Brexit Britain Is Forced to Confront Its Inglorious Past
Had he been alive, Edward Colston would surely have recognized the rage of the crowd that pulled down his statue in his home city of Bristol and dumped it into the harbor.
Born in 1636 into an age of revolution, Colston lived through three civil wars and the execution of King Charles I before he became a merchant and made his fortune from the burgeoning slave trade.
The trouble for Britain is that Colston’s story is far from unique in the country’s turbulent past. As the events of last weekend reverberate across the U.K., they are turning into a moment of national self-reflection at an awkward time for a government that’s evoked a glorious history full of “buccaneering spirit” as reason for a bright future outside the European Union.
The Black Lives Matter protests that spread from the U.S. have a particular resonance in the U.K., with its track record of colonizing countries from India and Australia to swaths of Africa and the Caribbean. But it’s a colonial past that has never really been reckoned with.
The danger for Prime Minister Boris Johnson is that opening it up now risks drawing attention to some of the most brutal and shameful episodes in British history and risks further polarizing a nation already deeply divided socially, economically and—increasingly—ethnically.
Four years of wrangling over Brexit has seen an increase in reported anti-immigrant hate crime, while the coronavirus pandemic has hit black and Asian communities disproportionately harder.
“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said this week. Khan, a member of the opposition Labour Party, ordered a review of the capital’s statues and street names to vet them for links to slavery.
The reaction to the anti-racist revolt in the U.S. cuts to the heart of British identity. As the growing list of memorials targeted for their questionable associations attests, the first incarnation of the “Global Britain” championed by Brexit supporters was the British Empire.
Monuments to civic leaders with a dubious heritage risk becoming the front line in a brewing culture war taking place against the backdrop of the government’s much-criticized response to Covid-19 and a recession that threatens to be exacerbated by a disruptive break with continental trading partners.
Already, protesters are demanding the removal of monuments to figures including imperialist Cecil Rhodes, whose statue stands outside an Oxford college, and Henry Dundas, who obstructed early attempts to abolish slavery and whose image stands on a 150-foot-high column in central Edinburgh.
After a statue of World War II leader Winston Churchill was defaced, far-right groups have put out a call for supporters to gather in London this weekend to defend the legacy of war heroes.
Johnson acknowledged the depth of emotion triggered by the killing in the U.S. of black man George Floyd by a white police officer, saying on Monday that those feelings are “founded on a cold reality” and more needs to be done to tackle inequality. He didn’t mention Britain’s imperial past or the idea that it shoulders any historic complicity through its colonial actions.
Last July, in his first speech as prime minister, Johnson alluded to the union of the U.K.’s constituent nations, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—the “awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red white and blue flag”—and its positive role in the world.
The U.K.’s “brand and political personality is admired and even loved around the world,” he said then, citing traits from inventiveness and humor to assets including universities. “Everyone knows the values that flag represents,” he said. “It stands for freedom and free speech and habeas corpus and the rule of law, and above all it stands for democracy.”
That is, at best, half the story, according to historians such as Diane Purkiss, author of “The English Civil War: A People’s History” and professor of English literature at Oxford University. She argues that Britain’s rise to a world power was financed on the back of slavery.
From the Elizabethan age on, England muscled in on the “triangle trade,” whereby Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas by Europeans who used the same ships to bring back sugar and tobacco. They then exported textiles and manufactured goods to Africa.
By the mid-18th century, just three decades after Colston’s death, the newly minted Great Britain had displaced the Portuguese to control the lion’s share of the slave trade when it was at its most profitable. With the addition of colonial India—the “Jewel in the Crown”—the money went to fuel the Industrial Revolution and allowed civic buildings to be erected across the U.K., with statues raised to city benefactors.
“What ended up happening in India and along the slave coasts in Africa is very analogous to what the Spanish had done in the New World to the Aztecs and Mayans,” said Purkiss. “We came across these huge wealthy civilizations and rather than actively conquer them and occupy the land, what we did was trade with them at incredibly advantageous terms for us.”
A “heap of economic theory” was devised asserting that Britain’s success was built on meritocracy and enterprise, she said, but all along “what characterized the triangle slave trade and our dealings with India was basic racism.”
Shashi Tharoor, an Indian opposition Congress lawmaker and former senior United Nations official, challenges head on the argument that Britain was a benevolent colonial master, providing education, irrigation and order. Instead, he says that reparations are owed since “Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.”
In a 2015 Oxford University debate that has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube, Tharoor argues that as many as 29 million Indians died of starvation in “British induced famines.”
That gives the lie to “all notions that the British were trying to do their colonial enterprise out of enlightened despotism, to try and bring the benefits of colonization and civilization to the benighted,” he said. “Violence and racism were the reality of the colonial experience.”
For sure, Britain wasn’t alone. The French, Spanish and Portuguese hardly have unblemished records when it comes to colonial times. Belgium has never fully come to terms with its brutal 19th century rule of Congo, though a statue of the then ruler, King Leopold II, was removed in Antwerp this week.
Some historians point to infrastructure such as railways and legal systems that the British left behind compared with rival European powers. Yet the only institution dedicated to exploring the effect of British colonial rule overseas, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, opened in Bristol in 2002 and then entered voluntary liquidation 11 years later.
Johnson has meanwhile acknowledged a historic responsibility to Hong Kong, a former British colony, and said that the U.K. will put forward a “route to citizenship” for up to 3 million residents if China applies national security legislation to the territory. It’s an offer that’s hard to square with Johnson’s role as the face of the 2016 Brexit campaign that traded on an aversion to immigration.
Educated at the 15th century Eton College and at Oxford University, Johnson is a symbol of the British elite, and has been accused of using racist language in newspaper articles written during his journalistic career.
He came under fire for a Daily Telegraph column in 2002 that referred to some black Africans as “piccaninnies.” The same year, he wrote a piece in the Spectator magazine saying that “Africa is a mess, but we can’t blame colonialism.” Johnson said this week Britain should “work peacefully and lawfully” to defeat racism and discrimination.
For Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, current tensions underline the need to constantly reappraise history—including the events of last weekend.
“You can’t chuck history out,” he told Bloomberg Radio on Wednesday. “What we’re doing is seeking to have a better understanding of history: why decisions were made, who was what, what they represented and how the events in our past have created the city of today.”
Colston, however, is not going back on his plinth, “certainly for the foreseeable future,” said Rees. “We need to take it out of the harbor and assess it—and the best place to do that is in a museum.”
— With assistance by Tim Ross
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