India would like some of the British Empire’s spoils back, and have made it known with a campaign to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond, worth £105m and currently set in the Queen Mother’s crown. It’s not of course a unique situation, as campaigns for the return of the Parthenon Marbles and other loot held in British museums gather pace. As usual, the British establishment isn’t giving up without a fight, with historian Andrew Roberts positively indignant:
“Those involved in this ludicrous case should recognise that the British Crown Jewels is precisely the right place for the Koh-i-Noor diamond to reside, in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”
It’s telling that Roberts can’t even bring himself to use the word “colonialism”, instead choosing “involvement”, and presents India as an “undeveloped” nation prior to British rule, despite the fact India was the world’s largest economy for the majority of the 1,700 years before the British East India Company arrived and was subject to a brutal colonialism that decimated previous social systems and caused famine, disease and death. Winston Churchill himself, referring to the catastrophic Bengal famine, declared, “I hate Indians… they are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” The famine was their own fault, he declared, for “breeding like rabbits.”
It’s not just Andrew Roberts. It’s media offspring Dan Snow’s misty-eyed strolls through India on the BBC, surveying filtered vistas and steam trains, presenting colonialism as a great romantic adventure for all concerned. There’s Dominic Sandbrook writing in the Mail on Sunday that “Britain’s empire stands out as a beacon of tolerance, decency and the rule of law.” And who can forget our old friend David Starkey, of “the whites have become black” fame, who is a staunch supporter of pupils rote-learning historical dates and facts but only applies critical analysis to Mary Seacole’s inclusion in the National Curriculum. All of these voices are given an enormous platform and big budgets – funded by the TV licences of people of colour – on our very own BBC.
These are clever men, but clearly not clever enough to use Google, where facts about how Britain’s ascendancy was funded by slavery, genocide and murder appear on page one of search results from credible sources. And of course there’s the absence or often dismissal of the stories of people of colour who live in, or are descended from colonised nations. Our own histories, written and oral, tell a markedly different tale, and the results of colonial brutality is literally in our genes, such as when black people from the African diaspora with no recent white ancestors carry out DNA tests and find a substantial proportion of European DNA. It’s even on our birth certificates, as our original surnames have been erased in favour of the people who bought our ancestors as slaves.
So why are so many of our high-profile historians, armed with first class honours degrees, PhDs and fellowships of the Royal Historical Society, in denial about our colonial past? You might think achieving such honours would require a degree of critical thinking. Unfortunately, what we see is largely white men interpreting the dusty work of other white men, all viewed through the lens of the dominant paradigm: Britain loves to frame its former Empire and Industrial Revolution as the due consequences of Britain’s unique entrepreneurship, innovation and spirit of adventure, rather than as a result of brutal colonialism and imperialism. Cotton, after all, did not grow in the fields near Manchester.
And this is not just a question of problematic historians: this lack of critical thinking and incorporation of the testimonies and histories of people of colour is then fed into our school curriculums and permeates our national psyche. In an admittedly unscientific poll on Twitter, I asked young people what they learned in school about colonialism. Most expressed the view that they had learned very little about its full impact on the invaded nations, with one respondent going so far as to say:
“Colonialism was completely erased when I was at school, completely and utterly. I remember I went to see 12 Years a Slave with a woman who was in my year at school. Afterwards she said, ‘We may have our problems, but at least we never did anything like that’. I had to tell her that the UK was a colonial power, that we had a huge stake in the slave trade, that we had plantations. The education just wasn’t there.” – @thelovelymrfred
This minimising of the impact contributes to the considerable backlash for those who suggest reparations are owed for Britain’s crimes. When Portia Simpson Miller, Jamaica’s Prime Minister, suggested talks with David Cameron on this subject, there was a backlash on social media and from the Prime Minister himself who used the usual derailing tactic of referring to the UK’s role in the abolition of slavery instead of the preceding 245 years or the ensuing involuntary servitude and instead urged Jamaica to “move on”. Many made reference to Jamaica’s poor record on LGBT rights, but failed to mention that entrenched homophobia, transphobia and biophobia was introduced by colonialists and missionaries in the first place. There’s a consistent theme of “moving on” for events that happened “200 years ago”.
Personally speaking, my mother arrived from Barbados as a British subject in the early 1960s. One of her primary reasons for leaving Barbados was that she did well academically but all the most prestigious professions such as working at a bank or for the local telecoms company were reserved for white people. Indeed, the telecoms company had a policy of only employing black people as chauffeurs, in a country that then, as now, is only around 3% white. She left behind a cousin whose surname was Cumberbatch, a name imposed by Benedict Cumberbatch’s slave-owning ancestors. His ancestors were paid today’s equivalent of £3.6 million in compensation when slavery was abolished, a legacy that no doubt was re-invested and helped pay for young Benedict’s private schooling. My mother and her cousin received not a penny of these legacies, and that has impacted their respective lives today.
Tales of personal experience such as this are now being told and used to challenge the dominant discourse that colonialism was largely benign. There’s the high profile Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Oxford whose aim is to “decolonise the space, the curriculum, and the institutional memory at, and to fight intersectional oppression within, Oxford”. People of colour are using social media to campaign for the decolonisation of public holidays, such as Australia Day being mourned far more accurately as “Invasion Day”, and Columbus Day in the USA being celebrated as “Indigenous People’s Day”. Even the phenomenon of Indigenous people telling their own stories on a rotating basis on Twitter helps people of colour to deconstruct the history we were taught at school through the lens of the coloniser. If only the British historical establishment, and by extension our media, politicians and the national curriculum, would follow suit. They could start with Google.
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