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Letter: Labelling the Past ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ Makes Us All Stupider

Published on: 27 Jul, 2020
Updated on: 27 Jul, 2020

From David Roberts

In response to: We Should Not Brush Centuries of Slave Trading, Before Abolition, Under the Rug

As a history graduate, I broadly agree with Cllr Potter that ‘our island story’ has been horribly slanted in schools to make us feel good about abolition while airbrushing out what preceded it.

Still, I find words like “plundered” slightly too loaded when describing the complex phenomenon of empire. It’s hard to think of any society in the world that hasn’t done its level best to rob and enslave others – from Roman and Arab to Chinese, Aztec and even Maori. No less exploitative, Russia had serfdom, until the nineteenth century, as did Western Europe in the Middle Ages.

I’m more ashamed of modern slavery in the sweat-shops of Leicester and cockle-beds of Lancashire than I am of Britain’s contradictory past.

So let’s cut the moralising in either direction and accept that the purpose of history, museums and monuments is to preserve, record and interpret the past in order to enlarge public understanding and challenge sloppy prejudices.

The British empire was a paradigm of early- and late-modern colonialism and is a vast resource for study and analysis, on which we’ve barely yet embarked. Every time we label the past good or bad, or selectively hide or destroy its relics, we become poorer and stupider.

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Responses to Letter: Labelling the Past ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ Makes Us All Stupider

  1. David Middleton Reply

    July 27, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    Well said.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    July 27, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    Very well said. The council could improve significantly if it had this level of intellect.

  3. Stuart Barnes Reply

    July 28, 2020 at 9:08 am

    It was the greatest empire that the world has ever seen and did an immense amount of good.

  4. David Roberts Reply

    July 31, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    It is right that the British Empire was the largest ever, but only because the Romans, Arabs and Incas lacked its technologies. You can also say that it left good legacies: democracy in the US and India, English as a global language etc.

    Equally, you can say that it was systemically harmful: West Indian slavery, the Irish potato famine and the Amritsar massacre were not just isolated mishaps.

    My point, however, is that there is no purpose to sticking moral labels on complex phenomena except to reinforce existing prejudices. Why do the pro’s and anti’s persist in this instead of learning more?

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