Recent events have raised a lot of important historical questions surrounding race, empire, and the way we think about and commemorate historical figures. In this month’s edition, many writers have aimed to inform us of some of the historical precedents for these decisions and the moral questions we face today surrounding how we memorialise our history. Volume 13 hasn’t just focussed on commemorating throughout history, however, in this, our largest ever edition, we have also aimed to celebrate the work of the students in the department.
The murder of George Floyd sparked protests not only in America but around the world. Protestors took to the streets demanding justice. Many protestors toppled statues and chose to protest in front of statues. The focus on statues is an important gateway to discussing racism and contemporary issues in a historical context. Statues and popular culture often distort history and present a mythic account of the past populated by the good and the bad. The Emancipation Memorial has come under great scrutiny in response to the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Protestors gathered around it demanding its removal. So why has this statue generated such controversy? After all, it is not a statue venerating a confederate soldier. The Statue depicts President Lincoln standing tall and upright bestowing freedom upon a slave knelt before him in gratitude. The monument was erected in 1876 and funded by former slaves. It became the first national monument to depict an African American. The story surrounding its unveiling is both fascinating and illuminating.
The British empire is credited with bringing civilisation and democracy to its colonies, however, it’s important to unpack and understand what this really entailed. One of the consequences of the implementation of British laws was the criminalisation of homosexuality, enforcement of heteronormativity and binary understandings of gender, which were not previously present in many colonies before British occupation.
In October 2015, my three passions in life – history, music and theatre – came together at the National Theatre. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good’, based on Thomas Keneally’s 1987 novel ‘The Playmaker’, followed the remarkable true story of the first British penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia in 1788. This itself drew from Robert Hughes’ encyclopaedic work ‘The Fatal Shore’. Its colonial backdrop and legacy resonate with the current social climate and yearning for a better understanding of this huge part of our history.
On Wednesday 17th June 2020, the governors of Oriel College at Oxford University voted to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes that sits above the town’s high street. A month later, on 15th July, the colonialist’s statue in Cape Town, South Africa was decapitated. What did Rhodes do in order to cause such a reaction in Cape Town? Meanwhile, how do his actions still carry prominence today?
The rise of the nation-state and the trend of nationality has gripped the modern world, most notably in unifying groups of people native to certain territories. The concept of statelessness is that a person is to “not be considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”, as described under international law.
Sometimes stateless people are refugees; sometimes not.
Which Anglo-Saxon kings feature in the popular imagination? Many know of Alfred the Great’s wars against the Vikings; of the infamy of Aethelred ‘the Unready’; of Harold’s defeat at Hastings. The chances are that King Athelstan does not resonate. Yet it was Athelstan’s achievement to ruthlessly bend an island to his will and, in the process, create a single kingdom of England. Curiously, his is a reign forgotten.
Historical figures are ever-increasingly labelled as inherently ‘good’ or ‘evil’, as their entire characters, experiences and deeds are reduced to a singular narrative. This has never been more apparent than in the way we think about and commemorate Winston Churchill. Popular opinion celebrates him as a brilliant wartime hero, the saviour of this country and one of its greatest politicians. Yet a closer look at his actions calls into question how much we can truthfully call him a hero. An estimated 3 million people died as a result of the 1943 Bengal famine, and thousands were forced into concentration camps in South Africa and into what has been termed ‘Britain’s gulag’, set up in Kenya. These are just a few damning events in a career that spanned decades. He made no secret of the way he believed the British empire and British people to be racially superior to any other. And yet, he recognised how his views were a product of the late Victorian era and that his politics were overlaid by a nostalgia for the past.
America has become a peculiar place in recent times. The once global hegemon was the centre of Western Liberalism and the forebearer of democracy. Yet, ongoing civil strife between legislature, institutions and the citizens themselves demonstrate another story. Much of the tense relationship between America’s multiculturalism and its minority white population is obvious when one takes a look at the power of whiteness.