• Berklee Baum

Empty Spaces: Where are the Statues to Imperial Victims?

In the midst of a revolution against problematic historical statues, we might reflect on the statues that do not exist. Although the UK abounds in memorials dedicated to its achievements and conquests, it lacks self-reflective memorials of events in which it was the guilty party. This is not because the histories of the UK and British Empire are void of guilt; on the contrary, the British Empire had a hand in many terrible historical events, some of which can be defined as genocide.[1] Yet, these events are not memorialized.


This article looks at how the UK has been keen to memorialize others’ bad choices, but seems blind in respect to its own. This concept is neatly demonstrated by the attention given to Holocaust memorialization in the UK, in contrast to the complete lack of memorialization to any event in which the UK is seen in a bad light. The Holocaust Exhibition in the Imperial War Museum in London provides a great case study.

Man’s Inhumanity to Man

The idea for a permanent national Holocaust exhibition in the UK began to take root in the early 1990s, and it was decided that the Imperial War Museum would be the place to house such an exhibit. From the outset, the project was called ‘Man’s Inhumanity to Man’ and contained two parts: the Holocaust exhibition and a ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ exhibition, which was to cover other genocides. This second exhibition was completed and opened in 2002, two years after the first exhibition, and closed in 2013. It is easy to see why the exhibit was delayed and eventually closed, as the subject of the section raised awkward questions about Britain’s own history.[2] In the historical narrative presented about the Holocaust, the British can be seen as liberating heroes, with a few misguided steps along the way. By highlighting other genocides, however, the second exhibition risked confronting Britain’s own imperial past. Although it addressed many genocides, it completely ignored any events in which the United Kingdom had played a negative role—which is a conspicuous omission, as the exhibition was located in the Imperial War Museum, with its echoes of past subjugation.[3]

Examples of genocide within the British Empire are not hard to find, especially when the exhibition itself taught that the term genocide is as applicable to the destruction of indigenous communities and cultures as it is to gas chambers. Instances of British imperial actions analogous to genocide are multiple, be it in Ireland, India, Kenya, North America, Australia, Asia, or elsewhere. The original plans for the ‘Man’s Inhumanity to Man’ exhibition stated that ‘the Museum takes an objective stance in its depiction of the past and will endeavour to ensure that it presents a truthful and balanced account of these elements of the story’[4], but this did not seem to extend to the ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ exhibition. It is not surprising that the latter exhibition eventually closed, leaving the Holocaust as the solitary manifestation of modern genocide featured in the museum.

Empty Spaces

The proposed Holocaust memorial site, Victoria Tower Gardens

This pattern of only memorializing genocides that Britain did not commit continues throughout the country. Right now there is a Holocaust memorial underway in London—a project that has already been allocated £75 million from the government.[5] Other small Holocaust memorials exist, along with two small memorials dedicated to the Armenian Genocide (perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire): one in Wales and one in London.


Yet there is not a single memorial for the genocide in Tasmania, in which the British were responsible for the destruction of nearly the entire Tasmanian population.[6] Nor is there a memorial to the immense number of people killed by British Imperial activities in Asia, Australia, the Americas, Africa, or Caribbean. Celebratory memorials to imperialism abound, as can be seen by the other articles on this blog. Yet none of these memorials are self-critical, looking at the devastating consequences of the British imperial actions.


This same pattern holds true in the memorialization of slavery. Several small memorials to slavery exist throughout the country, but most, such as the Buxton Memorial Fountain in London, are dedicated to the abolition of slavery, and specifically Parliament’s role in that event. They exist to celebrate the good that the British did in abolishing slavery, instead of remembering the hundreds of years in which Britain actively participated in the purchase, transportation, sale, and ownership of people throughout its colonies.

Buxton Memorial Fountain

A Biased National Curriculum

The inability of the UK to memorialize their negative actions also extends to the national curriculum.[7] A teacher may choose how to teach certain aspects of the curriculum, including which events to cover, but it is important to analyse what the UK requires their students to be taught. The history curriculum for primary and secondary education revolves around Britain’s 'achievements', ignoring its faults. The national curriculum does not mention the devastating impact of imperialism abroad. It hardly refers to Ireland and India, and the harm done to them (including the Bengal Famine and Partition) is not discussed at all. Slavery is mentioned only in conjunction with abolition, and is labelled as an 'optional' topic.


Several notable words are simply absent, including ‘Africa’, ‘imperial’, and ‘genocide’. The Holocaust, on the other hand, is listed as a required topic. The Holocaust should be required, but it is alarming that other genocides and slavery are not. The UK government requires the teaching of a genocide in which they were not the perpetrator, while ignoring those they were responsible for.

Filling the Gap

This lack of self-reflection needs to be addressed and rectified. What are memorials for, if not to remember those who came before and to learn from the mistakes of the past? The same can be said about the national curriculum. By avoiding teaching about the oppressive events in British history, the country is saying that the people they conquered, enslaved, and destroyed are not worth remembering. We cannot let these people be forgotten. We must fill the empty spaces of memory.


Written by Berklee Baum



References:

[1] See previous blog posts on the Mau Mau Uprising and the Bengal Famine, as well as footnotes 3 and 6.


[2] Rebecca Jinks, ‘Holocaust Memory and Contemporary Atrocities: The Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition and Crimes Against Humanity’, in C. Sharples and O. Jensen (eds.), Britain and the Holocaust: Remembering and Representing War and Genocide (2013) pp. 144-159.

[3] Tom Lawson, ‘The Holocaust and Colonial Genocide at the Imperial War Museum’, in C. Sharples and O. Jensen (eds.), Britain and the Holocaust: Remembering and Representing War and Genocide (2013) pp. 160-170. [4] ‘Man’s Inhumanity to Man’, Aug. 1995, IWM files, HGH/A/01/001/001. [5] GOV.UK, ‘Prime Minister leads unprecedented support for Holocaust Memorial’ (7 May 2019), https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-leads-unprecedented-support-for-holocaust-memorial-as-further-25m-committed (Sept 2020). [6] Tom Lawson, ‘A British Genocide in Tasmania’, History Today 64/7 (2014), pp. 18-20. [7] National Curriculum in England: History Programmes of Study, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study

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