(Opinion Post) ‘We Gave them the Railways!’: History and Heritage in the time of BLM

By Nandini Bhattacharya.

A difficult summer overlain with the tragedies and vicissitudes of a global pandemic has nonetheless provided moments of hope and unbridled joy. The latter related to the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protests in Britain. Of the many soul-stirring moments that BLM raised for me this season, the removal at Bristol of the statue of Edward Colston; merchant, philanthropist, and robber bandit exemplar, was the most spectacular. But the most joyous moment for myself was when Oriel College’s governors voted to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its façade, which triumphantly faces passers-by. Not immediately, obviously, (Oxford colleges move in geological time) but soon – probably early next year. And this promise will be held to account by the Rhodes Must Fall movement that has politically and intellectually challenged colonial and imperial iconography at the University, and across the globe.

As a professional historian and a teacher of history myself, the removal of the icon of Cecil Rhodes, who singularly represents the colonization and rapacious extraction of wealth from southern Africa, was a touchstone for me. It represents the potential of a reassessment of Britain’s imperial past, and it is a contribution by academe towards our society – present and future. While the slave trade and Britain’s part in it were reprehensible, its abolition and Britain’s supporting role in the abolition have served to obscure the previous riches gained from the trade. And slavery is not controversial in public discourse (although the removal of Colston’s statue has proved contentious) because almost everyone agrees that slavery was unequivocally, morally wrong.

People do not agree so much on British imperialism itself. It has been nagged by lingering and loud voices that have fashioned an argument that can be summarised in a line each for Africa and the Indian subcontinent. For most sub-Saharan African countries (all former European colonies) the cry is; ‘look at the conditions in Africa now!’ [insert here as required- poverty/war/political dictatorships/urban chaos/ or any other complex, historical problem in the liberated nation states]. The latest nations in this narrative are Zimbabwe and South Africa, and if you believe public discourse in the UK, these countries are falling apart because white people are no longer exclusively in charge of the state and the economy. This attitude is specious as western political blocks have interfered with the countries’ politics, forced restructure of their economies, or sabotaged popular protests in every decade since their formal decolonization from European powers in the African continent. Regarding the Indian subcontinent the chant is more nostalgic, like in a proud parent whose child is all grown up and presentable: ‘We gave them the railways!’ And in every single television programme on India that I have watched in the UK, whether a cookery show or a programme on urban slums, trains have featured prominently.

Therefore, while just about everyone will agree on the inhumanity of the slave trade, the complex legacies of the British empire can obscure its worst excesses. The problem of the Rhodes statue, and the prestigious and ‘lucrative’ Rhodes scholarships for students from the Commonwealth countries, represents the conflict between heritage and history, and the interstices in between. In the UK, the domain of heritage claims almost all former private possessions that have been given over to the National Trust (and to the Historic Environment Scotland, the Cadw, Wales, and the English Heritage). Historic heritage buildings and institutions exhibit intricate muslin and silk textiles, exquisite china and fabulously crafted jewellery as artefacts within historic mansions and palaces with little regard for their true provenance. The visitors are not always unaware of where these originated. But rarely is the point made that almost all priceless artefacts lodged in country mansions were procured by British imperial agents during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was exactly the period when the country piles of the gentry in Britain were expanded, redesigned, or built anew. Where did the sudden wealth come from?

Yet, we have to ask ourselves if the answer is as simple as disseminating information about the darker aspects of British imperialism. Does the British public want to know? ‘Don’t lecture us! We know the past was imperfect, we come here for leisure’ was the response from the public recently, when a Trust property put out signs on how the mahogany furniture in one country house was felled by slaves in virgin rainforests[1]. The Daily Mail went to town with gleeful headlines, most other news outlets carried the story, and the resultant storm resonated in public forums across the nation.[2] This raises an existential question for professional historians and for students of history: should we distinguish between heritage and history in the public space? We are all encouraged to engage with the public and practise public history. History graduates are likely to find employment in the heritage sector; in museums, historic environments including castles, palaces, historic gardens, and in local historical societies. How do we engage with heritage sites that are still emotive? And once we are aware of ways of critical readings of history, how can we by-pass the bloody histories of our national heritage?

We have to face the unpleasant task of confronting our national pasts in their entirety, with all the discomfort that it involves. There are instances of nations having gone through this collective confrontation; West Germany after the Second World War, and South Africa after liberation, are two examples. However partial and fragmented these attempts have been, they have prepared them to face the future. There are too many instances of nations that have repressed their pasts and have been consumed by a lack of national self-reflection; India and Pakistan are two of the bloodiest and most tragic examples of this failure. The choice of whether to confront our past and engage with it is not for my generation to make; it is for the new generation coming into adulthood. They bear heavy burdens; a global pandemic, a looming recession, apocalyptic climate change that threatens our very existence. So far, they have shown great courage and vision for the future. It is surely not too much to hope that they will drag us to confront our imperial pasts as well.

Author’s Bio: Nandini Bhattacharya teaches British imperial history at the University of Dundee and is Director of the Scottish Centre for Global History. She is the author of Contagion and Enclaves: Tropical Medicine in Colonial India (2012). Her second monograph Disparate Remedies: Making Medicines in Modern India is forthcoming.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/national-trust-slave-trade-colonialism-links-cancel-membership-twitter-a9685026.html 

[2] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8658855/National-Trust-sparks-row-tweeting-buildings-linked-slavery.html See also https://www.reddit.com/r/ukpolitics/comments/ifyp1m/subscribers_cancel_national_trust_memberships/ And see: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/04/do-cancel-membership-national-trust-members-revolt-airbrushing/