This guilt is paralysing. Paul Gilroy points out that Freud associates guilt with melancholia, which the psychoanalyst described as a shameless condition, one that relates to the passing of something that cannot be fully understood and thus does not lead to positive change. Melancholia is related to mourning – the loss of empire is painful but it cannot be processed because, as Gilroy says, "Britain might learn too many uncomfortable truths about its history if it was known and considered".Shame, for Gilroy, is far preferable to guilt because it can be catalysing – a stimulus to action. "Guilt is useless, counterproductive and usually just a source of resentment," he tells me. "Shame, on the other hand, is an appropriate response that can turn people towards the possibilities of redress and reparation."
"Guilt is useless, counterproductive and usually just a source of resentment. Shame, on the other hand, can turn people towards the possibilities of redress and reparation."
In 1948, the British Nationality Act established the principle of "Civis Britannicus Sum": that anyone born in the empire had the rights of British citizenship. As a result, former subjects of the British Empire came to the motherland as supposedly equal citizens. In response to the racism faced by Britain's former colonial subjects, the phrase "We are here because you were there" became a striking anti-racist slogan.This remains largely untaught in most British schools – something history teachers across the country discuss. "In my view, there is a woeful lack of engagement on this topic across the curriculum in British schools, considering its importance to both British and world history," says William Bowles, head of History at St Mary Magdalene Academy in north London. "A common complaint from students is, 'Why do we never learn about black history?' And I have to tell them that there isn't much of an option to teach this on the curriculum."To challenge this lack of public education, Jeremy Corbyn has said that the British Empire should be taught in schools, and various alternative groups are setting out to raise the public's awareness of Britain's colonial legacy. Organiser Elsie Bryant tells me that her project, "British Empire State of Mind", will take a nuanced approach and "help provide some context for what's going on in the world today, in terms of global inequality, poverty and how Britain helped create the conditions that caused and continue to perpetuate it now".Projects like these are important, not just for the history lesson, but as a tool to understand Britain's current economic and political situation. Post-colonial British governments have shown a fondness for playing the white saviour in countries which need to be "saved", offering "aid" and "development". But it's not an accident that Britain is wealthy compared to its former colonies. The trade, natural resources and labour that could be gleaned from Britain's colonies turned it into a rich nation. At the beginning of the 18th century, India's share of the world economy was 23 percent. By the time the British left, it was a little over 3 percent. The money taxed, looted and traded out of India was used to fund the industrial revolution and the transformation of Britain into the world's pre-eminent imperial power.Some of the ill-gotten gains of empire even came from a massive compensation package – £16 to £17 billion in today's money, or 40 percent of all government expenditure in 1834 – paid, after the abolition of slavery, to slave owners (slaves were given nothing). As UCL's Legacies of British Slave-ownership project discovered, around 46,000 individual claims and awards were made to those who "either owned slaves or benefitted indirectly from ownership".Despite the vast effect the empire has had on our lives "we've never", as Paul Gilroy points out, "developed a way of talking about the imperial past and its crimes that allows us to see it for what it is". If we can't escape fantasies of empire, if we can't learn about what really happened in the name of the British crown, we will never be able to imagine a new identity for our country, an identity that can speak more fully to the multicultural nation we have become. Our current trajectory, careering away from Europe with some puffed-up idea about our own importance, is undoubtedly a result of this failure of education, to face up to our crimes and demonstrate humility.@oscarrickettnow
"A common complaint from students is, 'Why do we never learn about black history?' And I have to tell them that there isn't much of an option to teach this on the curriculum."