Don’t Mention the Empire!


The British Empire holds a strange place in the UK’s national memory; many young people have little knowledge of it while many older people remember it fondly, with 65% of over 65s in a YouGov poll saying the Empire was something to be proud of in 2014.[1] Considering that the British Empire lasted for 500 years, it is rarely talked about, usually only brought up when talking about immigration or invoked as a nostalgic tool to invoke ‘Britannia’ in relation to issues such as Brexit.[2] Actual detail is rarely mentioned, it’s rarely covered in film or TV despite the UK’s love of period drama and the teaching of it in schools is minor, if existent at all.

I was never taught about the British Empire in school. I was never even taught about the slave trade, except for brief mentions during Black History Month – and then only the USA’s role was mentioned. I know some people a little younger than me at least were taught about the slave trade and going back to my parents’ school days of the 1960s and 1970s, the slave trade was mentioned. The British Empire overall though was barely touched upon. While teaching of the British Empire has reportedly been improved upon in recent years, it is still patchy due to a focus on certain aspects or periods of the Empire.

The problem with teaching about the British Empire is that it isn’t easy and it doesn’t make Britain look good. Take the teaching of World War Two in Britain – the Nazis were clearly evil and we fought against them, so we’re the good guys! Great detail is gone into on the Nazi atrocities, quite rightly. However any evil done by the British is glossed over to preserve the dichotomy. No talk of handing over Czechoslovakia to Hitler prior to the war; or the bombing of German civilians; or the British government doing nothing to help victims of Nazi persecution (the famous Kindertransport children were only allowed to enter the country if a non-governmental organisation found them a place to stay and a £50 bond per child was paid); the internment of those who came from countries who were part of the Axis Powers; and the blind eye turned to the rape of women and children, committed by Allied troops, by the Allied leadership to name a few. Acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Allies does not make the Nazis look at any better, nor does it mean disrespecting those who died – they were not the government. Acknowledging these atrocities does however damage the myth of a heroic Britain, of a past we should be proud of. That is exactly why the British Empire is such a touchy subject.

Exact numbers of those who died at the hands of the British Empire will never be known, and no estimation will ever be agreed on but let’s take a look at a couple of generally accepted figures. 3.1 million Africans were transported by the British to its colonies and other countries.[3] 1 million (at least) died in the Irish Potato Famine, while the British government exported food from Ireland and British landlords evicted families.[4] 4.3 million died in the Southern India famine of 1876–78, while the British government exported food from India and refused to provide any charity, instead forcing the starving to work for rations that were not enough to sustain them.[5] At least 28,000 Boer women and children and 20,000 Black people died in one of the earliest examples of concentration camps, created by the British Army during the Second Boer War.[6] These uncomplicated figures are enough to cause horror for any person with something resembling a moral compass. These are indefensible. These were civilians; the excuse of ‘they were attacking us’ just simply doesn’t count for these examples.

Now there are people who claim that the British Empire was a force for good, a highly controversial claim among many historians, but the major problem with the lack of education or thorough discussion of the Empire outside academic circles means that these claims are fed uncritically to the public almost always via newspapers and politicians who are using this argument for their own political means. For example, if we refer back to the atrocities above, the Daily Mail in one article claimed that during the British Empire ‘the occasional massacre was undoubtedly carried out’ but we played a role in ending the slave trade and ‘successfully exported’ democracy to countries that were colonies.[7] This of course shows a rather dismissive attitude to the deaths of millions and conveniently leaves out the British role in beginning the slave trade. This is not exactly unsurprising when you consider even Wikipedia refuses to use the Daily Mail as a source; that such an article makes no attempt to even vaguely consider history properly. It is also understandable in some respects why newspapers like the Daily Mail aggressively pursue such a position; they do not exist to teach history – or even tell the truth – they are there to push a particular opinion onto readers in the hope that readers will support their political aims at the ballot box to financially support their owners. This, of course, is not confined to just right-wing newspapers but to newspapers in general.

The problem is that when many peoples’ knowledge comes from journalists set on achieving political goals the actual debate and evidence of the Empire is not present. While historians cannot escape ideology completely, at least there is some kind of attempt at being critical of their perspectives and examining evidence. If an argument is to be made that the British Empire was ‘good’ then it should be put forward properly evidenced with historical rigour, with an actual chance of experts being able to debate the argument for its historical accuracy rather than political value. This is why it is so important that the British Empire is actually taught in schools so students have a chance to critically engage with the history rather than be fed carefully condensed politicised propaganda. An evidenced debate in schools has been favoured by school leaders and historians over a curriculum based on fostering patriotism.[8] This approach has also been favoured by students themselves.[9]

The lack of knowledge about the British Empire is particularly problematic because of how much of an impact it is having today. The British Empire created Apartheid in South Africa, and continued to resist imposing sanctions on the government till the end. Claims of violence between black and white South Africans has recently been the subject of interest amongst Trump supporters. The British Empire played a large part in the beginnings of the Israel-Palestine conflict, perhaps the most controversial conflict in modern history. After pitting Hindus and Muslims against each other for the British Empire’s own gain, the rushed partition of India helped cause the bloody legacy of the events of the partition that still plagues the relationship between India and Pakistan today. Intervention in Afghanistan began with the British Empire and the volatile state of the country can be linked back to British installed puppet governments. Proper understanding of these current events cannot be achieved without the knowledge of what past events caused them, and in so many cases the British Empire played some part.

It is even still having an impact on government policy as seen with the recent Windrush scandal with those who came to Britain and their descendants from former colonies in the Caribbean being threatened with deportation. The disregard for these people who spent their early lives under colonial control and then came to rebuild the UK due to lack of work available in their own countries because of colonial policy, all while having to cope with racism and poverty when they came to Britain. The recent scandal led to many of these people facing racism and poverty all over again; with many arguing that such behaviour would have never happened to white immigrants and that the decision to destroy records was racially charged. Whether such assertions are true or not, there is certainly an issue that being former colonial subjects that their history was not considered as important as white Britons.

Despite such claims that the British Empire was a good thing, even from politicians in government, there is a strong suggestion that perhaps the British government aren’t quite as proud about it as they claim. In 2011 a group of elderly Kenyans won the right to sue the British government for the torture they allege they suffered in the Mau Mau rebellion against the Empire. As a result of this an official review of colonial government papers, which unlike most government papers had not been passed onto the National Archives, was undertaken. The review found that they had been purposefully hidden, and that also thousands had been disposed of with the expressed intention by the secretary of state for the colonies so that any records that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” should be destroyed.[10]













Late Medieval and Early Modern European Celebrations and Festivities

Festivities and celebrations have always been cultural aspects of every civilization. People have traditionally used them to express an idea, to remember something that happened or to celebrate a glorious event. Feasts are somehow part of the collective identity, they are important and frequent, and so they were in the pre-modern world. Celebrations were meant to bring the whole town joy, honour and unity. Obviously we have to consider that these festivities would be different depending on their location and the people who performed them. For example, in Poland and Lithuania, royal celebrations like birth or marriages were less significant than in other countries, because they did not mean anything for succession as they were elective monarchies. Also, different celebrations had different purposes. In Christian Europe, many of them were celebrated in dates that matched the liturgical calendar, so it is reasonable to assume that these would have some sort of religious connections. But there were many reasons for these celebrations: fear and gratitude being some of the most common ones. For example, the Bavarian and Tyrolese Passion plays were performed for the first time due to the end of a wave of plague in 1633. Entries and marches of aristocratic figures into towns were also occasions to celebrate, as well as jousting tournaments, feats of fools, student plays and, of course, carnivals.

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Killing In the Name Of…

As the sun is setting, four horsemen, cloaked and somber, are approaching the Canterbury Cathedral. They move in silence, standing in the shadows, with sword and armor hidden between their robes. They have a dark purpose when they entered the great church, but their purpose is not theirs alone, but the reflection of a tense political situation which was bound to explode violently. A fight is having place in the middle of England’s Government: the King and his former Lord Chancellor, now at the head of the Church of England were not happy with each other. Henry II was seeking control over the church, so for him the appointment of Becket, at the time Lord Chancellor and a man who had served him well, even against the church if needed, was an obvious solution. Trouble was that, in fact, Becket was a God’s man, and installed again within the Church where he had some responsibilities before, he decided to defend it against royal pretensions.

Thomas Becket, as a man of the Church, was not willing to abide to the King’s wishes. As he was getting ready for the Vespers he was probably thinking on it, now that he was back after years of exile in France. All that pressure put upon him, the damned (please God forgive me) Constitutions of Clarendon, that stupid scheme to undermine his authority bestowing other Bishops, more lenient, to play His Majesty’s game crowning the Young Henry, which was his prerogative. Trouble, fighting, an endless war to keep hold of the Church or gain its control. “I’m so tired of all this” he probably thought “yet it is my mission to establish and defend our Lord’s Church independence from the King”. He may have looked through the void and silent cathedral, thankful for a moment of peace before joining the community for the Vespers.

Then, something creeks. A door. There is someone in the shadows. Four figures move close and closer. They are cloaked. They are at your side. They want you to go to Winchester and pledged guilty and accept your King’s will. And it has to be now. That is what the King wants to forgive you and settled your dispute. They do not sound very convincing though, there is something in their voices that makes you feel cold. But it will not be now or never, you are simply not yielding, Thomas, and that make the four ghosts furious. They are mad at you and before you can understand what is going on, you are beaten once, twice…and everything turns black.

And there he lies, bleeding to death, in his own see, the Archbishop of Canterbury, his blood dripping in sacred soil, his “brains scattered about the pavements” in the words of Edward Grim, an eyewitness. Thomas Beckett had been murdered, embracing martyrdom. Surrounding him, four knights: Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton. They had come to Canterbury allegedly to convey the Archbishop to Winchester, but in the end, to kill him with extreme violence in his own church, handing their swords and armor against a Prince of the church. It was the Vespers hour, 29 December 1170.

But why four knights of the realm had committed so terrible a crime against their own religious leader, thus against the Holy Church and against God? The story says that guilt must be put in a sentence uttered by the King of England in a moment of fury. That sentence, which could well be apocryphal, was seemingly “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest” though scholars like Simon Schama have shown their disagreement with this particular formulation. Anyway it seems quite clear that King Henry was no particularly happy with Becket attitude and deeds and he was fuming his malcontent in public. Thence, some of his knights thought probably that it would be a good idea and a nice way of clearing their way through the Court just if they satisfied their King’s wishes. So they went to Canterbury and entered in the History of murder as the assassins of a would-be-saint.

It is ironic their bad timing, killing a priest in the Christmas season. Their bad judgment on the King’s wishes, or their good judgment but brutal and excessive implementation could also be a matter of discussion. They didn’t get any helpful advice from their King and, in the end, were banned to fight in the Holy Land for fourteen years. Poor reward for such a service. Becket’s was much better apart from the fact that he was dead: he was promoted to sanctity. In the end, there is something cruelly humorous about the whole scene: it gives another meaning to Christmas as a time to reconciliation as the knights reconcile Becket with His Father. But their ways were surely not welcome in Heaven.

The Paris Commune

By Josema

So for our final delve in to the violence of March’s long and bloody past, we have witnessed Caesar’s murder; the Albigensian crusade; and the natural disasters that have happened in March, all of which have had a great impact on their respective contemporary cultures; history and life today. Now it is time to turn to our final event the La Commune in Paris, France. The Paris Commune is name that was given to the events surrounding the end of the war between France and Prussia and other Germany States and extends to include the massacre that put down the revolutionary movement at the end of May 1871.

Firstly we have to look at the build up to the commune as revolutions, as we know does not occur spontaneously, the events and actions might, but there are usually some underlying factors that ignite the flame of revolution. Since 1870 France, under Napoleon III had been involved in the Franco-Prussian war, the war itself was the combination of ongoing tensions between the two countries that had finally come to fruition over the La ‘revolución gloriosa’, (translation the glorious revolution) in Spain as a result of the deposition of Isabella II and also the controversial Ems Telegram in which Otto Von Bismarck is said to have altered the message from the Prussian leader Wilhelm I to the French ambassador, in order to goad the French into war. Needless to say the telegram had the desired effect and soon enough both countries were at war. The Prussian and German forces were superior and at the battle of Sedan they had captured Napoleon III with the whole of his army. However this didn’t end the war and the 3rd republic declared on the 4th of September they continued the war. With the capture of Paris and ceremonial occupation by the Prussians; the disaster of the war and growing worker discontent the Parisians had enough.

On March 26 1871 after five long, hard months for the Parisians enduring the Prussian siege and also refusing the terms of surrender as negotiated by the national assembly the citizens of Paris voted for self-government. Perhaps one of the earliest examples of class solidarity as the citizens elected their own government with people from various backgrounds with both working and middle class members. The commune mainly wanted the ability to self govern Paris, right that existed in some other French towns and also it was linked to a desire for a more ‘just’ way of dealing with the economy. This ‘just’ economy is suggested to be based upon a socialist ideology.

The Commune continued to run Paris successfully for the next two months. As a governing body it abolishes conscription and the standing army leaving the National Guard as the sole armed force. On April 1st the Commune declares the highest salary received by any member would not exceed 6,000 Francs. In addition the Commune decreed the separation of church and state; with the abolition all state payments for the church; turning all private church property in to national property and finally declaring that religion was a private matter. Along with publicly burning the guillotine to large public rejoicing; reorganising the manufacturing factories turning them into co-operative societies, to an extent owned and worked by the workers and abolishing night work for bakers. The changes made show a very socialist, maybe even communist element to the revolutionary government as the majority of the changes seem to be made with the people in mind.

However, where is the violence I hear you cry if March is the month of violence where is it in this case? The answer comes as usual with the bloody end, of the Commune. Known as La Semaine Sanglante, the blood soaked week, 21st -28th May, troops from Versailles finally defeated the commune rebels, massacring them as they went. A weak defence was put up in the west of Paris and grew stronger as the Versailles Army came nearer, before deciding to attack the east of Paris… the workers district. Over the following week workers and civilians were massacred on sight. Some estimates suggest that there was between 17,000- 30,000 fatalities during that week alone, an extremely heavy loss considering that during the French Revolution and Terror approximately 19,000 died within a year and a half. A further 50,000 Communards were arrested after the Communes suppression with some escaping and 4,500-7,000 forcibly exiled to New Caledonia in the South Pacific.

So, the commune was defeated, that is an understatement, it was slaughtered and so ends the violence of March. Given our overall theme I guess it would be hard, for me to end this post on a happy note but I’m going to try. This movement la commune is an example, perhaps a discouraging one, but an example nonetheless of people taking a stand and taking matters into their own hands. Something that we still see today with our own protests which admittedly are a lot less bloody, but it the idea remains, to stand up together and be counted when enough is enough. Ok we may not win all the time, the Commune certainly didn’t, but it lasted two months. So I guess what I’m trying to say is I think it is better to try and fail than to not try at all and in the case of la commune they tried and failed in the battle but perhaps in the war they lasted as a popular example of a popular class movement ‘marching forward to conquer their rights.’

By Sophie


P.S: Again, we would like to thank Josema and Rubyces for the image!

Mount Etna: Natural Disaster from 1669 to 2011

March brought with it one of the most terrible volcanic eruption of the early modern period. It happened around the 8th of March, 1669, in the lands of Sicily, terrorized by their eventually active phoenix: Mount Etna.

“Multiple eruptions over the next few weeks killed more than 20,000 people and left thousands more homeless. Most of the victims could have saved themselves by fleeing, but stayed, in a vain attempt to save their city”[1]. For those that might not know the circumstances of the events, let me introduce you quickly to the topic.

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