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The Reality of the Great British Empire, Part 3: Why Does it Actually Matter Today?

This is the final post in a series of 3. Read Part 1: 'Standing on the Shoulders of Slaves' here and Part 2: 'What We Did In Our Colonies' here.

TW: Discussions of racial discrimination and violence.


So, it turns out that the reality of the Great British Empire is that it wasn't quite all it was cracked up to be. We took people's lands, cultures, dignity, freedom, even their lives from them. However, looking back at what happened in a past that seems pretty distant is difficult - things are so different now from how they were even 20 years ago, let alone 300, so where is the sense in claiming that all of this is relevant to us now? Why should we even care if we don't even approve of what was done?


Probably a good place to start would be Willy Brandt. Brandt served as Chancellor of Germany from 1969-1974, and his Kniefall in 1970 is recognised as Germany's official apology for the Holocaust.

The Warschauer Kniefall. AFP/Getty Images

The thing is, Brandt had nothing to do with the perpetuation of the Holocaust. He actually formed part of the socialist resistance to the Nazis and published a piece in a Norwegian newspaper (having emigrated to Norway after Hitler came to power) on the atrocities of the 1938 Kristallnacht as it was reported to him by some Jewish friends. Despite this, he saw as a German and the Chancellor that he still bore the burden of what his country had done. Even speaking about it with a German friend of mine who is my age, they have told me that they still have to deal with the mental burden of Nazism and the Holocaust, which seems insane given that it was their great-grandparents' generation that would have been adults during World War Two.


I think that in a way, it's similar for us now. If you are British and associate yourself with that cultural identity, then I do not think it is possible to truly remove yourself from the events of British history, whether you like it or not. However, I realise that may be a bit too 'out there' for some people; to be fair, it is rather firmly in the sphere of the theoretical. So, for those who are more focused on the tangible, here are some very real legacies of slavery and colonialism in Britain today:


Racist attitudes

A huge issue and definitely one that is much too complex for me to fully tackle here, but it's too important not to mention. After the death of George Floyd last year, I was shocked at how many stories came up on my social media newsfeeds of people who had suffered so horrendously just because of the colour of their skin, and even more so at the number of British people sharing their experiences. The problem of racism in Britain today is so often overshadowed by the 'louder' problem of racism in the US, but it is by no means absent from our society.


How does this link to slavery and colonialism? Well, mainly because these institutions built up a picture for Brits as to what British society should look like. In part 1, I mentioned that in the 18th century there was an emergence of pseudo-sciences that aimed to justify slavery, claiming that Black people were unintelligent but also naturally deceitful, uncivilized, and untalented: all abhorrent lies designed to convince white people that it was only natural for them to be dominant. If you're able to stomach it, take a look at this list of the various arguments used to justify slavery. However, if foreign people are portrayed as oddities or savages with no manners, it's pretty easy to see how one could subconsciously (or consciously in some cases) come to see those people as not belonging to one's own society, especially when that society is not one that celebrates diversity like early-modern Britain.


This is basically what happened in the UK, but the thing is that there was never any attempt at 're-education' of the British people after the abolition of slavery - like there was in Germany after the Holocaust - nothing that reinstated Black people as human beings as opposed to the white person's inferior, slave or not. It was never considered that non-white people could become a true part of British society, and that attitude continues to seep through today in questions such as "Yeah but where are you really from?", "Where does your family come from?", and also in overt racial abuse that tells people to "Go back where you came from." if they don't 'look British enough'. It all stems from the idea that the ideal British society is a white society - an idea very much founded and emphasised during the colonial era.


This also comes through in our national institutions. Unemployment amongst the Black community in Britain is currently at about 13.8%, whilst in the white community it is less than 5% and when the pandemic hit, white people lost their jobs at half the rate of non-white people.


In terms of education, it is clear across most if not all levels that Black students have poorer academic results and lower rates of academic progression than other ethnic groups - a 2015 study that surveyed non-white teachers found that 62% thought that non-white students were treated unfairly in schools. The list of Black academics working in UK universities is also tiny. Non-white authors are also extremely underrepresented in the school curriculum, and of the books that are studied, less than 10% feature characters that are from Black or other ethnic minority groups.


One organisation that has come under a huge amount of fire for institutional racism is, of course, the police, and with good reason when you read statistics like these which show that on average, Black people are stopped and searched about 9x more than white people. Sure, not all of those stop-and-searches are because the policemen/women conducting them have racist prejudices, but you can't look at that figure and say that racism isn't a contributing factor. Black people are also twice as likely to die in police custody. For context, about 14% of the UK population in the 2011 census were classed as being of a non-white ethnicity: 7.5% Asian ethnic groups, 3.3% Black ethnic groups and 3.2% Mixed/Multiple and 'Other'.


Wealth disparities

As I said in part 1, after the abolition of slavery there was compensation for those who had owned slaves, but not for those who had been enslaved. They were given no help to restart their lives whatsoever, so while ex-slave owners profited from the abolition through being compensated for their 'loss of property', those who had previously been enslaved were left to their own devices. This has had a massive knock-on effect over the generations for the economies of slave societies such as those in the Caribbean, and for the families of those who stayed in/relocated to Britain.


Furthermore, if we look at the bigger picture we can see that our country as a whole profited from the exploitation of the enslaved and the countries we invaded. The Industrial Revolution was fuelled by cotton grown on slave plantations; Britain increased imports from Ireland while the Irish starved during the Great Hunger; the sugar, spices, and materials produced in the colonies gave us a huge trade advantage across the world whilst famines ravaged their native populations. As I mentioned in part 1, so many of the beautiful stately homes we have in the UK were built and decorated using money made from the products of plantations.


If you take a look at this list of countries classed as 'developing', it probably won't take you long to work out what proportion of those are former European colonies - sure, colonialism isn't the only factor in that, but you have to wonder how many of those places would be significantly more developed had we not ruthlessly exploited their raw materials during colonial rule (which we did basically everywhere).


Ancestry

Knowing one's ancestral heritage is often the privilege of white people because of slavery. When people were captured and enslaved, their real names were not recorded, and information about births, marriages, and death that would be invaluable to a genealogist are virtually non-existent. If anything, the only information you might see about an enslaved person prior to them being sold would be vaguely where they were taken from, i.e. 'West Africa'. Even their anglicized names are rarely recorded unless they were particularly mentioned in someone's diary, etc. - researching those family lines is virtually impossible before a certain point. If you are able to trace your family history through records from the 18th century and further back as I have been able to do, then you are at an immense advantage. Maybe ancestry and genealogy aren't your thing, but if you are not a descendant of someone who was enslaved, then you would probably still be able to do some quite thorough research on your family tree if you wanted to. Because of slavery, a great deal of Black people have been robbed of that opportunity.

Cultural Heritage

If you've been to the British Museum, you'll probably have been pretty impressed at the astounding items they have in their collections from across the world - it's amazing to explore. However, I hate to break it to you, but a huge (and I mean huge) proportion of those items are things we stole. During my Ancient History degree, I heard multiple discussions about the Parthenon Sculptures which Lord Elgin decided to take for his collection in the early 19th century and then promptly sold to the museum. It's not just the Parthenon Sculptures either: the Benin Bronzes; Hoa Hakananai’a; the Rosetta Stone. So many countries have had their heritage stolen by empire, only to have it displayed in a foreign museum where they have to pay to come and see it. If you read my last post, you may remember this from Tendai's contribution on Zimbabwe:


"Not only did colonialism rob Zimbabwe of its future, colonialism robbed Zimbabwe of its past. The result is that Zimbabwe as a nation has suffered with a hollowed-out identity that will yet take a number of generations to rebuild. This is the case across Africa to this day, and it is almost never taught that Africa's civilisations outside Egypt were some of the most advanced in the world. And indeed, many European nations still hold plundered African heritage in their museums as their property under the continued belief that white institutions are intrinsically more capable of preserving and caring for precious African artefacts than black ones (institutional racism anyone?)."


This is not just about a bunch of old relics. It's about people's cultural identities. There were plenty of people complaining that our history was being 'erased' when the statue of slaver Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol - imagine the outrage if one of Britain's historic invaders like the French, for example, had come over and stolen the Crown Jewels, then displayed them in pride of place in the Louvre for two hundred years and refused to give them back. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to imagine that even some of my more anti-royalist compatriots would be pretty angry. To be honest, we'd probably have started a war over it after about half an hour. Just think about it.


Language

Those of you who read the last post in this series may remember this from Nayha's contribution on India:


"As a result of the cultural imperialism, the colonialists came to be viewed as Elites, and elements from British culture were incorporated into everyday life by Indians who aspired for social mobility and access to British privilege of education and governance. Unsurprisingly then, the English language became the main tool that allowed social mobility and still remains so in the present day. However, it has evolved from its role during the British rule and in modern India: knowing the English language has become an indicator of one's social class, educational background and determines their employment and social privilege."


Even today, 74 years after India won independence, the effects of colonialism are so strong that even the English language continues to divide people. Not only that, but our attempted eradication of other languages under the belief that English was superior has led to the loss of those languages and through them, parts of those cultures. If you read part 2, you may remember that I discussed the attempted eradication of the Irish language during colonial rule, and Irish is by no means unique in that regard. I've not been able to find exact statistics, but from general research on British colonial rule and on what life was like for African slaves, I don't think it would be too big of a leap to assume that there was an attempt to make English the dominant language everywhere and for everyone.



So what now? Sure, we can research the difficult areas of our past, but what difference will that make? Well, it may sound a bit pithy, but I believe that this kind of knowledge makes you a much more well-rounded person, and the understanding of the past is key to moving forward. More importantly, however, if you want to understand and get involved with the anti-racism movement, then exploring the history of colonialism can be such a help in understanding why the movement is so necessary after centuries of pain. Tendai's contribution to this series finished with this paragraph, and I think he sums it up perfectly:


If Black Lives Matter, then black history and the continued legacy of colonial racism in today's world must be taught, not covered up or even worse denied as if it never happened. Anything less than that is wilfully upholding the colonial legacies of racism that still pervade our society today.

As much as we might want to, we cannot ignore the past. We have to acknowledge it, explore it, and learn from it in order to develop and move in the right direction as a society. It's easier said than done and it certainly sounds idealistic, but we cannot ignore the fact that not doing so is to the detriment of the thousands of people of colour who call this country home, and even those who do not.


Researching for this series has certainly been a help to me, and I hope that this has been helpful to you too, dear reader, whether or not you share all of my opinions on the subject. To my fellow Brits, I am not asking you to beat yourself up and wallow in guilt, but I am asking you to take the time to understand why this history is important, and not for the reasons that most British people think it is. The rhetoric in this country that we have always been 'the good guys' has done so much damage to both ourselves and others. To others - especially the millions across the world whose home countries were exploited by ours and the descendants of those we enslaved - because we have ignored genuine pain and offered little in the way of help for those who are still trying to reconstruct their countries and/or identities. To ourselves, because we have built up a self-portrait of our country based on a victory that happened 76 years ago that, although a good thing in itself, has blinded us to the abundance of sins we have also committed.


Every country has parts of its past from one point or another that it would rather undo.


It's about time we acknowledged our own.



Thank you for reading my series on the British Empire. I hope you have found it as interesting, informative, and helpful as I did during my research. History like this is never easy to talk about, but it is vital that we don't gloss over it just because it might be uncomfortable. I'm aware that not everyone will share my views on these topics which is fine and completely to be expected - nuanced discussions are always appreciated! If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch via the contact form on The Classicist with an Atlas homepage.


My thanks again to Nayha, Megan, and Tendai for their thought-provoking contributions.




Links:

David Olusoga, 'The roots of European racism lie in the slave trade, colonialism – and Edward Long': theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/08/european-racism-africa-slavery

Sophia Dourou, 'Five shocking stats about police brutality in the UK': https://leftfootforward.org/2020/06/five-shocking-stats-about-police-brutality-in-the-uk/

Luke Gary Geog, 'The Effects of Colonialism on Language': https://www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=4ca2a48ae235402cac6db62c6d171877

Nels Abbey, 'The Government’s Sewell Report actually proves how racist Britain is': https://metro.co.uk/2021/04/01/the-governments-race-report-actually-proves-how-racist-britain-is-14340935/

UK Government, 'Population of England and Wales': https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/uk-population-by-ethnicity/national-and-regional-populations/population-of-england-and-wales/latest#main-facts-and-figures

Sara Nelson, 'Race Report: 7 Things That Contradict The Claim Britain Is ‘Not Institutionally Racist’': https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/britain-institutionally-racist-report_uk_60644d94c5b6fd3650dbdcca





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