Last summer Black Lives Matter activists invited Britons, whatever our ethnicity, to reflect on the pernicious role of racism in our society. Their toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston made it clear that a reckoning with the history of British colonialism and empire should be a key part of this reflection. Instead of accepting that invitation Boris Johnson’s government’s strategy has been to deny and disavow.
First, Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick declared “We will save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past”. Then Culture and Media Secretary Oliver Dowden instructed Britain’s leading heritage organisations, including the National Trust, that they “must defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”. Next, Home Secretary Priti Patel introduced a policing bill which recommended a ten year prison sentence for defacing statues when the minimum for rape is five years. Meanwhile academic apologists for empire like the theologian Nigel Biggar appear regularly in the mainstream media complaining about having their voices suppressed.
The Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is the latest and perhaps most important component of the government’s strategy of denial and disavowal. It fleshes out, suspiciously neatly, the narrative that Boris Johnson first drafted as a direct riposte to the Black Lives Matter movement in June last year. It appears to be not just a response to the Black Lives Matter protests, but part of a well-orchestrated backlash.
The Report seeks to establish a clear break between past and present, and it blames certain Black people themselves for their experiences of marginalisation and exclusion. “For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present”, it declares. Those of Caribbean descent are particularly to blame for their failure to appreciate that “the system is [no longer] deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. By contrast, “it is counterproductive and divisive” to suggest that “White people’s attitudes and behaviours … primarily cause the disadvantage experienced by ethnic minorities”.
When it comes to teaching British history, the Report identifies very clearly what it is for and what it is against. It is for a “‘Making of Modern Britain’ teaching resource”, which shows how “Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced … modern Britain”. “One great example”, it continues, “would be a dictionary or lexicon of well known British words which are Indian in origin”. Such a resource would presumably enlighten British students about the origin of words such as “shampoo” and “bungalow”. It might be a bit more suspect about including the word “loot”, however, just in case a greater knowledge of colonial plunder generates further pressure on British museums’ to repatriate objects stolen in colonial campaigns.
Presumably, this resource would also avoid any consideration of how the empire, which became the Commonwealth, was actually governed. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s explanation to Parliament for why India was be governed until 1858 by the directors and shareholders of the British East India Company rather than, say, Indians, might not get a look in: “though few of” the Company’s shareholders”, he announced in 1833, “have ever seen or may ever see the people whom they rule – they will have a great stake in the happiness of their subjects.” “In Europe”, Macualay continued, “the people are … perfectly … competent to hold some share of political power”, but “In India, you cannot have representative institutions”. Forty years later, the British architect of the Indian Penal Code, James Fitzjames Stephen noted that “If the … delusion that [Govt] can be carried out by … the natives is admitted, nothing but anarchy and ruin can … result”. This too, I suspect, might be omitted.
Promisingly, the Report is for a “teaching resource that looks at the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period”. However, the example of the content that might be provided is disappointing to say the least: “There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.” This would not be a new story at all. British slave traders and owners told a similar story when they sought to resist abolition and emancipation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Africans could only ever be culturally transformed and improved, they claimed, if they were extracted from the mire of savagery in which they were sunk in Africa, and exposed to the better example of British owners on Caribbean plantations. If slavery is to be taught in this new resource, all the indications are that the arguments of apologists like Nigel Biggar would be propagated. In a briefing intended for politicians, Biggar claims that Britain absolved itself of the crime of slavery when it abolished the institution in some of its colonies in 1833 (the same year that Macaulay justified the governance of Indians by British shareholders). Thereafter, the British Empire was, according to Biggar, characterised mainly by antislavery activity.
It is unsurprising that slavery dominates the current culture wars over the legacies of the British Empire. Slave trading and ownership has been shown, especially by University College London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership project, to have significantly benefitted absentee British slave owners within the UK. But the actions of Britons abroad – both colonisers and those people of colour who were made British subjects against their will – are also part of British history. Antislavery is imperial apologists’ trump card because is always taken out of this context.
Here’s some of that missing context: the British antislavery campaign culminated in the 1830s, and it was part of a reorientation of a reforming Britain and its Empire towards free trade and the invasion of Indigenous peoples’ lands in the Southern Hemisphere. The Abolition of Slavery Act was passed after the Great Reform Act at exactly the same time as the East India Company was restructured along the lines justified by Macaulay, and as the British government subsidised a surge in the colonization of Australia. In both these spheres of empire Britons continued to exploit coerced labour.
Enslaved Indians were exempt from the Abolition Act and their indenture enabled post-abolition labour shortages to be met in the former slave holding colonies. Whilst destroying and sometimes enslaving Aboriginal communities, Britons also kidnapped Pacific Islanders to transfer sugar production from the Caribbean to Australia. Nevertheless, the supposition that Britain was an antislavery nation became its excuse for the aggressive expansion of its empire through the conquest and subjugation of African societies during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The Report seems to be for teaching a grand pretence: that the British Empire was a way of encouraging people of colour around the world to feel included in Britishness. “We want all children to reclaim their British heritage”, the authors claim, making it seem as if that British heritage was something voluntarily acquired by Black Britons’ ancestors. In effect it says: let’s pretend that the British Empire peacefully extended the benefits of Britishness to people of colour. Never mind all that unpleasantness.
The rendering of black and brown people as British subjects involved great violence, however. Even the darling of Boris Johnson and the empire apologists, Winston Churchill, in a moment of candour, declared that “our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of our vast possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us”. It is a travesty on the scale of holocaust denial to gloss over Britain’s imperial violence.
For Ruling the World we examined three years of British imperial governance in detail: 1838, 1857 and 1879. In those years alone, we estimate that around 1 million people of colour were killed by British forces and nearly 2 million British subjects allowed to starve to death. The Victorian Empire’s “Small wars” may have been small for Britain, but the killing of hundreds or a few thousands of people in any one Indigenous community could be enough to shatter a relatively small society and deter further armed resistance. Furthermore these wars were almost continual. In 1879 alone British forces conquered AmaXhosa, Griqua, Bapedi and AmaZulu in South Africa as well as invading Afghanistan for the second time. British forces demonstrated a blatant disregard for the lives of people of colour. In 1856 for instance Henry Bowring, governor of Hong Kong, had Cantonese civilian districts shelled every 10 minutes until the Qing governor accepted his terms for entry to the walled city and legalisation of British opium imports. The use of scorched earth tactics against colonial foes was routine until it was deployed against white Boers, when it caused outrage in Britain.
Yet systemic violent conquest never appears in imperial apologists’ absurd balance sheet of the British Empire’s “good” and “bad” points and, it seems, will not be featuring in this Report’s proposed teaching resource. Discrete acts of racialized violence such as the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 sometimes appear in the “bad” column, but apologists for empire consistently disavow the reality that even after initial conquest, the Empire’s everyday administration was conditioned by racist assumptions and the threat of violence.
The Report’s refusal to acknowledge that the British Empire was not only founded on, but also governed according to such racial division fuels further division today rather than healing it. As Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said of Australia, “truth telling must be an integral part of unifying our country, not dividing it”.
The Report is decidedly against “calls for decolonising the curriculum”, however, because these are “negative”. They involve merely “the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement”. In fact most of those who call for a project of decolonisation are not advocating any such restrictive or tokenistic agenda. They wish, rather, to extend students’ knowledge beyond white authors (something that the Report itself does when it recommends “writers in the Commonwealth, such as Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and Andrea Levy”), and to reveal the truth about the ways that people of colour were made British subjects.
Let us hope that the Report’s envisaged “credible, high-quality, online national library … enhancing the content and quality of lessons taught” includes something of the truth of the British Empire, rather than the amnesiac and nostalgic vision propagated by this government. “Understanding different perspectives and contested events is”, the authors acknowledge, “central to the study of history and should help to equip pupils to navigate a world of ‘fake news’ and clashing opinions and truths.” Indeed. For as Sathnam Sanghera has noted, “Our collective amnesia about the fact that we were, as a nation, wilfully white supremacist and occasionally genocidal, and our failure to understand how this informs modern day racism, are catastrophic”.
The undoubted gains that there have been in combatting racism in Britain, “the progress won by the struggles of the past 50 years”, needs to be continued. But the effect of this report might be entirely counter-productive. It seems intended to stall the further momentum that Black Lives Matter protestors urged. Rather than seizing the opportunity to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and provide a more reconciliatory history, it seems intent on reassuring resistant white Britons that they need not take the trouble to understand Black Britons’ experiences of racism. Racial discrimination, just as they long suspected, is all in the minds of Black people, especially those of Caribbean descent. Even worse, it is just a cynical strategy of self-advancement – “playing the race card”.
The catastrophic effect of this Report may be that its avowed intention – “to build trust between different communities and the institutions that serve them” – is belied by its own disavowal of historically entrenched and persistent racism. To achieve its further aim of “genuine inclusivity to ensure all groups feel a part of UK society” necessitates precisely the reckoning with the past that the Black Lives Matter movement has called for.
Professor Alan Lester author of Ruling the World. This blog was originally published on the University of Sussex blog.
Photo credit: The ‘New Union Flag’ by artist Gil Mualem-Doron
 On the long campaign to have the statue removed before it was torn down, see https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/how-city-failed-remove-edward-4211771 and https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/remove-the-edward-colston-statue-from-bristol-city-centre
 The Telegraph, 16 January 2021
 https://news.sky.com/story/new-crime-bill-makes-protecting-statues-more-important-than-punishing-rape-says-labour-12248534. The Report’s authors are very clear on one point: “We have argued against bringing down statues”.
 Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, Pluto Press, 2020.
 As for Britain’s record on democracy elsewhere in the empire: The franchise was extended to poorer men in Britain in 1832, 1867 and 1884. By then two thirds of men, 18% of population, could vote. Race, rather than class was the dominant form of exclusion in the Empire overseas. Lionel Smith, governor of Jamaica wrote after emancipation of the enslaved that he feared more “Coloured” members being elected unless the property qualification was raised or voting taxed. Free black people and former slaves, he wrote, “are not yet qualified by education and property to command the respect of the country”. Even by the 1930s only 5% of Jamaicans could vote. As British settlers overseas were enfranchised on more generous terms than those in Britain, armed rebellion in the Cape Colony led to a “nonracial franchise” which allowed some Khoisan and Mfengu military allies to influence six constituencies. Such was the need to prevent more Africans voting, that the property bar was set to exclude the poorest whites too. When more Africans qualified in the 1890s, it was lifted again. In the Australian colonies Aboriginal people were not necessarily explicitly barred from voting, but it was widely assumed that they would not. When “Yellow Jimmy”, a so-called “half-caste”, tried to vote in 1859, he was prosecuted for impersonating a white man. In New Zealand, Māori men could vote for four “special” seats in 1867. In proportion to their population share, they should have had fifteen. In Canada, First Nations men had to apply for exemption from their “Indian” status, which meant giving up traditional ways, disassociating from kin and acquiring private property. Far from dispensing democracy, the British Empire withheld it on the grounds of race. Democracy was something for which independence movements had to fight against British rule.
 J. R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion Against the Slave Trade, 1787-1807, Routledge, 1995.
 Alan Lester, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/ruling-the-world/6264B85460CE672609666F24F86EBEFD
 Alan Lester, ‘The Men Who Made the Empire Run’, BBC History Magazine, April 2021
 Padraic X. Scanlan, Slave Empire: How Slavery Built Modern Britain, Robinson, 2020.
 Such British violence was, and is, consistently disavowed in the iconography of colonial warfare. Think of the most famous paintings of Rorke’s Drift, Isandhlwana and the sole (white) survivor of the first British invasion of Afghanistan reaching Jalalabad. All show redcoats under siege, defending barricades, forming squares, or escaping with their lives, after being assaulted by savage hordes. Wars of imperial conquest overseas became the thin red line defending itself in the public imagination at home.
 Kim Wagner, Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre, Yale University Press, 2019; Sathnam Sangheera, https://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-massacre-that-shook-the-empire; Alan Lester, https://theconversation.com/britain-should-stop-trying-to-pretend-that-its-empire-was-benevolent-59298
 Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland: How Imperialism has Shaped Modern Britain, Viking, 2021.