“But, do you really think Empire was really all that bad?” Everyone in our corner of the pub went silent as one of our course mates brazenly put this question to our Indian professor. “It was an absolute catastrophe – all we got out of it was the railways, and even that we’d have done ourselves”. Furious, panicked backtracking ensued. He’d been expecting another kind of answer altogether.
Back in 2011 this student might have probed further if he’d known he wasn’t alone in his longing to hear about the supposed brilliance of Empire. Last week a YouGov poll revealed 43% of people think the British Empire was a good thing and 44% think this country’s colonial history is something to be proud of. Just three years ago another YouGov poll found 34% of people even said they’d like it if Britain still had an Empire. Empire-amnesia or the misunderstanding of its realities is, it turns out, far more common than you might want to think. And that matters – a lot.
“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice”, wrote Mark Twain. The poorest and most powerless, traditionally people of colour and the working classes (not necessarily clearly separated categories), are written out of history to reinforce the predominantly white status quo. In this version of history, the power imbalance between white people and people of colour remains intact.
There will always be spats about what exactly happened in the past. But there is a worrying trend about whose histories are remembered and in what way. The powerful tend to be in charge of the pen that marks history books or the levers that pull the strings of the country’s national memory; the atrocities of Empire rarely take centre stage.
Britain had an Empire that at its height brutally suppressed one fifth of the worlds population; killed millions of people, from the Mau Mau tortured by colonialists to the 3 million people they starved to death in Bengal in 1943; and justified its actions with a scientific racism, the offspring of which sustains racism today. But this shameful past is shocking in its absence on the pages of school curriculums.
Unquestionable atrocities committed against people of colour across the world by British colonialists should be common knowledge, so that we can learn from them. Take the Holocaust; the reason we all agree it’s crucial to teach about the genocide committed by the Nazi regime is so it won’t happen again. Given the brutality, the huge death toll and the enduring legacies the same should be true of colonialism. Yet while most people in society rightly castigate Holocaust deniers, Empire celebrators – who refuse to recognise colonialism as a wholly damaging, racist endeavour – are chided then left to go about their business, whether that be helping to write the history syllabus or making decisions about this country’s most diverse city.
Giving a brief, rose-tinted account of the British Empire or brushing aside the significance of this not so distant past paves the way for a skewed understanding of the present. If a significant proportion of the population think colonialism was good, they won’t realise the current levels of inequality between the global South and global North are the product of this history. The grinding poverty billions of people are forced to live in every day largely isn’t the product of laziness, corruption or even change. It was born from this history of resource extraction and exploitation, which persists in different forms today. To not understand the two are fundamentally connected is to misunderstand Britain’s role in the past and present world.
The colonial legacy shapes this country, too. While statues commemorating colonialists litter the landscape, racism – the lifeblood of Empire – persists. Scientific racism is now widely agreed as a historical aberration, but it’s left scars on the present. Racist colonial tropes about the barbaric, lazy, backward and hideous ‘other’, linger in discriminatory structures and lived experiences. White women are typically considered more marketable than minority ethnic women, people of colour are less capable than their white counterparts and black men are more likely to be criminals. These are the stereotypes that spring from Empire. We can’t set things straight if we don’t learn about their origins.
There’s been an explosion of jingoism in recent weeks among the high and mighty; tempers have flared at Oxford University over whether they should remove a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The donors who threatened to withdraw gifts they give to the university should the statue fall are opposed to unseating this racist from his seemingly permanent throne because it would question the very basis of their power. It would challenge the society that exploits people of colour across the world for the benefit of a financially elite few.
Today’s news from documents leaked to the Telegraph is that the Cecil Rhodes statue is to remain at Oxford University after alumni have threatened to ‘withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million if it was taken down.’ As journalist Alan Beattie commented, ‘Democracy discarded in the face of threats by those with the most money. A fitting tribute to Empire’. The glorification of people like Rhodes and the refusal to remember Empire in its bloody realities means society can’t move towards anything that looks like equality. There was no clean break from Empire, the sanitised vision of colonialism props up a vision of the world in which Britain is a benevolent power, a fair country existing in a barbaric world, and people of colour are ultimately lesser than their white counterparts. That’s why we need to set the record straight.
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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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