From Streets and Squares of Charlottesville to Britain: A colonial Past Remembered or Ignored?

Sir Henry Havelock statue in Trafalgar Square.

London, UK (VIAnews) – The Charlottesville downing of Robert E Lee’s statue in the United States of America. Evidence that colonial and historical memory in the country is, once again, at the forefront of public scrutiny.

For protestors demanding the statue’s removal, Lee represents the racist Confederate defense of the slavery institution in the 19th century. As a slave owner who was notorious for his brutal treatment of slaves, he represented everything which should be confronted in America’s recent past. Also important is the fact that this statue was erected in 1924: a time when the Jim Crow laws, the background to racial segregation in the States, were enforced, and statues like this were put up to humiliate non-whites and intimidate any resistance into submission.

Those who opposed the removal of the statue, however, thought differently. Some argued that Lee represented a proven military genius and nothing more, whilst others argued that removing his statue was tantamount to ignoring history, rather than reshaping it. Statues like his, they argue, should be retained instead to remember the atrocities perpetrated by Lee, not in a celebratory way, but so that the past is never forgotten.

As the American political establishment becomes implicated in the question of historical memory, how is the historical, and indeed, the colonial past remembered in Britain? Is there a Robert E Lee, or indeed are there many, in our squares, in our history books, whose background will in the near future be scrutinized- whose statue, perhaps, should be removed?

The movement, RhodesMustFall, is the example which has hit the headlines in recent years. Cecil John Rhodes, a colonialist and architect of the colonial dream of a Cape to Cairo railway, was a rich man when he died in 1902. A rich man by his brutal conquests in the African colonies, including Rhodesia, which was named after him. Some of his money he donated to universities across the world, such as the Oriel College in Oxford, which led to his statue being erected there. As probably the most notoriously violent and oppressive bulwark of Britain’s brutal colonization of Africa, protests against the presence of his statues, at first in the University of Cape Town, and later, other institutions such as the University of Oxford, led to the downing of his statue in Cape Town. Not, however, in Oxford.

The discussions about colonial memory in Britain, however, go deeper than that. Historical memory is implicated in, yes, discussions about statues across the country, but also in conversations about education, about museums, artifacts taken on colonial conquest and retained to this day in Britain.

Professor Claire Alexander has for years worked with schools across Britain on history teaching. For her, the issue is one of historical representation. In her experience, pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds have little interest in the subject as history does not seem relevant to them.

At a time when ethnic minorities make up over 20% of state primary and secondary schools in Britain, Alexander’s work encourages the pupils to focus more on diverse local and family history, instead of what has been dubbed the “Hitlers and Henrys” of school level history in Britain.

Alexander’s ‘Banglastories’ project, for example, involved collecting oral history from former residents of Bengal, who emigrated after independence in 1947. The “pretty narrow version of history” taught at schools had come about from the “idea of history as inculcating a certain kind of citizenship”, which ignores the broader, more diverse British history and hints towards what Professor Hakim Adi, an academic specializing in the History of the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester, called the history of the “white men of property”. No wonder that community history meetings and discussions, popular amongst black Brits, does not translate into enthusiasm for the study of history at university level. Rather, history is the third least popular subject amongst black students at undergraduate level, meaning that even less go into postgraduate or further study, resulting in a similarly low representation of ethnic minorities in university teaching. One of the main reasons for this, Adi told me, was “the Eurocentrism of the curriculum, because history doesn’t relate to them or people who look like them. We need to have a presentation of history which is inclusive, which encourages people to engage because it’s about everybody”.

2017 proved a case in point. Both the centennial of the Battle of Passchendaele, and other battles in the First World War, and the seventieth anniversary of the South Indian Partition: both representative, Adi, and Alexander told me, of world history not taught in British institutions as such. The First World War, rather, had been whitewashed, taught as “a European war, that Britain got involved in because it was concerned about little Belgium and saving Belgian civilization”. No mention of the colonial atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo colony, where 10 million Congolese were killed.

In a broader context, the First World War had been a ”war to redivide the world, particularly with the redivision of Africa”, Adi told me. Broad education on the subject, however, isolated it to a European phenomenon. In other words, a situation which ignored the broader imperial and international context, instead focusing on the part of history which made Britain out to be Belgium’s saviour.

Whilst the story of the Partition is repeatedly taught as being one of “colonial history, as being out there”. Both spatial and time distance, Alexander said, is employed to suggest that the British had little to do with the events in 1940s South Asia, rather it was “something that [had] happened between Muslims and Hindus” and “has nothing to do with where we are now”. Study of this period proves this was not the case: rather Cyril Radcliffe, a Brit who had never been further east than France, was given the task of drawing the Indo-Pakistani border, causing the biggest migration in history and the deaths of at least 1 million people. A migration which included up to 100,000 South Asians to Britain by the 1960s. A migration forced by the division of British India into two, and then three, nations.

Presenting Partition as having no relevance in past or present Britain, Alexander asserted, has dark ramifications for British society today and the rise of anti-immigration politics. Such an assumption, she said, leads to an all too popular “version of multicultural Britain which is that people came over to take our jobs and take our social housing”, rather than because of the horrific violence and divisions engineered by Partition. Change the way history is taught, and change the way migration and diversity is viewed in Britain.

Campaigns to make history study more inclusive and global are not the only interactions with the colonial past in today’s Britain. With Rhodes’ statues under scrutiny, more attention has turned to the abundance of statues celebrating colonial heroes across Britain, some of which stand in the country’s most prominent and revered plinths, reserved for national heroes.

Take Sir Henry Havelock, an individual whose statue stands in Trafalgar Square remembered and knighted for his brutal putdown of the 1857 Indian mutiny at Lucknow. Is it right that such a figure stands in Trafalgar Square? In 2000, Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, asked for its removal, as he was certain the majority of Londoners had no idea who Havelock was or what he was remembered for.

Sir Henry Havelock statue in Trafalgar Square.
Sir Henry Havelock statue in Trafalgar Square.

It’s the same story with Edward Colston. A slave trader, his statue, and many buildings named after him stand in Bristol after he donated vast sums of money to the city. The ‘Countering Colston’ campaign, based in Bristol, is calling for the statue’s removal, and the renaming of any building named after him. As they say on their website, they are pushing to halt his ‘public celebration’.

There is, however, debate around this too. The ‘slippery slope’ debate contends that the problem with such a move is that if one statue is taken down, it could lead to the next statue being taken down, and the next. For which of our heroes are without a flaw in their history?

Would Winston Churchill be taken down for his outspoken views on race, and even more complicated, would Mohandas Gandhi be taken down for his views on race? Indeed, according to an Aljazeera article by Teo Kermeliotis, last year an online petition by professors at the University of Ghana demanded Gandhi’s statue there be taken down, citing his use of racist language and early belief in racial hierarchy.

As a man revered for his peaceful protest and role in India’s independence, the suggestion that Gandhi’s statue is removed from its plinth in Parliament Square would doubtless provoke an outcry.

Both Alexander and Adi said that this was about teaching a more global history in schools, which includes everyone. For centuries media has meant that news travels fast and is received and celebrated by people living on different continents, in different cultural atmospheres, in varied communities.

Take the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century. Barely studied now, the only successful slave revolution of the modern era was applauded, Adi told me, by “many ordinary people in Britain […] because they argued that if enslaved people in Haiti rose up against their oppressors, they could maybe do the same in England” where working conditions in workhouses, mines, and factories were appalling, and the working classes were without representation.

Building this link between Caribbean revolutions and the struggle of the British working class would foster a better understanding of history’s world perspective, and extend acceptance and understanding between different communities.

At the end of our interview, Adi summed this up for me. “It’s not only about coming to terms with the past, but also coming to terms with the present”.

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