27. Decolonising activists are pillaging Britain’s past for political advantage

Author: Nigel Biggar
Date: 2 May 2021
The Sunday Telegraph
Image Courtesy of: Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash.com

During Tuesday’s discussion at Policy Exchange of the recent report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, Tony Sewell, its chairman, forcefully complained that it had been “vilely misrepresented as the glorification of slavery”.

He was responding to comments made on the day of publication by the Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary, Marsha de Cordova, who had demanded that the government “urgently explain how they came to publish content which glorifies the slave trade and immediately disassociate themselves from these remarks”. What was the basis for Ms de Cordova’s accusation? A single, innocent sentence in the Foreword proposing that schoolchildren be taught, not only about the suffering of Caribbean Africans during the slave period, but also about how they subsequently transformed themselves into citizens of a multiracial Britain.

Anti-racist, “decolonising” activists typically prefer noise to nuance. In their zeal to press home a political point, they also run far out ahead of the historical evidence.

Take, for example, the response to the publication of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s report on the commemoration of the British Empire’s dead during the First World War. This revealed that up to 54,000 Indian and African war-dead had been commemorated “unequally”, and at least a further 116,000 had not been commemorated either by name or at all. The historian David Olusoga was quick to comment. “It’s apartheid in death”, he declared. “It is an absolute scandal. It is one of the biggest scandals I’ve ever come across as an historian”. Casual onlookers could be forgiven for walking away confirmed in the view that British colonialism was essentially racist, and that the sooner the British “decolonise” themselves, the better.

In fact, the report reveals something very different. Operating out of the metropolitan heart of the British Empire, the Imperial War Graves Commission was firmly committed to the racially egalitarian policy of commemorating all the fallen soldiers of the Empire alike. As Sir Frederick Kenyon asserted in his seminal 1918 report, War Graves – How The Cemeteries Abroad Will Be Designed, “no less honour should be paid to the last resting places of Indian and other non-Christian members of the Empire than to those of our British soldiers”. This principle consistently informed the Commission’s policy in Europe, marking the known graves of individuals while naming those with no known grave on collective memorials – regardless of race.

Outside of Europe in Africa and the Middle East, this policy was often adjusted out of practical necessity or respect for native religious custom, with good moral justification. In a few cases, it was unjustifiably compromised by racist preference for Europeans over Africans. That is lamentable. Yet it falls a long way short of a scandalously widespread or systematic “apartheid in death”.

A similarly relaxed attitude to proportioning assertion to evidence has long been visible among those lobbying for the toppling of Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oxford. The view propagated during the first Rhodes Must Fall agitation in 2015-16 was that Rhodes was “South Africa’s Hitler”, backed up by a set of quotations that had Rhodes compare Africans, in vile language, to children best killed in large numbers. These words were taken from a 2006 book review by Professor Adekeye Adebajo, formerly a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and now director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.

Yet careful analysis has revealed that his “quotation” was, in fact, made up from three different sources. The first element was lifted from an 1897 novel by Olive Schreiner, who oscillated violently between worshipping Rhodes and loathing him: it’s fiction. The second was misleadingly torn from its proper context. And the third was a mixture of distortion and fabrication.

The minority of activists who are pushing the “decolonising” agenda do not care for a scrupulous account of Britain’s colonial past. Their only interest is in pillaging it for present political advantage. To date, their aggressive zeal has succeeded in overawing a majority who know too little history to contradict them. But the problem with running out ahead of the evidence is that it leaves you exposed. Therein lies the hope for an effective resistance. The more that the facts are soberly presented in all their plausible complexity, the more naked will the emperors of wokeness appear.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford and author of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (forthcoming from William Collins).