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Today’s History Wars: ideology, propaganda, careerism

Todays History Wars ideology propaganda careerism
Robert Tombs
Written by Robert Tombs

We play along with the pretext that the obsession with slavery and colonialism is about history, about uncovering some long-hidden aspect of our past and “facing up to it”. But there is no serious historical purpose behind most of this. The real motives are ideology, propaganda and often careerism. Those in charge need to wake up to what has become a wholesale attack on our culture and history abetted by publicly funded or charitable institutions.

It was inevitable that the monarchy would be attacked for involvement in 17th and 18th century slavery.  Nearly every other national institution has been already.  A new King and a forthcoming coronation make it a tempting target.  It is understandable that the King has expressed support for a historical investigation, and perhaps this will calm things down until after the coronation.  But the monarchy would sooner or later have become a target as the symbol of the nation, its unity and its history, the very things that “anti-racist” and “anti-colonial” activists aim to undermine.  They have an ally in Vladimir Putin, who attacks the West’s “centuries of colonialism”.

We play along with the pretext that the obsession with slavery and colonialism is about history.  We even acquiesce in activists’ claims that the aim is uncovering some long-hidden aspect of our past and “facing up to it”.  But real history seeks above all to understand, and it aims at getting the complete story.  Trawling through the past in a search for something discreditable is crude propaganda.  There is no serious historical purpose when institutions such as the Church, Cambridge University, Kew Gardens, the National Trust, or the Bank of England solemnly announce that they are investigating their guilty past.  It is perfectly well known that Britain, and hence the monarchy and many other institutions, were involved in the slave economy.  It is equally well known that nearly every other country was—not only European countries, but African, American, Asian and Middle Eastern countries too.  Many people also realize that Britain, and hence its monarchy, were the leaders of a long global campaign to end the slave trade and then slavery itself.  Successive governments were responding to a tide of public pressure, including mass petitions and boycotts of slave-grown products—sufficient proof that Britain has long been one of the least racist societies.  Of course, efforts to end slavery were not wholly successful (I have met people whose families owned slaves within living memory) but they were sustained and often heroic.  Moreover they were unique: the anti-slavery policy was strongly resisted by American, European, Arab and of course African states, which had to be persuaded by diplomacy, bribery and sometimes force.  This epoch-making endeavour, not participation in the slave trade, is the part of our history that is now being deliberately downplayed and distorted.  Although we need to reiterate the basics—of which many children and young people seem ignorant—argument alone is not enough, as it assumes a willingness to listen and be convinced by plain fact.

In reality there is no such willingness among those who are singling out Britain as their chosen target, as if Britain and its monarchy were uniquely tainted.  Sometimes their motives seem to be ideological, as succinctly expressed by the new general secretary of the National Education Union, Daniel Kebede, who has spoken of “taking back education from a brutally racist state”, has urged “decolonising” the school curriculum to remove a “Little England white saviour narrative”, and has deplored celebrating Churchill as “a war leader”.  But behind such ideological verbiage there are plenty of less exalted motives.  “Anti-racist” and “anti-colonial” notoriety is a shrewd career move in those reaches of academia, publishing, curatorship and entertainment where competition for jobs is intense and outstanding ability rare: how else can you tell one professor of post-colonial literature or lecturer in hate studies from another?

Repeatedly, major institutions have given in to pressure from their own junior staff.  Trustees of such bodies, usually well-meaning people but rarely experts, seem frightened of doing their duty to safeguard their institutions in the interests of the wider public.  Yet in law trustees have huge and largely unaccountable discretion, and if they give in to every “woke” initiative, the consequences will be serious and in some cases irreversible.

The sorry saga of the Benin Bronzes is a study in such institutional failure.  A large number of these objects were brought back by a British expedition in 1897, and are now found in many museums in Britain, France, Germany and the United States.  The Kingdom of Benin, far from being a defenceless victim of gratuitous colonial aggression, was a violent slave-owning despotism that killed slaves for ritual purposes, and the 1897 expedition put a stop to that.  International museum curators have decided, without bothering much about other opinions, that all bronzes should be given back unconditionally as “colonial loot” to Nigeria.  This consensus is based on a systematically distorted account of 1897, which invariably passes over the anti-slavery aspect of the British intervention in silence—something that, heaven help us, even the Royal Collection Trust website goes along with in a garbled account, actually accusing the British of disguising soldiers as civilians and of “misinformation”.  The Horniman Museum and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are among those disposing of important collections of Benin Bronzes without proper scrutiny or public accountability. Cambridge seems not even to know the monetary value of the objects it is hastily giving away.  Yet there is now very strong evidence that many valuable bronzes have been stolen in Nigeria, and the Nigerians themselves are quarrelling over ownership.  Worst of all, American descendants of enslaved Africans have formally requested that the Bronzes should be kept safe in Western museums where they can be widely seen; and they strongly object to their being donated to the successors of the slavers who sold their ancestors.  They have simply been ignored.

Even august institutions cannot, it seems, now be trusted to safeguard historic objects in their care.  Furthermore, they are all too willing to tarnish their own reputations in the cause of virtue signalling.  Cambridge University instituted research that found no evidence that it had benefitted significantly from slavery.  Was this finding a cause for celebration?  Far from it.  The ensuing report resorted to tenuous accusations against 18th-century alumni, and rather than honouring the University’s world-leading anti-slavery campaigners, preferred nit-picking criticism.

Government ministers have been reluctant to get involved.  But we are experiencing a wholesale attack on our culture and history abetted by publicly funded or charitable institutions.  In many cases, their trustees are appointed by the Department of Culture Media and Sport, whose ministers cannot pretend that this is none of their business.  When we get further attacks on the monarchy it may wake them up to the fact that our younger generation are being told to despise everything about our common past—one of the main foundations on which national solidarity rests.

An earlier version of this article was published by the Daily Telegraph.

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).