Objective history

Can we be objective about the British Empire?

The Times complained that the National Trust encouraged children to “lament Britain’s history”. There’s a group of “members, supporters and friends” of the National Trust that wanted “an objective assessment of history”, and thought such denigration wrong.

What does Restore Trust want? To avoid demonizing anyone’s history or heritage. To enjoy the beauty of the stately homes without “intrusive interpretation”. To focus on the property, and the families who created them. To use history as a tool for understanding, not as a weapon.

For the Colonial Countryside project, children wrote poems about Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, and The Times reports that one such poem “has been removed” from the Trust’s website. Children were upset about the uses of animals by the families involved.

I wondered if it were possible to be objective about history, to take a God’s eye view. I do want to demonize Richard Drax MP, who inherited his family’s sugar plantation in Barbados. From 1640 to 1838 the family used slaves on that estate. He has inherited the profits of slavery. He may have breached company law, and has breached House of Commons rules. He voted for a reduction in welfare benefits, and against measures to prevent climate change. From these facts I find Drax to be a bad man.

The Times refers to the “Indian mutiny”, choosing not to use the term “First War of Independence”. I don’t know if objectivity is possible. “Mutiny” calls the Indian soldiers bad. “War of Independence” casts them as heroes. Language might denote the struggles of Imperialists and the local peoples who resisted them, without implying that one side or the other were morally superior, but the language the Imperialists used claimed their superiority in every way- morally, intellectually, physically, spiritually, culturally and technologically. So an objective view requires new language, which conservatives might dislike.

Between 1850 and 1947 the Indian economy grew an average of 0.55% a year, because wealth was taken from India to Britain, and used for the benefit of those wealthy families. At the same time, those families and others in their ruling class exploited British workers, and took common land which previously all could use for their benefit. My political view is that this exploitation is wrong, and should be demonized.

I suppose a political view that exploitation is unavoidable, and we should celebrate those who do it most successfully, is possible, but I don’t think it is objective.

Even if you write an account of wars, conquests and independence victories, with as neutral language as possible, it is a choice to pay attention to that, rather than to technological advances. Whether war produces technological advance better than peace can be assessed objectively with evidence, but does not mean war is preferable.

News reporting is about choices too. That a child’s poem was on a website, and now is not, is not news. That people object to that child’s poem is only news if you want to emphasise what they say. I am pleased that children are learning about slavery, and how intrinsic it was to the Empire and British wealth. I consider abhorrence of slavery and anyone who would defend it a simple moral value which shows the advance of humanity as well as any technological advance.

Looking round a great house and its beautiful gardens, seeing its works of art, seeing the servants’ quarters and kitchens and getting an idea of how they, as well as the family, lived, learning of the careers of theft, exploitation and blackguardry that built its wealth or frittered it away- how any of this is presented is a choice.

It is good to promote human flourishing, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. History which shows how that is achieved or prevented is worthwhile. History that hides it, to make white British people proud of our Empire and its achievements, is bad history. All history is political. I love the politics of Colonial Countryside. That its opponents have to take refuge in calling it “subjective” rather than pointing out anything untrue or immoral in it shows the strength of its position.

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