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This page was last updated on 17/09/2007 22:09:10

 

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Empirically speaking
17 September 2007

Buckingham Palace

Priya Gopal calls for an opening up of the grounds of history, an undoing of mental reflexes, and for a more subtle approach to teaching about empire

As the Blair era gives way to the Brown years, there is speculation about likely shifts, even as some continuity is being promised. The relationship of Britain to empire and imperialism is a sphere where the two politicians have common interests, but divergent emphases. Where Blair took on a project that seemed to inherit the nineteenth century legacy of Britain as a benevolent ‘moral empire’ through his ‘Africa Commission’, Brown’s concerns have seemed more domestically directed; his rallying cry in recent times has been that of ‘Britishness’. He has spoken of the need to reclaim the Union Jack and to recall with pride the achievements of the British Empire.

This approach presumes that we can approach historical phenomena with pseudo-mathematical certainty

Brown’s call dovetails with recent attempts to rescue the British Empire and its legacy from what is seen as rubbishing by politically correct scholars. This has largely taken the form of a defiant defensiveness – from high-profile figures like historian Niall Ferguson – which briefly acknowledges the disadvantages of imperialism to its subjects but asserts that, on the whole, it brought benefits to all. Ferguson draws on the familiar ‘balance-sheet’ approach to British imperial history which, oddly enough, often co-exists with claims that the empire was a series of accidents or ‘absent-minded’ acquisitions of territory.

This approach presumes that we can approach historical phenomena, calculator in hand, and sum up the consequences with pseudo-mathematical certainty. It claims that, despite commercial corruption, periodic massacres, widespread exploitation, the occasional land-clearing genocide, the appropriation of vast swathes of populated territory and a clutch of avoidable famines (all documented by scholars like Nicholas Dirks, Caroline Elkins, Sumit Sarkar and Mike Davis), empire brought profits, prosperity and progress for all. It is an approach curiously true to the mercantile, profit-making spirit behind imperial undertakings.

Even so, I believe this return to talking about empire, the imperial past and, relatedly, Britishness, is salutary, despite the largely unexamined way in which it is being conducted. For one thing, it has finally resulted in the decision to acknowledge the history of empire in the national curriculum, rectifying a remarkable gap. The question now, though, is of how we are going to teach it, and what bearing this will have on questions of ‘Britishness’.

The national ‘we’ of Britain is, at this moment in time, a complex, conflicted and fraught pronoun, often obscuring more than it clarifies. But any collectivity or community facing up to the question of productive co-existence needs to spend some time in critical self-reflection. It is often assumed — as in Brown’s calls for a national day and the reclaiming of the Union Jack, Jack Straw’s desire for a unifying ‘British story’, and recent ‘citizenship tests’ — that the only way to create something called ‘cohesion’ is to decree a national day, enforce a common language and values, or demand allegiance to a flag, a sports team or other symbols.

From honesty and self-reflection — rather than reductive pride or guilt — might be forged a sense of a shared past and present

Approached differently, the British Empire and its legacy might provide the common historical ground upon which a more truly inclusive discussion can take place. From honesty and self-reflection — rather than reductive pride or guilt — might be forged a sense of a shared past and present, and a future held in common. Paradoxically, the history of empire has affected almost all Britons and is therefore the one history that is truly shared, albeit in different ways.

To claim that one of the most divisive and contentious topics of the day will, of all things, provide common ground, may fly in the face of common sense. For another recent trend in relation to imperialism and slavery is to urge atonement and the idea of ‘moving on’. As Benita Parry has pointed out, in an essay on the politics of truth and reconciliation in South Africa, when it comes to historical events that encompass the infliction and experience of suffering, the habitual rhetorical move is to call for ‘closure’. The rhetoric of public atonement relies on ‘the facile notion that an event performing past suffering and enacting remorse’ can exorcise ‘colonial violence and colonial guilt’. No sustained reflection on the terrain of history is required.

Of course, some people refuse even to acknowledge that troubling or terrible things might have taken place in the past and, more importantly, that their legacies still shape the lives of millions in negative ways. Determined forgetting and revisionist myth-making in the name of national pride are as unhelpful in coming to terms with history as are staged exhibitions of remorse. Neither allows for what the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, calls ‘a serious working through of the past, the breaking of its spell’. Perhaps this evasive logic accounts for the otherwise inexplicable reticence in recent years to teach the history and legacy of empire in schools.

How then do we approach the topic in ways that will help develop the common ground from which a shared sense of past and present might emerge? Not, I think, by creating a mythical and singular ‘British story’, a ‘foundational fiction’ along the lines of that of the United States, and asserting ‘pride’ in it. We need to find a way to accommodate multiple experiences of a complex history without giving in either to ethical relativism or the balance-sheet approach.

To this end, literary and historical approaches can be productively brought together. By this I do not mean, as some have suggested, that history is merely another set of stories. Nor that questions of truth, the ‘what really happened’, are irrelevant. On the contrary, the reality of what did happen is profoundly relevant to the challenges before us. We need to go beyond the moralism of the guilt/blame mode as well as the tendentious box-ticking of the balance-sheet – what Salman Rushdie called the ‘for-and-against reflex’. Teaching history well should be as much about undoing mental reflexes as providing fresh information.

In British intellectual and literary life, there exists already a tradition of scrutiny and imaginative exploration of the past that we can draw on productively. Barry Unsworth’s magisterial 1992 Booker prize-winner, Sacred Hunger – a powerful historical novel set in the context of the triangular slave trade of the eighteenth century – is one such example. Its central concern is the making of the transformative historical phenomenon that was the emergence of mercantile capitalism in the context of the slave trade and empire-building at a time when the ‘sacred hunger’ of profit-making through commercial enterprise had not yet become a value of unquestioned legitimacy.

the slave trade cannot be reduced to the machinations of a few bad men

Rather than accuse or invoke guilt, the 600-odd pages of this epic novel are dedicated to a more interesting and intelligent question: how does something like the slave trade come to be and perpetuate itself, given that it cannot be reduced to the machinations of a few bad men, but involves varying degrees of complicity and participation from a larger social order both in Britain and elsewhere? It shows powerfully how enterprises that rely on coercion, fear and violence can never be directed only outwards at a racial or cultural ‘other’; they invariably rebound back on those who undertake them.

This is not the same thing as saying that everyone is equally a victim of slavery and imperialism: this was a profoundly asymmetrical project in the exercise of power. But it is possible to be both victim and perpetrator simultaneously, and complicity can occur at different levels and in uneven ways.

Crucially, such self-scrutiny and acceptance of responsibility should not be restricted to white Britons. A fully inclusive history requires that ethnic minorities also consider their own relationship to their past more stringently than hitherto. This is articulated powerfully by Antiguan-American writer, Jamaica Kincaid. Criticising victim narratives that simplify slavery into a pageant of ‘Bad Things’ which came to a sudden end with Emancipation, she reminds us: ‘In accounts of the capture and enslavement of black people almost no slave ever mentions who captured and delivered him or her to the European master’. Not understanding our own past ill equips us for dealing with the present:

And might not knowing why they are the way they are, why they do the things they do, why they live the way they live, why the things happened to them happened, lead these people to a different relationship with the world, a more demanding relationship, a relationship in which they are not victims all the time of every bad idea that flits across the mind of the world?

It seems to me that it is precisely this more demanding relationship with the world that is needed if we are to undo the evasive silence of the last few decades. A more demanding engagement with the past is a prerequisite for the ‘we’ that Britain seeks to define: a dynamic, constantly evolving ‘we’ that necessarily encompasses individuals and communities with different relationships to the history of empire. This shared project may well provide the cohesion that flags, ceremonies, chest-thumping and rhetorical flourishes will not.

ethnic minorities also need to think about the unexpected ways in which the legacy and afterlife of empire shape their own narratives

‘Inclusivity’, therefore, must mean more than adding some colour and citizenship to the curriculum. A ‘serious working through of the past’ also has to be undertaken by Britons of African, Caribbean, and Asian origin. Their very presence in this geographical region is arguably tied up with the great dislocations, promises and betrayals of empire. But beyond that, ethnic minorities also need to think about the unexpected ways in which the legacy and afterlife of empire shape their own narratives, mental habits and cultural practices.

In Amitav Ghosh’s book, In an Antique Land – a mixture of history and fiction – one of the most poignant episodes takes place when the young Amitav, doing ethnographic research in Egypt, meets a village imam. What begins as a slightly tense exchange about differences between the Hindu and Islamic practices for disposing of the dead suddenly explodes into a full-blown fight about whether India or Egypt has the largest military arsenal. Amitav is shocked by his own unexpected participation in a vocabulary and worldview he had thought alien to him: ‘[we] stood there…the Imam and I: delegates from two superseded civilizations, vying with each other to establish a prior claim to the technology of modern violence’.

The incident reveals to Ghosh his own disturbing unconscious mental habits, which have historical roots in the triumph of militaristic imperialism: ‘At that moment, despite the vast gap that lay between us, we understood each other perfectly. We were both traveling, he and I: we were traveling in the West’. This is a sobering reminder that, despite those who would reclaim it as an essentially humane project, the ideological legacy of imperialism may well be that of military competition.

What Ghosh really laments in his encounter with the imam is ‘the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all the others in which people once discussed their differences’. For among the other consequences of the triumph of imperialism is a massive historical amnesia about the different ways in which cultures have interacted with each other, and how cultures themselves change over time. As Amartya Sen has shown, historically there have existed concepts of culture, identity and encounter that are significantly different from those governing public and political discourse today. Lacking this historical awareness distorts our relations with others. This is true of both minority and majority.

When organisations claiming to represent British Hindus protested about the Royal Mail stamp showing the Virgin Mary wearing Hindu symbols, far from asserting an authentic Hindu identity, they showed just how much they have forgotten about the heterodox traditions of the subcontinent. Hindu practice itself did not always adhere to the strict colonial administrative schemas that insisted that religions and communities be placed in self-contained, easily identifiable, categories.

When Bob Geldof deplores clan enmities of ‘immemorial duration’ over land and resources in Africa, he forgets how British and other European administrations allocated parcels of land to the ‘tribes’ they classified and asked them to stay put in them, against the grain of nomadic practices which often included shared access to pastures.

Our task is to undo this amnesia and to open up the grounds of history and imagination to a more challenging engagement, not mythmaking. Unlike those that either decree cohesion or the proliferation of absolute differences, this has to be a shared, demanding, imaginative and profoundly human project.

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the English faculty at Cambridge University and is the author of Literary Radicalism in India

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Commission for Racial Equality

Publisher of Catalyst Magazine, the CRE works to create a just and integrated society, where diversity is valued.

openDemocracy

Independent political discussion and debate based on exchange and participation.

Prospect Magazine

A political magazine, Prospect also includes features on arts and culture, science, economics, history, social affairs and philosophy.

Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations is a race relations thinktank.

EUMC

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Social policy research and development.

For more links, see our new links page.

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Promote Catalyst

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Small print

Contributor and illustrator information

Articles published in Catalyst do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Commission for Racial Equality.

For advertising or editorial enquiries, please .

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This page was last updated on 17/09/2007 22:09:10

 

© Commission for Racial Equality 2007

 

CRE 30 years logo