The ruinous ghost of empire past

March 8, 1996

When blind eyes are turned to the past, eyes that no longer see the racism and exploitation of the British Empire but blaze with the remembered glory of a triumphant dominance, then a confection-like version of history reigns, a version that must be challenged, says Catherine Hall.

The debate over national identity in Britain is usually posed in terms of Europe - what kind of nation can "we" be now that "we" are losing significant elements of national sovereignty to Brussels? How is Britain to coexist with the rest of Europe? What will happen to our unique heritage and sense of distinctiveness? Another way of posing these questions might be to ask, what kind of a nation is contemporary Britain now that it is no longer at the heart of an Empire?

English and British identities have been held relatively secure for centuries by notions of empire. England has been an imperial power for a long time, the nation's sense of worth established in part by dominance over neighbouring Wales and Scotland and the colonisation of Ireland and then extended through conquest over the globe. English identities have thus been historically rooted in notions of English, and white, superiority, over those other people and places that made up the British Empire.

The break-up of that empire, the long process of decolonisation that is still not fully completed, thus raises problematic issues about national identities. Who are "we" when "we" are no longer the "master race"? Who are "we" when 6.3 per cent of the population are classified as "ethnic minorities" and in urban areas such as London and Birmingham that proportion is more than 20 per cent? Who are "we" when significant numbers of decolonised peoples have made their homes in Britain and constitute an important part of that "we"? Who are "we" when many of "us" are black?

The turn to Europe in the post-war period has been one response to the loss of imperial power. That turn has facilitated the discarding of uncomfortable memories of empire, a process in which other erstwhile European imperial powers are also engaged, for the Dutch, the Spanish and the French have as much to forget as the British. A substantially white "Fortress Europe", protected by its common policies on migration and asylum, can hope to hold at bay those economically poor peoples, many of whom come from places once colonised by Europeans, who now long to join the rich countries of the North.

In her novel Beloved Toni Morrison has argued for the "memory work" that needs to be done so that African-Americans and white Americans can recover the history of slavery and understand its foundational place in the construction of the United States. That past has been too painful to remember but Morrison suggests that if it is not re-remembered it will haunt and disrupt contemporary society. Only through the work of "rememory" can that history be reworked in such a way as to make it liveable for the present, and make the present fully lived.

Unless the legacy of the British Empire is re-remembered it will continue to disrupt our present, in ways that obstruct the development of a new kind of nation and new kinds of national identities. The legacy of the empire is all around us and yet there is great reluctance to think about it. Nostalgia envelops some aspects of it, commodification has provided another way of dealing with it, offering us packaged mementoes of an imperial past - yet neither help us to assess the significance of that legacy in our present.

Memory, as we have learned from sources ranging from Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition to the work of oral historians, is an active process that always involves forgetting as well as remembering. "Screen memories", as Freud named them - memories that may be composites of real events and fantasy - may enable us to forget very effectively. What we remember and how we remember it is crucial.

Drawing on the story of Oedipus, the analyst John Steiner explores the phenomenon of what he calls "turning a blind eye", which refers to the process whereby an individual has access to forms of knowledge but chooses consciously or unconsciously to ignore it. All the key participants in the story of Oedipus, Steiner suggests, Oedipus himself, Jocasta, Creon and the "blind" Teiresias, knew the truth at some level before the full weight of the knowledge was accepted by them. They colluded in the choice to ignore their knowledge.

Steiner recognises the social and political potential of his argument. People turn a blind eye, he points out, to major dangers in our contemporary world, even when all the information pointing to the fragility of the situation is available.

In Britain our imperial history is a disturbing one that has involved expropriation and exploitation, relations of domination and subordination, multiple racisms. That past haunts the present and prevents us from imagining a new kind of future. All those of us who live in Britain need to work to remember that past differently, to recover those aspects that have been evaded. Challenging versions of the past that are available, engaging in conflict over the existing representations of imperial and colonial histories will facilitate thinking about the present differently. Those versions of the present that say "send 'them' home" or "chuck 'them' out" or symbolically or socially exclude "them" because "they" are seen as the problem will provide only short-term answers, for repression comes back to haunt.

Those named as "outside" are always "inside" as well. "We" are discursively constituted through the binary negative of "you", but that exclusion is critical to identity. Labelling or marginalising black people cannot be a way of coming to terms with the interrelated histories of the peoples of the empire, locked in their differentiated power relations. Rather we need to grasp the ways in which the English and their "others" have been implicated in colonial relations, the ways in which slavery, for example, has been an integral part of British history rather than something that happened somewhere else. We need to stop "turning a blind eye", knowing and not knowing, acknowledging the presence of empire but at the same time not confronting its meanings, especially its unsavoury ones.

A recent visit to Cadbury World, the purpose-built "chocolate experience", the living museum of Cadburys built next to Bournville and opened by John Major in 1991, vividly evokes the workings of the "blind eye". This chocolate theme park attracts half a million visitors a year. It combines an exhibition with a brief factory tour. It aims, in the words of the accompanying brochure, to "reflect the heritage of the UK's number one chocolate company". It tells the story of Cadbury's, the Quaker family firm that began in the 1830s as a small retail business in Bull Street, Birmingham, went through difficult times in the 1850s but by dint of the hard work of two Cadbury brothers was successful enough in the 1870s to warrant the purchase of extensive land in Bournville and build the "factory in the garden" that became famous the world over. There the large modern factory was combined with a model village and community facilities to provide a whole way of life for Cadbury employees.

The exhibition opens with the Mayan and Aztec use of cocoa and the "discovery" by the Europeans of the "New World" together with the spicy drink known as chocolate. It tells of the arrival of cocoa in England as a luxury drink, the establishment of John Cadbury's shop in Bull Street, Birmingham, in the 1830s, selling tea, coffee and cocoa, the discovery by his sons of a new process to improve cocoa and the establishment of a flourishing cocoa and chocolate business in the 1870s. Cocoa became a popular family drink, marketed by Cadbury as "absolutely pure, therefore best". Visitors are shown how Cadbury became a global business, how the cocoa bean was taken to West Africa and provided the basis for a new prosperity there, how the products have been advertised, how new identities have been offered to cocoa consumers, how the Cadbury commitment to social improvement was expressed through the organisation of the factory and the building of Bournville.

The raw materials for the cocoa - the bean itself and the sugar - came from empires. As if in peripheral recognition of that preeminence of empire, but without fully seeing it, the "blind eye", a map of the "Old World" hangs above John Cadbury's desk in the reconstructed shop in the exhibition, where he sat to do his accounts, with the British territories marked in red. Walter Benjamin's comment comes to mind: "To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it 'the way it really was'. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger."

The map seems to act as the "moment of danger", the red signifying the British Empire, yet so easily missed, just hanging there on the wall, the red territories reminding us of the connections between Cadbury's and that imperial legacy. Yet the map does not even include the "New World", the source of the cocoa that was to be crucial to the Cadbury venture, a fascinating piece of forgetting by those who set up the exhibition, who both knew and did not know, saw and did not see, the meanings of that map.

This theme, of the knowing and not knowing, haunts us as we move around the exhibition. The new markets for cocoa and chocolate, outside of the British Isles, were preminently in the white settler colonies, for it was not only systems of administration and patterns of rule that the British spread across the empire, it was also commodities and tastes. National tastes in chocolate and confectionery are very distinctive - eating Cadburys chocolate in Australia, Canada or South Africa was a way of staying British. The most successful line ever for the firm has been Cadburys Dairy Milk, with its special ingredient, fresh milk from the heart of the English countryside. English milk adds the vital white ingredient and the English countryside the vital healthful touch so that "CDM" can express the essence of Englishness in a chocolate bar, the "basic" materials of which came from the erstwhile empire.

Cadbury's, its products, its story, is part of the world of our raced imaginations, part of our tastes, part of our collective memories, part of our classed and gendered identities, part of how histories work in the present. At Cadbury World this raced history is uneasily occluded. A benign version of the past reigns, located around notions of modernity and progress, forgetting expropriation and exploitation. If members of Britain's multi-ethnic population are to be full participants in the society of the millennium then blind eyes must be opened - for opening our eyes wider might enable us to see and understand differently.

Catherine Hall is professor in the department of sociology at the University of Essex. This piece is a shortened version of the lecture given in the Darwin College series on "Memory".

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