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”.


Hyperbole
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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12 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.

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thanks Peter
      Yes you’re right. I used the word ‘citizens’ in the sense of being eligible to take part in governance.

  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:

    http://www.forgotten-raj.org/doc/Empireland.htm

    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.

  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.

  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.

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