Institutions Empires

Cultural institutions are applying double standards to create a narrative of grievance.

Cultural institutions are applying double standards
Robert Tombs
Written by Robert Tombs

If cultural institutions are sincere about educating the public about history, I would applaud. But they would have to tell the whole story honestly and accurately. Instead, the truth is often bent to appease aggressive lobbies.

Over the past year or so, there has been a concerted campaign in British institutions – museums, universities, local authorities, the civil service and more – to propagate a new narrative of history. The campaign is fundamentally negative about Britain and its past. It seems to want to impose – so far with some success – a new orthodoxy centred on slavery and imperialism. (Anyone unaware of the extent of this activity should consult  Policy Exchange’s ‘History Matters’ project, which publishes a comprehensive regular bulletin.)  Similar campaigns are taking place in Australasia and North America.

The campaign has its roots in academic theory, especially from the United States, and its recent histrionic manifestations have clearly been fuelled by imports from abroad. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford originated in South Africa, and the Black Lives Matter campaign, of course, came from the United States. Both reflect characteristic and old-established tensions in those countries. Yet these campaigns are being presented as somehow related to central facts about our own history and society.

The general ‘narrative’ goes like this: Britain’s wealth and power came from the exploitation of slaves and colonies, and this has left a legacy of ‘systemic racism’ in the 21st century that must be compensated for, including by acknowledging inherited collective guilt, and making various forms of reparation. So obviously distorted and contrary to the evidence is the narrative, so patently synthetic the show of indignation, that a cynic might conclude that it is simply a ruse to gain the advantages of victimhood by privileged members of relatively underprivileged groups — that is, upwardly mobile people from ethnic minorities in the public sector, the academy and the arts.

The campaign would make little or no progress here were it not for the eager participation of public institutions, which rush to appease or anticipate any real or imagined grievance. I won’t speculate about motives: readers will have their own ideas. Instead, I am going to look at only two of many examples. One is Jesus College, Cambridge. The other is the Victoria and Albert Museum. I am not suggesting that they are uniquely dishonest or destructive: rather, that despite being two highly prestigious cultural institutions, they display very clearly the widespread double standards on which the agitation depends.

Jesus College has suddenly become highly sensitive to historic connections with Africa – while seemingly untroubled by its lucrative present-day connection with the Chinese regime, the patron of its tame China Centre. In a painless gesture to deflect criticism, the college has decided to return a bronze cockerel to the present ‘royal court of Benin’. The cockerel was seized as a prize during a punitive expedition by the British in 1897. It was later presented to the college, whose coat of arms it vaguely resembles.

The V&A has developed a comparable sensitivity. Its director, former Labour MP and sometime history lecturer Tristram Hunt, recently wrote an article in Prospect magazine announcing that the museum intended to highlight connections with slavery and imperialism in its collections. In his article, he focuses on two exhibits: a 15th-century European casket, and gold and silver items from the Asante royal regalia. The casket was once in the possession of a Jewish slave owner, who donated it to the museum, and this tenuous connection with slavery will now be highlighted by the museum to show how ‘slave profits have seeped into the V&A galleries’. In the Asante regalia, Hunt sees only ‘imperial trophy hunting’ and ‘exercises of colonial violence’, which will also be highlighted by the museum.

But the Asante regalia were also linked with slavery – and far more directly than the supposedly polluted 15th-century casket. This is because the Asante kingdom was itself a slave-raiding, slave-owning and slave-trading regime, founded on conquest and subjugation. It was described in a recent history of Africa as ‘a military society [with] a harshly militaristic ideology, and great brutality towards the weak’. Mass killing of slaves was regularly practised both in funeral rituals – generally by burial alive – and to inspire terror. Symbols of this sinister power were confiscated by the British in a punitive expedition following repeated Asante aggression against its neighbours. Subsequently, the Asante turned successfully to peaceful trading activities.

Will all this be explained by the V&A in its desire to show ‘what the profits from the exploitation of enslaved Africans ended up paying for’? Hunt certainly made no reference to slavery when talking about these pieces in his article.  At present (July 2021), the on-line catalogue says this:

Early European visitors to Ghana, West Africa, described dazzling displays of court regalia at the court of the Asantehene, the ruler of Asante state. The region’s natural gold resources had made the Asante wealthy and court regalia, which included textiles (kente), ivory and gold, reflected high levels of skill and technology […].  Following Asante efforts to protect a coastal trading outlet, British forces invaded the state capital Kumasi on 4 February 1874. The Asantehene, Kofi Karikari, fled leaving behind much precious regalia which was captured and later sold at auction at Garrard’s, the London crown jewellers. The Museum’s accession registers record the purchase of this and twelve other items of Asante gold and silverware from Garrard’s on 5 June 1874.

Does the V&A regard what Hunt calls ‘the hideous provenance’ of the fruits of slavery to be noteworthy when the beneficiary was Jewish, but to be passed over in silence when the beneficiary was African?  Does the V&A consider that Africans have different moral standards to those of Europeans?  If so, is this not a form of racism?

There is a parallel in Jesus College’s decision to return the Benin cockerel to the present-day Oba of Benin. White people from Britain who were involved in the slave trade or owned slaves are now condemned across many generations. Their descendants are summoned to acknowledge inherited guilt with extravagant expressions of remorse. Having a distant ancestor connected with slavery is seen as far more shaming than, say, being the child or grandchild of an SS or KGB concentration-camp guard. Owning anything acquired with profits of slavery centuries ago is infinitely more disgraceful than owning products (a Volkswagen or a Porsche, for example) from corporations that worked slaves to death within living memory. It is apparently more disgraceful for Jesus College to have been left a bequest in the 1690s by Tobias Rustat, an investor in Caribbean slavery, than to accept money from a present-day regime that makes a whole people captive.

There is no inherited guilt or shame either for the present Oba of Benin, it seems, to whom Jesus College is to make fulsome reparation by presenting him with a very valuable work of art. Yet he is the descendent of major slave raiders, traders and owners—Benin’s numerous wars of conquest led to large-scale enslavement and, as in Asante, to the regular ritual slaughter of slaves. Shame is reserved for the descendants of colonialists who put a stop to slaving and human sacrifice, sometimes forcibly.

If public institutions truly believe that we need constant reminding of the horrors of slavery, then there is no excuse for half-truths and distortions. The reasons given for these ‘woke’ exercises seem standard across the whole museum and academic world, and they almost always include educating the public to ‘face up to the past’. But education should be the opposite of propaganda. One aims to inform and provoke thought; the other to mislead and prevent thought.

If Jesus College and the V&A – and the many other complicit public institutions – were sincere about educating the public, then I for one would applaud. But they would have to tell the whole story honestly and accurately. Instead, the truth is bent to appease aggressive lobbies. But bending the truth is dangerous: it can spring back and hit you in the face, and there are signs that this may be beginning.

An earlier version of this article was published by Spiked (3 Dec. 2020)

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).