THE BBC is considering dropping Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory from the Last Night of the Proms due to perceived links with colonialism and slavery. Professor Kehinde Andrews has made the assertion that the song is ‘racist propaganda which celebrates the British Empire which killed tens of millions of people, many of which like myself are descendants of those victims of colonialism’. Musician Chi-chi Nwanoku has also explicitly linked the song with exploitation of defenceless peoples. She said: ‘If the BBC are talking about Black Lives Matter and their support for the movement, how could you possibly have Rule Britannia [at the Last Night of the Proms]?’.
They appear to assume that because such songs were sung in praise of Great Britain during her imperial period they automatically condone racism.
Some, like the activist Inaya Folarin Iman, have disagreed. They do not want to be locked in a mindset of self-loathing or victimhood. They are capable of seeing the best parts of the British empire alongside its worst. That said, the BBC are well known for bowing before the offended. Will a protest from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and an intervention from the Prime Minister be enough to make them change their tune?
Sadly, the debate over Rule Britannia is yet another case of an obsession with empire and racism unnecessarily overwhelming a part of our culture and blinding the public to its true history and meaning. Written by James Thomson (words) and Thomas Arne (music) for the 1740 masque Alfred [the Great], the piece speaks of Britain standing independent from foreign tyrants, while lesser nations sink to despotism:
‘The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.’
The song makes veiled references to bringing these despotisms low (as if that itself is shameful!)
‘Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.’
Overall, the theme centres around Britain being free from tyranny :
‘The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown’d,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.’
The refrain of course is:
‘Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves:
Britons never, never, never will be slaves.’
There is no mention of race whatsoever. Britons (whatever their colour or creed) never, never, never will be slaves! What could possibly be objectionable about such a song?
That the song became associated with the Royal Navy only emphasises the non-imperial nature of the tune. As the naval historian NAM Rodger has asserted, naval power is generally very well suited to preserving international order without resorting to conquest. As Professor Rodger uncovered in his great work The Safeguard of the Sea, Saxon naval power was sufficiently effective to preserve the kingdoms of both Irish and Welsh kings by suppressing piracy and ensuring that the Saxons had the means to intervene in Wales or Ireland if absolutely necessary. Deploying armies through mobile sea transport allowed the Saxons to keep their men at home without needing hated foreign garrisons or occupying armies.
It was on British battleships sailing out to defend Britain from French seapower that Rule Britannia was first sung by common Britons, and they did so in the full knowledge that those ships were sent out to defend Britons from the Louisian tyranny. This allowed Europe to remain free when Napoleon made his bid for conquest. The Navy also played its part in enforcing the Munroe Doctrine, keeping South America free of Spanish rule. Furthermore, the West Africa Squadron repaid our moral debt to Africa by annihilating the slave trade. Critics may rightly object that the 18th century slowly devolved to imperial occupation of India, or the eventual invasion of West Africa, but the fact remains that only the Army could perform such a feat. The Navy’s primary tasks were the suppression of piracy and the defence of the homeland against invasion. While the service was also commanded to transport armies to foreign climes and bombard foreign shores, the majority of imperial excesses can be attributed to other imperial institutions. British battleships escorted officials across the oceans to govern and police India – such ships did not slaughter innocents in Delhi in 1857 (such innocents were of course killed in response to Brits killed at Cawnpore).
Now the Navy remains while the empire has gone. It continues to defend Britain. Expelling a song associated with such a noble institution would be another betrayal of our values in the face of an unthinking sweeping prejudice.
Let Britannia rule. We are not slaves.
Editor’s note: Since this article was written, the BBC has announced that Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory will be performed in orchestral versions at the Last Night of the Proms. There will be no singing of the words.