Current Affairs Without History

Current affairs cannot be understood without an appreciation of history. It goes without saying that history is an ongoing process, and that the status quo of politics and international relations in which we operate is the culmination of centuries of events. It is therefore insufficient to merely watch the news, absorb its narrative, and regurgitate its zeitgeist without a greater consideration of the wider historical context.

Just as the origins of the Second World War cannot be understood without an appreciation of the First World War, equally, the origins of the civil war in Syria lay far deeper in history than the events of the Arab Spring, and police brutality against the black community in the United States is but a more recent incarnation of historic institutional racism.

Take the issue of Brexit, for example. The decision to leave the European Union will likely be the most important political decision made in Britain for a generation. Admittedly, BBC Question Time is no longer – if ever it were – the epitome of informed and accessible debate on politics and current affairs. Nevertheless, what the participation of its audience betrays is the astonishing prevalence of historical illiteracy in this country, even among those who are comparatively engaged with current affairs. The rose-tinted jingoism of Question Time‘s Brexiteer audience members, who are sufficiently interested in the subject matter as to seek participation, represents a galling ignorance of crucial history and a disregard more generally of the importance of examining historical context.

Every Thursday night, David Dimbleby unwittingly invites the obligatory pompous Brexiteer in the audience to ignorantly eulogise about the glorious centuries of long since lost British grandeur. Last night was no different. One audience member, demanding that Labour’s Owen Smith stop “whinging” about Brexit, and denouncing the European Union as an obstacle to true democracy in Britain, declared that:

“For thousands of years, Britain has ruled in a wonderful way. We’ve been a light unto the world!”

It is difficult to know where to begin with that assessment. Some leapt to her defence, citing her right to an opinion. Frankly, however, the validity of amateur opinion on the subject of imperial rule pales against its demonstrable realities. Moreover, it is this propagation of ill-informed jingoism that betrays the shameful prevalence of historical illiteracy and imperial hubris in this country. Most disconcertingly, this is the expressed conviction of someone who, by participating in Question Time, is demonstrating an engagement with current affairs far greater than that of much of the public. If even those who claim an interest in current affairs fail to appreciate the importance of historical context, the likely ignorance of wider society to such themes ought to be alarming.

I will, however, leave aside my previously expressed thoughts on Brexit and focus on addressing the myriad absurdities spectacularly crammed into that seven-second statement.

Firstly, the simple claim of “thousands of years” of British rule. I must be somewhat ignorant of the dominance of the British in the Neolithic era of three thousand plus years ago, during which time Britons began renouncing their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, instead adopting the newfangled practices of agriculture. Two thousand years ago, it was the Romans ruling Britannica. After them came the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, and – ignoring the fact that they were not at all British – they were still far from ruling the world. Even one thousand years ago, the Normans had not yet arrived, and it was China that ruled with the British irrelevant on the world stage. Indeed, during the thirteenth century, the Mongols decided against invading deeper into Europe because the potential spoils of war were far greater in China and the Middle East.

Secondly, the claim that Britain “ruled in a wonderful way”. I’ll go into a little more detail here, just in the hope of smashing a few astonishingly prevalent myths surrounding British history. Instead of “thousands of years” of British rule, then, this audience member was presumably referring to the period of several hundred years during which Britain arguably exercised global dominance. Herein lies the problem. There is little accounting for the motivations, methods and justification through which such dominance was achieved. The answer, of course, is that it was achieved through, and guaranteed by, empire. That empire was not given, earned or acquired fairly, but stolen through invasion, subjugation and murder, and maintained through devastation, exploitation and genocide. What seems disconcertingly to be required, is a sobering recognition of the brutalities of British imperialism, pursued solely for the rapid accumulation of wealth and power, with “scientific racism” embraced as a means by which to legitimise the depredation of the inferior Other.

1) Transatlantic Trafficking of Enslaved Africans

Before the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, Britain had been the foremost slave trading nation in Europe. In 245 years, British ships made 11,000 voyages to the New World, trafficking 3.4 million enslaved Africans and condemning them to a lifetime of brutal oppression on the plantations of the Caribbean and the Americas.

The abolition of the slave trade, however, was not the product of a moral awakening as to its inhumanity. On the contrary, it was a pragmatic response to shifting economic conditions and the threat of slave revolt, as witnessed in Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804. The institution of slavery continued in British colonies until 1833, and in territories delegated to the East India Company until as late as 1847. When slavery was finally outlawed, it was the expropriated former slaveowners – not the former slaves – that received financial compensation from the government.

2) British Concentration Camps in the Boer War

During the Second Boer War, the British army established concentration camps in which it imprisoned around 115,000 civilians, mostly women and children, to prevent their support of enemy fighters. Black people were also forced into camps as labourers for the re-opened gold mines.

With insufficient food supplies, unsanitary conditions and inadequate medical arrangements, around 28,000 Boer women and children and at least 20,000 black people died in these concentration camps.

Boer families in a British concentration camp at Eshowe, Zululand, 1900.

3) The Partition of India

In 1947, Cyril Radcliffe was tasked with doing something for which the British were already notorious – drawing ill-considered, often arbitrary, straight lines on a map to create volatile new states. The border between India and Pakistan was decided over the course of one single lunch.

The border was drawn along religious lines, dividing colonial India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Ten million Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the line were uprooted, and around 1 million people died in the ensuing violence.

Muslim refugees having fled India after the partitioning of the country in 1947 at a shantytown in Karachi, Pakistan.

4) The Suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising

In 1952, Mau Mau fighters from Kenya’s major ethnic group, the Kikuyu, rebelled against the colonial rule responsible for their economic marginalisation and the expropriation of their lands by white settlers.

The British declared a state of emergency and moved in army reinforcements. The Kenya Human Rights Commission claims 90,000 Kenyans were executed in the ensuing violence, with thousands more tortured and abused during the suppression of the uprising.

British policemen hold men from Kariobangi at gunpoint while their huts are searched for evidence of their participation in the Mau Mau Rebellion of 1952.

5) Famines in India

Under British rule between 1765 and 1947, there were 15 major famines in colonial India, leading to the deaths of between 12 and 29 million people.

In 1943, Winston Churchill diverted food supplies from India to British troops fighting in the Second World War. As many as 4 million Bengalis starved to death as a result.

Starving Indian men in 1900.

Contrary to the assertion of that audience member, then, British rule was far from “a light unto the world”. Although such a brazen claim resonates as chillingly jingoistic to any reader of history, the reality is that she is far from alone in clinging to this absurd conviction. A recent poll found that 59% of Brits believe that the British Empire is something to be proud of, and almost half of survey respondents felt that the former colonies “were better off” as a result of their colonisation. Particularly prevalent since the Brexiteers promise to “take our country back”, this imperial pomp has been diagnosed by academic Paul Gilroy as a symptom of “postcolonial melancholia”. Integral to this nostalgic yearning for a time when Britain “ruled the waves” as a great power are the silencing of the brutality of empire, the neglect of the hundreds of millions of people who died at the hands of its vicious regime, and an ignorance of the fact that it was eventually the rebellions of the oppressed that forced its rightful collapse.

Herein lies the crux of my argument. The persistence of such troubling public opinion is an indictment of the failure of our school system to provide even a cursory history of empire. Given the shameful atrocities detailed above, it is perhaps scarcely surprising that school children might skip from Henry VIII to the Nazis, omitting that vital period in between in which Britain ruled over the greatest empire ever known. Yet, it is in this void of inadequate education that foments a misplaced nostalgia for former glories, a subscription to the comforting myth of benign British rule, and a susceptibility to what Winston Churchill described as “its glories and all the services it rendered to mankind”. Simply, if the history of empire is not taught at school, it is too rarely learned later. In popular culture, the narrative of empire is artfully navigated. Allusions to such history concede merely superficial detail so as to avoid the disturbing reckoning with the brutality of colonialism that its accurate depiction would provoke. Thus, an unapologetic adulation of empire cajoles the uninformed into believing in a falsified version of benevolent imperialism in order to avoid confessing to the shameful realities of “scientific racism” and the systematic exploitation of a fifth of the world’s population.

It is therefore excruciating to hear this lauding of the value of the Commonwealth and the express wish to exploit its plentiful bounty, precisely because such a mentality ignores this relevant history. Brexiteers revel in citing the ambiguous “shared values” of the Commonwealth and in espousing fanciful dreams of favourable trade deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Yet, their appeal to the Commonwealth is itself the result of this resurgent imperial nostalgia, and it belies a conceited albeit abstract longing for the reinstatement of the glorious British dominance of that relationship. Brexiteers decry the injustices of immigration laws that elevate the status of EU citizens above that of those from the Commonwealth. Yet, studies into the motivations of Leave voters suggest that they would object to the influx of immigrants from Jamaica, Nigeria and Pakistan likely incurred as a result of the revival of trading relations with the Commonwealth.

The absurdity of the term “Commonwealth” is itself normalised. The very notion of “Great” Britain, and the wealth in which it basks to this day, is intimately tied to the subjugation and exploitation of these countries through empire, colonialism and slavery. The stolen profits of this tyrannical hegemony fuelled the ascension of Britain to global power status, while fomenting the devastating poverty, instability and conflict that continue to wreak havoc on many parts of the Commonwealth. In truth, nothing could be further from the truth than this myth of the creation of, and sharing in, a “common wealth”.

Perhaps we reminisce about the days of empire, and pine for Britain to be great again, because to do so avoids any uncomfortable reckoning with its terrible colonial legacy. Perhaps an education of the horrific brutality at the dark heart of empire would provide a necessary antidote to these destructive currents of post-colonial melancholia which, sadly, remain prevalent in our societies to this day. Perhaps it is only through the study of history that we may ever hope to arrest the slide of mankind towards further atrocities.

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The Haitian Revolution

 “The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.” – C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins.


1776. 1789. The American. The French. The two great revolutions of the eighteenth century. The third, and the most complete revolution in history, has been “silenced”. It is a tale that shatters Western conceptions of liberalism and topples the edifice of European progress. From it emerges the first independent black republic outside of Africa, the near-triumph of the ideals of the ‘Age of Revolution’, and the only successful slave revolt in history. For that alone, the Haitian Revolution deserves its place in history.

On 24th August 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Christopher Columbus landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Saint-Domingue’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed the island into the richest colony in the world. In a gruelling twelve year struggle, the emancipated slave armies defeated, in turn, the local white colonists, the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of over 60,000 men, and the largest invasion fleet in French history.

Yet, that we remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the Trinidadian writer and thinker C. L. R. James whose polemical masterpiece The Black Jacobins synthesises novelistic narrative and factual reconstruction to capture both its political substance and its poetic spirit.

“They had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” – C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins.

Slaves had always resisted their enslavement, but the French Revolution provided both the political and moral grounds for the Haitian Revolution. It disturbed the delicate balancing of classes that had bound colonial society, while the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen contained the intellectual argument for self-determination.

In Toussaint Louverture, a self-educated former slave and unassailable genius in military tactics and strategy, the insurrectionists found a leader who recognised that, although Europeans were responsible for the enslavement of blacks, nevertheless within their culture now lay the political and moral ideas with which to challenge that enslavement.

Led by Toussaint – who was already a free man at the outbreak of the revolt – and inspired by the revolutionary prescriptions of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the slaves of Saint-Domingue rose as active agents in their emancipation, sabotaging plantations and massacring slaveholders. By 1792, the slave rebels controlled one-third of the island.

Meanwhile, the French Revolutionary Wars had broken out in Europe, and the monarchies of Britain and Spain joined forces against France in Saint-Domingue. As the Spanish invaded from Santo Domingo, their colony on the Eastern portion of the island of Hispaniola, they were joined by the slave forces. By August 1793, their victories were such that there were only 3,500 French soldiers on the island.

Facing an imminent defeat, the radical Commissioner of Saint-Domingue, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, abolished slavery in the colony in 1793, hoping to secure the colony for republican France. When word of the First Republic’s ratification of slave emancipation arrived from France months later, Toussaint Louverture and his corps of battle-hardened former slaves defected. Now fighting for the French Republic which had granted them their freedom, the slave armies routed the vastly inferior Spanish army, expelling its forces back across the border into Santo Domingo.

Fearing the implications of an emancipated slave population on its own colonies, and anticipating the potential seizure of this most profitable of territories, the British launched a full-scale invasion in 1796, sending a force of 60,000 to Saint-Domingue to suppress the revolt and restore the former slaves to chains. Outfought, and outwitted by Louverture’s military genius, the British suffered the worst casualties in their history prior to the First World War, and were forced to evacuate from the island.

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With the French royalists, the Spanish, and now the British, expelled from Saint-Domingue at the hands of his armies of former slaves, Toussaint demonstrated his diplomatic guile to devastating effect, eliminating his domestic rivals including the French Commissioner Sonthonax, and the mixed-race leader André Rigaud. By 1801, Louverture had installed himself as the de facto ruler of all of Hispaniola by conquering its Eastern portion, Spanish Santo Domingo, and abolishing slavery there, too. As the unquestionable authority on the island, he began to exercise greater political autonomy, negotiating trade treaties with Britain and the United States, and instituting reforms designed to rebuild the economy after a decade of destructive conflict, demonstrating that a plantation-based system could be profitable using paid – not slave – labour.

Convinced that France would not renege on its abolition of slavery, and believing the success of the colony to be impossible without racial co-operation, he sought no reprisals against former slave holders. Toussaint professed himself a Frenchmen, and, enamoured by her revolutionary spirit, he strove to coalesce with France rather than to pursue full independence. Yet, when he wrote to France to announce his new constitution for the colony, it was not to seek permission, but rather to assert that he now considered himself the equal of the leader of the French Republic.

Such correspondence was repeatedly ignored, however, by her First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose rise meant that France would no longer tolerate a slave ruling the “Pearl of the Antilles”. Seizing the opportunity of an interval of peace with the monarchies of Europe, Napoleon assembled the experienced troops from his European campaign – the most advanced army Europe had ever seen – and placed them under the command of his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc. It was to be the largest overseas military expedition of his rule, and the largest invasion fleet in French history. In 1802, it set sail to depose Toussaint, subdue the rebellious colony and re-establish slavery in Saint-Domingue.

With the support of white colonists and mulatto forces, the French won several hard-fought, early victories, and Leclerc invited Toussaint to negotiate a settlement. It was a deception. Toussaint was seized and deported to France. He spoke his final words on the future of his people to the ship’s Captain as he boarded for deportation:

“In overthrowing me you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty in Saint-Domingue; it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and they are deep.”

Upon his arrival in France, he was imprisoned and starved to death. The betrayal of Toussaint, and the news of the reinstatement of slavery in Guadeloupe, convinced Toussaint’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and his generals Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion, that the same fate awaited Saint-Domingue. Leclerc, too, had been secretly authorised to restore slavery when the time was opportune, and so the war for independence became a bloody struggle of atrocity and attrition.

The Haitians, one-third of whose fighting force was made up of female slave rebels, employed guerilla tactics, burning the coastal cities before retreating into the inaccessible mountains. There they awaited the rainy season and its feverous diseases, which they knew would decimate the French, just as they had the British. By November, 24,000 French soldiers were dead, many of whom had succumbed to yellow fever or malaria. A further 8,000 were hospitalised as disease wrought havoc on the French lines. The tide of the war had turned against the French.

Before he too succumbed to yellow fever, Leclerc declared “a war of extermination”. This black and mixed-race population that had contracted the virus of revolutionary beliefs would have to be eliminated, replaced with a new generation of freshly enslaved persons from the West African coast. Only then could European tranquillity be restored.

In desperation, Leclerc’s successor, the Viscount of Rochambeau, turned to increasingly wanton acts of brutality. Under his instruction, the French burned alive, hanged, drowned, crucified, and tortured black prisoners. They imported man-hunting dogs and revived such barbaric practices as burying the former slaves in piles of insects, throwing them into the hull of ships to be suffocated with ignited sulphur, and boiling them in cauldrons of molasses.

Yet, strengthened by the unity of black and mixed-race soldiers in resistance to such savagery, Dessalines, Christophe and Pétion rallied around the new Haitian flag (the French tricolore with the white segment torn from the middle), adamant that they would die before submitting to the restoration of slavery. In November 1803, they led the Haitian army to victory in the decisive Battle of Vertières, after which the French surrendered. Of the 50,000 seasoned men that France had sent to Haiti from its renowned revolutionary army, only 3,000 ever left the island.

“We have in Europe a false idea of the country in which we fight and the men whom we fight against” – Charles Leclerc, French general in Saint-Domingue

To those colonists who had not fled ahead of the French defeat Dessalines showed little equanimity. In a final act of retribution, he declared eternal hatred of France, announcing that black was henceforth the only valid ethnic identity in Haiti. With the encouragement of Napoleon’s enemies, namely Britain and the United States, the roughly 3,000 remaining French were massacred. On his deathbed in Saint Helena in 1821, Napoleon would express that his greatest regret was his decision to oppose Toussaint, rather than to recognise his authority and govern the colony through him.

One exception was a force from the Polish Legions of Napoleon’s army, which, arriving in Haiti after fighting for liberty against the monarchies of Europe, was confronted with a population fighting for the same cause, inspired by the same revolutionary rhetoric, and even singing the same revolutionary songs, including La Marseillaise. Empathising with the emancipatory struggle of the Haitians, many refused to fight them, and a majority of Polish soldiers defected to join the Haitian ranks. For their support, they were granted citizenship – and thus considered black – sparing them the fate of the remaining French.

A total of around 350,000 men, women and children had died during 12 years of brutal conflict before, on 1st January 1804, Dessalines declared independence, reviving the name given to the island by the indigenous Taíno Arawak people, Haïti, meaning “Land of the High Mountains”. The pursuit of the emancipatory logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man to its revolutionary conclusion made Haiti the first post-colonial state in the Caribbean or Latin America, the first independent black republic outside of Africa, and the first country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery. For the first and only time in recorded history, slaves had overthrown the governing classes to become the rulers of their own society.

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Why, then, has the Haitian Revolution been buried or ignored in even the most seminal histories of the era? In Western academia, it has been treated with a near-uniform “silence”, to quote Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s famous article. Even the magnum opus of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Revolutions, manages just two dismissive mentions. How can it be that an event of such intrigue and significance has been allowed to fade from the collective memory, absent from the school curriculums of societies purporting to subscribe to those ideals of liberty, justice and equality?

The impacts of the Haitian Revolution were to reverberate around the globe, provoking radical action in both colonial societies and imperial metropoles. It became the inspirational blueprint for generations of future revolts against colonial oppression. For the black diaspora it demonstrated the latent power within the African population and provided a counter-argument to the tropes often levied by defenders of the racial status quo. To the triumphalism in Europe of Enlightenment ideals and the pronouncements of the innate rights of man, it inspired resistance to the advent of “scientific racism”, phenomena which existed, often uncritically, alongside their enacted antitheses.

France, for example, the radical heart of European progress, demanded of Haiti an unfeasible indemnity of ₣91million – around ten times the country’s annual revenues – citing the expropriation of slaves, plantations, and even the costs of France’s failed efforts of reconquest. Such hypocrisies cannot easily coexist with any moral or philosophical tradition in the Enlightenment canon. In 1825, Haiti was placed under embargo by the major powers, blockaded by the French, and forced to take out high-interest loans from French banks in order to make a repayment on this exorbitant indemnity. By the time the debt was fully repaid in 1947, the people of Haiti had endured over a century of sanctions for having dared to assert their fundamental human right to freedom. It is, consequently, no coincidence that the once “Pearl of the Antilles” is now often referred to as the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

The silence surrounding the Haitian Revolution is all the more remarkable considering the historical gravity of an event which explicitly and permanently abolished slavery; a feat ultimately fallen well short of by its French and American counterparts. Furthermore, the Western powers were terrified by the prospect of further colonial rebellions, and any mention of Haiti evoked “alarm and terror in the minds of slaveholders throughout the hemisphere”. With a large percentage of Haiti’s former slaves born in Africa, the slave trade was abolished by Britain within just three years of the declaration of Haitian independence, with the other major powers, including the United States, Portugal, Spain and France soon following suit.

“Until [Haiti] spoke, no Christian nation had abolished negro slavery… Until she spoke, the slave trade was sanctioned by all the Christian nations of the world… Until Haiti spoke, the church was silent and the pulpit dumb.” – Frederick Douglass, Former U.S. Minister to Haiti, at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1893.

The impact of the Haitian Revolution can also be seen in mainland America. With the French unable to regain control of the island, Napoleon was forced to abandon his dream of a New World Empire, one in which the territory of Louisiana was to be dedicated to the cultivation of crops to feed the slave plantations of Saint-Domingue. In 1803, he sanctioned the Louisiana Purchase, bringing Napoleonic rule in the Americas to an end, and, in the process, ceding land to the burgeoning United States, doubling it in size, and fuelling its rapacious expansion from “sea to shining sea”.

It is worthy of consideration that the reparations demanded of Haiti by France in 1825 equated to $18million, while the price for which French Louisiana was sold equates to roughly $11.6million in 1825 dollars. Those figures indicate the value of the tiny island of Haiti compared with that of continental America in the early nineteenth-century.

louisiana_purchase

One can only speculate as to how different the course of history might have been had the trafficking of enslaved Africans not been abolished, or had France retained an American empire in the central third of the modern-day United States. But one thing is for sure. The oft-silenced Haitian Revolution commands its rightful and long-overdue place at the heart of the histories of imperialism, slavery, revolution, and the United States.

The motive for the silencing of the Haitian Revolution, then, lies in its outcome and legacies. To examine the record of imperialism in Haiti required European thinkers in societies espousing their reverence of liberty and equality to reckon with the shameful consequences of their professed ideals. A cursory understanding of the example of Haiti therefore not only subverts the notion of Europe as the heart of modernity and progress, but also quashes the nostalgic ignorance of the horror at the core of empire.

There is a reason why, despite several major films on slavery in the American South, the only successful slave revolt in history still awaits its Hollywood treatment. That the historic reality of mass collective uprisings against European hegemony remains “unthinkable” for liberals and conservatives alike betrays the dangerous perpetuation of historical illiteracy and imperial hubris. Examining Haiti from 1791-1804 provides a necessary antidote to these destructive currents of post-colonial melancholia which, sadly, remain prevalent in our societies to this today.

Slow Train Through Africa

Africa. A continent roughly the size of the United States, China, India, and much of Europe combined. A continent of breathtaking natural beauty, unparalleled human history, and extraordinary cultural diversity, traversed eponymously by Griff Rhys Jones on slow trains. The myriad wonders of this vast continent shoehorned into just five one-hour episodes.

Slow Train Through Africa, which covers an astonishing 11,000 kilometres through Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, opens with the bland, if indisputable line: “Africa — there’s nowhere else quite like it.”

An archetypical entertaining documentary on this most vast of continents, Rhys Jones checks in at the Sahara, goes on safari, attends a Maasai ceremony, and gazes at the Victoria Falls. Fulfilling his travelogue series responsibility of partaking in local practices, he amusingly softens leather by treading on it in a vat of pigeon droppings, experiments with cutting emeralds, and trains with a pair of Kenyan distance runners.

Yet, such novelty felt distinctly peripheral. The most valuable parts of the series were his unscripted interactions with ordinary people, such as his solidarity with a picket of singing rail workers, his wild popularity having inadvertently purchased a barrel of the local liquor, and his self-deprecating humility when repeatedly duped by street traders.

The whole overview is a look at ordinary people living and working in Africa. Ninety per cent of the stories that come out of Africa are about disease, poverty and war, but the majority of the population of Africa gets on with their lives and don’t encounter the brutal end of this. People were genuinely pleased to hear I wasn’t there making a film about poverty.” – Griff Rhys Jones.

Authentically charming and witty, Rhys Jones is an entertaining presenter, and he marshals professionally the formulaic enterprise of the genre. Moreover, though, the series succeeds in its aim of presenting an Africa rarely seen in the shock-horror news reports. Instead, his is a glimpse into Africa that ought to challenge the still prevalent, stereotyped view of a continent constantly assailed by disease, poverty and war.

Admittedly, however, a cosy celebrity travelogue is hardly the forum for incisive political analysis, and so, despite the best efforts of Rhys Jones thoughtfully authored script, Slow Train Through Africa unfortunately develops into yet one more example of the insidiously nostalgic throwback to the history of European colonialism. The underlying story is of the colonials who brought the railways to many parts of Africa, and as Rhys Jones himself puts it, “it is [the story of] how the modern world arrived in Africa, usually to exploit bits of it.”

As Rhys Jones explains, “there’s a history overlying the railway, which is the history of the struggle for Africa. You can’t avoid that.” The problem, however, is in its presentation of that struggle. It absolves the institution of colonialism of blame, instead apportioning the responsibility onto greedy colonists. The British and French empires, foremost colonists of Africa, are portrayed as philanthropic benefactors, credited with instigating the development of Africa through, for example, the construction of railways. Yet, it was, of course, the systemic cruelty of colonialism, and slave-powered mercantilism before that, which, at state level, harboured the moral justification for individual wickedness.

Meanwhile, Rhys Jones deems reprehensible the motives of the individual colonist when discussing the origins of Namibia and Zambia’s railroads, constructed to transport plundered minerals rather than passengers. Even then, however, the criticism is one based upon economic greed, rather than institutional white supremacy. It paints a condemnatory picture of the rapacious capitalist exploiting African labour to extract vast mineral wealth, yet it is suspiciously quiet on the realities of slave labour, and on the racial superiority propagated by the colonial beneficiaries of such enterprises.

At times, Rhys Jones even loses himself eulogising over the ambition of colonial pioneer Cecil Rhodes to connect Cairo and Cape Town by rail. After such misty-eyed admiration, it then appears disingenuous when he forces himself to question the legacy of Rhodes and his peers, though even then remaining silent on their white supremacist views. The inference, then, is that the atrocities with which they are associated were the result of regrettable character flaws in otherwise great men.

That is not to say that greed was not a factor, but to frame the narrative of colonialism in such a way overlooks the institutionalised cruelty of imperial rule. It absolves the culpability of nations so intent on plundering the wealth of a continent that they wilfully manipulated the history of Africa, inventing the concept of race and racial superiority in order to justify the enslavement and slaughter of a native population.

Is it any wonder, then, with such propagandistic representations of our colonial history so widespread, that a recent poll found that 59% of Brits believe that the British Empire is something to be proud of? Particularly prevalent since the Brexiteers promise of “taking our country back”, this imperial pomp has been diagnosed by academic Paul Gilroy as a necessary symptom of “postcolonial melancholia”, a yearning for a time when Britain was a great leader in the world.

One key feature of “postcolonial melancholia” is the minimising of the brutal history of Britain’s ruling of the waves, namely its subjugation of a third of the world’s population through empire, colonialism, and slavery. Lest we forget: far from a benevolent saviour, the British empire was based on exploitation, murder and devastation. Hundreds of millions of people died as a result of Britain’s vicious regime. Indeed, the empire only collapsed after rebellions and revolutions by those oppressed.

Another key feature in this nostalgic adulation of empire is the celebration of what Winston Churchill called “its glories and all the services it rendered to mankind”. Almost half of survey respondents felt that the former colonies “were better off” as a result of colonisation. The propagation of such false legacies as civilisational advancement cajoles a population into believing that the blood-stained tyranny of empire was humane and benign. It denies and distorts the truth of imperial rule rather than acknowledging the creation of political and economic systems that impoverished Africa to enrich Europe.

We celebrate the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, for example, regardless of the truth that the act in no way ended slavery. We deify the abolitionist William Wilberforce, regardless of the truth that the trade ended mostly due to economic concerns, and in pragmatic response to rebellion. We self-congratulate a moral awakening, regardless of the truth that compensation was paid to slave owners, while the formerly enslaved received nothing but an effective return to slavery through apprenticeships and colonialism. We focus on the achievement of abolition, ignoring the preceding 245 years during which Britain was the foremost slave trading nation in Europe, enslaving and trafficking 3.4 million Africans.

Yet the persistence of such terrifying public opinion is an indictment of the failure of our school system to provide even a cursory history of empire. Children go from Henry VIII to the Nazis, omitting that period in between when Britain ruled over the greatest empire ever known, the legacy of which still plays a crucial role in the modern world. Its profits fuelled the industrial revolution, and, by extension, the ascension of Britain to global power status. The very notion of “Great” Britain, and the wealth in which it basks to this day, for example, is intimately tied to slave labour, to which conservative estimates link between 10% and 20% of current GDP. Meanwhile, the devastation of the colonised goes some way to explaining the poverty and conflict in many parts of the world today, including troubled parts of Africa as explored by Griff Rhys Jones.

In truth, Slow Train Through Africa probably goes further in its condemnation of colonial powers than most other mainstream productions have on the subject. It is perhaps this which makes its hesitant condemnation all the more frustrating, particularly given that for most people, this is their greatest exposure to our imperial past.

When Rudyard Kipling retired, he wrote to Cecil Rhodes: “England is a stuffy little place, mentally, morally and physically”. Perhaps it remains so now, only more so, without an empire attached. Maybe that very littleness is why there’s a certain nostalgic folie de grandeur. Perhaps a recognition of the horrific brutality at the dark heart of empire would shake the nation out of its postcolonial melancholia. Perhaps we reminisce about the days of empire, and pine for Britain to be great again, because to do so avoids any uncomfortable reckoning with its terrible colonial legacy.