The government has just agreed to pay twenty million pounds to over five thousand Kenyans tortured under British rule during the Mau Mau uprising in the fifties. William Hague, in a commendably sober speech, accepted that the victims had suffered pain and grief. Out rode Military expert Sir Max Hastings, apoplectic, a very furious Mad Max. Gabriel Gatehouse, the BBC Radio4 reporter who interviewed survivors: ‘should die of shame’, roared the Knight of the realm. Kenyan Human Rights organisations and native oral testimonies could not be trusted; the real baddies were the Mau Mau; no other nation guilty of crimes ever pays compensation and expresses endless guilt and finally there ‘comes a moment when you have to draw a line under it’. Actually Sir, the Japanese did compensate our POWs in 2000 and Germany has never stopped paying for what it did to Jewish people.
The UK chooses to relive historical episodes of glory- and there were indeed many of those- but also glorifies those periods which were anything but glorious, and wilfully edits out the dark, unholy, inconvenient parts of the national story. Several other ex-imperial nations do the same. In Turkey it is illegal to talk publicly about the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans ; France has neatly erased its vicious rule in Arab lands; the US only remembers its own dead in the Vietnam War not the devastation of that country and its people. GB proudly remembers the Abolitionists but gets very tetchy when asked to remember slavery without which there would have been no need for Abolition. The Raj is still seen as a civilizing mission not as a project of greed and subjugation. Not all the empire builders were personally evil, but occupation and unwanted rule is always morally objectionable. Tony Blair was probably taught too much of the aggrandizing stuff and not enough about the ethics of Empire. The Scots, in any case, in spite of being totally involved, have offloaded all culpability for slavery and Empire on to the English. Their post-devolution history has been polished up well. But it is a flattering, falsifying mirror.
Indian history, as retold by William Dalrymple and Pankaj Mishra, among others, is very different from the ‘patriotic’ accounts Britons been fed for over a century. The 1857, Indian Uprising, for example was a violent rebellion during which British men, women and children were murdered (so too was the Mau Mau insurrection) but the reprisals were much crueller and against many more people, many innocent. Our War on Terror is just as asymmetrical.
Today we get to hear plans to mark the centenary of the start of World War 1. The coalition government wants to spin this terrible conflict into another victory fest in 2014. Brits addicted to war memorialising will cheer. Michael Gove will have our children remembering only the ‘greatness’ of the Great War and David Cameron will pledge millions of pounds for events which will stress the national spirit and be as affirming as ‘the diamond Jubilee celebrations’. I bet Max Hastings won’t ask for a line to be drawn under that bit of the nation’s past.
A group of writers, actors and politicians, including Jude Law, Tony Benn, Harriet Walter, Tim Pigott-Smith, Ralph Steadman, Simon Callow, Michael Morpurgo and Carol Anne Duffy has expressed concern that such a ‘military disaster and human catastrophe’ is to be turned into another big party: ‘We believe it is important to remember that this was a war that was driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe and caused a degree of suffering all too clear in the statistical record of 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded’. After 1916 soldiers were conscripted from the poorest of families. The officer classes saw them as fodder. Traumatised soldiers, as we know, were shot. In school back in Uganda, I learnt the only words of Latin I know, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. His poems got into my heart and there they stay.
Let’s not expect the Establishment keepers of our past to dwell unduly on those facts and figures or to acknowledge the land grabs in Africa in the latter part of the 19th Century which led to that gruesome war or to remember how it played out on that continent. With the focus forever on the fields of Flanders, forgotten are those other theatres of that war, in East Africa, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere.
In Tanganyika, where my mother was born, the Germans played dirty and the British fought back using over 130,000 African and Indian soldiers, thousands of them who died horrible deaths. Her father told her stories of, yes, torture by whites on both sides, trees bent over with strung up bodies, some pregnant women, and fear you could smell on people and in homes. Edward Paice’s book Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa, ( Phoenix, 2007) finally broke the long conspiracy of partiality.
The historical truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth matters. It is hard to get at and forever contested, but the aspiration still matters more than almost anything else in a nation’s self-portrait. With incomplete verities and doctored narratives, younger generations are bound to repeat the mistakes and vanities of the past. There will be a third global war because not enough lessons were learnt about earlier, major modern conflicts. And then our world will end.
The Independent 1/7/2013