"The crimes committed by our ancestors are not considered relevant to the British official narrative, and non-white history has long been suppressed. Our collective refusal to deny the violence of the past brings discrimination, 'victim-blaming' and an exhausting and protracted struggle over how our shared history is told."
History is often thought of as being of no obvious use, yet there are culture wars going on in Britain at the moment that throw into sharp relief its centrality to public life. History has become a battleground where a struggle is being fought over what British citizens are allowed to know about the past.
This clash is not unique to Britain, nor is it new. What is new is that a matter that has for years been visible mainly in government regulation of the teaching of history in schools, has erupted into the wider public sphere. In 2013, critics were able to moderate the government's planned revision of the history curriculum which, in the words of one leading historian, was intended to '[use] history teaching... to impart a patriotic sense of national identity through the uncritical hero-worship of great men and women from the British past'. Today, what and how much history we are allowed to know has become a fraught issue.
It is a truism that the British are proud of their history, and their ease with their past makes them comfortable in who they are. One of our most enduring myths is that we beat the Germans in World War Two, all but unaided. We love to talk about this victory, which was often used by public figures who wanted out of the European Union to galvanise their followers to vote Leave. And it worked! Britain left the EU to stand alone.
Early intimations that a new phase in the culture wars was brewing came into view in the campaign to remove a statue of the 19th century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from its place on the facade of Oriel College, Oxford. Rhodes left a significant sum of money to the college, money accrued from his pillage of the resources of Southern Africa for the benefit of himself and the 'mother country'. The campaigners' demand that 'Rhodes must fall' began in 2015 in University of Capetown, when the authorities were forced to bow to sensitivities relating to the misdeeds of white imperialists in a Black country, and removed the Rhodes statue on campus. The Oriel College authorities are still deliberating about what to do about their Rhodes statue.
The insult and hurt to Black people represented by statues of imperialists, colonialists and slavers were given further opportunity for expression following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020. In the English port city of Bristol, whose historical prosperity derived from the profits of the slave trade, protest coalesced around the statue of the 17th century slaver Edward Colston. On 7 June, the statue was toppled by the protestors and tipped into Bristol harbour, where ships carrying sugar and other products of slave labour had once docked and unloaded. Other similar, smaller, acts followed in the succeeding days.
Government members reacted strongly to events in Bristol, with one describing the toppling of Colston's statue as 'completely unacceptable', 'utterly disgraceful', and 'sheer vandalism'. One night, a few weeks later, a statue of a female Black activist was set up on the empty plinth, but the city council removed it. Colston's statue was fished out of the water and is now stored in a museum depot.
But that was not the end of the story. Although the momentum of the Black Lives Matter protests, such as in Bristol, has been curtailed for now by Covid and the prohibition on mass gatherings, a page has been turned in British history. The government, meanwhile, has announced plans to protect public statues—which are almost exclusively of dead white men— from what one minister called 'baying mobs', 'town hall militants', and 'woke worthies', 'wokeness' being an awareness of injustice and the determination to do something about it.
The crimes committed by our ancestors are not considered relevant to the British official narrative, and non-white history has long been suppressed. Our collective refusal to deny the violence of the past brings discrimination, 'victim-blaming'—in the sense that non-white British citizens are somehow considered lesser than white British citizens—and an exhausting and protracted struggle over how our shared history is told.
Black Lives Matter has given an examination of the past renewed urgency, but it was perhaps the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 2007 that brought general and unavoidable awareness of the long and terrible trade in human beings. The prime minister of the time, Tony Blair, famously said 'sorry', but did not formally apologise for fear of stoking demands for reparations. Knowledge cannot be unknown, however, and the anniversary prompted introspection in various institutions as to how far they had benefited from empire, colonialism and slavery.
Among these institutions is the National Trust, whose mission is to preserve our heritage and make it available for the public to enjoy. Many of Britain’s aristocratic homes and estates have been turned over to its care. In September 2020, the National Trust published a report entitled '... Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery' which contained essays on this topic, and examined 93 places in National Trust guardianship to expose the connections to empire, colonialism and slavery that made them what they are.
My generation grew up in the 1950s and we were socialised to feel proud that 'one-quarter of the globe' was pink, signifying the territory of the British empire. The history that made National Trust properties so magnificent is 18th century history, when the Caribbean slave trade was at its height, and in the east, the riches of India were available for plundering by British imperialists. Among the most notorious of these was Robert Clive of the East India Company, a sister company to the Levant Company. Clive became fabulously rich while serving in India, and the treasures he looted can be seen today in his family home of Powis Castle in Wales, a place managed by the National Trust.
The essays in the National Trust's report were written by historians who specialise in empire, colonialism and slavery. They are receiving threats and abuse from individuals unwilling to accept that their cherished vision of the past is based on lies, that the outrage of slavery and the crime of looting created the profits that made the magnificent country houses and estates that so many people enjoy visiting. Even listing historic buildings has become what the head of another heritage institution, Historic England, described ironically as a 'notoriously revolutionary act'—the specialists involved in this work are also threatened.
Twitter abuse is bad, very bad, and the historians receiving it fear for their safety. But they have also come under attack from another quarter, government figures who see themselves as guardians of truth, who call into question the professional integrity of the historians in order to undermine their research. Among their most vocal detractors are the Culture Secretary and the Heritage Minister, and an angry group of 50 Conservative Party MPs. The government knows it can no longer suppress the uncomfortable aspects of our history, and is struggling to find a way to put the genie back in the bottle. Their tactic of choice is to 'shoot the messenger'.
A related prong of the government's attack is to put pressure on British cultural institutions, including most obviously museums that are re-organising their displays to better reflect the historical knowledge we are gaining. High on the agenda at present are the experiences of Black British people and their ancestors, whose lives have been so negatively impacted by the enduring legacies of empire, colonialism and slavery.
The National Trust brouhaha is not an isolated instance of British government efforts to suppress unpalatable truths, nor of the denigration of the historians who bring them to light. As recently as 2012, thousands of documents chronicling our colonial history were revealed to have been hidden for half a century in a secret archive in the countryside. They were taken there because they were considered too embarrassing to be made public, and their existence was only conceded when lawyers representing victims of the so-called Mau Mau rebellion in the British colony of Kenya in the 1950s forced the government's hand. The details of the mistreatment and torture of Kenyans contained in the archive are chilling, and the law case resulted in Britain paying them reparations. The historian whose research enabled the Mau Mau victims of British colonial brutality to win their case was subject to abuse, and her findings labelled as dubious.
With a past full of incidents of equivalent darkness, it is not surprising that those attempting to limit the history we are allowed to know want our dirty secrets buried forever. Rather than threatening and abusing, we must encourage and applaud those prepared to push to the limit with great diligence and patience, to ensure that truth is revealed—alongside historians, they include journalists and other researchers. Distortion of history through wilful suppression of the very sources on which our understanding of the present relies consigns us to an uneasy today and an unending struggle.
The Cecil John Rhodes statue was removed at the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015 in South Africa.
Caroline Finkel is author of Osman’s Dream: the Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923 [Rüya'dan İmparatorluğa Osmanlı, 1300-1923] and co-author of The Evliya Çelebi Way [Evliya Çelebi Yolu].