It comes like clockwork, every month or so: What’s wrong with being British? What’s so wrong about being proud of our history?
In August, the right-wing talking point came courtesy of Last Night of the Proms, which was forced to confirm that yes, they would play “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia”, contrary to earlier reports that suggested they wouldn’t. And that was the end of it.
Except it wasn’t! After countless articles, #DefundtheBBC tweets, Bury Football Club issuing a formal statement, TalkRadio presenters doing their best to remember the words in a reverse-engineered-for-maximum-outrage Twitter video and, finally, Boris weighing in with all the grace of an elephant ballet choreographed by Dominic Cummings, we mark yet another depressing but unsurprising low point in the culture war over British identity and nationalism.
I say unsurprising because the roots of this manufactured outrage are perfectly plain to see. According to YouGov research, a third of Brits believe countries were better off for being colonised by the British Empire. They are also more likely to be nostalgic for their empire than people from other former colonial powers, like France, Italy, Spain and Germany.
The VICE News series Empires of Dirt is trying to take on this collective nostalgia in an ongoing series of videos. The series will cover the spread of colonialism from the various hearts of Europe’s different empires across the world, from Africa to Asia, Latin America and Australia.
There are things that almost everyone knows about the British empire – it ruled India, for instance, and abolished slavery. There’s even an aesthetic – the white linen suits, the pith helmets, the porcelain china and teatime on the veranda. But scratch beneath that and suddenly things get a little more complicated. Where did the tea come from? Who made the porcelain? Whose hands gathered the cotton for the linen? Who was doing the actual enslaving? (Eric Williams, the Caribbean academic and then-prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, once wrote: “The British historians wrote as if Britain had introduced […] slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it.”)
I grew up in Singapore, which only stopped being a British colony less than six decades ago. In this former colony, a number of customs, institutions and bureaucratic processes still retain the flavour of Britishness. Take my old school. It was named after Queen Victoria and had a school song that praised both the institution (“Victoria thy sons are we / and we will not forget”) and the monarch herself by extension. We sat A Levels and spoke British English – “colour”, not “color”; “football”, not “soccer” – and went on holidays, not vacations.
When I moved to the UK, I was surprised when people expressed shock at all this. Events that had been drilled into me at school – that the British abandoned Singapore to the Japanese army in World War II, that they’d simply surrendered and left thousands to die – were minuscule footnotes in the collective memory here, if they were even remembered at all. It was a little like running into an ex and realising that, actually, they don’t think of you at all. And that, actually, they have a ton of exes? And they’re really good at staying friends after the break-up, contrary to what a lot of people think??
Like millions of people around the world, I live with the aftereffects of colonisation – I am a postcolonial subject of a now long-gone empire, whatever that means. It’s a legacy that has touched my family both directly and indirectly. In the latest episode of Empires of Dirt, I talk about how my great-grandfather died in Hong Kong of opium addiction – opium that he got hooked on thanks to the British systematically trafficking drugs into China so they had something to trade for goods like porcelain, silk and tea.
I felt the wandering hands of empire in subtler ways, too. As Empires of Dirt will cover in a later episode, homosexuality is banned in Singapore under Section 377A of the penal code – a colonial policy originally named Section 377 that was imported from the British during their time in India.
Did I curse the first British settlers as me and my girlfriend hid from our homophobic classmates and school teachers to make out behind the gym? Not really – I was too busy putting my hand up her top. But did that prickly sense of fear and shame – of being in a country that would humiliate and punish me for who I was – creep under my skin and follow me all the way into adulthood, even after I came out as bi? Well, yes, obviously.
I’m not the only one who grew up steeped in the tea-stained backwash of the British empire. The experience of colonisation unfolded differently from country to country, but what united these disparate places was the people who were doing the colonising and the policies they enacted to achieve it. Section 377 is just one example of a policy that was imported to ruinous effect for LGBTQ people in dozens of colonies – a colonial hangover that is still bearing poisoned fruit today.
With Empires of Dirt, we wanted to focus the lens on the colonisers and institutions that enabled empire, and the singular worldview that had the effect of flattening entire populations into resources to be exploited and subjects to be ruled over. The products of the British empire – sugar, opium, tobacco – weren’t just numbers on the spreadsheet of a colonial governor. They didn’t spontaneously appear in the tasteful Georgian house of a merchant trader and his wife in Piccadilly. They came with lives and body counts attached, my great-grandfather included.
This is our shared heritage – one that draws together the different experiences of people from all over the world, and their children and grandchildren, who might now be living in the beating heart of the former British empire itself. It’s one that should seek to recognise the commonalities of our experiences and honour our differences. It’s what defines us as Britain and as a commonwealth – this complicated, tangled legacy of empire. We need to recognise this history as the thing that unites all of us, but we can’t do that until we understand fully what that history even is.