Empire, family and public history: thoughts on the 44%

Last week Twitter was very chatty and (in my timeline generally displeased) about an opinion poll suggesting that 44% of Britons think we should be proud of our history of colonialism.

As many historians have pointed out, this isn’t exactly a cheering result for anyone who knows about the range of atrocities that happened in the context of Empire, from the Amritsar Massacre to the Bengal Famine (in one part of the red-splattered map) to the enslavement of some millions of Africans (on another).

Why, I wondered, would 44% of those polled think the British Empire was something to be proud of? Well, there’s not a lot of critical imperial history in the school curriculum; nor is there on television. (There’s more on slavery, and I suspect a poll that mentioned slavery would get different answers.) Better education is no doubt part of the answer. But I think the problem runs deeper, and that has to do with the weight we place on different sources of information as we arrive at conclusions about what to make of Britain’s imperial past.

I’ve been reflecting on attitudes to imperialism in the last couple of months, not particularly because this is part of my research (though I read a lot around early ideas of ‘race’ for my forthcoming book), but because in December 2015 for the first time I went to visit India, where my grandparents were missionaries.

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Serampore College, where my grandfather worked as a missionary and teacher

I’m interested in how family histories might affect replies to that poll. A lot of popular family history emphasises the idea that we might inherit personality traits and talents from our forebears. Think how many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? feature a showbiz celebrity excitedly discovering that his/her ancestor also had some musical gift. On the other hand, as the controversy over Ben Affleck’s Roots highlighted, it’s very much harder to accept that your ancestors did the Bad Things. (Slave-owning, in his case.) Because, in the narrative of these shows, that might imply that you also are a person who given half a chance would enslave or exploit.

Were it not for the fact that I know quite a lot about history, I suspect that my attitude to Britain’s colonial past would be heavily determined by the fact that my missionary grandparents were very nice people, who despite religious views that I don’t share did lots of valuable educational and welfare work (including on unpopular issues like welcoming migrants to Britain in the late 1960s) and that as very nice people they surely couldn’t have been implicit in any Bad Imperial Things. In fact, most of their mission took place post-Independence, and the interests of missionaries and the Imperial establishment did not always coincide. Still, on a structural level the alleged superiority of Christianity over other belief systems was used to justify all manner of dubious Imperial projects. But if I didn’t know that it would be tempting to draw my conclusions about colonialism on the basis of warm family ties and not much else.

If I didn’t have those grandparents, and I’d just taken my holiday to India out of interest, would I have learnt along the way that I shouldn’t be proud of the British Empire? Strangely enough – and this surprised me – I don’t think I would. When I walked around the National Museum in Delhi, or the Indian Museum in Kolkata, I came away with the impression that the ‘British period’ was just one of many periods in Indian history when parts of the continent were ruled by one or other dynasty. Not by any means uniquely bad.

I also came away with the impression that most of the kids in the school party visiting the National Museum wanted to shake my hand, say hello in English and pose for a selfie with me. Several parents wanted a snap of me with their kids too. Which didn’t give me the sense of a generalised hostility to the British. Rather the opposite. For sure, a fair number of the people I met in India who were jolly friendly to me had a professional interest in my TripAdvisor rating of their hotel, city tour or restaurant. But these children and families didn’t.

When I went to the Victoria Mameorial in Kolkata, an Imperial monument par excellence, it was selfie-central again, Indian visitors posing against the statue of Queen Vic for their Sunday snaps. The massive crowds meant the museum in the monument was hard to engage with but my impression was of light Bengali nationalism and mild criticism of the British for accommodating to local conservatism. I certainly didn’t get the impression it was bluntly anti-imperialist.

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Posing for photos with the status of Queen Victoria outside the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

So if my view of British colonial history had been shaped by my visit to India, and if I wasn’t a historian who tried to think about the complexity of the human past, well, I could easily have come home thinking that in general Indian people really quite like British people and they don’t appear to have an axe to grind against us for the various Bad Stuff.

Returning to the poll, if I had nothing else to base my opinion on, both my family history and my experience of public history in India would incline me to the view that (in India at least) the British Empire was just another set of rulers, and that some, perhaps the majority, of the British in India were good people. So why not be proud? Or at least neutral?

As an educator, I like to think that better formal education about imperial history might change things, but I’m well aware that family, tourist experience and public history can easily trump anything I say in class.

Besides, I’ve seen those TV programmes about the Indian railways. Damn good. Don’t tell me this is an Evil Imperialist Train. I won’t believe it.

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The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

 

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