It Is Time for Anti-Imperialists to Tell the Story of War
Just as the ‘civilising’ message was used by colonial regimes to pursue economic and political advantage, the ‘humanitarian’ message is used today says Terina Hine
The British imperialist myth is represented around the country by thousands of public statues and works of art; ‘heroes’ of wars and oppression litter our town halls and city centres.
Mostly we walk past hardly noticing these overbearing figures of stone and bronze, and pay only scant attention to the grand artworks and frescos which adorn the walls of public buildings. When we do notice them, we often have no idea who they are or what they represent. But their presence defines the narrative we are told about our ‘nation’s story’.
Designed as reference points to an official version of history, such monuments reflect the politics of their makers and sponsors - the British state and the elites that run it. They create a narrative, mythologising events and individuals and do what Boris Johnson tells us we should not - re-write history.
Two prime examples take pride of place inside and immediately outside the Foreign Office. The statue of Clive of India stands proudly between two great ministries of state - the Foreign Office and the Treasury - while the Goetze Murals flank the Grand Staircase in the Foreign Office’s main entrance.
The Goetze Murals, painted early in the twentieth century, represent the British Empire - its origins and triumphs - portraying the British as a superior race. The huge murals, which completely dominate the entrance of the Foreign Office, are unquestionably and unsubtly racist. Reportedly much to the embarrassment of former Labour Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook.
The five Empire Murals depict an imperial vision in which nations are personified: in the Britannia Pacificatrix, the regal Britannia is surrounded by her dominions - the white colonies of Canada, New Zealand, Australia are represented by muscular young men, while Africa is a small, naked child who stands alone in the corner with a basket of fruit - an offering - on his head. Goetze intended the infant to be a reminder of Britain’s “obligations” and “possibilities” in the “dark continent”. Victorian notions of racial hierarchy are clear to see.
The murals have always been controversial, even when first painted, and as a result of the recent Black Lives Matter protests Labour’s new Shadow Foreign Secretary has once again questioned whether they should remain in such an iconic and politically powerful location.
As for the statue of Clive outside, in a recent Guardian article the historian William Dalrymple wrote: “Honouring the man once known as Lord Vulture is a testament to British ignorance of our imperial past ….When Robert Clive, who established British rule in India, died by his own hand in 1774, he was widely reviled as one of the most hated men in England.”
Like many of the Confederate statues in the US, our imperial monuments were commissioned deliberately to transmit a political message and hide a less than palatable past.
In the southern states of the US, Confederate statues were created en masse in response to the civil rights movement in the 1960s - a desperate attempt to rally to the cause of white supremacists. The Clive of India statue was similarly erected many years after his death, at a time when the Empire was being attacked and the British state felt the need to promote colonialism as a source for good.
Again, in response to the recent protests, there’s a growing campaign to have the statue removed.
By sculpting an official view of our imperial past, glorifying those who died by the sword in imperial battles and colonial wars, or those who adventured and ‘settled’ foreign lands, a new narrative was created - one in which the British civilise ‘natives’ and bring progress to the rest of the world.
It is this narrative which is regurgitated every time the state wants to lead us into a new war. It was not just Victorian colonialists who were on a civilising mission.
In 1999, Tony Blair famously expressed his doctrine for ‘humanitarian’ military intervention, saying that the West should apply its economic and military might to make the world a better place.
In 2001, we were told by the US President’s wife, Laura Bush, that an aim of the invasion of Afghanistan was to liberate women. In a speech in November of that year she said that "civilized people" had an "obligation to speak out" across the world against what was happening to Afghan women.
George W. Bush, banging the drums of war in 2002, said that Saddam Hussein was a “tyrant” and the Iraqi people were in need of protection; that “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region. Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace and set in motion progress towards a fully democratic Palestinian state.”
We heard the same in the arguments around intervention in Libya and Syria.
Just as the ‘civilising’ message of the past was used by colonial regimes to pursue economic and political advantage, the ‘humanitarian’ and ‘democratising’ message is used today.
The consequences of mythologising and editing our history is clear to see. We live in a society where past imperial endeavours are portrayed as honourable and a force for good, and this view continues to shape current debates around foreign policy and war.
Arguments in favour of ‘humanitarian’ intervention, for the ‘enlightened’ West to spread democracy and end tyranny, are used again and again to justify invasion and occupation. The reality is that such interventions perpetuate an imperial legacy of oppression and extortion.
Black Lives Matter protestors have started a national conversation about our history and imperial past. It is a conversation which is about much more than stone and bronze; it is about how we chose to define our past and how through it we are able to contextualise the present.
As an anti-war movement we must keep up the pressure to challenge the imperial narrative. It is our turn to tell the story of war.