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Erasing history

November 19, 2020

A history professor ruminating on Britain’s retreat from empire explains what actually erases history:

At the empire’s late-Victorian apogee, Rudyard Kipling had enjoined his compatriots to contemplate the ruins of fallen powers with humility: “Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget!” In the event, an apter motto for Britain’s imperial retreat was “Best we forget.” In one colony after another, as the former Guardian journalist Ian Cobain details in his 2016 book, “The History Thieves,” the British went down in a blaze of documents. A reporter in Cairo during the Suez Crisis recalled standing on the lawn of the British Embassy “ankle deep in the ashes of burning files.” Twelve days before Malaya’s independence, in 1957, British soldiers in Kuala Lumpur loaded trucks with boxes of records to be driven down to Singapore and, a colonial official reported, “destroyed in the Navy’s splendid incinerator.” In 1961, recognizing that “it would perhaps be a little unfortunate to celebrate Independence Day with smoke,” the Colonial Office advised the governor of Trinidad and Tobago to get an early start, and told him that he could also pack files into weighted crates and drop them into the sea. In British Guiana, in 1965, two women hovered over a forty-four-gallon drum on the Government House grounds carrying out what their boss described as “the hot and wearing work” of cremating files. What colonial officials didn’t destroy, they hid. In Nairobi, nine days before Kenya became independent, four packing crates of sensitive papers were hustled into a plane and flown to London Gatwick, where a government official supervised their transfer into storage. These, along with thousands of other colonial files, ended up stashed behind the razor wire of Hanslope Park, in Buckinghamshire, an intelligence facility dedicated to communications security—that is, to keeping secrets. “Erasing history” is a charge invariably lobbed at those who want to remove the statues of contentious figures. But taking down a statue isn’t erasing history; it’s revising cultural priorities.

Few people actually are interested in history. Including most who say otherwise. What they want is a comfortable backstory that glorifies their ancestors, validates their cultural outlook, acts as surrogate political argument, justifies their behavior. And preachers and authors and media producers and even, alas, many history teachers are eager to provide that.

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