When I retired in 2010, I briefly toyed with the idea of enrolling at the Open University for a BA degree in history. That would have been quite a departure for me, since I already have graduate degrees in botany.
However, over the years working as an agricultural research scientist and academic, I developed a keen amateur interest in history, and was fortunate to visit many interesting historical and archaeological sites all over the world, such as the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for example, or the Great Wall of China, that stand as silent and emblematic reminders of once powerful empires.
When you think about it, history is often the narrative of subjugation of one nation, society or culture by another. To the victors the spoils, who then make the rules, control the narrative.
Much of my recreational reading for the past 30 years consisted of biographies and histories. Not just UK history, but increasingly, accounts of the American Civil War in particular. During our road trip in the USA in 2019, I persuaded Steph to include several important Civil War sites in our itinerary.
So much so that I then borrowed A Place of Greater Safety from our local library, her 1992 account of the French Revolution seen through the eyes of three protagonists: Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. That inspired me to find a history of that traumatic event. So I’ve now just opened the first pages of Stephen Clarke’s The French Revolution (first published in 2018) that I came across on the library website. I must look for Simon Schama’s 1989 Citizens.
When I was in high school in the 1960s neither of my two (maybe three) history teachers spawned any affection for their subject. Everything was taught by rote, with little contextual analysis of principals or events. In contrast, my two daughters Hannah and Philippa, who studied for their International Baccalaureate (IB) Diplomas at the International School Manila, thrived on history (even though both became psychologists). Hannah’s extended essay (an IB requirement, which she could have chosen from any of her six subjects) focused on the impact of the emerging railways on the canals in 19th century England. Philippa had a poor history experience for the first year of her IB course, which was rescued in the second when a new teacher, Mr Fischer, was appointed to take over a potentially failing class. He dragged them up by their historical bootstraps, so to speak, encouraging them to higher achievements. Philippa was awarded the highest grade 7, one of the few at that level worldwide for her particular modern European history course. How I wish I’d had an inspirational history teacher like that.
While I’ve more recently taken an interest in American history, I was initially drawn to 18th and early 19th century European history, essentially the period between the accession George I in 1714 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This was the Age of Enlightenment and industrialization, the transition from rural to urban economies, with all the privations that growing urban populations had to endure. It was a time of great social change, but also polarization of politics, particularly as that age-old rivalry between Great Britain and France spilled over into so many different conflicts across Europe. It was also an age of colonial expansion (by many powers, not just Great Britain) and empire building. And the height of slavery.
Historical narratives do change, as new evidence comes to light and events reinterpreted. I never cease to be amazed at how much of the last 1,000 years of our history is carefully preserved in the National Archives at Kew in London, where primary documents are available for historical research. I also discovered that the UK Parliament still prints its laws (for archival purposes) on long-lasting vellum made from calf- or goat-skin. The oldest extant law available on vellum dates back to 1497.
But apart from dates and places, people and events, history is also about relationships, of motives, of actions taken and their consequences. That’s why narratives do meander over the years, depending on the interests and perspectives of each historian, and whether they have a particular historical (or even political) axe to grind.
Today, however, historians (and society in general) face another challenge: how to view the past through a 21st century prism, as well as in terms of today’s mores.
The 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) anti-racism campaign has forced us all to confront the uncomfortable truth that the twin abominations of racism and slavery are very much part of our nation’s narrative. As are the consequences of colonial expansion and empire and that, all-too-frequently, atrocities were perpetrated in the name of King/Queen and Country. Abominations that must be acknowledged, not set aside or brushed under the carpet as irrelevant to society today.
Since I was born in the first half (just) of the 20th century, in 1948 actually, can I be held responsible for what past generations perpetrated? Not directly, of course. We can’t turn back the clock, but my generation can finally face up to issues that, until now, were too uncomfortable to accept or talk about openly.
One particular highlight of the BLM campaign here in the UK last year was the toppling of the statue of Bristol merchant and philanthropist, Sir Edward Colston (1636-1721), that ended up in Bristol harbour.
The statue was erected in 1895, but in recent years Bristolians had begun to question why the city continued to give prominency to someone whose fortune was derived from his involvement in the slave trade. At least one civic building and street had also been named after him.
But was giving Colston’s statue the heave-ho an acceptable way to address this issue? Can we expunge Colston and his like from history? Clearly the answer is ‘No’. A few days after his downfall, the statue was retrieved from the depths of the harbour, and after undergoing repair and cleaning, it will be displayed in a local museum in a way that contextualises Colston and the age in which he lived. We need explanation and understanding, not destruction.
The same goes for other statues, such as that of imperialist (and racist) Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College at Oxford University. Oxford is not the only place where Rhodes has faced this ignominy.
Some protestors have demanded the removal of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill from Parliament Square in London, because of his racist and imperialist views. Churchill was not alone among his generation in being racist. But he is celebrated today for his leadership as the nation faced an overwhelming threat from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The question we need to ask is whether his racism should trump his war leadership record? We need, I believe, a nuanced appraisal and understanding of this statesman (and others as well). We can and should condemn unacceptable (to us) beliefs and actions, but they also have to be understood in their contemporaneous context.
Steph and I are keen members of the National Trust, and if you check out the National Trust and English Heritage page on this blog, you will find accounts of the many glorious country houses that we have visited over the past decade.
In the wake of BLM campaign, some are accusing the National Trust of being overly woke. On a recent visit to Cragside in Northumberland, there was this message at the foot of the main staircase relating to a statue higher up:
I came across this article by historian David Olusoga in The Guardian yesterday, a commentary on those who are attacking ‘woke’ history.
The National Trust has a big task ahead. You only have to visit properties like Powis Castle where there is an impressive collection of Indian artefacts once belonging to Robert Clive, one of the founders of the British Empire in India. Or Kedleston Hall near Derby, where some of the treasures on display date from the period when George Nathaniel, Lord Curzon was Viceroy of India.
The treasures in these houses (and many others in the National Trust portfolio) were assembled over decades if not centuries through colonial settlement and/or slavery. Now the National Trust is beginning to better explain the background to the accumulation of such wealth. But it’s not just colonialism and slavery. For many land owners their wealth was created much closer to home, through merciless exploitation of the labouring classes, almost as a form of slavery in itself.
Confronting the past will be a challenge for the National Trust, and society as a whole. Then there are the ‘spoils’ of empire building locked up in museums all over Europe. The debate continues whether museums should repatriate artefacts that were acquired (= stolen in many instances) during the Age of Empire.
At least one museum, the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne has revealed plans to ‘decolonize’ its collections, because . . . a number of our objects are inextricably linked with Britain’s colonial past and systemic racism . . . acquired over 250 years.
As the museum’s Keeper of Archaeology stated: Decolonisation, for us, is not an attempt to completely rewrite history, but rather an effort to shed light on areas of our past that have been neglected, or simply ignored.
I’m sure other museums will follow. Hopefully this will, in a small way, help counter the British exceptionalism narrative that has emerged during the Brexit debate, that has, in my opinion, also revealed just how deep-seated racism is in our society today. Not overt racism perhaps, but pervasive all the same.