The empire writes back: tackling Britain's colonial past

London (AFP) –


The statue of Robert Clive outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in central London depicts him with an imperious gaze, his hand gripping the hilt of a sheathed sword.

But despite often heated debate about monuments to colonial figures with links to the slave trade and the legacy of Britain's past, "Clive of India" remains in place.

For the British author Sathnam Sanghera, just seeing the monument to the controversial 18th century general who profited massively from the exploitation of India and Indians is "degrading".

"I wouldn't mourn the toppling of that Clive statue, which was considered controversial when it was put up," Sanghera told AFP.

Sanghera's new book, "Empireland", published Thursday, explores Britain's uneasy relationship with its past, which was thrown into sharp relief by the Black Lives Matter protests last year.

Those protests saw one such statue, of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston, toppled, and thrown into Bristol harbour.

Sanghera said he did not advocate similar action against the memorial to Clive but he does believe the time is now right to better contextualise Britain's past.

- Erasure -

Built up from the 16th to 19th century, the British Empire was the biggest in history, and at its height covered almost a quarter of the world's population, making Britain the global superpower.

Yet the failure to adequately teach it in schools is "really dysfunctional", said Sanghera.

He said he had been particularly affected as a young Sikh growing up in central England by the erasure of contributions by Indian troops during World War One.

But he added: "This has been a consistent thing, throughout the 20th century, to delete the contribution of people of colour.

"And it continues making our conversations about race, really, really dishonest."

"Empireland" interrogates Britain's relationship with the slave trade and argues its decision to abolish the practice has since overshadowed its long participation.

"The British profited from slavery for many decades, brutalised and exploited millions, paid compensation of £20 million to former slave owners while offering the slaves nothing," he writes in the book.

"The moment Britain abolished it, abolition became the main narrative."

- Sidelined -

The BLM protests -- and the coronavirus lockdown which has forced parents to take on homeschooling duties -- have also spurred others into action.

Oriana Gowie, who has two sons aged two and six, launched from her home in London to give parents an online resource to teach Black history to children.

"Our children are overhearing us talking about what's happening and hearing that Black lives matter," she said.

"I just thought, 'wouldn't it be great if there was a resource where parents could sit down with their children, and talk about achievements of Black people all over the world?'"

Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson, a co-founder of Impact of Omission, which is campaigning for the inclusion of colonial history in the core curriculum, took more direct action.

Just a year before the BLM protests, she was sitting her end-of-school exams and was "shocked" by the way slavery and the British Empire were sidelined.

"We did a module on industrialisation. And the whole way through it was just never mentioned," said Jikiemi-Pearson, 20, who is now a student at Exeter University in southwest England.

Lessons focused on how cotton was spun in British factories after the 18th century "but not where the cotton had come from" -- slave plantations in the Americas -- she said.

A petition launched by Impact of Omission to have the inclusion of colonial history in the curriculum debated in British parliament received over 286,000 signatures and in November, Jikiemi-Pearson presented it to two parliamentary committees.

- 'Balance sheet' -

As calls to re-evaluate Britain and its empire have grown, so too has the pushback against it.

The targeting of a central London statue of World War II leader Winston Churchill during the protests drew particular criticism, including from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Protesters defaced the Churchill statue with the word "racist", and accused him of being responsible for policies that led to the death of millions during famine in India in 1943.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said this month it was "absurd" and "shameful" Churchill's statue had been targeted.

He said there had been an attempt to "impose a single, often negative narrative which not so much recalls our national story, as seeks to erase part of it".

Sanghera said trying to cast Britain's colonial legacy in either a wholly negative or positive light was impossible but a better understanding was needed.

"You can't have a balance sheet view of 500 years of history," he said.

"I don't think any other country in the world has this, where you're urged to have a good or bad view of 500 years ago."