This month’s Turner Prize reminded us of some nasty things in our history. Colonialism, or ‘Robbery with violence’, as Joseph Conrad described it, and our awful role in slavery. The 2017 winner is art professor Lubaina Himid. According to the BBC, the judges praised her ‘uncompromising tackling of issues including colonial history and slavery’. But shouldn’t we wonder why this part of our history needs to be highlighted again, especially in an art competition? The Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and their legacies are already well known (though perhaps not to Turner Prize jurists). And you don’t need to be ‘uncompromising’, original or controversial to attack the bloody, terrible parts of our history which already have no defenders. It’s a safe option. Who would disagree?
Giving too much weight to familiar subjects doesn’t help us understand history, and crowds out less known stories. Many of the institutions which watch over our culture – the BBC, universities, schools and the arts establishment – have helped create a distorted view of ourselves and of earlier worlds by failing to show that our previous crimes were once fairly normal. There have been many systems of slavery and too many empires to count. All empires, from antiquity to the Japanese or Soviet imperialisms of the 20th century, have been based on bloodshed. Anyone surprised to learn that we were not uniquely wicked has not been taught enough history. While we can’t evade the evils in our past by pointing to those of others, singling us out doesn’t make for good history.
Has Professor Himid missed a chance to broaden people’s knowledge of other equally important histories through linking to a side of her own heritage? Although moving to the UK as an infant, she was born in Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania. For a period a Portuguese colony, it was for centuries either side of Portuguese rule a hub of the Arab slave trade, which preceded, outlasted and easily matched Atlantic slavery for cruelty.
As well as having its own domestic slave economy, Zanzibar was a base for raids into the African interior and a market for captives. Its harbour was the last place countless victims saw before shipment to the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent. It was a scene of misery and terrible violence. Professor Hamid’s choice of subject is of course legitimate and needs no one’s permission. Her birthplace means no obligation to deal with slavery in Zanzibar rather than Jamaica or Virginia. How interesting it could have been, though, for a Zanzibar-born artist to explore instead forms of slavery and colonialism which are unknown to so many people.
You can’t measure imbalances in public knowledge between transatlantic and Arab slavery or between the British and other, often worse, empires. But you can guess they are substantial. Yet many of the sources from which people get their history show little interest in correcting them. There is much on the BBC’s webpages about Atlantic slavery but Arab slavery is barely mentioned. Schools and universities do little better. You will find equally little on the complicity of Africans and African nations in slavery, a subject often euphemised almost to non-existence. Yet without enthusiastic African participation, mass slavery would have been impossible.
Omission in history is a powerful thing. Our educational system and media tell us about Nazism but don’t give similar treatment to Stalin’s murder camps or the Great Leap Forward. People who think Che Guevara is just the face on a cool radical poster, rather than the vicious murderer he was, won’t understand much of the modern world. You need history to understand politics.
But we so often lack it. When the Left campaigns to make Gladstone an ‘unperson’ because of his family’s links to slavery, or schools change their names to dissociate themselves from 18th century slave merchants, are they telling us something useful or have they missed important truths about how nasty so many nations have been when given the opportunity? Although this country learnt respect for human freedom and dignity in an uneven patchy process, we are no worse and often better than others. Saudi Arabia legally abolished full-blown slavery only in 1962, Mauritania in 1981. Even if not recognised as formal slavery, the gross exploitation and forced ‘ownership’ of human labour continues today. Probably most humans who have ever lived have been subjected to oppression in some form. From Russian serfdom to India’s caste system or indentured labour, few people in earlier times have been completely free.
We used to teach history that exalted imperialism, inflated our national pride and denigrated others. That was wrong. But now we have replaced jingoism with the equally false idea that our history (and the history of a handful of other western nations) was especially rotten. In truth, it’s humanity’s history that’s rotten, not just ours. Now that Britain’s practitioners of slavery and enforcers of empire are dead, we have no need to feel ashamed of ourselves. And we should all read a lot more history.