You would think that, as a historian of the British Empire, I would welcome these ‘history wars’ that have just broken out (again). You know, the ‘statue’ thing: whether or not public images of old imperialists, or men (it’s usually men) with imperialist and racist views, should be torn down as insults to ‘correct’ feeling today, or offensive to men and women of the ‘races’ that were looked down on in the past. It puts my subject – history – back into the spotlight. Surely I should be pleased?
Whether or not all this statue-toppling is justifiable morally and politically must be a matter of personal judgment. My own view has been spelled out on this blog: I’d rather the statues stayed, but with inscriptions testifying to their crimes. This is in order to avoid the sanitized view of British history that would be created if we only had statues of literary figures, humanitarians, slavery abolitionists, nurses and suffragettes in our streets to admire. We have plenty of those in any case; but we also need images of our British baddies, in order to remind us how ‘bad’ we – that is, past Brits, if we are allowed to identify with them – have been. Personally I’m quite happy to see Rhodes go – he happens to be one of my own historical villains – though I would rather have seen him kept on the facade of Oriel College, with a suitable inscription, and perhaps wearing some mark of infamy (a dunce’s cap?). But I’m shedding no tears over him.
I also take the point that the BLM and RMF (‘Rhodes Must Fall’) movements have made people aware of some of these seedier sides of British history, which were generally kept from them in school. I remember at my school being taught about Wilberforce and Britain’s part in the anti-slavery movement, but nothing about her (or her citizens’) part in establishing the slave trade in the first place. It never occurred to me – at the age of 14 or 15 – to question this. To the extent that BLM and RMF have corrected this imbalance, and punctured the more innocent and ‘patriotic’ view of our past, they deserve to be commended; by a radical historian (as I believe myself to be) most of all.
But that’s where my support for these movements peters out. This is for two reasons. The first is that their list of targets seems to be spreading exponentially. A slave trader, OK; and one of the most brutal and active of imperialists, well, perhaps. But Churchill, because of his racist and imperialist views? Yes, he had them, in common with most (not all) of his high social class at that time; but he had others too, far more liberal; and accomplishments that could be said to far outweigh these flaws, and which are the reasons for his commemoration in Parliament Square.
If Churchill ‘falls’ because of his racism, it might be hard to find another British hero, especially from long ago, who doesn’t deserve the same fate. The best example may be Gandhi, whom Churchill despised, but who also has his own statue not far from his; and whose views on black Africans were scarcely more ‘correct’ by modern standards. Scratch the stone or bronze surfaces of any of the other statues scattered around our cities, and we might well find the same. Even our justifiably celebrated suffragettes could be less than supportive when it came to their ‘coloured’ sisters. (See, for example, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11914757/Racism-and-the-suffragettes-the-uncomfortable-truth.html.) Are we to pull down their statues for that?
My second reason for being unhappy as a historian about this particular version of the ‘history wars’ is that it doesn’t really add much to our understanding of the past, which is what a true historical education should aim to do. Generally it over-simplifies it, turns important historical issues and debates into questions of ‘black or white’; without any regard for their complexity, or their contexts. ‘Imperialism’, one of my own special areas, is a prime example. The word is widely used these days as a blanket term of condemnation, on the same level as – or even synonymous with – ‘racist’, or ‘fascist’: words which themselves are often employed indiscriminately; and without any acknowledgement – probably through ignorance – of the many different attitudes and policies the word covered in historical reality, and of the global conditions in which various forms of ‘imperialism’ were pursued.
I’ve already given, in a previous post, an example of one notorious ‘imperialist’ who was motivated by the desire to eradicate Arab slavery in Africa (https://bernardjporter.com/2020/06/12/imperial-statues/). Where do you place him? Another example, on the opposite side of the ledger, was the renowned ‘anti-imperialist’ JA Hobson, whose criticism of the colonialism that was being practised in his time – the turn of the 20thcentury – didn’t prevent his advocating another kind of imperialism, in order to protect free but weak peoples from exploitation by global capitalists. He realised that ‘imperialism’ per se was not the root of the problem. Nor was it, in most cases. This is why I called my book about him Critics of Empire, rather than The Anti-Imperialists, which had been my original choice of title before I too came to this conclusion. ‘Imperialism’ in fact describes a highly complicated and variegated number of phenomena, and the indiscriminate use of the word more often than not obscures the huge differences, moral and political, between its various forms. Perhaps more seriously, it can distract attention from other historical causes of events that lie beneath its surface.
Which is why – I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before on this blog – I once suggested at a conference that we ‘imperial’ historians go through a period of, say, five or ten years when we don’t allow ourselves to employ the ‘i’ word (or the ‘e’ or ‘c’ words – no, not that one!) at all; in order to encourage us to try to understand and explain phenomena and events other than under the simple – but often misleading – rubrics of ‘imperial’, ‘empire’ and ‘colonial’.
Pulling down Rhodes’s statue won’t do that. My British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, might. That is, if anyone were bothering to read it. (In publishing terms I understand it’s a bit of a flop. Which is why I’m shamelessly pushing it here yet again.)