Remembering and Forgetting
Saturday, June 13th, 2020
History is about remembering and forgetting, it has to be. Most of history is of course forgotten. The current debate on what we choose to remember in the United Kingdom in the wake of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests is also about deciding today what we choose to hold on to and what we choose to forget. There is no objectivity to remembering history, just different standpoints that tell us and others who we are today.
Here we are, in Brexit Britain preparing for a new Britain that is going to reach out in trade to the rest of the world. How do we present ourselves to so many of those people who are in fact the descendants of those we colonised in the past?
As many people have asked, why was there a statue of Edward Colston in the heart of Bristol in the first place? Oriel College, one of the oldest Oxford colleges, was founded in 1326 but the statue for Cecil Rhodes was only put up in 1911 as part of the Rhodes building. Today, there is a statue to Clive of India outside the Foreign Office. William Dalrymple, whose new book The Anarchy details the exploits of Clive writes that ‘Clive came to be seen as the monstrous embodiment of the East India Company’s violence and corruption’. And yet his statue is in the heart of Westminster, are we seeking to inspire new Clives?
We choose to remember and we choose to forget also. Forgetting can be an active process. The Foreign Office decided to destroy, in the middle of the last century, many documents kept in ‘colonial countries’ that the United Kingdom was shortly to leave. This was known in some of those countries as ‘Operation Legacy’. Many documents were burnt, so that things could be forgotten. As one British officer exclaimed ‘What’s burnt won’t be missed!’ Another remarkable moment in history was when King Edward VII ordered the burning of almost all the correspondence between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim immediately after her funeral. The Munshi was her closest confidant in her later years, and he was almost forgotten.
So remembering and forgetting are not passive, they are active processes of construction and reconstruction. This is not about truth and lies, it is choosing to decide who we want to be today and tomorrow.