By Kim Singh-Sall, First Year History
Collective amnesia and imperial nostalgia sweeps across our society and school curriculums, and the consequences of this played out in the ‘All Lives Matter’ protests over the last weekend. Hundreds of predominantly white men demonstrated in Bristol to protect the Cenotaph, with the purpose – they claimed – of protecting British history.
Following the forceful removal of the statue of prominent slave trader, Edward Colston, at the Black Lives Matter protest the previous weekend, statues have been falling all over the country.
The statue of Robert Milligan was removed in London, Manchester council has issued a city-wide review of all statues and Labour councils in England and Wales plan to review monuments in towns and cities. This has led to vehement debate, underpinned by the question of whether removing statues erases British history.
British history does not need protecting, it needs exposing.
But what the demonstrations and discourse have shown is that British history does not need protecting, it needs exposing.
Britain is desperate to cling onto its imperial past, without really knowing much about it. A 2016 YouGov poll found that 44% of Britons were proud of British colonial history and 43% believed the Empire was good, while only 19% said it was bad.
Much of society is happy to see Britain’s past through rose-tinted glasses, blind to the atrocities carried out in the name of Empire, blind to the contributions of Black and brown people in building and influencing this country, blind to almost everything but its successes.
Nationalist protestor stands on the #Colston statue plinth as chants ring out for Churchill and scenes get tense with police. And counter demonstrators stand opposite. #bristol #BlackLivesMater pic.twitter.com/Ndl00ckCUx— The Bristol Cable (@TheBristolCable) June 13, 2020
This misplaced pride is perfectly symbolised by the controversy caused when the statue of Winston Churchill was vandalised during a Black Lives Matter protest in London on 7th June, resulting in it being boarded up. Churchill was branded a ‘racist’ by protestors and this has caused a storm of dispute over his legacy.
Churchill is more than a past prime minister of this country: he is an emblem of patriotism and British pride. He represents sacred British triumph and bravery as this country fought against Nazi Germany in World War II. Defenders of Churchill are quick to compare him and Hitler – the running joke being: if people think Churchill was the racist, you should see the other guy.
The defacement of his statue led protestors and politicians to denounce the disrespect shown to the man who led Britain through the war. Black Lives Matter protestors were criticised for not respecting and knowing history. Boris Johnson, in a series of tweets condemning the vandalism, wrote: “We cannot pretend to have a different history”. The irony is, we already do pretend.
Boris Johnson tweeted: “We cannot pretend to have a different history”. The irony is, we already do pretend.
Yes, Churchill led this country through the Second World War. But Churchill was also responsible for a devastating manmade famine in Bengal in 1943-44, which led to the deaths of around 3 million people. Food and resources were deliberately diverted towards Europe by Churchill’s government, while Indians were left to starve. In response, Churchill was reported to have said, ‘famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits’, condemning them to beasts with a ‘beastly religion’. Just because he wasn’t Hitler, that doesn’t excuse him of these atrocities.
This demonstrates the racist sentiment by which British rule was administered over India, and Empire in general. The Bengal Famine was one of many atrocities committed by the British Empire: the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 and the Partition of India in 1947 demonstrate that India was governed by a British elite with very little concern for the people they were ruling over.
Yet 43% of Britons still believe that the Empire was a good thing. It is not wrong or audacious to condemn Churchill’s racism, which went far beyond a few problematic opinions. His disdain towards Indian people and people of colour in general resulted in loss of life.
What this shows is that our history is dangerously whitewashed, telling a distorted story of British triumph and exceptionalism – sentiments which were represented by the ‘All Lives Matter’ protests in Bristol and all over the UK. Misplaced patriotism, white supremacy and thuggery sum up a very bizarre British exceptionalism that is now coming to light.
Our school curriculums amplify the military and political victories of Britain, serving to wave the flag of deceptive patriotism in our classrooms. The voices of Malcom X, Ida B. Wells, Angela Davis, Katherine Johnson, Sophia Duleep Singh and more are drowned out by the tired stories of English kings trying to conquer France, again. From my own school experience, more time was dedicated to the architecture of castles and the importance of moats than the Civil Rights Movement, the British Empire and slavery put together.
If we, as a society, open our eyes to our colonial past, helping to understand the legacy and impact of racism which persists today, we wouldn’t have to rely on black people to explain why the Black Lives Matter campaign does not mean that only black lives matter, but that black lives are under threat and that this needs to change. Maybe then, far right activists wouldn’t have felt the need to stage a counter protest. Maybe then, society could commit to dismantling the legacy of colonialism and slavery. Maybe then, we really would become the tolerant nation we pretend we are.
Misplaced patriotism, white supremacy and thuggery sum up a very bizarre British exceptionalism that is now coming to light.
What we have now is an opportunity to do more. We need to change the narrative, both nationally and in Bristol. Bristol City Council’s Commission on Race Equality seeks to prioritise justice and equality and hold public, private and voluntary sectors to account in perpetuating inequality.
Bristol University’s first History of Slavery Professor, Olivette Otele, will chair this commission and will undertake a research project that examines the role the University played in the slave trade and how it profited from it. We are beginning to make progress to address our chequered past, but we must continue to do more.
It is time we interrogate our history, decolonising our curriculums and our attitudes. We must change the narrative of British exceptionalism, which puts Britain on a pedestal, promoting ignorance and deception. We must question what we have been taught and led to believe. We must challenge the assumption that black and brown people sat on the sidelines of British history. The goal is not to erase history, but to tell it.
Featured Image: Rufus Atkins
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