We don’t need to “reinterpret” our colonial past – we need to tell the story

“…believe that the history of the relationship between Britain and its colonies needs to be constantly reinterpreted” Trevor Phillips in The Times.

Imperial Britain did not have a “relationship” with its colonies. It invaded them, killed First Nations peoples, sent slaves to them, sequestered their land, exploited their natural resources and governed them in what was essentially a totalitarian and wholly undemocratic way.

Garry Sobers himself has written that a black man needed to be a three times better cricketer than a white man to be selected for the West Indies. His childhood in Barbados was one in a racist society deeply divided between the white man with the house on the hill and the black man cutting the sugar cane.

Colonial Barbados

The imperial model of British exploitation and racial division was replicated everywhere though in the Dominions of Australasia and Canada once the natives were dead of disease or discrimination (or corralled into camps) the white invaders became the majority and, being white, were permitted to govern themselves.

The problem is not our tendency to re-write our imperial history but our failure to tell it. The building of the British Empire was one of the most significant features of the second Millennium but the story is inadequately recorded and taught. There is no “Museum of Empire” telling the story anywhere and surprisingly few good academic histories which comprehensively tell the story.

There are apologists for Empire and even those who will tell you it was a good thing. They are being challenged and the preposterous row over patriotic songs at the Proms may have woken a few people up to the iniquities of Empire. The use of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and the phenomenon of “taking the knee” the same.

When the world officially condemned colonialism and effectively outlawed it via the United Nations declaration after the Second World War an end was put to what was for centuries a scar on humankind. But the legacies of Empire live on in many countries, including Britain. That many of the children of Empire have prospered is hugely to their credit and that some once colonies have emerged as successful countries in modern times likewise. But English exceptionalism, that arrogant presumption , based on Empire, that in the hierarchy of nations Britain is at the top prospers still in our post Brexit world.

History does not need to be rewritten it needs to be debated and told, glorious or otherwise. What happened needs to be related both in the context of the norms of the times when it took place and from a modern perspective. We cannot trade back, what happened happened. It cannot be disguised by flag-waving jingoism – we need to “learn from the Germans” and confront our past and where appropriate atone for it.

One thought on “We don’t need to “reinterpret” our colonial past – we need to tell the story

  1. If you subtract for a moment the moral imperative that makes us decent humans and which separates man from beast then colonialism can be regarded as a natural, explainable, evolutionary response.
    Darwin understood that for life on earth to progress, develop and survive the fittest among us had to go forth and multiply at the weakests expense. History illustrates quite well that whenever morality and decency is missing mankind reverts back to his evolutionary origins. There are modern examples everywhere.
    My generation was taught to have pride in the world map coloured pink that hung in every classroom. The colonialists were regarded as British heroes and still are by a large section of the population. So is the moral imperative lacking here? Is nationalism and phoney flag-waving pride a symptom of these values? Are these supporters simply attempting to be societies fittest and great cost to the rest of us?
    Brexit is the inevitable end result the Grand Final. Where none British people and countries are corralled together in the neo-colonialist mind as ‘johnny foreigner’ bad; White Anglo Saxon British good. Moral imperative missing once more.
    I am not encouraged to believe that modern Britain is heading anywhere but back to the eighteenth century. A sort of Rees-Mogg/ Farage elites paradise where the ruling class virtually and by proxy flog their starving serfs at will.

    Liked by 1 person

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