Opinion: “History is currently being used for political purposes that have very little to do with the past”
Is the study of history being skewed by a present-day ‘culture war’? That’s the view of History Reclaimed, an online project that aims to tackle what it sees as distortions of the past – and which has been met with both praise and criticism. Matt Elton spoke to Zareer Masani, one of the organisation’s founding members
What, in your view, are the aims of History Reclaimed?
My take is that it’s a project exploring the ‘culture wars’ that are going on, and how history fits within them. It seems to me that history is currently being used for political purposes that have very little to do with the past. One of the aims of History Reclaimed is to reclaim history from that abuse.
Do you see History Reclaimed as being part of a wider movement?
I think it’s part of a reaction to the way in which academia, particularly, has seen a trend towards – in simple terms – a ‘woke’ approach to history. This approach encourages academics and students to conform to a stereotypical view of the west as exploitative and culturally dominating, and I think it is being used for political purposes against the west.
How does that fit within the context of what you describe as culture wars?
There have been culture wars ever since I can remember. When I was a student, they were between socialists – and I ranked among them – and the more conventional, traditional view celebrating British nationhood and empire. We were rebelling against that, influenced by revolutionary ideas.
Since then, I think the socialist element has gone, and the west’s achievements are viewed as being solely those of a specific class. The British empire and British state are stereotyped as a monopoly of a small elite of toffs who have creamed off all the benefits for themselves from poor natives of countries such as India. On that basis, empire is rejected – along with western soft power and the way in which western ideas of modernity have influenced developing nations.
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Are there specific dimensions of history around which History Reclaimed’s members coalesce?
Yes: empire and colonialism, the role of western exploration, and the way in which western explorers rediscovered a lot of the heritage of these parts of the world. Those are the contested subjects that History Reclaimed is trying to excavate, as it were.
Is it your view that there were very few bad aspects of the British empire, or that the negative aspects are overplayed?
It’s important to recognise that all empires have had their pros and cons and have made significant achievements and committed atrocities of some kind. The British empire, I would argue, is the least culpable in terms of having committed atrocities. I’d argue that it was the most benevolent of all the empires we’ve had so far. More than any other, it used the power it acquired over its neighbours and other colonial groups in the interests of the people that it was governing.
What are the traits that led to the British empire, in your view, being so benevolent?
The British empire in India grew out of the East India Company, which – although it started as a trading company – actually also developed into a form of governance in order to protect its trade. It always had benevolent aspects to its rule: it believed in the rule of law, in rights of property, and in the protection and encouragement of trade. These are all attributes that we might expect from a healthy economy today.
If people aren’t open-minded about their research, they are not performing the job of a historian
Although it fell short in some respects, in many ways it succeeded in adhering to those ambitions. So while there was corruption, there was also a great deal of legitimate law-making, and that led India’s merchant class to vote with their feet and move to the company cities: the great port cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, in which business was protected and encouraged. And the British Raj grew out of that, maintaining the aims of clemency, kindness and equal treatment for all subjects.
Some historians characterise the East India Company as ruthless and heartless. What would you say to those claims?
I think they are very illiterate. One of the first things that the East India Company did upon taking power was to establish the Asiatic Society, formed with the goal of rediscovering India’s classical heritage and making that learning available to as many people as possible. I think that you would find very few companies in the history of the world which took on those sorts of cultural tasks when they absolutely did not need to.
Another key aspect of this discussion is the present-day assessment of specific individuals – and one of the people who’s proven most controversial in recent years is Winston Churchill. How far can we separate his historical legacy from modern views of ethnicity, nationality, and so on?
One has to accept that Churchill, like most people of Victorian England, was racist. But there are various quotes – “Indians are a beastly people with a beastly religion”, for instance – which are taken and strung together as though he said them all at one time. And we are applying 21st-century views to the past: these were people who grew up in Victorian society, and who regarded white Europeans as being the most advanced civilisation in the world, with a lot of positive values – looking after the more vulnerable, being kind to your neighbours, and so on.
Some of Churchill’s more controversial stated views were jocular, some were meant to shock – and most were not meant to be taken seriously. We should also look at the full range of things he said, too. He was full of praise for the Indian Army during the Second World War and for the contributions of Indian soldiers, and observed what fine fighting men they were. So he said different things at different times, and one has to see them in context.
I don’t think that vilifying any historical figure is a sensible way of debating their legacies. I think one needs to look at their complexity. One can agree or disagree about what traits were good, bad or indifferent. But the whole idea of having villains and heroes is not a sensible way of looking at history.
Are there any groups or sectors of society that you’d like to see better represented among History Reclaimed’s numbers?
Well, it’s already very open to people with different views to write articles. But I would like to see a bit more diversity in terms of women and people from minority backgrounds. At the moment, it does tend to be a bit white and male-dominated.
Is the misuse of history, as you see it, damaging the ways in which it can be used as a professional or academic tool?
Yes, absolutely. If people aren’t open-minded about the research they’re doing, and instead go into an archive looking for evidence that’s going to hang someone or glorify them, they’re not performing the job of a historian. Historians, I think, should record things as they were – or, at least, as close as we can get to the way they were. And even if there are inconvenient facts that don’t fit a particular theory, we should at least state them and let other people decide whether to accept our view or have a different take on it.
Do you think History Reclaimed’s views map on to those of the British public?
I think the wider public is very divided on these issues – you can see that in the debates that take place on social media. People on the left of those arguments tend to think that History Reclaimed is a kind of upper-class plot by a group of Tories, or a group of disgruntled historians trying to turn the clock back. But against that, there’s also a groundswell of people who think that the media is much too apologetic for Britain’s past, and that Britain should stop apologising for its past and for the empire and instead be proud of some of its legacies.
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.
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