We are historians of Britain and the British Empire and writing in protest at the on-going misrepresentation of slavery and Empire in the “Life in the UK Test”, which is a requirement for applicants for citizenship or settlement (“indefinite leave to remain”) in the United Kingdom. The official handbook published by the Home Office is fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false. For example, it states that ‘While slavery was illegal within Britain itself, by the 18th century it was a fully established overseas industry’ (p.42). In fact, whether slavery was legal or illegal within Britain was a matter of debate in the eighteenth century, and many people were held as slaves. The handbook is full of dates and numbers but does not give the number of people transported as slaves on British ships (over 3 million); nor does it mention that any of them died. It also states that ‘by the second part of the 20th century, there was, for the most part, an orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence’ (p.51). In fact, decolonisation was not an ‘orderly’ but an often violent process, not only in India but also in the many so-called “emergencies” such as the Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952-1960). We call for an immediate official review of the history chapter.
People in the colonies and people of colour in the UK are nowhere actors in this official history. The handbook promotes the misleading view that the Empire came to an end simply because the British decided it was the right thing to do. Similarly, the abolition of slavery is treated as a British achievement, in which enslaved people themselves played no part. The book is equally silent about colonial protests, uprisings and independence movements. Applicants are expected to learn about more than two hundred individuals. The only individual of colonial origin named in the book is Sake Dean Mohamet who co-founded England’s first curry house in 1810. The pages on the British Empire end with a celebration of Rudyard Kipling. Continue reading “Historians Call for a Review of UK’s Home Office Citizenship and Settlement Test”→
The toppling of Edward Colston’s statute and its hauling into Bristol harbour on 7 June as part of global Black Lives Matter protests has provoked a long overdue public debate about the place of memorials of Britain’s imperial past and particularly its key role in the Atlantic slave trade. However, with some important exceptions, the history of creative protest within Bristol against Colston’s statue (as well as the numerous public buildings named after him in the city) is often overlooked in this coverage. Nor is there much discussion of the material significance of where Colston’s plinth was situated and the idea of civic identity its creators sought to impose on Bristol.
This oversight may be accidental in many cases; these debates have generated a great deal of controversy locally, but received little national coverage. However, the effect obscures how the toppling of Colston fits into a longer history of creative protest on the site of the statue.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has stated that removing the statues of controversial figures is ‘to lie about our history’. But Colston’s statue has not sat in aspic from 1895 until its unceremonious dunking earlier this month. Instead it has been a site for people to engage with the city’s history and challenge the sanitised narratives of Bristol’s past that the statue’s creators sought to impose.
The Colston statue itself needs to be seen as a form of historical erasure, created as part of a refashioning of Bristol’s civic identity after the end of the Atlantic slave trade. It is a monument to the late-Victorian era, when the city was undergoing rapid expansion fuelled by the growth of shipping and industries such as Wills tobacco business. Colston’s statue was placed at the centre of the thriving city, overlooking the docks (refashioned over the last twenty years as a leisure and housing district) and in the middle of a large thoroughfare designed for promenading, surrounded by commercial buildings. Presumably the idea was to both honour a generous benefactor to the city and offer a romantic nod to Bristol’s seafaring past (divorced from its role in the slave trade). The reliefs on the sides of the statue even include images of dolphins, mermaids and other sea creatures. No mention is made, however, of Colston’s involvement in the slave trade on the original plaque. Instead we are informed the statue was erected ‘as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons’ of the city. Continue reading “Colston’s Fall, Bristol’s Civic Identity and the Memory of Empire”→