming this as a fact is even more atrocious. Industrial Revolution in Europe would not have be possible had it not been for the wealth the countries plundered from its colonies. While the era of colonization has mostly ended, the consequences are still being felt across the world – wealth and privilege among former colonists, instability and constitutional weakness among the former colonies.

    Don’t you ever say that Britain gave the world more than it took. That statement could not be any farther from the truth.


  8. Denying history is never right but out of all the things we should teach children; from the Roman invasion to Magna Carta to the Industrial Revolution; do you honestly think the best idea is to teach children every little bad (and sometimes horrific) things that Britain has done? Surely that is best left to further education.

    The large things like imperialism, slavery, the rise of National Socialism and the Holocaust should always be taught and discussed but teaching every little bad thing would detract from the fact that this country has given so much more to the world than it has taken away.


    1. You don’t see the cognitive dissonance is saying things like slavery should be taught, but we shouldn’t teach every bad thing? If teaching children the truth about Britain’s past means they have less than a rose-tinted view of the country, then that’s the country’s fault for committing such atrocities. This argument is essentially, “Don’t tell kids Britain did lots of bad things, because then they’ll know Britain did lots of bad things”.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I think not teaching lies would be a good place to start, and then talking about how the ordinary people [as it is clear the attitudes against the Colonial Empire haven’t reached the upper echelons in terms of feeling or acting ashamed] is changing how we erceive teh idea of redcorded History, we should view it as bookmarks, not accurate records of our past, realistic, muddy, not glowing and something to be so proud of. The true value of feeling pleased to be British is in determining NOT to maintain the ‘status quo’ of historical thinking. British History is much myth and legend, with an occasional reference to the truth.


    3. This country has been at the helm of draining the world of resources. Your comment is an example of privilege, protection and the restructuring of narratives that reveal Britain for what it actually is. A violent bully. This comment is precisely why we MUST interrogate the existing narratives surrounding Empire.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. White privilege. Tell that to the ghosts of millions who the Brit empire has killed and the millions more who were dehumanized generation after generation. Little bad indeed.


  9. I find this blog so important to my own personal learning but I do find the font really hard to read. And this article is so helpful to me. As the grandchild of colonialists its really hard to know where to go to process and understand that and work out what to do.

    I have a request though could we have something simpler without the flicky bits and maybe a bit bigger for those of us who are dyslexic?

    Liked by 1 person

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