The Last Stand of the 44th at Gundamuck, by William Barnes Wollen (1842)
When my daughter was little I used to get up early with her every other morning to 'play'. The playing often revolved around the Playmobile people she had. She had millions of them and they all had names, so we'd invent these elaborate stories and play them out as the sun rose in the back window over the scenic Avon Valley Countryside.
But it was early, so sometimes I'd lose track of the stories, and then I'd get asked to repeat old stories which would melt my brain and leave me in a state of existential crisis. So instead I started playing out the plots of films (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Shining and the like). The best one to play out was the Exorcist because Playmobil People's heads really do go round.
The other thing I did was play out scenes from history - the rise of Hitler, the rise of Mao, Soviet history, slightly biased British history and so on. It got to be quite global in its scope.
So she loved history from an early age and then she went to school. And it kind of got stuck on the first and second world wars with a bit of Egypt, Romans and Henry VIII thrown in. It was rubbish. There is nothing like a bad history teacher for taking the interest out of a subject that is manifestly fascinating.
And that is what struck me first in this article by William Dalrymple from September. He talks about the censoring of British history (and censorship makes everything uninteresting) and the reason why we don't understand our own history. And the importance of understanding the dark side of what we did and what we do and who we support and where we support them.
'Yet much of the story of the empire is still absent from our history curriculum. My children learned the Tudors and the Nazis over and over again in history class but never came across a whiff of Indian or Caribbean history. This means that they, like most people who go through the British education system, are wholly ill equipped to judge either the good or the bad in what we did to the rest of the world.
Yet if the British remain largely ignorant of the blackest side of the imperial experience, and are still taught in their schools that it was only our German enemies who turned racism into an ideology that sought to justify mass murder, then we also remain largely unaware of some of the more positive, and perhaps surprising, moments of our imperial experience.'
And then In this article from the weekend, Dalrymple talks about the artistic legacy of the empire, in particular that which connects to the brutalities of British rule.
'Paul Gilroy rightly puts it in the excellent accompanying catalogue, Britain’s “inability to come to terms with the disputed legacies of empire has been corrosive. Locally, it has contributed to a deep and abiding ignorance. Knowledge of the empire’s actual history is unevenly distributed across the globe. Descendants of the victims of past injustice are often more familiar with the bloody annals of colonial government than British subjects, safely insulated at home from any exposure to the violent details of conquest and expropriation.” That was certainly the case with The Last Stand of the 44th: in 2000, soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment – the lineal successors of the 44th – reported that coloured postcards of the image were selling well in Afghan markets, as if in celebration of a recent rather than a distant British defeat.
When I was researching my book on the 1857 Great Uprising – still anachronistically known in the UK as “the Indian Mutiny” – I was horrified to discover the scale of the war crimes our ancestors committed while supressing the rebellion: tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were slaughtered in British reprisals; in one mohalla (neighbourhood) of Delhi alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 unarmed citizens were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded a young officer, Edward Vibart.
It was literally murder … I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful … Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that heart that can look on with indifference.
By 1858, Delhi, a sophisticated city of half a million people, was left an empty ruin, as were Kanpur (“Cawnpore”) and Lucknow. Similar excesses were inflicted on many other cities from Kandahar and Kabul –both laid waste by the British “Army of Retribution” in 1842 – to Mandalay and Rangoon, burned down a few years later. Yet most people in the UK remain completely unaware of these aspects of their imperial history, and many leave school without touching upon it at any point in their formal education. In our school textbooks, it is only the Germans who imagine racial hierarchies and commit racially inspired genocides.'
Dalrymple's talking about British history because it is something which is rarely addressed. But the same applies to any nation which wields or has wielded political, economic, ideological or religious power over others.
Which means just about everybody. Rather than always pointing the fingers at others and wallowing in blame and victimhood, we should all look at the cruel side of our history, our ideologies and the consequencs of our actions. And if we think our country doesn't have a cruel side, then we should think again.