It’s 1900 all over again! In recent weeks, certain sections of British society have been consumed with questions of empire. Taking a lead from students at the University of Cape Town who successfully demanded the removal of a statue of Sir Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), students at Oriel College, Oxford University, argued that a statue of Rhodes looming over the college entrance there be brought down as well. While unsuccessful in Oxford, the pressure group Rhodes Must Fall has opened up a conversation about the meaning of empire for Britain and its former colonies.
Rhodes was a British diamond miner who established the firm De Beers in South Africa in 1888. He built an extractive empire stretching from South Africa into modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia, then known as Rhodesia, by striking trade agreements with local elites and Afrikaner farmers. Rhodes, who was also Prime Minister of the Cape Colony between 1890 and 1896, supported these agreements with the implicit threat of violence from British authorities. Rhodes was also an avowed white supremacist whose ideas laid the foundations for apartheid. In Confession of Faith, he urged the creation of a secret society “with but one object, the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule.” Rhodes argued that such an endeavor would abolish war. But what this meant for colonized peoples can be seen in his recommendation that different peoples living in Cape Colony be governed and given citizenship rights according to race.
The tension set up by Rhodes between the universal and the particular is reflected in discussions about the Oriel Rhodes. For some, the episode is an example of political correctness run amok. Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, argued that the wiping away of uncomfortable truths does not sanitize history. But historians like David Olusoga argue that figures like Rhodes should be seen within the context of their time. Rhodes was a war criminal who inaugurated and oversaw increasingly brutal methods of rule because pervading imperialist ideologies permitted such behavior. As the journalist Will Hutton argues, we need to face rather than efface the past.
The trouble is, many in Britain look back on the empire rather fondly. Fifty-nine percent of respondents to a 2014 YouGov poll stated that the British Empire was something to be proud of, while 49 percent agreed that those colonized were better off for British rule. Nor has the brouhaha over Rhodes changed minds much. A plurality continues to believe that the British Empire and colonialism were generally good things.
Why popular sentiment looks warmly on the British Empire is unclear. One reason may be the lack of instruction in British schools. Guidelines issued in 2013 for secondary school history teachers, relegated empire to one optional module in a unit of study covering the mid 18th to early 20th centuries. Universities make imperialism a mainstay of their courses, but the specialization inherent in British education means that those who learn about empire typically study subjects such as history or English Literature. There is no avenue for broad-based knowledge to develop.
Another reason for broad approval of imperialism could be the nature of public discussion. Too often, empire is presented in a favorable light. This can be seen in two best-selling books and television series on the British Empire. Niall Ferguson’s Empire (2003), claimed that the British Empire was an indisputable “good thing” that brought globalization and law and order to much of the world. The journalist Jeremy Paxman offered a more nuanced argument in his Empire (2012): much damage was caused by empire, but good was done as well. Those administering the empire had good intentions, even if they were not always realized. The appeal of such books is obvious; they tell a story people want to hear. Britain has spent most of the 21st century at war, while many fear that the nation is under threat from immigration, the European Union, and Scottish nationalism.
Depicting empire as a glorious episode in the British past is no way to teach history. But neither is removing from history things people don’t like. A recent essay by Alan Lester, a professor at the University of Sussex, has called for the abandonment of the balance-sheet approach to the British Empire.
So what would more effective education about empire look like? In Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012), a series of exchanges between the late historian Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, the former calls for a return to narrative driven history instruction. Judt argues that it is impossible to learn about problems within history if one does not have command of the historical narrative being discussed.
We should face up to our imperial past. But first, we should properly understand that past. Integrating imperialism into national history might reduce the numbers who see in it a source of national pride. It could also provoke a more honest and open discussion. This conversation should account for the malign effect of imperialism upon colonized peoples. It should consider the way in which Britain gorged and enriched itself upon empire. And it should examine the ways in which key signifiers of British identity such as free trade, law and order, liberal philosophy, suffrage, immigration, perceptions of race and gender, and post-WWII popular culture, were themselves constructions of empire. It should do all of this while unfolding the British past.
Until this year, Rhodes was dimly remembered, familiar only to those in their late 50s and older whose school atlases contained maps of the colony of Southern Rhodesia. Now he seems an expression of national id. This moment can be used. The South African Rhodes Must Fall movement did not just dismantle the statue of a hated oppressor; it also reclaimed national history. These lessons should be learned. What is the place of empire in the historical narrative of Britain?