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‘Imperial nostalgia has become so extreme’: Sathnam Sanghera on the conflict surrounding colonial history

‘Imperial nostalgia has become so extreme’: Sathnam Sanghera on the conflict surrounding colonial history

In 2021, Oliver Dowden, the then culture secretary, appeared at the History Matters conference organised by the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank. He had recently urged museum curators not to “denigrate” British history, as if history were a fixed, fragile thing, akin to a faltering tower of Jenga, and not something complex, changing and robust, with fresh discoveries and new arguments forever changing our sense of it.

According to a report in the Times, he proceeded to talk about the risk of curators “being pushed around by unrepre­sen­t­ative campaign groups … to remove our history, to remove statues and so on”, thus equating history with statues when statues are not history: they just offer one view of a historical figure at one particular point in history – and propounding the peculiar idea that history is erased with their removal (our knowledge of Lenin and Hitler continues to grow without their statues).

Incredibly, the inanity had still not peaked. That moment came when Dowden, according to the same report, was asked what he would do if the mayor of London’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, which was set up, among other things, to put up a new memorial for the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, sought to remove statues of national heroes Winston Churchill and Lord Nelson. The then culture secretary answered: “I would happily chain myself to Nelson to stop him being removed.”

Now, I’ve checked, and while some activists seem to have complained out loud that Nelson, who resisted the abolition of slavery, should not be glorified, I cannot find a single suggestion from anyone with power that Nelson’s column should be pulled down. Moreover, in the three years since Dowden’s strange offer to chain himself to Nelson, the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, which stated very clearly on being founded that it was not established to remove statues or monuments, has taken down precisely … zero monuments.

Nevertheless, we still had a minister of state suggesting he would climb 160ft above Trafalgar Square to chain himself to a statue that was not under threat. In his defence, he was not the only person who succumbed to hysterical hyperbole during the “statuicide” that erupted around the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and which, in Britain, saw the likeness of slave trader Edward Colston being dragged by protesters into Bristol’s harbour.

In the midst of a worldwide health crisis, the then prime minister Boris Johnson managed to carve out time to pen a column and issue a string of tweets in which he vowed to defy any attempt to move the statue of his political hero Churchill from Parliament Square (it had been graffitied but faced no real threat). Later, following a demonstration, the statue was observed being guarded by a sizable contingent of Metropolitan police officers, even though the protest was over and it was still under no threat of toppling.

Then there were the activists who turned up to guard a statue of the 19th-century novelist George Eliot. “I’m purely here to protect our history,” one military veteran told CoventryLive, apparently unaware that Eliot was a supporter of the anti-slavery movement and that her statue was under no threat whatsoever, unless the country’s army of Jane Austen fans had suddenly become dangerously radicalised in an entirely unexpected way.

There’s a risk, I realise, in focusing on these incidents, of implying that it’s only those on the right who are inclined to excess when it comes to imperial history. This is not true. Topple the Racists, an online crowdsourced map of problematic statues and monuments, targets, among many others, commemorations to former prime minister William Gladstone, which feels decidedly unnuanced, given that he opposed the slave trade, as well as defended it at times, while also benefiting from family wealth generated from it. Some of the estimates made for reparations are such colossal numbers that they stop being useful: it feels unrealistic to begin a conversation on the topic with the claim that Britain “drained” a total of nearly $45tn (in today’s money) from India during the period 1765 to 1938, or the 1999 claim from the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission that $777tn would be suitable compensation for the enslavement and theft endured by Africa during colonisation.

But the crucial difference is that, in Britain, the left has not been in power for more than a decade. In contrast, the right has in recent years had its arguments adopted by government and amplified by interlinked, opaquely funded thinktanks keen on culture wars, and the consequences have been serious. At least, it felt serious when, in June 2020, Gavin Williamson, then education secretary, rejected proposals to add more about Britain’s involvement in slavery and colonial past to the history curriculum with the words: “We should be incredibly proud of our history.” Studying history should never be about instilling pride or shame; it should be about encouraging understanding. We need only look to Ukraine for an extreme illustration of what can happen when imperial history and patriotism blur.

It also felt serious when, in February 2019, Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg referred to one of the darkest episodes in imperial history, the death of about 50,000 South Africans, mostly children, in British-run concentration camps during the South African war and claimed: “These people were interned for their safety.” He added that “[t]he death rate was exactly the same as Glasgow”, claims I can’t recall being made by any historian in years of reading on the subject. Indeed, the consensus among imperial historians who have been studying the subject for all of their professional lives has long been that General Kitchener authorised the construction of “concentration camps” in South Africa with the intention of dividing the families of Boer commandos and severing their access to supplies, comfort and food.

nelson statue View image in fullscreen

These incidents demonstrate how imperial history is no longer confined to libraries, classrooms and tutorials. It plays out in frontline politics and on the front pages of newspapers, with imperial historians regularly being vilified and their work being wilfully misunderstood in public. What has been driving the government’s involvement in this culture war? The Economist has suggested it does it simply because it comes easily – “As the pandemic recedes, the government will have to make choices about the future role of the state and how to steady the nation’s finances, which cannot please both camps. How much easier, then, to put off such thorny decisions and play a little more Elgar.” Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times has argued that some Conservatives see it as a way of appealing to voters who are leftwing on spending and public services but “culturally conservative”. Meanwhile, historian Michael Taylor has proposed that historians are handy hate figures now there’s not much to be gained from attacking the European Union: “After all, we cannot just hate Jean-Claude Juncker for ever.”

I suspect that Conservative politicians have been motivated by a combination of all these factors, and behind it all lies a misunderstanding of what history is, and what historians do. British prime minister Rishi Sunak revealed as much when he was challenged in the Commons by the Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy on the issue of reparations for slavery and replied that “trying to unpick our history is … not something that we will focus our energies on”, seemingly not comprehending, or deciding not to comprehend, that “unpicking” history is exactly what all historians do.

The impact of this culture war on individual historians has sometimes been devastating. It’s a matter of record and a cause of national shame that one of Britain’s most respected historians, David Olusoga, has to employ a bodyguard at some speaking events. I largely stopped doing events for adults for a period because the abuse had become routine. And then there is Prof Corinne Fowler, who co-authored a 2020 report for the National Trust on its estates’ ties to the East India Company and transatlantic slavery and was subjected to a barrage of hate.

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Prof Corinne Fowler, left, has received threats, while David Olusoga, right, has had to employ a bodyguard at speaking eventsView image in fullscreen

Her entirely measured report concluded that a third of the National Trust’s properties had links to British colonialism, and, initially, the media reporting was reasonable. But then her account was condemned by cabinet ministers, and a gathering of MPs within the Conservative party, who call themselves the Common Sense Group, turned the spotlight on Fowler and her colleagues. In a speech to parliament, Rees-Mogg claimed the report denigrated Churchill by mentioning his home, Chartwell (the report recalls, factually, that Churchill was colonial secretary and voted against Indian independence). Despite the National Trust Act of 1907 clearly stating that the trust “may acquire property … for purposes of public recreation resort or instruction”, the Daily Telegraph claimed that the Charity Commission could look into the National Trust on the grounds that the report was outside the trust’s charitable remit.

From this point on, the onslaught expanded to Fowler’s other research project, Colonial Countryside, a child-led history and writing project steered by historians. The book was the focus of several attacks, including inaccurate reporting in the Daily Mail that she wrote in her book that gardening is racist, and that her National Trust report was “error strewn”. Another Mail piece, claiming Fowler had likened Japanese treatment of PoWs to British colonialism, provoked an avalanche of hate mail and threats. Fowler was denied the opportunity to respond in most of these articles. Senior government ministers and members of the “Common Sense Group” briefed against her, and she says the whole experience made her feel as though she was passing “through the valley of the shadow of death”. Her safety was compromised; she occasionally needed to call the police and was, at times, unable to walk alone.

It feels absurd to have to say it, but it’s not acceptable that historians should be terrorised in this way. Discussion and free speech are essential. But threats, wilful misrepresentation of people you may disagree with and intimidation are not. Equally concerning has been the intensifying enthusiasm among the imperially nostalgic to break the basic rules of conducting history in order to make their case. There are countless illustrations of the tactics employed, including the erection of straw men to attack, highly selective quoting, cherrypicking evidence, dismissing some witnesses to events but not others, and making false accusations and ignoring context. But, for me, the single most troubling development has been the denial of the clearest case of genocide in British colonial history, in Tasmania.

Stolen History: The truth about the British Empire and how it shaped us P by Sathnam SangheraView image in fullscreen

There, a government notice enabled British settlers, soldiers and police to kill with impunity Tasmanian Aboriginal people who attacked settlers, their property and their workers in defence of their land. By 1831, the British population had reached 23,500, and the sheep population about 1 million. The Aboriginal population of at least 8,000 had been reduced to between 200 and 300 survivors, who were deported to a detention camp on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. Despite the presence of people of mixed heritage, when Charles Darwin visited Tasmania in February 1836, he observed: “Van Diemen’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population.”

There is no one single truth about the British empire, and there is nothing new or illegitimate about British historians wishing to justify and defend imperialism. Niall Ferguson and Jan Morris were among them. But a new generation of imperial nostalgics are going further than they ever did. While Ferguson, for instance, described how “the Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land were hunted down, confined and ultimately exterminated”, characterising it as “one of the most shocking of all the chapters in the history of the British empire” and “an event which truly merits the now overused term ‘genocide’”, and while Morris cited the episode as the “cruellest” illustration of the fact that “empire was race”, we now live in an era where bestselling authors try their best to absolve Britons of responsibility. Nigel Biggar’s book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning minimises the likely number of Aboriginal people killed, casts doubt on testimony of massacres and deflects from violence to “disease and inter-tribal war” as the cause of the rapid depopulation, all to conclude, “I do not think … that the British as a whole can be fairly blamed for what befell the Tasmanian aboriginals.”

It’s depressing beyond belief that imperial nostalgia has become so extreme that its advocates feel the need to deny killing that has, through the consensus of experts, long been accepted as deliberate and largely tolerated, if not condoned, by the empire’s governmental and legal structure at local level. Tasmania is an episode that the celebrated art critic Robert Hughes has described as “the only true genocide in English colonial history”, and it was employed as a case study by the lawyer Raphael Lemkin when he shaped the concept of “genocide” after the second world war. History is argument. But the arguments have to be based on facts. The arguments also have to acknowledge the overwhelming consensus, when it exists, among people who have studied the subject for decades.

Just last month, the Institute of Economic Affairs published a report that happened to back Kemi Badenoch’s claims that Britain had industrialised without the help of colonialism and should therefore refute demands for reparations and tell former colonies simply to follow its example. Yet, when a specialist historian, Prof Alan Lester, pointed out in the Times how the evidence had been cherrypicked from outdated papers and bore no resemblance to the consensus among experts, the thinktank’s response was a blog stating that he was simply “expressing the sort of crowd-pleasing opinions that he knows will go down well on [Twitter/now called X]”. It has become highly unfashionable to say it, but the work of experts counts.

Source: theguardian.com