As a long-established historian of British imperialism – not ‘Establishment’, I hope, and not an ‘imperial historian’, which could imply that I’m an imperialist– I’ve felt nagged over these last few days with the idea that I ought, out of civic duty, to contribute to the current debate (though it’s not a new one) that has sprung out of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, nurtured by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and has now spread to embrace the question of whether statues of slave-traders and ‘imperialists’ in our British streets should be torn down.
On that last question I have to say I have strong opinions, which might seem at first sight to put me in the camp of the neo-Fascists who are happy to have these men – so far they’re all men – memorialised.
But my argument is very different from theirs. It’s essentially a historian’s argument. These men and what they stood for, however vile, were important in the history of modern Britain, and so should not be forgotten. Indeed, the more reminders there are in our cities of these dreadful aspects of our past national life, the better. All I would ask is that the plaques and inscriptions which in most cases adorn them be radically and prominently modified to recount their crimes, as well as their acts of ‘generosity’ to their local communities. That would put our true – rather than a sanitised – national history on display.
Otherwise we’re faced with the prospect of walking round cities like Bristol and London warmly cushioned by images of just the ‘goodies’ in our national story (if we can even agree on who those were), and oblivious of the rest. I can see that appealing to Right-wing patriots; who should therefore in logic be the ones in favour of bringing down Colston and Rhodes. But not the rest of us.
There’s one more thing that bugs me, as a historian of Empire, about the current ‘pull the statues down’ movement. That is the way its champions misuse the word ‘imperialism’ as a simple synonym for slavery, racism and oppression, when the phenomenon was in fact far more complicated than that; not necessarily ‘better’ – I’m not concerned with moral judgments here – but worthy of more sophisticated analysis. Some of that would allow the real dynamic of imperialism, its motives and its effects, to be understood in ways that should allow us to understand it better, and to target our criticism – if that’s what we want – more precisely and effectively.
I may devote a future post to this. In the meantime, if you can’t wait, and can afford the £15 that Amazon (those great imperialists!) are asking for it, can I recommend my British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t (IB Tauris, 2016). It also has a nice picture of me on the fly-leaf.