Britain still needs to come to terms with the legacy of colonialism


THE YEAR is 2022, and a dozen European nations still have a monarchy as their head of state.

Some call it anarchistic. Others see it was quaint. And while the days of divine right of kings may be over, the debate around their status persists.

This month, the King of the Netherlands announced he would no longer use his monarchy’s golden coach – due to its depiction of slavery on its carriage door.

The transatlantic slave trade is one of the gravest scars on human history, and one that too many former colonial nations have fully reckoned with.

Indeed, in June 2020, shortly after the statue of notorious slaver Edward Colston was torn down during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol, a YouGov poll suggested that one third of Britons disapproved of the statue’s removal entirely – regardless of how it was achieved.

It was under British rule that numerous atrocities were committed across the globe for centuries, whether they be the concentration camps in the Boer War, mass famines in India and the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau uprising.

Yet another YouGov poll found in March 2020 that a mere 19 per cent of the British public thought the Empire was “more something to be ashamed of” – with 32 per cent saying expressing more pride in the Empire and 37 per cent option for a neutral stance.

This is not to suggest any malevolent intent on the part of 21st century Brits – far from it.

What this poll suggests above all else is a simple lack of knowledge and understanding of the legacy of Empire.

Few would argue that it is a good thing for statues of slavers to stand in public spaces, but many would simply claim that to take down these monuments is to erase history.

While this is itself a laughable notion – as sculpture is by no means to only method of recording history – but the real erasure of history comes in the lack of serious public debate for and reconciliation of the consequences of Britain’s imperial past.

Anyone who visits the British Museum in London will find themselves amid vast quantities of plundered cultural artefacts from all over the world – from the Elgin Marbles to the Benin Bronzes.

Indeed, lawyer Geoffrey Robertson said in 2019: “The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display.”

But any serious discussion of the legacy of empire must also include mention of the Royal Family and the British aristocracy.

The Crown Jewels of the British royals, often brought out for state ceremony, are adorned with precious stones from across the empire at the height of imperial rule.

Many honours given out to public servants in the UK are still those of the Order of the British Empire – a name that almost seems farcical given Britain diminishing presence on the world stage.

While these may seem harmless in and of themselves, any lack of challenge to the history behind them is a failure of understanding of the past – and demonstrates a lack of willingness to learn.

The British National Trust faced a furious backlash for simply publishing a report into the connections of 93 of its estates with slavery and colonialism.

Britain has much to be proud of in its history. From the foundation of the NHS and the welfare state to achievements in the arts and sciences, there have been many points of positive accomplishment to come out of this Sceptred Isle.

But to ignore the blights upon our past is gravely irresponsible. Slavery and empire are not a moral failing on the part of Britons today – but it is vital not to ignore to darker episodes of our history to fully understand the present in its entirety.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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