David Cameron has been re-elected prime minister. The Labour Party has been decimated, Ed Miliband humiliated, and the Scottish National Party is triumphant in Scotland. Throughout the campaign, throughout the election pledges, and in the coming first 100 days of the administration, there has not been, nor will there be, any mention of Britain’s colonial legacy. Britain exists in a world quite apart from its history: a world in which naming a baby in the royal family is more relevant to current governance than the horrors of the British Empire. Colonial legacy has no place in modern politics.
This omission can’t quite be called a denial; denying something requires some recognition of the events that took place. Instead, this is deeper than a denial; it is a special kind of ignorance, one that penetrates the British psyche in a profound and personal way. This ignorance is not something that is ever openly elucidated—it is not as though at school we are told not to talk about colonial legacy—it is that it never comes up.
During the Scottish Referendum last year, much was made of the inability of British politicians to express what being “British” meant. I am a Brit and I do find it difficult to elucidate what a British nationality is. It is not quite, as much as Americans would have it, all tea, crumpets, and cricket. Yet there is one thing all parts of Britain seem to be united on: a deep, absolute, and willful ignorance of Britain’s colonial past.
When this colonial legacy is discussed, it is done so in terms that obfuscate the reality for many colonial subjects. Take India: it is telling that the Sepoy Mutiny of 1858 is to this day called mutiny—yet the events were much more complicated, and spoke as much, if not more, to broader colonial resistance as they may have done to a military mutiny. Never mind that the mutineers’ efforts galvanised many in India, across religious and provincial boundaries. Never mind that others in India, including the first prime minister of the nation, refer to the ‘mutiny’ as “India’s First Revolutionary War.” Never mind that in the aftermath, the British massacred thousands of Indian mutineers and civilians alike. These are simply not events for consideration, and a serious discussion about an official apology would have been laughed away.
The teaching of British history in schools in Britain is perhaps as shameful, or more, as the teachings on slavery in certain regions of the United States. lavery itself is another telling example of the systematic ignorance of history in the UK. If you are to believe the public discourse (when it occurs) around Britain’s contribution to slavery, all Britain did was lead the way by abolishing slavery in 1833. Never mind that Liverpool’s rapid growth as a city in the 18th century was predicated on the profits of the slave trade; this appears to be relevant neither to the history of the city or the history of the nation.
I grew up in Britain, and at home there is certainly a sense of an empire, of a time that used to be. It is clear, from school and from the media, that Britain was once able to exert great power across the world. It is clear that that is not the case anymore. It is the details that are fuzzy, if they are addressed at all. The national education curriculum of England, a document almost 250 pages long, mentions colonialism exactly once: ‘the first colony in America and first contact with India.’ Britain’s history is consistently couched in euphemisms which serve to undermine the harsh, authoritarian modes of governance that the empire employed. To be born in Britain, to grow up in Britain and to go to school in Britain and not learn about the effect of colonialism directly is at best misrepresentative of British history; at worst it is living a lie. I distinctly remember sitting in endless history classes talking about the Tudors and Stuarts, the Vikings and the Normans. I did not sit in many classes that openly discussed the empire in honest, critical ways. To confront our colonial history will take courage, a kind of courage we do not seem to possess at the moment.
When serious discussion does happen, it feels as though the colonial history of Britain itself is an anachronism that centers around a pre-World War II era. Surely, the thinking goes, we are past that now, and this is a problem to consider in the same vein as the Tudors—historically interesting, but that’s likely it. If this is the case, then why did the Home Office of Britain work so hard to try and suppress tales of “Britain’s Gulags” and the 1959 Hola Massacre in Kenya? Why did the Foreign Office oppose attempts by victims of the massacre, and of systematic torture, in their efforts to be compensated? And why, after finally paying compensation to victims of torture and abuse, did William Hague, then the foreign secretary, suggest that “[We] do not believe that this settlement establishes a precedent in relation to any other former British colonial administration”? These are not events that live in a distant past, but a past that is real and relevant today.
To be sure, Britain is not alone in having a deficit of historical consciousness. Former and current colonial powers are united in this; France, Japan, Belgium, and even the United States share colonial legacies and have varying degrees of acceptance and discourse. Yet perhaps no colonial nation so violently hoisted its flag around the world, stole artifacts, jewels, and natural resources, imported slaves, and then so quickly forgot that it was responsible as Britain.
It is worth mentioning that Britain does a great deal for developing nations; it is one of the largest contributors to global development aid in the world, in both relative and absolute terms. The final memorial to the empire, the Commonwealth, perhaps rests more on Queen Elizabeth II’s popularity than it does on any official attempt by the British to actually engage with former colonies. Despite this, the consternation with which British officials react when former colonies have the temerity to ask for their historical possessions back is astounding. Giving aid cannot release Britain from a historical legacy it does not believe it has .
What is at stake here is more than Britain having an honest conversation with itself. What is at stake is British identity and Britain’s place in the world. As debates in Britain rage around Scotland and the European Union, understanding how Britain became the nation it is today is vital for Britain to realize what it stands for. At present, all we can identify is that Britain pretends it does not have a historical legacy. For many in Britain, and around the world, this is not and should not be enough. For David Cameron and future leaders of the nation, it should not be enough either.
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