Culture wars on Britain's colonial past

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A woman looks at the Houses of Parliament in London. — Reuters
A woman looks at the Houses of Parliament in London. — Reuters

As diversity increasingly defines contemporary Britain, more questions are being asked about its historical links with slavery and colonialism

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Thu 19 Aug 2021, 10:53 PM

Last updated: Fri 20 Aug 2021, 11:51 AM

Now is the ‘silly season’ in Britain. Considered one of the quirky British institutions, it is that time of the year (around August and September) when Parliament and courts don’t sit, when news-starved tabloids go to town with stories such as eggs being fried on the pavement on a very warm day, a cow falling from a clifftop into a caravan, or UFOs being sighted. So when one food blogger from across the pond, Chaheti Bansal, the other day called for dropping the word ‘curry’ from the vocabulary, it caused a media flurry. Her argument is that every region and sub-region in India has its own particular cuisine, and that culling these diverse cuisines into a generalised term is an act of colonialism. Many saw the storm in a curry-pot as another example of the ‘silly season’ — never mind that Afghanistan has made the season newsy — but her post got more traction due to its resonance with what is called a ‘culture war’ about Britain’s historic links with colonialism and slavery.

A ‘culture war’ has been well and truly raging for some time. There has been a definite shift in perception on racism, colonialism, slavery, and how such issues should be addressed and portrayed in public spaces. The debate has some oft-used words and phrases that are symbolic: woke, culture war, cancel culture, identity politics, microaggressions — even if there is limited awareness of their exact meaning. A recent study by King’s College London shows that the British public are as likely to think being ‘woke’ is a compliment (26 per cent) as they are to think it is an insult (24 per cent) — and are, in fact, most likely to say they don’t know what the term means (38 per cent). Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, says: “An incredible surge in media discussion of ‘culture wars’ in the UK has not yet been matched by widespread public engagement with key concepts in the debate, or an understanding of their meaning — as seen in the very different interpretations of being ‘woke’.”

The debate has been going on for some years: for example, sporadic demands that the British Empire, in all its aspects, be taught as a major subject in schools, or that Britain should apologise for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, or demands for restitution of objects seized — but it gained an edge during the Brexit debate and since the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign of 2020, it has become one of the top items on the public agenda. The pulling down of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol made international headlines, while the prominently displayed bust of British Museum’s founder Hans Sloane (1660-1753) was removed due to his links to slavery. Hartwig Fischer, the museum director, said at the time: “We have pushed him off the pedestal. We must not hide anything. Healing is knowledge. Dedication to truthfulness, when it comes to history, is absolutely crucial, with the aim to rewrite our shared, complicated and, at times, very painful history.”

The Shropshire Council turned down the demand to remove colonialist Robert Clive’s statue in the town, while campaigners drew up a ‘hit-list’ of such statues and public reminders of colonialism. Statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill in Parliament Square had to be boarded up during the BLM protests, as London mayor Sadiq Khan, museums, several councils and bodies committed themselves to reviewing their holdings, assets, items and public spaces for links with slavery and colonialism.

Awareness about a racist caricature

Britain, which was a major factor in the unfolding of global history through the industrial revolution and its empire, is awash with symbols of the past in its various incarnations. Someone somewhere demands a statue, image or artefact be removed due to links with slavery and colonialism, and it quickly becomes national news, drawing cheer and fury. The latest such symbol is the mechanised figure resembling a tethered black slave boy, dating from the late 18th century, which is supposed to strike a bell hourly in the centre of the Cotswolds town of Stroud. The debate followed a predictable pattern of polarisation, as a study by the local council admitted the figure’s links to slavery and colonialism. Local Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie said “a certain minority of people with loud voices have an unquenchable desire to be constantly finding things to be outraged at…cancel culture must be resisted and challenged whenever its tentacles attempt to grab our communities and bully them into silence”. At the other end, teacher Polly Stratton believes that Baillie has poisoned the debate about the clock: “We didn’t look for this fight — all we are doing is raising awareness about a racist caricature that is having a traumatic effect on many people of colour in Stroud. Their views should be heard, not shouted down by someone with a public platform. We’re not trying to hide it or tear it down. We want it on public display in a museum.”

Since London was the centre of slave trade and capital of the British Empire, its spaces have several statues and public reminders of the past. Khan, son of Pakistan-origin immigrants, set up a Commission for Diversity in the public realm to review them and suggest ways to properly reflect a diverse capital. He says: “For far too long, too many Londoners have felt unrepresented by the statues, street names and building names all around them, and it’s important that we do what we can to ensure our rich and diverse history is celebrated and properly commemorated in our city. Our capital’s diversity is our greatest strength, yet our statues, road names and public spaces reflect a bygone era. It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored. This cannot continue. We must ensure that we celebrate the achievements and diversity of all in our city, and that we commemorate those who have made London what it is — that includes questioning which legacies are being celebrated.”

Such has been the effect of recent events that Sathnam Sanghera, author of Empireland, who was born and grew up in Wolverhampton, says many Britons learned more about British imperialism in a few months of ‘statuecide’ than they did during their entire schooling. He is among several public commentators keen to raise awareness of the imperial past in contemporary Britain; his widely-discussed book explores how imperialism has shaped modern Britain, reflected in the iconic 1970s’ slogan during immigration-related protests: ‘We are here, because you were there’.

Historian David Olusoga, another prominent figure in the debate, intervened in The Guardian last week: “Last summer, when the state of Edward Colston was toppled, those who howled in protest claimed that they were not seeking to defend the reputation of a slave trader — a man complicit in the deaths of 19,000 Africans — but were merely opposed to the destructive way in which the statue had been removed. Toppling statues, or even removing them from public display peacefully, they lectured, entailed ‘erasing history’. The answer, they and the government argued, was to leave statues and monuments in place but add contextual details that made visible aspects of the past about which statues had previously been mute… It is about the ageing culture warriors of 2021, people so opposed to honestly examining our imperial past that they misrepresent even the most modest acts of reassessment. Like Dorian Gray, they are so fearful of uncomfortable truths that they seek to lock away history’s mirror.”

Khan’s commission is yet to complete its work, but an ‘interim report’ by the National Trust on the links between its vast holdings and colonialism and slavery raised many hackles. One of the largest landowners in Britain, the trust, founded in 1895, became an unlikely focus in the culture war. It acquired its holdings of land and iconic country houses by various means, including gifts from former owners, who could not manage it; the properties are a popular tourist attraction. No other UK organisation manages so many places spanning such a vast period or geography — from the 60-million-year-old rocks of the Giant’s Causeway to Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s childhood homes in Liverpool.

The Churchill connection

The trust’s report identified 93 properties with links to slavery and colonialism, pointing out that they reflect many different periods and a range of British and global histories — social, industrial, political and cultural. It noted that colonialism and slavery were central to the national economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The report sparked fury and worse against the trust and authors of the report, particularly for its inclusion of Churchill’s family home in Chartwell, Kent. Since the trust is a charity organisation and subject to regulation, many complained to the Charity Commission.

Churchill is the hero of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wrote a tribute in 2015, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. He often highlights his ‘most diverse’ cabinet in British history to ward off criticism, but has less time for those reviving issues such as slavery and colonialism. When the BBC, last summer, considered dropping a sing-along of Rule, Britannia! — a patriotic song with imperial connotations — for Covid reasons, Johnson said: “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness.” The trust mentioned reasons for including Churchill in the list: “Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965), whose family home is Chartwell (NT), served as Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1921 to 1922. He was Prime Minister during the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943, the British response to which has been heavily criticised. Churchill opposed the Government of India Act in 1935, which granted India a degree of self-governance. On 1 July 1947, he wrote to Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883–1967), arguing that India should not gain independence.”

Of the 93 properties, at least 50 are linked to the East India Company, whose employees earned fortunes in India and returned home to build large houses and live in splendour — called ‘nabobs’ at the time. They also wielded political power in Westminster in the 18th and 19th centuries. After receiving several complaints, the Charity Commission conducted an inquiry and recently cleared the trust, ruling that there are no grounds for regulatory action. The trust has not yet announced when its final report would be published, but like several museums and public bodies, it has implemented the ‘retain and explain’ approach to its assets, retaining the controversial items, country houses or artefacts, and explaining the origin and context in which they came into its possession.

Says Hilary McGrady, director-general of the trust: “We had a very strong response to the interim report we published last September on the evidence of links between places in our care and colonial history, including historic slavery. This included thousands of responses from the public, our staff and volunteers, academics, historians and media commentators. The views expressed have been as wide-ranging and diverse as they have been numerous. We have received many messages of support, but undoubtedly the report and some of the commentary and debate caused genuine concern for some supporters. It is worth remembering why we published this report. To look at an aspect of history that is there in many of the places we care for. To look at the material evidence we have and to ensure that we take account of it in the way we look after and present the places in our care. We have listened and considered the many responses, and been reminded that researching history and sharing it can stir up strong feelings and views. There is so much to be proud of in our history...However, history can also be challenging and contentious. It is surely a sign of confidence, integrity and pride that while we can celebrate and enjoy history we can also explore and acknowledge all aspects of it.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar.)

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