Re Olivette Otele’s article (Today we remember the tragedy of slavery, but the culture war that denies Britain’s past continues, 23 August), I am white British, but feel a sense of vicarious insult from “anti-woke” campaigns against the teaching or discussion of our unsavoury history – and the pretence that the British version of empire was somehow more benign than others.
Even the imperialist Winston Churchill in 1914 recognised our darker side when he said: “We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world … mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force ... ”
Nothing is gained by purging history, or by appealing to the flag to cover up past evils with false patriotism. When Liz Truss and others talk of British workers “lacking graft”, they are using the same language employed by the gentry at the time of the enclosures, who justified their theft of common land for the new capitalist economy by bemoaning the laziness of the peasants who survived on it.
The new British mercantilist and capitalist economy was driven by slave-trading merchants who amassed incredible wealth, and transformed England and the world through land theft, plantations and horrendous brutality. Black slave labour, white indentured labour, with accompanying vicious laws and punishments, and transportation, are all part of our collective CV, indeed our very landscape. The article is right. We shouldn’t forget.
• Olivette Otele is right that the “culture war has become a mechanism of distraction”, but we should be clear what it is a distraction from. British governments have always sought to racialise class-based inequalities, and denied the entrenched nature of institutional racism. The denial of Britain’s involvement in profiteering through enslavement, though, isn’t just a denial of the historical roots of racism, it’s a denial of the extent to which the liberal state is based on violence. The same voices that would deny the history of slavery would also decry any “intelligent and compassionate conversation” about the British state’s violence in Ireland, or about the Peterloo massacre.
Precisely because the capitalist state is rooted in violence and dispossession, it cannot engage with “honest conversations about the past”. To do so would be to repudiate its instituting myths of peaceful democratic development. As the political activist Angela Davis puts it, capitalism can only survive as a society of imposed forgetfulness. There can never be a “collective memory” because we are not all on the same side.
• As Olivette Otele says, considering the “unprecedented wealth” gained by the country through slavery, the least any decent government would do is “publicly commemorate slavery”, and support the teaching of its history through “curriculum change”. Yet the purpose of teaching history still seems in many cases to be ignoring the facts. Such colonial amnesia denies the existence not only of Britain’s reliance on the empire’s help in time of war, but also of British atrocities and barbarism.
Hopefully Labour will promise changes to the history curriculum and the release of 1.2m history files hidden away in Hanslope Park, Buckinghamshire. Only then can real understanding begin.
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