As the world shakes under the weight of the Black Lives Matter movement, many are turning to black history to understand the roots of the ingrained racism plaguing modern society.
Britain has a dark, racist history buried beneath the sanitized stories of empire perpetuated through the historical narrative and further via the curriculum presented to its school children.
One such history is that of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya – a violent and controversial part of both Kenyan and British history. In reaction to the violence of the rebellion, the British colonial government created a system of detention camps which saw the incarceration of some 80,000 Kikuyu people in Kenya. Within the camp system detainees were aggressively interrogated, thousands were subjected to horrific abuse and several inmates lost their lives. Many Kikuyu still face the repercussions of the uprising to this very day.
Encapsulated within the history of the Mau Mau rebellion is the story of Dedan Kimathi, the self-titled field marshal of the anti-colonial forest fighters. He was executed by the British after a short career of anti-British ‘terrorism’. Continue reading “Dedan Kimathi: 63 years of injustice”→
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”→
The Decolonising Working Group Department of History, University of Exeter (and friends)
The heart-breaking, public and blatant murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 has fuelled a storm of protests across the world. Black Lives Matter protests have broken out across Britain and other European countries, where the reckoning has re-opened questions about the legacies of empire, including the enslavement, brutalisation, and exploitation of African people. In many of these protests, statues in public squares have acted as focal points for public outrage. The most iconic moment in the British protests thus far has been the pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent slave-trader who died in 1721.
Colston’s statue was erected in Bristol in 1895, as a result not of a campaign from the ‘people of Bristol’, but rather because of the efforts of one businessman, James Arrowsmith. Fearing strikes and socialist agitation amongst the working poor in the 1890s, and anxious about the future of British Empire, he sought to proclaim the city’s imperial deeds through the commemoration of one of its patrician class: Colston. The plaque declared Colston a ‘wise and virtuous’ man. Today, many people clearly think that a slave trader is nothing of the sort; our colleague Ian Cook (Geography) has made a short film about the toppling, and eventual ceremonial drowning of Colston’s statue in Bristol Harbour.
Critics of the statue’s removal allege the criminal irresponsibility of the act: on the day Colston fell, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pointedly claimed that the BLM demonstrations had been ‘subverted by thuggery’, and Home Secretary Priti Patel insisted that there would be a criminal investigation. They did not see in the destruction of the slave trader’s statue a necessary political confrontation with a shameful history that had failed to find a place in the British story. Rather, they insist that such statues were sources of a necessary civic education: ‘those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.’ Supporters of the removal pointed out that this action also confronted history, and that public statues represented the power of a particular social and political order. The Mayor of Bristol called Colston’s removal “historical poetry”. A website ‘Topple the Racists’ sought to continue what Colston’s fall had begun, hosting a crowdsourced map of UK monuments which glorified individuals linked to slavery or colonial violence.
Some people proposed ways in which the statue might be kept, its meaning remade, unable any longer to glorify slavery. Street artist Banksy suggested that it would be better to re-instate the statue, but in the moment of its toppling, alongside newly cast bronze protestors. He playfully presented himself as the voice of reason and compromise, simultaneously catering for ‘both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t’. Others sought to recontextualise the statue, seeking ways to relieve it of its power to glorify imperial violence whilst giving voice to those who suffered. Some plans advocated surrounding Colston with monuments to the 84,000 enslaved people he was estimated to have traded, or replacing him with a different statue every day for the next 233 years to recall each slave he was responsible for shipping. The most common response was the statue’s ‘ideological quarantine’ in a Bristol Museum, although critics questioned whether such use of museums served to depoliticise political actions, treating them as places where historical problems could be made to disappear.
Statues depicting prominent individuals project power, whether of the individual themselves or of the political or social vision they represent. As Simon Schama cogently argued in the Financial Times, ‘statues are revelations – not about the historical figures they represent, but about the mindset of those who commissioned them’ and the same can be said about their moving, recycling or toppling; all are political acts which can be used to effectively trace shifts in public opinion and its power. The Black Lives Matter movement, and the toppling of Colston, has inspired the defacing, and in some cases subsequent removal, of statues linked to slavery and imperial violence across western Europe – in Italy and France, but most notably in Belgium, where monuments to Leopold II, ruler of Congo Free State where, from 1885 to 1908, an estimated 10–15 million Africans had died, were removed.
Across historical epochs, whenever values have changed or were challenged, people have proposed a range of techniques to deal with contested statues – demolition, defacement, defence of the status quo, ideological quarantine, recontextualization, or the making of alternatives. Recast or destroyed statues often live on in pamphlets, photography and film: replayed and remembered, they become a powerful symbol of political transformation. Nineteenth century America celebrated in painting the toppling of the statue of British monarch George III, just as Germans would later say ‘Goodbye, Lenin’ in film. The image of a recumbent Stalin, defaced and dethroned from his pedestal, surrounded by cheering protesters on the first day of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, quickly travelled around the world and remained a powerful symbol celebrating resistance to Soviet control of Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War.
This piece has been written collectively by History staff at the University of Exeter, with assistance from colleagues within and outside Exeter. It should be said at the outset that while we are unanimously in support of Black Lives Matter and the justice it seeks, we are not all agreed on the best method of tackling contested statues. This unusual activity, which has seen sixteen of us writing in tandem, is part of our exploration of another, related, movement: we are trying to discover together what ‘decolonising the university’ might mean in research, teaching and writing. We believe that researchers in universities must grapple with social inequities, that the process of that engagement must involve self-reflexivity, and conscious efforts to learn and teach what has been irrationally omitted. We have also been led by our students, especially a well-researched and robustly argued article in a student newspaper, on Exeter’s own historical connections with imperialism and the slave trade. Much of what we have done is actually very traditional – we have pooled our knowledge, we have compared notes, we have tested whether certain lines of argument hold up against this varied evidence or not. In doing so, we have written what could be a very standard essay in comparative history, but what we have experienced in this writing process has been exceptional and salutary.
There are many kinds of statuary: this piece focuses on the history of the ‘un-making’ of free-standing statues of historical individuals, in public spaces, detached from churches and tombs. The question of why statues, as opposed to other forms of memorialisation, hold such power as sites of protest, is beyond the scope of this post. But the perhaps the human form provides an immediacy, an opportunity for demanding or enacting forms of justice, that makes them suitable for ‘image-events’ of the kind that occurred in Bristol. Continue reading “Who wants yesterday’s statues?”→
Six years ago, in 2012, the dramatised arrival of the ‘Windrush Generation’ provided many British viewers with one of the most moving moments in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. The dozens of black Londoners and the giant model of the Empire Windrush, which had docked at Tilbury in June 1948, entering the stadium during the ceremony’s historical pageant stood for the hundreds of thousands of black Britons who had migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, which was then still their imperial metropole, between 1948 and 1962.
The moment when the ‘Windrush Generation’ joined the pageant’s chaotic whirl of characters drawn from modern British social and cultural history symbolised, for millions of its viewers (if not those people of colour with more reason to be suspicious of British promises), a Britain finally inclusive enough to have made the post-Windrush black presence as integral a part of its national story as Remembrance or Brunel. Today, however, members of this same symbolic generation have been threatened with deportation – and some have already been deported – because they have been unable to prove their immigration status despite living in Britain for more than fifty years. The Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade was far from alone in wondering where it had all gone wrong since 2012.
What kind of British government would deport the children of the Empire Windrush? Not the openly fascist regime that the National Front took to the streets for in the 1970s, or that Alan Moore imagined taking control of a near-future Britain in his 1988 comic V for Vendetta (written at the height of the Thatcher years). Rather, as most of the British public only realised after the revelations of the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman connecting dozens of individual stories into a chilling pattern, the answer lies with the Conservative government of Theresa May. Continue reading “Where did it all go wrong? The Windrush myth after London 2012”→
Fredrik Petersson Åbo Akademi University Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU), Moscow
In 1927, the “First International Congress against Imperialism and Colonialism” convened in Brussels at Palais d’Egmont. The event celebrated the establishment of the League against Imperialism, and as the congress reached its crescendo, Willi Münzenberg, the German communist and General Secretary of International Arbeiterhilfe (IAH), declared that this was “neither the end, nor the beginning of a new powerful movement”. Nearly 28 years later, amid the aftermath of the brutality of the Second World War, Münzenberg’s anti-colonial vision was revitalized at the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, Indonesia.
In the 1955 Bandung Conference’s opening address, Achmed Sukarno, the Indonesian president, declared to the leaders of the twenty-nine countries in attendance: “I recognise that we are gathered here today as a result of sacrifices. . . . I recall in this connection the Conference of the ‘League against Imperialism and Colonialism’ which was held in Brussels almost thirty years ago.” Separated by many decades and vast distance, these two events illustrate why a global history of transnational anti-colonial movements in the 20th century cannot be fixed around a particular moment in time and space – rather, it is a history enacted in radical spaces in a changing world. Continue reading “Prelude to Bandung: The Interwar Origins of Anti-Colonialism”→
The age of decolonization is of crucial importance for our understanding of today’s world. By dissolving colonial rule around the world, this process led to the emergence of new sovereign states, thereby permanently changing international relations and international law.
The third phase of decolonization is the one most closely associated with the term “decolonization” today – and which refers to the end of European colonial rule after 1945. The process of the dissolution of the European overseas empires had a profound effect on the course of international history during the 20th century. This process occurred relatively quickly given that colonial rule had existed in some cases for a number of centuries. Only after just 30 years, from 1945 to 1975, all the colonial empires had disappeared from the global map.
Mathilde von Bülow Lecturer in International and Imperial history, University of Nottingham
Today, Germany’s Mannschaft will face Algeria’s Fennecs at Porto Alegre, after both teams made it through the group stage of the FIFA World Cup. Though it has yet to be played, the match is already being hailed as an historic, even epic, event. Why? Because it represents the first time the Algerian squad has progressed to the final sixteen at a World Cup. Its larger symbolism, however, is rooted in a longstanding Algerian resistance to French colonialism, which underpinned the secret history of Algerian-German football relations. Continue reading “The Secret History Behind Today’s Algeria-Germany #WorldCup Match”→
A new book by the Centre’s Professor Martin Thomas shows how Britain’s impending withdrawal from Afghanistan and France’s recent dispatch of troops to the troubled Central African Republic are but the latest indicators of a long-standing pattern of decolonisation.
Dr. Holt explores the crucial role of the short-lived Douglas-Home Government (1963-64) upon Cold War relations and British decolonization. With the 2015 general elections fast approaching, the story of Douglas-Home also proffers an illustrative historical example of how an impending poll can affect foreign policy.
Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Established under Security Council Resolution 186 of 4 March 1964, the force was tasked with preventing further violence between Cyprus’s Greek and Turkish communities in the aftermath of 1963’s ‘Bloody Christmas’. Still in place today, UNFICYP has become one of the longest running UN peacekeeping missions, and it owed much to the diplomacy of the British government of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. It is also just one of many episodes highlighting the significance of Douglas-Home’s short-lived and oft-overlooked administration within the larger histories of Cold War relations and British decolonization. Continue reading “British Foreign Policy in the Shadow of a General Election: The Douglas-Home Government”→
Jamie Miller Visiting Assistant Professor, Quinnipiac University
Why historians should study the regime, not just its opponents
Last week’s death of Nelson Mandela prompted outpourings of both admiration and introspection across the globe. Public figures scrambled to portray themselves as long-time supporters of the anti-apartheid cause — even where the historical record of their organisation’s relationship with Mandela undercut the credibility of such posturing (the British Tories readily come to mind). Yet amid the panegyrics, there was plenty of consideration of Mandela’s complex legacy. When Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz declared common cause with Mandela, a supporter wrote on his Facebook page: “Tell the truth Ted!!! Who are you??!! Obama?? Don’t rewrite history to try to get people to like you!!! Educate them!! Mandela was a murderer, terrorist, and a Communist!!!! Can we even trust you to be honest now??!!” A more nuanced analysis appeared in an incisive piece in Foreign Affairs. Historian Ryan Irwin traced Mandela’s elusive legacy to his willingness to embody a pluralist and inclusive vision of the anti-apartheid movement, rather than imposing his own ideological litmus test for would-be allies—be they liberals, pan-Africans, union leaders, or communists.
Historians of empire have long suspected that documents from the colonies were transferred back to Britain during the last days of imperial rule, only never to enter into the public domain. It was no small surprise therefore when in April 2011 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), under pressure from a high court judge, admitted that it had a secret archive of nearly 9,000 files from 37 colonies. Perhaps the biggest surprise from the ruling was how easy it was for the FCO to keep these documents hidden from historians for so long. Continue reading “Covering Up the Dark Side of Decolonisation”→