"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
A small article caught my eye this week. Members of staff on the London Underground are want to post stuff on station signboards. Sometimes it's witty, other times profound and on occasions, it marks an anniversary. Thus, it was at Dollis Hill underground station this week.
A message recalled the battle of Rorke's Drift. The 1879 fight between colonial soldiers and the Zulus is scorched in the memory of every British boy. The movie 'Zulu' can claim credit for that. This 1964 account of the epic struggle, during which 150 troops held off 4000 Zulus, was compulsory viewing as I grew up.
“Front rank fire, rear rank fire”, we've all mimicked it on the playground. It's stirring stuff. OK, so the movie wasn't entirely accurate, but who cares.
You'd think marking the anniversary would inform people of this significant event in history. After all. The message was factual.
Even so, someone took offence. A complaint claimed it celebrated colonialism, and Transport for London capitulated. It apologised saying the message was “clearly ill-judged”. The job-worths' ordered it removed. Setting aside the factual nature of the posting, it contained no celebration. It restated historical events without judgment.
The issue here is the ongoing attempts by revisionists and victim-types to find offence in anything. Let’s be clear. Rorke’s Drift took place, British soldiers and Zulus fought valiantly - fact. The Brits held the Zulus off and won a victory of sorts - fact.
We should recognise that this incident is indicative of a new wave washing over us as a judgmental minority dictate their agenda. This process touches on the right to offend, distortions of history, and even free speech.
In the UK and elsewhere, we see calls and action to remove statues associated with the colonial era. Buildings are being renamed to remove designations that some see as uncomfortable. In the US, vandalised Confederate monuments fall.
To the revisionists I’d say, we cannot escape the consequences of our history by airbrushing it. Remember during the Soviet era; you could tell who was in or out of favour by whether they remained in leadership photographs. Those considered non-persons faced erasure. The same is happening with our history.
Most of the current fuss arises from a debate about the pros and cons of empire. In particular, the British Empire. As one of the last of the colonial coppers, sent abroad to police the colonies, I have some insight into these issues. My views and reflections are far too broad to cover here. Save to say it was far from the negative portrayal some modern commentators assert.
These removals and renaming are pointless. We gain nothing except assuaging a few bruised sentiments and big-time virtue signalling. Conceivably, we need these symbols as a reminder and warning. The writer George Santayana cautioned us “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Oxford University recently launched a five-year study to assess the benefits and downsides of the British Empire. It's hoped this can help a balanced debate that sets aside blame agendas. Although, the signs are not promising. The project is already under attack as an absurd “balance sheet argument”.
There is another dimension to this debate that deserves consideration. It’s a dimension that has resonance in the modern world. In essence, it goes like this: if we are strident in being anti-colonialist, because of our imperial past, will we be afraid to come to the aid of those in need?
For example, the West stood-by to watch the 1994 massacre in Rwanda that saw over a one million people killed. Bill Clinton and his cabinet knew it was going to happen; he did nothing. France, Canada, Belgium and the British knew it was going to happen. They did nothing. The inertia was in part fearing criticism of imperial ambitions. Is that the right response?
None of us alive today created the British Empire or any empire for that matter. Although, some people continue to apportion blame on modern day folks. Where does this end? Should I as an Englishman seek to remove references to the Vikings because they invaded the UK? All those unusual Viking names for places could go because I’m offended. Farewell Whitby, Selby, Ormskirk and Skegness.
History is sometimes uncomfortable, but wiping stuff from the record is palpable nonsense. It’s also dangerous.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.