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  • Writer's pictureLivi Adu

Where do I start with Decolonising British History?

Uncovering the True Legacy of the British Empire.

I began my journey of decolonisation with the Museum Association's Decolonisation Collective. It showed me an entirely different way of thinking, freeing me of burdens I never knew how or why had been put upon me. Understanding the Legacies of the British Empire has opened my mind to how museums can unify people behind a single narrative or facilitate spaces to explore how history has affected us all differently. Almost every museum collection in the UK has relevant material in its displays, stores and archives to explore decolonisation. In this article, we will delve into the lesser-known aspects of British history, illuminating the hidden chapters of colonialism, exploitation, and wealth extraction. By understanding and acknowledging this history, we can begin the process of decolonising our understanding of the past and creating a more inclusive and accurate narrative.

Britain's Imperial Origins

British history is often taught from a nationalistic perspective, focusing on the achievements and events that took place within the territorial bounds of the nation. However, this narrow view overlooks the extensive and complex history of the British Empire and its lasting impact on the world. The history of Britain as an empire began long before the formation of the United Kingdom. In fact, Britain itself only came into being in 1707 with the Act of Union between England and Scotland. The union with Ireland followed in 1801. The creation of a unitary state with a single government occurred after England and Scotland's colonial endeavours, which included expansion into the Americas, Asia, and Africa. By the early twentieth century, the United Kingdom governed over a quarter of the Earth's territory and one-fifth of its population.

Erasure in Popular Discourse

Despite the vast extent of the British Empire and its ongoing implications, its history has often been overlooked or truncated in popular discourse and media commentary. Initiatives such as the national curriculum have reduced the teaching of history to a simplified narrative known as "Our Island Story," which fails to account for the broader global context of British history. This narrative presents Britain as a nation separate from its imperial connections, perpetuating a false sense of national identity.

Early Imperial Activities: Exploitation and Slavery

The early seventeenth century saw the emergence of joint-stock companies like the East India Company and the Virginia Company, which engaged in trade and colonial activities. The British monarchy granted these companies charters to explore opportunities for trade in Asia and colonize the Americas. The establishment of settlements like Jamestown and the Thirteen Colonies resulted in the displacement and dispossession of countless indigenous peoples. The East India Company played a significant role in exploiting the resources of its colonies, including the trade of goods from Asia, gold and ivory from West Africa, and the transportation of enslaved Africans to the Americas. The Royal African Company, chartered by Charles II, profited from selling enslaved people to the colonies across the Atlantic. The profits and dividends from these colonial enterprises, along with customs revenue and loans to the state, contributed to the immense wealth amassed by Britain.

The Company-State: Sovereignty and Authority

The East India Company evolved from a trading company to a company-state with overlapping forms of sovereignty and authority. It acquired territory, minted money, and even engaged in military conflicts. The support of the British state was crucial to the survival and success of the company, as it provided military assistance during wars and maintained a complex relationship with the Crown and Parliament. The company's transformation into a colonial power became more pronounced in the late eighteenth century with the Battle of Plassey and the establishment of direct British rule in India.

British Gunboat Diplomacy and Exploitation

The loss of the American colonies in 1776 led Britain to shift its attention to the East, intensifying its colonial activities in Asia. The British Empire expanded its markets through gunboat diplomacy, forcing China to open up its borders to international trade. The opium trade with China, initially authorized by the British government, became a significant source of revenue for Britain. This period also witnessed the establishment of tea plantations in Darjeeling, India, using stolen knowledge from China, and the transportation of indentured workers from India, China, and the Pacific to British colonies.

Political world map showing the regions of the world colonised by the British, this countries are highlighted in red. the map has a decrative boarder showing white women draped in cloth at the top . at the bottom of the boarder has a image of Britannia holding a trident and a shild with the union jack on it, sat on  the globe. to the left is a  brown woman looking up at Britannia holding a cornicopia and a kangaroo next to her. on the right hand side of the boarder is anither brown woman with her back to the viewer and looking up at Britannia, while holding a peacock fan. to the left of her is a tiger and a brown man  hunched over carrying a heavy package on his back.
Map of the world showing the extent of the British empire in 1886. Imagery like this was used frequently as propaganda for the British Empire, to show that Britain was the ruler of the world.

Colonial Drain and Exploitation

During the rule of the East India Company and direct British rule, immense wealth was extracted from India through official transfers, taxes, and the exploitation of resources. The funds raised from India and other colonies were used to finance the Industrial Revolution, build infrastructure, endow museums and educational institutions, and establish country houses and estates. The draining of wealth from India alone has been estimated to be over $45 trillion.

The Forgotten Contributions from the Colonies

In the context of the two world wars, the contributions of the British Empire are often overlooked. In both wars, India made significant contributions, providing millions of personnel and financing much of the war effort. Despite their sacrifices, the colonies continued to be heavily taxed, leading to inflation, famines, and immense suffering. The legacy of exploitation and extraction continued long after the dissolution of the British Empire, with former colonies still bearing the economic and social burdens.

Commemoration or tokenism?

In 1916, Empire Day celebrations and exhibitions were an established part of the national calendar. Images that celebrated Great Britain’s colonial reach and influence infused advertising and all aspects of the visual cultural landscape. Tastes for imported goods impacted our food, design, fashion, and all aspects of commodity culture. We don’t have to look very far. But if empire went from being something that a nation celebrated uncritically without thinking about the impact on its subjects abroad to a place of shameful forgetting, we can perhaps begin to understand the reasons why drawing attention to this now is potentially a cause for discomfort and anger. And once we understand this, we can begin to address it, and the reasons why sweeping it under the carpet again won’t help in the long-term.

Museum exhibition of objects looted during colonial occupation Including Benin Bronze and other sculptures of historical significance to the African Diaspora
Repatriation of objects and narratives are essential to restoring trust in our heritage institutions.

Repatriating Object Biographies: Challenging Colonial Narratives in Museums

Decolonising British history also involves challenging the narratives presented in museums. The Repatriation and Object Biographies project aims to acknowledge the historical significance and cultural heritage of enslaved individuals by symbolically repatriating object biographies at former plantation sites. This project challenges the universal narrative presented by institutions like the British Museum, which often fail to address the provenance and repatriation of objects. By diversifying narratives and empowering formerly excluded voices, this project seeks to present a more comprehensive and accurate representation of history and culture.

The Imperative for Decolonisation

Decolonising British history is not about erasing or censoring the past; it is about acknowledging the full complexity and impact of the British Empire. By understanding the exploitative nature of colonialism, the wealth extraction, and the ongoing legacies of empire, we can begin to address the inequalities and injustices that persist today. Decolonising the curriculum, museums, and public spaces is essential for creating a more inclusive and accurate understanding of our shared history and shaping a more equitable future. This gives us so many opportunities to learn more about our ancestors, their contributions and how the legacies of empire still affect us today.

Conclusion: Let us Embrace New Narratives

Embracing the process of decolonisation requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of British history. It involves acknowledging the brutalities and exploitations of the British Empire, the wealth extraction, and the ongoing legacies of empire. By revisiting and diversifying narratives, repatriating object biographies, and empowering marginalized voices, we can create a more inclusive and accurate representation of history. Through this process, we can begin to address the historical inequalities and shape a more equitable society for all. If you would like to learn more about how to decolonisation in museums, it is well worth checking out the Museums Association's decolonisation Campaign:




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