Don't hide the sins of yesteryear

March 2, 2007

In their attempt to promote 'Britishness', politicians and historians these days seem increasingly to find reasons to celebrate the Empire while playing down the many horrors that arose from it, argues Maria Misra.

The anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 will usher in a flurry of press coverage, TV programmes and other forms of celebration. Much of this will be rather self-congratulatory. For one thing, many people seem to conflate abolition of the trade with abolition of the thing itself. But most important, it will be seen as a testament to the uniquely fair-minded quality of Britain even at the time of its greatest imperial power. The abolition of the slave trade will, like recent popular and political ventures into the history of the British Empire, tell a very particular tale about Protestant evangelicalism, liberalism and the essentially progressive and reforming nature of British power.

This message has, of late, been increasingly, and rather surprisingly, associated with the British Labour Party. We have witnessed John Prescott's farcical collaboration with a US casino boss to celebrate the life of Prescott's fellow Hull-man William Wilberforce. More arresting has been Gordon Brown's intervention in the imperial legacy industry. This began a couple of years ago when, on a trip to Tanzania, the Chancellor announced that the British Empire was no cause for shame or apology, but rather reason for celebration. More recently he has hinted that it should even be elevated to the status of official national myth - a position conferred by compulsory inclusion in schools' history teaching. The message is clear: British imperialism can, and should, be spun as a progressive force.

There have been signs of this trend for the past four or five years in the spate of popular and populist history books seeking to revivify the legacy of Empire such as, among others, Niall Ferguson's Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World and Andrew Roberts's A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900 , a neo-Churchillian paean to a certain 1930s take on British culture, history and mores. Britain has not been alone in this nostalgia for the imperial order of yesteryear.

In France, too, the rightist political parties managed, in 1995, to have a law passed making it compulsory to teach the legacy of the French colonial empire in a "positive" light, while the definition of colonialism in a popular dictionary insisted that it be associated with "civilisation" and "the bringing of progress and development". Both the statute and the dictionary entry have since been withdrawn in the wake of violent protest but, nevertheless, their very appearance, however temporary, suggests a powerful constituency in Western Europe for tales of the glory days of empire.

A similar sentiment greeted a TV documentary I was involved with a couple of years ago, detailing the bloody exploits of King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo. The film met with a great deal of criticism, and indeed denial in Belgium, even though it was hardly historiographically revelatory, and details of the brutality, mutilation and murderous nature of the early colonial labour regime of rubber in the Congo have long been known among academics.

How does one explain this recrudescence of a rather old-fashioned approach to imperialism - the insistence on its benefits and the refusal to acknowledge even its most egregious errors? Clearly, in retrospect, one can see the West has recently lived through a neo-imperial moment, with the war in Iraq its most conspicuous feature. The populist writings of Ferguson et al will doubtless soon be seen for what they were: intellectual rationalisations and justifications for interventionist foreign policies that had, for the previous 30 years, been seen as wholly illegitimate.

These works remind one uncomfortably of the nationalist outpourings of journalists on the eve of the First World War and the smug textbooks of the interwar years.

But there is something more interesting going on than mere nationalist foreign policy cheerleading. The re-emergence of a pro-imperial intellectual fashion coincides with a sharp increase in immigration to Western Europe and the perception, coincident with though not necessarily caused by that immigration, that the host cultures of France, Britain and other European states are in some way threatened. The destabilisation of domestic politics that has followed has given imperial revivalism a certain longevity.

In Britain, Brown has emerged as the politician most seriously engaged with the question of constructing an integrative and cohesive modern "British" identity, and not only in his remarks in Tanzania and his musings on the possible content of school syllabi. In a Prospect -hosted roundtable discussion, he openly mooted the possibility of "codifying Britishness" into some kind of charter in which pride in Empire figures. It is, of course, no accident that Brown, a Scottish politician beleaguered in his native state by a popular national separatist movement, sees political capital in presiding over the definition of a distinctively imperial national identity. Nor is it a coincidence that Belgium, with its continuing struggle to maintain unity between Flemish and Walloon constituents, has seen a difficulty in accepting the darker side of the country's colonial past. Imperialism, contemporary or historical, has always had a part in the dramas of Europe's domestic national integration.

Has the imperial revival been felt in the universities? Have students been seized by the jingoistic urge to wave the flag and study the civilising, railway-building, proselytising exploits of their 19th-century forebears? If they have, they will have been bitterly disappointed by the nature of imperialism history courses on offer. Academics have barely engaged with this flurry of popular imperialism; its works do not seem to figure on many reading lists or to occupy the pages of academic journals. For many professional historians, the terms of the popular debate seem bafflingly simplistic. For the past 50 years, imperialism has been seen as a complex interchange between various colonial and colonised groups, not as a one-way street of either straightforward exploitation or "uplift". Its economic effects, all agree, were so complicated and mixed that reducing the question to polemical arguments about whether "imperialism" was a good or a bad thing just doesn't make sense.

What has really engaged historians in the past 20 years has been, if anything, the cultural rather than the economic impact of colonialism. And there is broad agreement that the European empires that governed essentially through strategies of "divide and rule" have, unintentionally perhaps, left behind a legacy that has impeded state-building and integration in the successor states. These legacies may be observed in the partition of India, the instability in the Middle East, violence and civil war in Nigeria and Rwanda and, most recently, in the political debacle of postwar Iraq.

When it comes to university teaching, imperial studies have taken two routes. On the one hand, there is the conspicuous rise of the history of globalisation, seen as a complex multivalent process with "winners" and "losers" on all sides. On the other hand, there has been the proliferation of research into the social construction of identity, and especially into the influence of colonialism on British (and other European) conceptions of race, gender, class and nationality. Neither of these approaches has much place for the new pro-imperial history except, perhaps, as examples of national myth-making.

It is easy to see why politicians yearn for a "usable" history; they always have. But the case of Iraq is a searingly vivid illustration of what can happen when policymakers listen to polemical populist history with its half-baked lessons from the past.

Perhaps Brown should take a leaf out of President Jacques Chirac's book.

Forced to repeal the Act requiring French colonial history to be taught in a "positive" way in the wake of the 2005 riots, he noted wryly that "laws are not meant to write history, the writing of history is for historians.

France has known moments of light and darker moments. It is a legacy that we must fully assume, respecting the memory of everyone."

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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