THE ART OF FORGETTING
It is a perennial truth that human beings are forgetful. We forget to pick up our keys, we forget to take out the bins on recycling day, we forget birthdays, we forget to feed the cats, we forget about that dentist appointment we’d rescheduled three times already until the frustrated dentist finally sends a strongly worded letter informing us that we have been taken off the patient list.
But these are, in the grand scheme of life, little things, inconsequential things (although the dentist might disagree). Forgetting our past, however, is rather more dangerous.
For all the nostalgia-hued rhetoric of the current age, whether that be Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, Modhi’s particularly violent brand of Hindu nationalism, or our very own BoJo’s pantomime-resurrection of Churchill, there has been little consideration as to what the past they are so fondly looking back on was actually like. Like all good politicians, they are painting an appealing portrait of a hegemonic utopia which proudly constituted only those peoples who ‘belonged’ (Hindus, whites, Britons), and consciously excluded those who did not (Muslims, immigrants of any colour and nationality, Remainer saboteurs) in a detrimental move that has seen the resultant historical tapestry become distorted, slashed, and crudely unravelled. Never one to be outdone, Britain has blazed the way in this global amnesia and can proudly claim to have erased one of the most important historical realities of all: that of Empire.
The empire to put all other empires to shame, at its zenith, Britain boasted dominion over 23% of the world’s inhabitants in a conglomeration so monstrously huge that officials were known to gloat that theirs was the “empire on which the sun never set.” But Empire, once proudly advertised on everything from cereal tins and washing soaps to lavish spectacle-laden exhibitions, has become unfashionable. And in a desire to suppress that which is now considered, outside of specialist circles, gauche (for to admit one had an empire one must first admit that one lost an empire), Britain has plunged headfirst down a trajectory which so warps our past as to make it unrecognisable.
For the admission of Empire is embarrassing.
The myth of the ‘plucky British underdog’ who single-handedly repelled the Germans not once, but twice, deflates somewhat when one is forced to acknowledge the 4 million colonial soldiers who fought in WWI, and again the close to 2 million in WWII. The glorious rise of the British economy wilts when one admits that, without the empire, such a thing would not have been possible at all: that the jute, linen and cotton which powered the industrial revolution came from India; that much of Britain’s wealth in the 18th century was built from sugar plantations in the West Indies, peopled by slaves dragged from West Africa and the Indian subcontinent; that a large proportion of British trading clout came from the forced cultivation of Indian opium, which was then sold to the Chinese in the masterclass of arm-twisting intimidation and greed-oriented arrogance that was the Opium Wars. The marvellously unparalleled collections of the British Museum shrink in prestige when one admits that nearly all the artefacts were illegally stolen and snatched from the very people they ridiculed and oppressed, and the ‘British’ values of equality and democratic liberty are blown apart when one confesses that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was not -- as the Royal Museum of Greenwich still claims -- a “voluntary exchange of people and ideas” but a brutal and bloody bartering of human bodies driven solely by profit margins and capitalist exploitation. And the humbling appreciation that Britain’s current political standing as a first-class global power was built off the constant and unceasing exploitation of the Commonwealth is a pill so difficult to swallow it is never even taken out of the bottle.
It is no wonder, then, that people feel resentment at Caribbean, African, or Sub-Continent migrants when they have no recollection of the intrinsic role these same people played in seminal points of British history. Is it any wonder that second, third, fourth, or fifth generations of Commonwealth-Britons feel alienated from the country they were born in because they do not see themselves represented -- not in media, not in politics, not in history -- despite their families helping build the bricks and foundations of the very people who berate them? Is it any wonder that we feel jaded when Britain refuses to recognise its historic role in the Biafran War, the Windrush scandal, the horrors of Indian Partition, or the current riots in Hong Kong? Is it any wonder that policies such as former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s insistence on emphasising the ‘positives’ of colonial history make us grit our teeth and ball our fists and scream until our throats are raw? Is it any wonder we fume and rage at our pasts being glossed over, when the realities were so recent our grandparents still bear the scars of colonial shame but must suffer without even the salve of remorse?
In some ways there has been great progression, but to those who still say to me: “stop whining about representation, you’re only 4% of the population anyway”; to that school-boy who matter-of-factly told my brother, “I don’t like Pakis”; to that old man on a bicycle who shouted at me, “watch where you’re going, you foreign cunt”; to all the multitudes and legions and armies of people who narrow their eyes and tilt their heads and say, “no, but where are you really from”; to those white boys who say, confused and in all sincerity, “but, Britain isn’t racist” and then turn around in the next breath and announce they have no problem using the word nigger; to those who tell me the horrors and violence of colonialism were necessary in order to “bring you into the modern globalised economy” and that, really, we’re better off for it; to those who tell me I “don’t look Pakistani” as if that’s some sort of compliment, because who would want to look Pakistani?; to you, I say:
Take a long, hard look at the history of this country: and don’t forget.