News ID: 274288
Published: 0258 GMT September 16, 2020

UK needs a museum of colonialism, says historian William Dalrymple

UK needs a museum of colonialism, says historian William Dalrymple

Britain should set up a “museum of colonialism” where children will be able to learn about “the really terrible things that happened in our past,” the historian William Dalrymple said.

Dalrymple, speaking in the final debate at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) on whether statues in Britain of former imperial heroes who would now be seen as war criminals should be placed in a museum of colonialism, or stay where they are, said that while he “certainly wouldn’t want to see most of the nation’s statues torn down,” people “have to use discrimination.” The debate followed the toppling of the statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol in June, the Guardian reported.

“When we go to Germany we do not expect to see Hitler or any of the Nazi war criminals, and in the same way we have to weed out war criminals from our country,” Dalrymple said. “It’s not a matter of being woke or a matter of being fashionable or trendy but it’s being realistic about some of the really terrible things that happened in our past and teaching them to our children. If we put them in a museum of colonialism, this is an opportunity to teach, because we can set up a museum, which will do what at the moment the curriculum fails to do.”

The historian pointed to statues of characters such as Brigadier General John Nicholson, who proposed “the flaying alive, impalement or burning of the murderers of (British) women and children,” and whom he refers to in his book, ‘The Last Mughal,’ as an “imperial psychopath” with a “merciless capacity for extreme aggression and brutality.”

Major General Sir Henry Havelock “did the same and murdered, between Campbell and himself, around 100,000 non-combatants in Lucknow and Cawnpore. These are people we would describe as war criminals anywhere else,” he said.

Dalrymple said that the history curriculum for British school children sees them move “from Henry VIII to Wilberforce and the impression they get is that the British Empire was always about liberating slaves and always about anti-racism.”

“The things the British did in India and elsewhere are simply not taught in the syllabus and this is a problem,” Dalrymple said. “When the British go out into the world, they don’t know what Indians know about the Raj or what the Irish know about the potato famine, they don’t know what the Australians know about the mass extinction of the Indigenous Tasmanians, so we need to teach this in our schools and the opportunity of setting up a museum of colonialism with some of these war criminals and other statues seems to me an opportunity we must take.”

The historian Edward Chancellor, also speaking at JLF, disagreed. “The current statue-bashing is part of the woke movement with its cancel culture, denunciations, forced confessions, censorship, intolerance and profound anti-intellectualism,” he said.

“Give an inch to these people and no statue will be left standing,” he continued. “It is an assault on the values of the Enlightenment and espouses a cultural nihilism. Behind this is a woke approach to history that is ill-informed, one-sided and anachronistic. It can’t understand or accept that different periods have different values and that the historian should strive to be impartial.”

The journalist Swapan Dasgupta, who was also speaking in the debate, was similarly against removing statues. “History was never going to be written on the basis of how one statue in Bristol looked,” he said. “This is not an attempt to rewrite history or make history a little more even-handed. What it really amounts to is airbrushing history, throwing out a lot of unconformable things, and believing in sanitizing the past to make it palpable to contemporary morality.”

Asked if statues in Britain should be removed to a museum of colonialism, 53 percent of the debate’s audience said they should be, while 47 percent said they should not.


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