Britain’s Imperial Past Has Become a Battleground in the Culture Wars

A historian reflects on some recent controversies and the emotional register of the debate

Britain’s Imperial Past Has Become a Battleground in the Culture Wars
The toppled statue of Edward Colston lies on display in the M Shed museum in Bristol, England. (Polly Thomas/Getty Images)

In the summer of 2023, it was reported that a former British member of Parliament was trying to take legal action to shut down threats to her good name. So far, so predictable: But rather than a particular person or publication, Antoinette Sandbach wanted to instruct lawyers to act against the very process of doing history. Sandbach — a Conservative and then Liberal Democrat member of Parliament who lost her seat in the 2019 election — is the great-great-great-grandchild of the landowner Samuel Sandbach, a man who became wealthy through his exploitation of enslaved peoples. Malik Al Nasir, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, had been conducting genealogical research on his father’s family and their history of enslavement for more than a decade before he formally began his doctorate degree exploring Sandbach Tinne & Co. His research into Samuel Sandbach and his associates and their activities in British Guiana in the late 18th and early 19th centuries connected this history not only to the Caribbean but also to Liverpool, where Al Nasir grew up and where Samuel Sandbach had brought the vast wealth he earned through slavery and empire.

Al Nasir presented some of this historical narrative in a TED talk and mentioned the connection between the slaveholder and the former lawmaker. After first approaching Al Nasir and then his doctoral supervisor, asking for this reference to be removed, Antoinette Sandbach threatened the University of Cambridge with legal action. She argued that since she was no longer a sitting member of Parliament, she had a “right to be forgotten” and should not be singled out publicly in this manner. These attempts to shut down research were met with uproar, which was not dampened when Sandbach seemingly tried to draw comparisons between the treatment of enslaved people and the treatment of women in 19th-century Britain. Ultimately, the University of Cambridge rejected her request to have her name removed from the research on the grounds of academic freedom.

Sandbach claimed that she “welcomed” the research and that she was “appalled” by the actions of her ancestors. And yet her stated desire to have her name removed from the research because she was no longer a public figure (as well as on somewhat tenuous grounds of personal safety) seemed to undermine any serious attempt to reckon with her family’s history. The Sandbach family still owns some of Samuel’s estate, bought with the profits of slavery, and Antoinette is a named director of the company managing the holiday cottages there. She is also not the first of his descendants to become a legislator; Charles Stuart Parker (1829-1910), Liberal politician and writer, was Samuel’s grandson. The power, both economic and political, that the family inherited from Samuel Sandbach persists, and Al Nasir’s research shows the threads of empire that are still woven through contemporary Britain’s economy and political establishment.

Alex Renton, a writer who is also descended from a family of slaveholders, addressed this history in a piece urging Antoinette Sandbach to “accept her legacy” and “atone” for her past. Renton, whose book “Blood Legacy: Reckoning with a Family’s Story of Slavery” grapples with his own inherited history, argued that “you cannot, as a family, or as a nation, select the good bits of your story to boast about, and erase what’s uncomfortable.” His position on this history is clear and unambiguous: “I am ashamed of what they did, and I accept my part as their descendant in the collective denial of the history.” But Renton is probably an anomaly in the way that people, institutions, corporations and nations choose to engage — or not — with these histories of atrocity and violence.

To understand the chasm between Renton and Sandbach, it is necessary to appreciate the enormous gap between two different political positions on the role and value of the past in the present; and it is impossible to do that without understanding the emotional register of debates around imperial history in Britain today. In part, this is a story about the divergence between academic narratives of the British Empire and the accepted popular stories that exist about imperialism in wider society. This gap, between imperial historians and a much larger group of people who feel ownership over the country’s history, has created an increasingly fraught context for talking and writing about the British Empire — in the U.K. at least.

When people think about history, they might imagine it to be fairly dry and dusty as an academic subject: the chronicling of what happened in the past, and why, which could seem uncontroversial to the point of boredom. But history has never been simply academic: It provides the backstory that we use to make sense of who we are in the world, and that applies just as strongly to national histories as it does to the histories of individual families.

National histories have often been constructed from the top down, focusing on the great men (and occasional great woman) who supposedly effected change through their own personal brilliance, or sometimes their failings. Narratives of the British Empire for a British audience have traditionally been framed around figures like Robert Clive, aka Clive of India, the first British governor of the Bengal Presidency, who oversaw a period of aggressive imperial expansion and presided over the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, which killed perhaps 10 million people. While education secretary, Michael Gove declared him to be one of the “heroes and heroines” of history that schoolchildren should learn about in his proposed new national curriculum for British schools. The point, in 2013, when historians and history teachers pushed back against these proposals might be seen as a key moment in the rift between the opposing sides in the British history wars.

For the last decade, the question of who gets to interrogate historical questions, and why they are motivated to do so, has become very fraught in Britain. And the topics that have become most central to this controversy are the British Empire, British imperialism, and ideas about race, identity and belonging in the British nation. (In America, we can see similar tensions playing out around the histories of slavery, the Civil War and the Confederacy.) The big debates have centered on the necessity, or otherwise, of telling new stories about empire: ones that center voices “from below” (including the voices of those who were enslaved, attacked, oppressed and discriminated against because of their race) and explore the impact of slavery and empire in Britain, including their continuing legacies today. Another reason to date the beginning of this argument to 2013 is that this was the moment when the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project at University College London published their landmark public database, which traces the financial shadows cast by slavery, tracking the compensation paid to former slave owners in the 1830s as part of the process of emancipation. It seems unlikely now, but this was received with relatively little controversy, though a lot of interest, at the time. Even the major right-wing newspapers focused mostly on drawing attention to the slave-owning pasts of the families of then-Prime Minister David Cameron, author George Orwell or actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

This seems unlikely in hindsight because there has been, to put it mildly, something of a backlash against this historical work — both from within academia and from outside. It has been asserted, by many of their opponents, that the historians who seek to retell these stories from these perspectives are doing so because of political motivations that render their work unacademic, unrigorous and thus invalid. What these historians see as widening the scope of inquiry, adding new voices to the debate, and bringing in new viewpoints, new sources and new theoretical frameworks, their opponents see as an ideological crusade that seeks to distort or erase the past. Because of the stakes of this debate, in which historians are seeking to add nuance to a narrative that has often been self-congratulatory or complacent — a story of how the British made the world through an empire that was largely moral, civilizing and humane — the discussion is often conducted in a particular emotional register.

It is striking that both Renton and Sandbach, while making very different points, use the language of emotions to talk about their relationship to their own family histories. Sandbach is “appalled.” Renton is “ashamed.” The way that we approach imperial histories — as individuals or as nations — is often framed as an emotional, as well as an academic, process. When King Charles III visited Kenya in fall 2023, he spoke of the “greatest sorrow” and “deepest regret” caused by the history of British violence during the Kenyan independence struggle. Almost two decades earlier, in 2006 — the year before the bicentenary of the ending of the slave trade — then-Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote an article in which he also expressed “deep sorrow” for Britain’s “shameful” history of the exploitation of enslaved peoples. Neither figure apologized, explicitly, for British history; imperial apologies are still a contentious issue in Britain. But both, apparently, felt sorrow, shame, regret.

The emotions evoked by historical research into the British Empire — colonial violence, exploitation, slavery — are not always comfortable, and nor are they experienced as politically neutral. In September 2020, the British heritage organization the National Trust published a report, “Colonialism and Historic Slavery,” representing several years’ worth of research into the connections between properties under their purview and British imperial history. The report, which particularly focused on the transatlantic slave trade, included a gazetteer that demonstrated the importance of tracing these histories through British heritage properties. These included houses such as Speke Hall, near Liverpool, which was owned by various wealthy British figures including a pro-slavery legislator and a plantation owner who financed his own slave ships and received compensation from the British state when slavery was abolished. Other properties had more ambiguous connections: Bath Assembly Rooms had been created through subscription, including money donated from many prominent slaveholders, but had also hosted an “animated and effective” antislavery speech by William Wilberforce. One notable inclusion was Chartwell, in Kent, formerly home to Winston Churchill — included because of Churchill’s long-standing support for British imperialism, demonstrated in moments such as his vote in 1935 against the Government of India Act that sought to give the colony more political independence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the political context in which the report was released, it immediately became controversial among right-wing commentators. Two months earlier, the statue of Edward Colston had been pulled down and dunked into Bristol Harbor. Colston was a 17th- and early 18th-century trader of enslaved people who spent much of his profits on philanthropic works that duly saw his name commemorated in concert halls and schools across the city of Bristol; his statue, erected at the end of the 19th century, had been controversial among the local population for decades. The transatlantic Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement had ignited a grassroots initiative to remove the statue by force after years of campaigning had failed. The four central protesters were arrested for criminal damage, amid condemnations from Conservative politicians and the right-wing press, before being unexpectedly acquitted in 2022. It was in this febrile atmosphere that the National Trust report — years in the making, unconnected to BLM except perhaps in sympathy — was released.

The controversy around the report was performed in a particular emotional register. The first headline from The Telegraph newspaper on the report was “Churchill’s Home on BLM List of Shame”; in some of its many subsequent pieces, the paper described the report as a “roll of shame,” as well as “self-flagellation.” The Daily Mail adopted the “list of shame” label in much of its coverage, in one story quoting a Conservative councilor who had canceled her family’s membership of the National Trust because of the “naming and shaming” of “innocent families” who had left properties to the organization. The weekly news magazine The Spectator referred to the document as a “shameful manifesto”; although in this instance, of course, it is the National Trust itself that is supposed to feel shame, for evoking this history in the first place.

The idea of shame as a reaction to history is interesting. It can be a genuine emotional response to finding out something about your country, institution or family’s dark past. But in this coverage, this wasn’t how “shame” was being used. Instead, the reader was invited to feel outrage and anger, both that historical figures like Churchill were being shamed by this research, and by extension that they — because of their admiration of figures like Churchill, or simply because of their British heritage — were being told to feel ashamed as well. The idea that the National Trust wanted people to feel ashamed, as well as parading their own “self-flagellation” in public, became part of the accepted narrative about this colonial history project.

My book, “Imperial Island: A History of Empire in Modern Britain,” which was published in the summer of 2023, explores the ways that empire has shaped British society, politics and culture from World War II to the present day. As part of this story, it deals with the contemporary cultural context, and the defensiveness with which the British media, as well as politicians and institutions, respond to any revision of British imperial history as an attack on British culture itself. Somehow, I did not anticipate that this defensiveness would extend to the reception of my book, but of course it did. And the tone of several of the reviews was striking, once again, in the emotional responses evoked by my argument.

The print headline of the first review, in The Telegraph, was “Galtieri Good, Empire Bad, Britain Awful.” While I was startled to discover my description of Leopoldo Galtieri’s rule of Argentina as “unpopular, violent and undemocratic” rendered as positive, I was more surprised by the idea that reckoning with British imperial history meant writing the nation off as “awful.” The review was generally positive about the historical research and argument of the book, and dismissive of my politics as a historian. Fair enough; it’s safe to say that I didn’t necessarily write it with The Telegraph in mind. But the reviewer’s suggestion that the book was “pessimistic” reads like another emotional response to history writing — and it was interesting to see this description applied to a book dealing with the resilience of migrant communities, resistance to imperial violence, and contemporary attempts to retell histories of empire from the bottom up.

Not all the reviews of the book sat within this emotional register. But it was noticeably the coverage on the right of the political spectrum that tended to do so. In The Sunday Times, Dominic Sandbrook finished his (negative) review with two paragraphs devoted entirely to my apparent desire for the reader to feel shame about this history, which he couched as my “enthusiasm for telling people off.” He told his readers: “She ticks off the authors of a government pamphlet for not appreciating the colonies’ long histories,” and “reprimands young Voluntary Service Overseas workers.” I apparently “accuse” the Pathe newsreels, and I’m “disappointed” by the Ladybird books (a series of simple and colorful books for young children, both fiction and nonfiction, from fairy tales to history books). He finds ever more synonyms for this: “disapproving,” “tells off,” “reprimands” all feature. He finishes: “And in her conclusion, she takes aim at the biggest target of all — the British people, disappointingly ‘resistant [to] any reappraisal of their nation’s imperial past.’ But I don’t think people are resistant. I think they’re just bored.”

Sandbrook’s response to my work is obviously gendered; male historians are rarely accused of scolding their readers. But as well as downplaying my research as shrewish nagging, Sandbrook demonstrates his discomfort with being asked to reconsider imperial historiographies, or to think critically about the relationship between contemporary Britain and its empire in the past. Being “told off” is an uncomfortable experience, but it is worth pointing out that all of these disapproving verbs are Sandbrooks’ own; he has read schoolmarmish disapproval into the book because — I would guess — he thinks I am trying to make him, and readers like him, feel guilty about their more positive view of empire and imperialism. This was made more explicit in a subsequent rehash of his review in the online magazine The Critic, which was headlined “Spare Us the Wagging Finger.”

People have the right to write bad reviews of any book that they don’t enjoy, but it’s interesting to see how this criticism illuminates particular anxieties and insecurities about historical narratives in Britain today.

There is an increasing tendency to present historians — or, at least, a woke coterie of historians — as po-faced censors, committed to dourly upbraiding our readers as well as our subjects for their moral failings, who demand that people feel guilt and shame for the past. The terms “revisionist” and “moral relativist” are thrown around a lot, without much clarity about what they actually mean. There is a sense among sections of the right that academic history (and academia as a whole) is increasingly being captured by researchers with little technical skill or intellectual ability, who want to use it simply to advance their own brand of identity politics and make everyone else feel bad in the process. But where has this idea, and the increasing gulf between attitudes to the history of empire, come from?

The gap between popular ideas of imperial history — a celebratory look at Britain’s adventurous past — and academic scholarship on imperialism can be traced back at least 30 years. From the early 1990s, in a movement heavily influenced by the postcolonialism of writers like Edward Said, histories of the empire were reframed and reinterrogated. Rather than exploring empires largely via a history of power from above — an elite version of empire focused on governments, armies and geopolitics — historians began to think about the way that imperial power could be understood “from below.” This “new imperial history” movement sought to think about British imperialism as a story that could be told from the perspective of the colonized as well as the colonizer. This soon developed into a corresponding focus on empire as something that happened at home, in the U.K., in the metropole (the center of an empire), as well as on the peripheries, in the colonies. These histories increasingly focused their analysis on race, class, gender, sexuality and other markers of identity as they were shaped by, and shaped, imperialism. This approach — pioneered by historians such as Catherine Hall, Antoinette Burton, Dane Kennedy, Ann Laura Stoler, Bill Schwarz, John Mackenzie and Mrinalini Sinha — became extremely influential in British (and American) university history departments.

The focus on histories from below, and the effort to unpick ideas about Britishness and the legacies of the British Empire in the British metropole, means that these histories are not celebratory stories of imperial conquest. Instead, these are nuanced explorations of material that tells a different tale: Either through looking at different sources, or by returning to the old sources from a different perspective, new imperial historians have constructed a history of British imperialism that explores the colonized and their experiences, as well as the colonizers, centers the importance of empire in the metropole, and rejects a patriotic impetus to prioritize stories portraying Britain as a humane or civilizing imperial force.

However, the wider popular narratives in Britain about imperialism have largely been resistant to these developments. For a long time in Britain, outside the academy imperial history was told as a story of gung-ho adventures, as the British charged around the globe civilizing natives and building railways. Decolonization, if thought about at all, was treated in smug comparison to the brutality of the French, Belgian and Portuguese empires. The British, it was often claimed, had been fundamentally humanitarian in both running and ending their empire. Imperial nostalgia — an aesthetic, as well as political, movement — was part of the British cultural affect around the austerity politics of Cameron’s premiership and the Brexit vote. The British people who voted to take back control from Brussels might not have explicitly imagined a return to an imperial sovereignty in which Britain ruled over a quarter of the globe. But the idea that something had been lost in decolonization (and — sometimes explicitly — in the mass migration of people of color from former colonies to build lives in the former metropole) that might be regained in Brexit was not uncommon in the narratives surrounding the campaign to leave the EU.

In this context, then, it is not surprising that historians of empire who seek to unpick narratives of triumphant conquest and civilizing missions and replace them with stories of brutality, incompetence and exploitation are not popular. This historiographical shift was — legitimately — understood as a political movement, and — less legitimately — seen as a distortion of “real” histories or “serious” scholarship. The BLM movement from 2020 accelerated many institutions’ reckonings with the intersections between their own histories and those of the empire, and of racism and discrimination more widely in British society (which, new imperial historians would tend to argue, were themselves rooted in imperial histories). But this was often met with a fierce backlash, and not only from outside these academic institutions: In the scandal at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, research into the connections between the university and the slave trade was dismissed as a “fad” by emeritus academics who claimed the historical researchers had “an agenda” in developing their research and who tried — but failed — to prevent the publication of the report.

As a historian, it can be difficult to set out what history should actually be for, given this context. I would like to believe that historical knowledge is more than trivia and window dressing, but I am also uncomfortable with the idea that there are lessons to be learned from history that justify its survival as a subject of study. In truth, these lessons from history do not exist, because historical events are contingent, legible only in the context in which they occurred. And so any attempt to use the past in this way is shaped irrevocably by which history books you read, and what conclusions you draw from them, rather than some innate historical reality in which every time you press X button, Y will happen.

People can sometimes appear starry-eyed about the role of history in society: The idea that if we all simply knew better what had gone before, then we would have a more coherent, more intelligent, perhaps even kinder or more just politics today. This would be nice, but again, comes down to which histories you want to engage with and why you want to engage with them. There have been discussions recently about mandating study of the British Empire on the national curriculum for schools in England and Wales (which currently only mandates study of the Holocaust, as well as requiring a sweep of history from medieval to modern and the study of some history beyond Britain). But this well-meaning intervention sidesteps the fact that there are many ways to cast these historical narratives: For decades, British schoolchildren were fed narratives of British colonial expansion as a God-given civilizing mission, supported by a map on the wall showing the colonies in pink. More recently, it is clear that many people remember from their school days only that British campaigners ended the slave trade, rather than the extent to which the British profited from a trade in enslaved peoples throughout the brutal years of its existence. There are many pernicious examples in history textbooks around the world of the ways that the past can be twisted into stories to support national narratives of greatness and glory. History can be a weapon, for anybody who wants to pick it up and use it as one.

Historians have good reason to appreciate that the past can be a burden that weighs heavily on people, communities and movements; exposing the worst excesses of history in the present does not necessarily — or often — mean being able to bring about any justice for those who were injured in the past. But many historians are still motivated by a desire to expose past injustices, or even to try to right historical wrongs, at least rhetorically. History might sometimes usefully be deployed to ask states and institutions to apologize for their past behavior (although historians, more than most people, might be ambivalent about the value of an apology for history) or, for example, to return the obvious plunder of imperial violence. But historians are not writing with the desire to make readers, personally, feel responsible for the wrongs of their ancestors. Much of the defensive critique of these new histories seems to assume that this is the case: that historians are trying to rewrite the past, the facts of which people thought they understood, to make them, today, feel ignorant and guilty. But sometimes we are merely asking our readers to distance themselves: to think, critically, about the histories that they thought they knew, and perhaps to think again.

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