How Britain is coming to terms with its colonial past

Making full amends may not be possible long after the events, but raising awareness is an achievement in itself

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Mon 20 Mar 2023, 11:51 PM

Last updated: Tue 21 Mar 2023, 6:41 AM

Slowly but surely, the signs are unmistakable, even if there is no central, coordinated official initiative. The revisionist push began before the Black Lives Matter movement hit the headlines in Britain in 2020, along with an increasing representation of non-whites in British politics and other fields. There were also strong demands on British campuses in recent years to de-colonise the curriculum, and some institutions set up reviews to re-visit their holy and not-so-holy past, on how they may have benefited from proceeds of crime from slavery and other events during the British Empire. There has also been some repatriation of culturally sensitive items seized or looted during the colonial days, particularly of Benin bronzes to Nigeria, taken by British forces during the sacking of Benin City in 1897.

Britain is awash with items looted, seized or gifted from former colonies, now based in royal and private collections, museums in London and elsewhere. The Clive Museum in Powis Castle in Wales, for example, consists of what is officially called ‘loot’ from colonial India (including Tipu Sultan’s tent). The castle set in sprawling grounds is host to the largest private collection of its type in Britain, comprising priceless items brought by Robert Clive (1725-74) and his son, Edward Clive (1754-1839). The senior Clive is credited with laying the foundation of the British Empire in India, while the junior Clive was governor of Madras when Tipu Sultan was defeated and killed in 1799 in Srirangapatna. Both carried home a large number of items, including idols of Hindu gods, hookahs, swords, paintings, textiles, gold, ceremonial armour and jewellery following their conquests.


There are many who see the British Museum as an ‘active crime scene’ due to the large number of culturally important objects it has from former colonies; it is not the only museum to hold such items. There are moves to temporarily loan the objects to their home countries for exhibitions, but the formal return is prohibited by British law. Demands to apologise for massacres and other depredations during the colonial era continue to be stonewalled (the British state has so far confined itself to expressing ‘regret’ for the 1919 Jallianwalla massacre).

Making full amends may not be possible long after the events, but raising awareness is an achievement in itself. For example, the National Trust, one of the most prominent charities looking after a large collection of historical dwellings and land across Britain, raised many hackles in 2020 by publishing a report revealing the many ‘Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’.


Last week saw at least three efforts in this direction.

The tortuous history of the Kohinoor diamond is to be explained ‘as a symbol of conquest’ in a new exhibition in the Tower of London. A combination of objects and visual projections will explain the stone’s story, with many previous owners, including Mughal emperors, Shahs of Iran, Emirs of Afghanistan, and Sikh Maharajas (the diamond will not feature in the coronation of King Charles II on May 6). The Tower of London has been the home of the Crown Jewels for nearly 400 years. From May 26, the new display in Jewel House will explore more stories than ever before about their history and significance, exploring the origins of some of the objects for the first time, starting with the destruction of the medieval Coronation Regalia in 1649, during the English Civil War.

The University of Cambridge is among several institutions that have historically benefited from the slave trade, but is one of the first to review its unholy past and initiate conciliatory steps. As vice-chancellor Stephen J Toope says, “History is inescapable in Cambridge. It is inconceivable that a British institution as old as our University would not have been touched by colonial practices of enslavement and enforced labour — whether benefiting from, helping to shape, or indeed challenging them”. The university conducted a Legacies of Slavery Inquiry between 2019 and 2022, which recommended the establishment of a research centre and funding for new partnerships in Africa and the Caribbean, including Cambridge Caribbean Scholarships.

Last week, Trinity College — the alma mater of several world leaders, including some in the Indian sub-continent — announced an investigation to examine the ways in which it was linked to, benefited from or challenged the slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era through the appointment of a new four-year research and teaching academic. The college will donate £1 million over five years to Cambridge Caribbean Scholarships, enabling up to three Masters’ students per year from the Caribbean to study at Cambridge; two PhD studentships will also be available during the five-year initiative, which begins in October.

In London, the Rishi Sunak government deferred issuing an export licence to an anti-slavery poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which was at risk of leaving the UK, to allow time to find a domestic buyer, so that it remains in the country. Coleridge (1772-1834), one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement in England, wrote the Greek verses while studying at Cambridge. He wrote the poem 15 years before the slave trade was abolished by Parliament. The poem, a Greek Sapphic ode in 24 quatrains, titled ‘Sors misera servorum in insulis Indiae occidentalis’ (Ode on The West-Indian Slave Trade), discusses the evils of slavery and laments the fate of slaves on the Middle Passage transportation route. It is signed and dated 16 June 1792 and won Coleridge the Browne Medal for Classical composition at Cambridge.

Experts say that the manuscript, which has been valued at £20,400, offers an insight into the early thinking of one of Britain’s most significant literary figures and is important for biographical studies of the poet, who wrote classic poems including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. The decision to defer the export licence was made because it meets the criterion for outstanding connection with British history and national life.

Given the scale of the British Empire domination and its continuing symbols and salience in everyday life in Britain and elsewhere, such revisionist efforts now may amount to mere straws in the wind, but there are indications that momentum is building up, as a genuinely multicultural Britain increasingly becomes a reality, not only manifested in a British Asian as the prime minister.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in London.)


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