History Reclaimed – But From What?

A group of scholars including Andrew Roberts, Robert Tombs, Zareer Masani and the ubiquitous Nigel Biggar, has banded together to create the History Reclaimed Project. It consists at present of a website and social media presence that aims to rescue neutral, disinterested, evidence-based historical enquiry from a supposed ‘woke’ assault. In particular the group believes this assault is directed at our understanding of Britain’s imperial past. Most of the short articles and book reviews on the site, including Gilley’s now notorious “The Case for Colonialsm“, have been published elsewhere. They are collated under the project’s auspices to create economies of scale for a group of scholars who believe themselves to be marginalised and gagged (despite Biggar’s CBE).

The group introduces its project as defending a “shared history” and speaks of society needing “a sense of common purpose and self-worth”. It claims that these attributes are being undermined by historians and activists who draw attention to the racialised violence of the British Empire. A “shared history”, it says, “is a necessary foundation for a successful democracy”. The language betrays the most problematic element of the way that some conservatives more broadly have responded to the challenge of Black Lives Matter. For the history that this group defends is far from “shared’”. It is the history created by White Britons over many decades to justify their denial of sovereignty to others. The millions of people of colour around the world who were made British subjects whether they liked it or not, tended to endure a very different historical experience from these White Britons – as subjects rather than citizens, as enslaved, indentured or otherwise coerced labourers rather than employers, as servants rather than masters and mistresses, and as dispossessed rather than landed. Continuing to write their experiences out of “our” supposedly “shared” history means denying that Black Britons’ heritage belongs to “our” national story. History Reclaimed refuses to recognise this continuing exclusion of Black Britons from a dominant vein of historical interpretation. Accordingly it misplaces the blame for the division and dissent that it detects in Britain and its former settler colonies. This group blames the “woke”, when it is the continuing resistance that Black Britons and Indigenous peoples face as they seek to make their voices heard that is the root cause.

Activists motivated by the need to address racism and denial do sometimes get historical detail and individual attribution wrong, but what they get right, and what History Reclaimed gets so wrong, is the bigger picture: the British Empire was, above all else, a vehicle of white supremacy. Whatever its liberal adherents at home in Britain desired and said, it rested upon people of colour being violently subjugated, their land taken and their being put to work for White Britons. History Reclaimed exists not so as to rescue History from inaccuracy or bias (both of which characteristics are abundantly in evidence in its own pages), but in order to perpetuate ignorance of this central characteristic of Empire. This otherwise quite disparate group of contributors is intent on continuing a pattern of denial and disavowal which dates from the days of empire itself. What they want to reclaim history from is the truth.

Scholarship and Propaganda
There are some things on the History Reclaimed site which seem perfectly reasonable. Saul David offers a decent précis of the complex array of actors involved in the South African War and points to its legacies for a racially segregationist form of governance. I wouldn’t disagree with the framing of its introduction – that ‘Boer War’ memorial interpretations should take this complexity into account. What seems to drive this group’s broader approach, however, is a Manichean view of history: a belief that the primary purpose and effect of history writing is either to condemn or to redeem White Britons. Where they see scholars of empire piling on condemnation, their belief is that they are needed to restore redemptive balance.

Given the general lack of engagement with the recent academic historiography, the group’s claim to protect nuanced, complex and holistic historical research seems disingenuous. Nigel Biggar’s review of Dan Hick’s Brutish Museums and Robert Tombs’ criticism of the V&A for returning some looted Asante treasures both take imperial propaganda of the late nineteenth century, which justified the assaults on Benin and Asante respectively, as a truth overlooked by their targets. Biggar emphasises the brutality of the Benin kingdom and Tombs points out that the Asante kingdom was founded in part on slave trading. They miss the broader point completely, that such justification served to legitimate British wars of aggression and occupation which contributed to tens of thousands of deaths, the Scramble for Africa, the denial of sovereignty to African people and their treatment as second class subjects governed directly or indirectly by White people in their own territories. Rather than rigorous historical enquiry, it is the propaganda for aggressive wars, racial supremacy and overseas occupation that they seek to “reclaim”.

Some of History Reclaimed’s featured articles, such as Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes’ defence of Churchill’s reputation react to the hyperbole of detractors, but descend into their own fantasies of legal equality and an apparently universal British desire for “the best for the peoples of their Empire”. Many of the articles suffer from their own forms of hyperbole. Joanna Williams’ article on critical race theory starts promisingly, with a reasonable overview of its origins in the recognition of structural racism but descends into a rant about the existential threat that the scholarly field now poses to Western civilisation. Many of the other contributions also stereotype antiracist initiatives, rather than the failure to act sufficiently against racism, as fundamentally undermining Western societies.

In an article primarily on the Canadian Historical Association’s decision to adopt the description “genocide” for the forced assimilation of First Nations people, Liam Kennedy declares that “the CHA directive is worse than any of the ideologically-loaded pronouncements that shaped the Irish Famine debates. None of the antagonists in those controversies sought to close down discussion. There was no burning of books”. As far as I am aware the CHA has not called for discussion to be closed or for books to be burned. Kennedy also asks, “But do they [the CHA] want to go a stage further and endorse the genocide thesis as a test of faith or virtual entry requirement to the profession?” Well, no.

I quite agree with Kennedy that “Hallmarks of the historian include confronting complex historical experiences with intellectual integrity and attention to context, evidence, and the values of the time. Holistic accounts are normally preferred to selective and partisan renderings of the past that can be dished up so easily in the service of contemporary political positions”. Following this advice, however, surely means refusing to overlook the evidence of forced assimilation and governmental attempts to eradicate a separate Indigenous culture? A project designed to exonerate Britons of past culpability for acts of oppression seems to me just as void of intellectual integrity as any extreme “woke” statement.

Both C. R. Hallpik and Nigel Biggar are willing to go further than Kennedy, explicitly positioning Indigenous and African groups lower than White Britons in a hierarchy of civilisation. Hallpik’s article asserts that it is quite legitimate and accurate to portray Indigenous societies as primitive and less culturally evolved than Western societies. Presumably the point of its inclusion here is for us to infer that the colonisation of such societies by Britons, the usurpation of their land, the killing of those who resisted, and the enforced cultural assimilation of survivors, was justifiable on the grounds of some greater human good. Perhaps the real clue as to what drives this project as a whole is found in Biggar’s comment: “It is clear that the [British colonial] officials did regard the cultures of many African peoples as “primitive”. But I doubt they deserve blame for that, since — whether in terms of science, technology or medicine — African cultures were, compared to European ones, obviously underdeveloped in the 1920s”.

Liberalism and Culture War
In an article reproduced from the Telegraph, Nigel Biggar and Doug Stokes argue that ‘woke’ criticisms of the West’s history undermine the liberalism upon which Westerners rely for their security and prosperity. They fail to see that they are part of the backlash against precisely the most precious aspects of Western liberalism that have been won since 1945 – gains such as the rights of women and civil rights of Black people, that are now under assault from populists on the Right. The culture wars were started in the USA in the 1960s by conservatives resisting these most progressive elements of Western liberalism. The group is aligned with those doing their very best to undermine these gains with their complaints about the nihilism of the ‘woke’.

The academic historians whose work I have read in many years of reviewing for many publishers generally seek to characterise the British Empire as accurately and inclusively as possible, regardless of the feelings of patriotic readers. They are written in pursuit of historical veracity rather than historical validation. They eschew the idea of historical goodies and baddies. They recognise that human agency is complex; that people who consider themselves humane can participate in oppression and that White Britons were no better or worse, intrinsically, than any other people. There is a huge body of literature on the accommodations and adaptations that colonised people made to colonial regimes, as well as on their resistance. Entangled and intimate relationships between White colonisers and Indigenous people are noted and explored sensitively in this literature. Characters are humanised.

These historians, however, also feel obliged to draw attention to the everyday racial assumptions that generally rendered White Britons citizens and colonised people of colour subjects of empire. They do not simply ignore systems of governance that enabled White people to be masters and Black people servants; White people to be employers and Black people labourers, White people to be land owners and Black people to be dispossessed. Of course there were individual and group exceptions to these patterns. Imperial subjects of colour could be employers, land owners and slave owners. As the recent scholarship indicates, by overthrowing regimes that exclude and suppress in other ways, imperialism presented new opportunities to some colonised people relative to others. But any account of empire which seeks to deny its consistent patterning of White racial privilege over colonised people of colour is blinkered to say the least.

“History has become one of the major battlegrounds in the culture wars” not because of colonial historians’ efforts but because members of History Reclaimed along with allies in the Conservative Party and the right wing press have become determined, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, to stake a defence of a racially unequal status quo on the ground of history. The group declares its aim “to inform and support individuals and institutions who feel uncertain in the face of the culture wars.” But defending a propagandistic view of the past aimed at the denial of racism will not help such people. Perhaps the best critique of the History Reclaimed project comes from the rhetoric of the group itself: “Tendentious and even blatantly false readings of history are creating divisions, resentments, and even violence. This is damaging to democracy and to a free society.”

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46 comments on “History Reclaimed – But From What?
  1. Dawn Saunders says:

    Excellent article. Perhaps it could be sent to The Times?

  2. Peter Scott says:

    Very good, informative article that – rightly – points out that historical accuracy isn’t really the reason some people want to pretend empire was a good thing. As if the subjugated, robbed and oppressed peoples should send us a thank you card and worship big pictures of us or something.

    Just one thing – British people are not citizens, we’re subjects to whichever accident of birth is sitting on the throne. I’ve nowt against Her Madge, gawd luv ‘er, but everything against the system. And a mixture of shrugs and ennui about the next and next-next occupiers of said seat. The next-next-next one is still a baby, but that’s never stopped anyone from making them a monarch.

  3. Dr Harriet Salisbury says:

    So good to benefit from the breadth of your reading – I had some notion this was swirling around, but it’s useful to know where, how much and from whom. My father’s father left the Indian Civil Service (in whose employ he did both good and appalling things) after the war, travelling home at around the same time as my mother’s aunt went in the opposite direction to marry an Indian follower of Gandhi she’d met at the LSE, and devote her life to education, peace and human rights. She’s still there in her nineties, but my grandfather and the edifice of Empire never should have been.

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thanks Harriet
      One of the things I’ve found most intriguing and that has shaped a lot of my work is how humane Britons participated in social relations of imperialism with good intentions, and how colonised people mobilised their agency.

  4. Rohan Fernando says:

    As someone originally from Sri Lanka, it appears to me that the debate on the British Empire in the UK is between a large number of liberal academics who use contrived and convoluted arguments to say that there was nothing positive about the Empire and a smaller group of conservative academics, in organisations such as History Reclaimed, who use equally contrived and convoluted arguments to say that nothing bad took place.

    It is probably better to ignore both groups and read publications by knowledgeable subjects of the Empire from the colonies who experienced British rule at first hand. I would suggest books, such as English Law in India (1984) by A C Banerjee, The Transfer of Power in India (1957) by V P Menon and A History of Indian Railways (1988) by G S Khosla. The following is a critique of the book Empireland, which is receiving much attention now, based on these publications:


    Having spoken to a large number of my relatives in Sri Lanka of my parents’ generation (1930s) and my grandparents’ generation (1900s), they tended to agree with these authors. If British rule was totally brutish, I doubt if so many colonies would have wanted to become a dominion and keep the British sovereign as their head of state after independence or join the commonwealth or ask British officials to remain after independence. Would millions of former colonial subjects have come to settle in the UK and endure permanent British rule?

    I would like to conclude by quoting from Witness to an Era(1973) by Frank Moraes who was the first Indian editor of the Times of India. I would suggest he was far better informed that any historian of today:’The consolidation of British rule brought stability to India, and with stability came security. Behind the shield of pax Britannica India developed. The British opened up communications, built roads and railways, set up irrigation projects and laid the groundwork for better public health services. Improved communications meant the development of internal industries and trades such as coal, iron, wheat and cotton….
    Perhaps Britain’s greatest contribution was the establishment of the rule of law, for a caste-ridden, race- and religious conscious country it ensured the equality of all me before the law’.

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thank you for your comment Rohan.
      I would disagree that the majority of historians of the empire, whom you label liberal, attend only to the negative, because, as historians rather than politically-driven apologists they are not motivated to view history in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. What they do tend to find, whether they like it or not, is evidence of systematic exclusion of the vast majority of colonised people of colour from equality under colonial law, from equal access to infrastructure and to education etc until very late in the colonial period, when it was anticolonial movements that forced greater participation. In most cases a general British understanding that people of colour were not yet ready for self-governance retarded full participation in the benefits of British investments until after independence. Most historians from former colonies tend to agree.

      • Abhirup Debnath says:

        Who told you that maximum historians agree with you? Many scholars are not agree with you. Zareer Masani, Tirthankar Roy, Robert Tombs, Andrew Roberts, Nigel Biggar,Richard M Langworth are not agree with you. Stephen Broadberry, Johann Castodis, Bishnupriya Gupta, Angus Maddison,Herman De Jong, Jutta Bolt proved that Indian per capita income fell after 1600 to middle of 19th century. But grew under British rule 1850 to 1930. Tirthankar Roy is one of famous Indian historian in present time. He is writter of history reclaimed. Is he colonial apologist? Nonsense. Your “decolonization” friends Jason Hickel, Tariq Ali, P Gopal, Kehinde Andrews- Noone historian. But Andrews Roberts, Tirthankar Roy, Stephen Broadberry, Bishnupriya Gupta, Robert Tombs, Charles Allen are historians. Are you totalitarian fascist supporter? Anti democratic? What is your problem on history reclaimed? What do you mean? You and otherso called “decolonizer” are spreading a lot of nonsense. But anyone who is not agree with your propaganda, he is “colonial apologist”. Jason Hickel is spreading blatant untruth propaganda against British history in infamous propaganda media Al Jazeera. Economic historian Dr Tirthankar Roy and others reply in history reclaimed. You wants that your “decolonizer” friends will spread nonsense propaganda but anyone will not reply.

    • CW says:

      An excellent comment Rohan.

      I whole-heartedly agree with you that nuance should be sought on these issues. I have read some of Banerjee, and look forward to looking at some of your other suggestions.

      It should be noted that it is possible (easy, in fact) to fall into one of the two extremes you describe. There is little doubt the author of this article has fallen head first into the latter camp.

      While there are obvious pitfalls to believing that the British Empire proudly furnished the world with nothing more than hope, grace and light, there are also shortcomings with the opinion that the empire brought nothing but the opposite. These can, I think, be best exemplified by the inherent ‘bigotry of low expectations’.

      To elaborate on what I mean by this, interpreters such as Mr Lester (I pick on him solely due to it being his article we are commenting on) attribute a far greater agency and therefore blame to white western (in this case British) actors when bad things happen. This gives the impression that in their opinion they should have known better due to some sort of twisted inherent superiority.

      Conversely, they believe that when people from other cultures behave poorly they can be excused far more readily, as they weren’t to know any better.

      Undoubtedly many that ascribe these notions are well meaning, but nevertheless it is an example of cultural superiority (I stop short of saying racial in this instance) that discussions around history could certainly do without. In my humble opinion.

      • Alan Lester says:

        The piece in question was written precisely to challenge the attitude of cultural superiority which says that colonisation by White Britons was what people of colour around the world needed. For my writing on how colonised subjects obviously exercised agency resisting, accommodating and adapting to colonial conquest whilst and demonstrating the value of different cultures please see my books and articles. These also challenge the sense of British cultural superiority that you try to accuse me of holding. See for example ‘Ruling the World’.

  5. Mark Stocker says:

    Rohan’s comments stand out like a shining beacon! I don’t think there’s necessarily a big gulf between what History Reclaimed aims at and what he says (I’m the sole art historian in HR). Alan, though we differ ideologically, I commend you for having read many if not all the contributions on the site, and also for not lazily labelling us, as some critics have, ‘hard right’. Till perhaps 10 years ago I would have been seen by everybody apart from humanities academics as being ‘left liberal’ and in the last NZ elections I happily voted for Labour, dope and death. I hope you enjoy my article on statues in HR!

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thanks Mark,
      I actually have much in common with your concluding point: reinterpretation of statues can go a long way in providing a better public historical understanding. Already, however, some of your colleagues in HR are mobilising to ensure that such reinterpretations are restricted, so as to exclude any empathy with the people of colour who were victims of many of the figures in question.
      In doing so they perpetuate an enduring double standard: we would not tolerate statues of Hitler because we recognise that there is no balance to be found between atrocities committed against some and benefits to others (Aryan Germans). Yet when the victims of celebrated figures are enslaved and violently colonised people of colour we manage to find such balance and argue that it justifies their place on the pedestal. Who cares if Colston made his money (or, taking your point about the impossibility of forensically ientiying where each portion of his wealth came from, let’s say made much of his money) from the slave trade; he benefitted Bristolians with it!
      If British History is to be “shared” as HR claims it is, then it has to include the heritage of Britons of colour who are descended not from the beneficiaries of people like Colston, but from their victims. Let’s hope ‘retain and exlain’ allows that explanation in full. It’s an essential part of bridging across the unhelpful culture war that HR is waging here.

      • Charlie White says:

        You’re trying to apply 2023 standards to somebody who lived in the 18th century and comparing them to Hitler. This was a time when the socioeconomic conditions in which people lived were much different from today and for people in these families owning slaves was seen as a normal thing. And you need to consider whether slave descendants today are really worse off than they would have been had the slave trade not happened all you need to debunk that is the access to education & healthcare the higher life expectancy lower mortality and increased human rights and liberties a black person in the West has compared with his distant cousins back home who don’t have such luxuries. As for Colston he was not celebrated for being a slave-owner but for the contribution he has had on Bristol we don’t know how we’d have felt about slavery if we were alive in the 1700s.

        • Alan Lester says:

          Hello Charlie

          History Reclaimed are applying their own contemporary politics to history more than I am, as they disavow the racism and violence of the colonial past to pursue the politics of a culture war. Of course we always look back at the past from the perspective of the present, but we must not lose sight of the fact that not everyone in the past shared the same views, even if they shared the same socioeconomic conditions. I didn’t mention Hitler, so I don’t know where you got the idea that I compared him to Colston. The question regarding Colston is not whether the slave trading in which he engaged was widely condoned by its British beneficiaries at the time, but whether he should still be venerated given our awareness of his activities today. Since you mention Hitler, I presume you would object to a statue of him still standing, even though many Germans approved of what he did at the time. We chose today whether to continue venerating figures venerated with statues or not. If they were inviolable no matter what the person celebrated did, as well as statues of Hitler and Stalin in many countries, we’d have kept the one of Jimmy Saville.

          As for you proposition that higher living standards among Black people in the West than in most parts of Africa means that slavery did not disadvantage them, this is absurd. Large parts of Africa were rendered war-torn and unstable by slave raiding to satisfy European demand and for over 200 years Africans in the Caribbean and Americas were chattel. When freed, they generally had no assets and so after emancipation they entered the ‘free’ labour force at a tremendous disadvantage compared to free White people. The effects could be inter-generational. The Western societies which offer education, healthcare etc gained much of their ability to do so from the exploitation of unpaid African labour in the Atlantic economy and from colonial exploitation elsewhere. The fact that Black people living in these countries now share access to such advantages is testament to their struggles for equal rights.

  6. Morgan Robinson says:

    Thank you for an interesting article. Having read a bit of HR and conscious of not wanting to fall too far off to the Right of liberal-minded concern about the general attack on the discipline of History by CRT, postmodernism, etc, its good to hear some counterargument.
    What I’d argue is that the general tone and sum of HR over-eggs the pudding a bit, and that its lack of acknowledgement of colonialists evils and atrocities scores itself an avoidable own goal. However this is an editorial and strategic issue, and the attempts here to expose poor scholarship on the part of HRs contributors smacks of virtue signalling disguised as academic debate, at times.
    There’s also a passage here that peddles an unhelpful and inaccurate binary understanding of the ‘done to’ and ‘done by” of colonialism:
    ‘The millions of people of colour around the world who were made British subjects whether they liked it or not, tended to endure a very different historical experience from these White Britons – as subjects rather than citizens, as enslaved, indentured or otherwise coerced labourers rather than employers, as servants rather than masters and mistresses, and as dispossessed rather than landed’
    This bundles the large majority of white Britons (and colonised white irish) throughout this period of History who were none of the above. See them as an exploited class or not, but they were as disenfranchised, excluded from education and material and financial fruits of their hardships work, as ignored and trampled as many others who experienced life as a colonised subject elsewhere (though this isn’t to suggest I’m equating this with specific atrocities). These white Britons were entangled in the economic Web of empire, but its not accurate to suggest they were free agents or actors, citizens, employers, masters, landowners. Critical Race theorists would be heartened to see a Historian reduce this complexity to a tidy binary of white oppressor, black oppressed.
    Finally , and speaking as a school History teacher who sees their main purpose as educating to allow students an understanding of and therefore ability to participate in democratic society, and working in a school where CRT has taken hold despite few in leadership having read much on what that entails, I see CRT as a huge threat to my discipline and profession. Those history teachers who’ve been asked to undergo ‘CPD’ on CRT and white privilege etc in education are much better placed to appreciate HR’s defence of the discipline and their dismantling of CRT’s dangerous claims.

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thanks for your response Morgan. I was intending to avoid the kind of binary white beneficiary/black victim simplification that you saw in the blog by doing two things in the relevant section. First by indicating that the specific White Britons referred to in the passage you extract were those who justified the denial of sovereignty to people of colour (see preceding sentences). This avoids glossing over the unequal distribution of imperial privileges within Britain (and Ireland). Secondly through the use of that word ‘tended’, in order to avoid the suggestion that there were no people of colour who accommodated and cooperated with colonialism. Of course there were some. It’s difficult to generate too much nuance on these things in a short blog piece but if you look at my latest book, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2021 you’ll find much more nuance and evidence.
      As for critical race theory I think there is no harm in drawing attention to the differential experiences that people of colour have due to racism. White privilege does not mean that White people are always more privileged in material ways than Black people. It means they tend at least to be free of racial discrimination on top of other things. If CRT brings greater awareness of that, it can enhance our understanding of both the past and present by broadening perspectives, rather than confine it.

    • Charlie says:

      Well I suppose that depends how far back you go Britain was generally ahead of most countries at the time in regards to all of those things at the height of colonialism but has certainly made improvements since. But I agree with the point of that comment I think you’re trying to make.

  7. Cygnis insignis says:

    I’ll add my thanks, found the while looking for references to the site to support content at wikipedia. Somebody above suggested publication elsewhere, which would be useful to me, but perhaps the site itself might be approached to host the content in a criticism section.

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thank you. I did approach one or two newspapers with the idea of publishing it but heard nothing back. I have tried to engage with HR people on social media but what started as reasoned argument over the evidence quickly turned to personal attacks on me, so I doubt very much that they would be willing to host a link. What they say about reasoned debate is very different from what they do when confronted by evidence that contradicts their position. If you were to reference this on any Wikipedia article on them I would be very grateful. The critique behind it is also going to be in my book Deny and Disavow: Distancing the British Empire from the Culture War, out with SunRise Press in March 2022.

  8. Callum says:

    Much of our behaviour in the past was abhorrent, compared to our standards of today. It’s unfair to judge our past, using today’s standards – like chalk and cheese. Shouldn’t we compare ourselves relative to the standards of the day – and other nations at the time?

    • Alan Lester says:

      Hi Callum

      My response would be twofold: first, whether we either condemn or condone earlier episodes of colonialism we are doing so from today’s vantage point. Personally I find it surprising that people today can both condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and try to justify Britain’s equally unjustified invasion of other peoples’ lands in the past. Secondly, even at the time many people aired moral objections to acts of colonialism. Cecil Rhodes’ brand of personal imperialism in Southern Africa was widely criticised and the morality of colonialism was continually debated.

      • Dr Mark Stocker says:

        Hi Alan, good to resume this discussion. You shouldn’t be puzzled as you’ve really answered your own question. The reason why many of us are appalled about Ukraine is that, thank goodness, Britain has moved on from imperialism whereas ‘Mother’ Russia patently hasn’t. (In many ways this is a very traditional, reactionary war, but fought with horrendous weaponry.) So, precisely from ‘today’s vantage point’ we rightly condemn Putin’s actions. A number of unreconstructed right-wingers see the logic of supporting the imperialism of the past AND the Ukraine invasion. Thank god not many of us (and surely nobody in this blog) thinks that way, however.

        • Alan Lester says:

          Thanks Mark

          I hope you’re right. And yet … many who are associated with HR on Twitter still see British conquests as a price worth paying for the supposed benefits that Empire then brought to conquered people.

      • Callum Moy says:

        Thank you Alan. In my view the actions of the BE, by today’s reckoning, would be judged as bad, self-centered, forceful, brutish etc – no doubt. But I have a problem applying the same view of the BE in the past. The world was a very different place, much of it ruled by medieval and ancient practices. Is it realistic to expect the world’s most advanced civilisation (at the time) to opt out of world affairs or behave with late C20 enlightenment? Or to try and advance matters, albeit using brutish, selfish methods (without doubt by today’s reckoning). I just have a problem judging the past with hindsight. Surely we must consider the context as a primary factor. Thanks.

        • Alan Lester says:

          Yes I agree. What I object to is politically motivated people today claiming that the British Empire was largely benevolent and that its legacies are mainly positive. This is to deny the racism that was seen as ethically acceptable by most Britons in the period of empire. Recognising that racism is not casting today’s values backwards. It is acknowledging how the values of the past operated and were (hopefully) different from today’s values. Precisely your point.

          • Mark Stocker says:

            Clever! Anyone reading this blog should, I believe, try and read Paul Moon’s very fine new book, Colonising New Zealand. The thesis that Paul constructs about colonisation being a kind of inevitability and an imperial system which did not consciously bring itself into being but had a life of its own and an equilibrium – and eventually a decline – to some extent makes the morality of colonisation being a ‘good thing’ (according perhaps to some of the more reactionary members of HR) or a ‘bad thing’ (many readers of this blog) a bit of a belly-aching moral irrelevance. It was never going to beat (Lord) Andrew Roberts’s George III for the HR prize, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being a more valuable book. Strongly recommended – makes you think – possibly TOO good for New Zealand academia (where Paul is seriously underrated), hence its offshore publication.

          • Bruno Kavanagh says:

            Thanks again to Prof. Lester (and all contributors) for a stimulating, and important, discussion.

            Prof. Lester objects (in his reply to Callum Moy, above) to denial of the racism that suffused the British imperial project.

            Perhaps I’m missing it, but I don’t see this racism being denied anywhere (and indeed it’s acknowledged openly by Nigel Biggar, as quoted in Prof. Lester’s original article).

            Thus, it seems to me, the question becomes: Can racist people (or an imperial project administered by racist people) ever be recognized for having done some good things? And can this even be acknowledged by the non-white descendants of the people they oppressed?

            The reason these questions are important, in my view, is that if the answer is “yes”, it puts British Imperial history back into the category of “shared” history. A nuanced and properly contextualized history of Empire can provide a shared frame of reference for both white and non-white Britons.

            And we need this shared history, in order to thrive as a multi-racial society in the twenty-first century (and to avoid further descent into the polarization that’s tearing the USA apart).

            From what I read on this blog, “History Reclaimed” is not, despite claims to the contrary, providing shared history, having skidded off course into tedious apologia (boo).

            But are those on the other side open to seeing anything positive – yes, even for the governed – in the Imperial experience? Or perhaps for them (for you) any attempt of this type falls into “Colston was good for Bristolians” territory.

            I’d like to think there’s more nuance than that, and that there’s a history of the UK that future generations of Britons – of *all* races and backgrounds – can understand, and perhaps even take pride in. I believe our cohesion as a society depends on it.

          • Alan Lester says:

            Thanks Bruno,

            Of course ‘good’ things came out of the empire, but the question is for whom. No serious historian disputes that certain colonised people were able to make the most of opportunities offered by British colonisation – allying with the powerful newcomers against old enemies; taking up positions within administrative systems as recognised ‘chiefs’ when no such status was available to them before, utilising missionaries to find status and security as a Christian convert that was denied to marginalised people within their own communities, capitalising on the shipping networks and market access that ports like Bombay provided for wealthy Parsi merchants etc. All this and more is on the academic history literature, and I’ve written some of it myself. The problem is that such nuanced historical research, which insists on looking at empire holistically and paying attention also to the superimposition of White supremacy in every colony, the violence of conquest and the everyday racism, is now written off as ‘woke’/Marxist/anticolonial, because colonial history has become weaponised by people who do not know or care about rigorous, ethical historical research, but are interested only in populist politics.

          • Rohan Fernando says:

            The British Empire did not just help certain individuals in their colonies, they introduced institutions which transformed these countries for the better. Institutions such as democratic parliaments, independent courts, rule of law, modern education and healthcare help everybody in a country. In India these beneficial British legacies are regularly commemorated as described below:


            There and in Sri Lanka, where I come from, newspaper frequently publish articles discussing these legacies.

            If the above link does not work, just put ‘Indian commemorations British legacies’ in google and you will see the article.

          • Alan Lester says:

            For the problematic attribution of these ‘benefits’ as British legacies, when British colonists generally denied access to them to people of colour while they ruled, see my blog on Legacies: https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/snapshotsofempire/2022/10/10/what-are-the-british-empires-legacies/

            And on History Reclaimed, which is more a political lobbying group than a collective of disinterested historians, this one: https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/snapshotsofempire/2021/09/15/history-reclaimed-but-from-what/

          • Rohan Fernando says:

            Thank you for your comment. Your suggestion that the schools, hospitals, courts and railways that the British established were generally denied to Indians is ridiculous. Even as early as 1865, the total number of pupils attending government institutions was 465,000. The total number of white children must have been about 10,000. It is obvious that most of the children attending schools were Indians. Similarly, the total number of patients treated in government hospitals in 1935 was 68 million. The number of white people in India was probably a few hundred thousand. It is again obvious that most of the patients treated were Indians. On a personal note I must add that all my family in Sri Lanka were Asians and they all benefitted from British institutions from the mid-19th century onwards.

            I doubt that if these institutions benefitted Indians as a whole only after independence, that India would have commemorated their centenaries on the anniversary of the day the British first introduced them. I would strongly urge you to read the wonderful books the Indian authorities produced for the commemorations. They all say that Indians in increasing numbers benefitted throughout this period.

            Unfortunately, in Britain today we have small number of historians who minimize the harmful legacies and a large number, generally of the left, who deny that the institutions the British established benefitted a large number of Indians during the colonial era. I find that publications by Indians who lived in colonial India much more objective and fair-minded.

          • Alan Lester says:

            Hi Rohan,

            Remember there were some 40 odd colonies besides India and the accommodations made with Indian elites to enable the governance of the territories were very different from the patterns of dominance elsewhere. Also bear in mind the timespans we’re considering and when some of the forms of partial inclusion you mention took place within the roughly 150-200 year period of British domination in the subcontinent. Indians were discriminated against comparative to White colonists throughout this period, but with the levels of discrimination generally receding as the anticolonial nationalist movement gained traction in the early C20. I have no doubt that your family benefitted from British-introduced institutions, as I know many others did. This does not mean that they were treated as the equals of White people. The commemoration of centenaries of institutions’ founding os great now that they’ve been put to less discriminatory purposes. I suspect that if the majority of Indians were still excluded from them, they might not be so celebrated. The British historiography on empire is not as you characterise it. For the last 200 years it has largely propounded the version of Empire that you cliong to: that it operated largely for the benefit of colonised subjects. Only recently has popular attention been paid to things that scholars of colonialism have known all along: that the expansion of colonial rule entailed great violence inflicted on communities around the world, extensive expulsion from land and exclusion from access to resources, subjection to an infantilising racial hierarchy etc. As scholars recognise, these things are entirely compatible with the opportunities that certain colonised people found in accommodating to British rule and utilising innovations introduced by the British. As I’ve said before, the writings of Indians who did so are by no means representative of the experiences of colonised peoples not just in India, but in 40 odd colonies around the world.

          • Rohan Fernando says:

            Dear Prof. Lester,

            I agree with some of what you say. You are right is saying that white people had better lives than the locals in the colonies and that mainly certain sections benefitted from these institutions during this period. The locals who benefitted most were middle classes in the cities and towns. By the way my comments do not apply only to India but also to Sri Lanka and other colonies in the East.

            When the British introduced wonderful institutions like modern schools and hospitals, it was inevitable that they would first introduce then in the towns and cities and that is where the main centres of population were. In all countries in the world today, including Britain, towns and cities have better healthcare and schools than rural areas. Furthermore, middle classes who were generally more educated were more prepared to try something new like modern medicine and education. Even today in India a significant portion of the rural folk refuse to go anywhere near modern schools or hospitals. After Independence, India built on the splendid base they inherited from the British and extended these services to rural folk. So it not that the British deliberately excluded anyone but that the pattern of the introduction of these institutions was same as in most other countries. The fantastic books that the Indians have produced as part of the commemorations for the anniversaries of these institutions celebrate both the colonial and the post-colonial periods. I would urge to to obtain these books and include them in your research.

            The great advantages of being a British colony can be seen by comparing the British colonies (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore) and countries that were not colonised (Afghanistan and Thailand) and French colonies (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam).Some of the fantastic institutions that the British colonies have (democratic parliaments and independent courts) the other colonies do not have at all. Others such as railways and education, the non-British colonies got much later. For example, Thailand got railways in 1893, forty years after India and their first modern university (Chulalonhkorn) in 1917, sixty years after India.

            The people of these colonies regularly celebrate these institutions the British introduced and we should do the same.

          • Mark Stocker says:

            Alan, I think you’re giving the woke, the visceral anti-colonialists/imperialists too easy a ride. They can be smug, conformist, superficial and just as bad as the populist ‘right’. Rigorous some of them are not. A university these days would never dream of appointing someone like my good friend Jeremy Black, or even maybe David Cannadine, and the academy is definitely purer but poorer for it.

          • Alan Lester says:

            Hi Mark,

            I’d make two responses: the ‘visceral anticolonialist’ authors are trying to restore some balance to a popular understanding of the Empire that has ignored the experiences of colonised people for the last two hundred years by deflecting from the violence of colonial invasion, the restructuring of the world through trans-Atlantic slavery, the dispossession of colonised groups and the racial hierarchies characteristic of colonial rule. It is not as if conservative historians are trying to return to a ‘neutral’ or disinterested version of the past when they deflect from these characteristics. They are fighting to preserve a view that is just as selective.

            Secondly I think you are just plain wrong to state that scholars like Black and Cannadine especially, would not get posts today.I have been on many appointment panels and not once have I or my colleagues been influenced by the appointee’s politics even if we are aware of them. It has always been about the criteria openly advertised for the job. It has to be.

          • Mark Stocker says:

            I note your first point, Alan. There is always likely to be differences in the emphases of experts in the area, which obviously have political ramifications. Over the second, about the Academy still being a broad church, I strongly hope you’re correct. To survive it needs to be just that. All best, Mark

  9. Neil says:

    This may not be relevant to the debate now as its two years on, but two important issues have been missed here. First, the idea driving Biggar and co’s narrative is inherently false. Just as those claiming that “right wing views are being cancelled” despite the fact that they dominate the media six out of eight newspapers and online presence are not just right wing but hard right. Academic studies of tv media shows a right wing dominance. Even the supposedly ‘left wing’ BBC was found to heavily pro Conservative during the 2019 election.

    This is reflected in the top history works in the public eye. A quick glance shows that right wing revisionist theory utterly dominates. Books dismissing criticism of British handling of ww1, praising empire, going by back to kings and queens style history, praising Conservative handling of Hitler and so it goes drearlily on. The most prominent historians on tv are invited on gb news, and not because of their ‘wokery’. A simple rule of thumb in life, if you end up writing articles for the Daily Mail, Telegraph or Express any credibility as a genuine academic in pursuit of truth have gone.

    Secondly, the claim that neo-liberal historians are more rigorous than liberal left is risible. Take a glance at the bibliography of some of their works for good measure, as these reveal a tendency for cherry picking (limited) primary sources and endless secondary works from the like minded. Why neo-liberal? Because there are many good quality, rigorous conservative historians out there. However, they don’t wage war on their liberal counterparts. They do not put their political views and self promotion ahead of historical accuracy. Indeed when Gove imposed his 1950’s grammar school history on the younger generation, both liberal and traditional conservative historians banded together to speak out. By contrast Ferguson, Starkey and the neo-liberal history group backed the govt.

    Historyreclaimed is simply another example of the dominant right claiming they are the lonely voice of reason crying in the churchillian wilderness. The sad truth is, they don’t even believe that themselves.

  10. Abhirup Debnath says:

    Are you afraid?

    • Alan Lester says:

      Hello Adhirup,

      You seem rather impatient for a response from me. Given that I only saw your comment waiting for approval this morning, that I have a full time job that requires more than monitoring old blog post comments, and that I am replying on the same day, perhaps you could grant a little leeway? I don’t quite understand why you would expect me to be afraid of engaging in a discussion in any case. The stakes are not that high for me even if they are for you.

      To respond to your comments: you are quite right that there are current and former historians who belong to History Reclaimed. Some are specialists in Indian history and yes, Thirthankar Roy is a respected economic historian of India whose work I have cited on many occasions. None are specialists in British colonial history more broadly. India was not the whole of the British Empire, nor even representative of it. There were some forty other colonies. The most vocal History Reclaimed spokespeople in the British press are Robert Tombs, a retired historian of France and David Abalufia a former historian of the early modern Mediterranean. That raises the question of why they comment incessantly on specialists’ work on colonial history. The reason is not their expertise but their politics. A fair appreciation of British colonial history inevitably involves the recognition of unprovoked invasions, land seizures and deeply entrenched racism structuring every colonial society, but they such recognition as a challenge to the pro-British, patriotic history that they support as conservatives. They comment not as disinterested historians but as supporters of right wing, anti-BLM politics.

      If you are interested in reading what the ‘maximum historians’ as you put it, in the field of colonial history itself – actual specialists – have to say, you can read this book, in which thirteen of them along with myself give the benefit of their expertise: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/the-truth-about-empire/ If you want to read about the empire as a whole rather than just India, this might be of interest: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/ruling-the-world/6264B85460CE672609666F24F86EBEFD.

      And, for the sake of completeness, to respond to the other parts of your comment: No I am not a totalitarian fascist supporter. No I am not anti-democratic. These are rather absurd and hyperbolic allegations. My problem with History Reclaimed is explained in full in the blog to which you are apparently responding. I hope that have made it clear what I mean without having to repeat myself. I do not see anyone who disagrees with me as a colonial apologist, only those who deny obvious truths about colonialism and make life as difficult as they can for early career historians who specialise in the field when their findings do not suit these well-resourced former historians’ politics. I do not know anything about Jason Hickel on Al Jazeera. I am happy for you to reply even if it might take a few hours for me to be in a position to respond.

      All the best.

  11. Paul Moran says:

    This article is full of contradictory logic. What happened under the British Empire was not drastically different to what happened under any other Empire, other than having the technological capability to travel further abroad. There’s no line in the sand you can draw in history to say European empires are morally bad but others are not, yet that seems to be what is always implied. Black citizens are often taught to be proud of their past African empires for example, many of which had much more slavery, yet white Britons are supposed to feel guilt and host a moral reckoning. You refer to indigenous people who are living in Britain but who’re indigenous to elsewhere yet refer to ‘white Britons’ as if they’re not indigenous. 3/10 sloppy article.

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thanks Paul,

      I don’t think there’s any contradictory logic at all. I did not say that what happened in the British empire was distinctly different from what happened in any other Empire, although the trans-Atlantic slavery system developed by the modern European empires was different from what had gone before. I did not say either that some empires are bad and some good. You seem to be imagining these things. When you say that Black citizens are ‘taught’ to be proud of African empires I guess you mean taught informally by family and members of the community because as far as I know there is no such teaching as part of the formal curriculum. Where such pride is instilled it is in response to three hundred years of European denigration of precolonial African culture and civilisation. You also seem to have imagined that I said white Britons are supposed to feel guilty about their own imperial past. In fact I’ve stated explicitly that I do not want them to feel guilty. I want them to be aware of it and stop denying key aspects of it. Where I refer to indigenous people I mean the people living in the lands appropriated by British emigrant settlers overseas, not to Black and Asian Britons. I do not refer to white Britons as if they are not indigenous; I just use that term to refer to people whose lands were taken and cultures destroyed by white Britons’ colonisation. 1/10 sloppy reading I’m afraid.

  12. “History Reclaimed – But From What? This question resonates deeply, urging us to reflect on whose narratives have been silenced or marginalized in conventional historical accounts. Reclaiming history involves amplifying voices long overlooked, shedding light on forgotten perspectives, and challenging dominant narratives that may have obscured the richness and diversity of human experiences. It’s a call to embrace complexity, acknowledging that the past is not a monolith but a tapestry woven from myriad threads of culture, struggle, and triumph.”

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