In a longer think piece, Dr Nick Westcott, Director of the Royal African Society, explores how the interaction of Empire, race and slavery has left an indelible mark on British history as much as on the history of Africa and former colonial territories.

It is essential for national understanding and for Britain’s future relations with African, Caribbean and Asian countries that the interaction between these three things is properly understood.  Many people can be deeply, even emotionally, attached to preconceived views, and getting facts accepted is an uphill – but necessary – task.

Dr Westcott argues that, though reparations may be difficult to achieve, repentance is essential if there is to be a healthy, trusted and equal relationship both with minority populations in this country and with former colonies overseas.  The key is to accept that the citizens of Commonwealth countries that have come to live in the UK, maybe generations ago, are an integral part of what Britain is today.  Inequalities, which can be structural as well as personal, need to be addressed everywhere they exist - in Oxford as much as anywhere.  The St John’s Colonial History Project contributes to this endeavour.

Observing St John’s College begin to unpack its past associations with Empire has been a fascinating exercise.  It underlines sharply the fact that what you see depends heavily on where you stand.  Move a little, and new elements come into view.  Move a lot and you see a wholly new picture.  So it is with us as individuals.  So it is with St John’s.

In the midst of this project, this careful, professional exploration of St John’s imperial past, the killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis brought mass protests in the US, in Britain, France and Africa not just against contemporary brutality but against the deeply-embedded inequality, discrimination and prejudice still suffered by many black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people everywhere.  The protests reflect very clearly how history still impacts contemporary lives.  And history, in Britain as much as in America, is contested territory.  In Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston, the slave trader whose profits paid for many of the city’s municipal buildings, was unceremoniously dumped in the water by hands black, white and brown.  In Oxford, it seems that Rhodes will also depart, if in a more dignified manner.

There are three distinct but interlocking issues here – imperialism, racism and slavery.  All three are entangled with the history of St John’s.  All three are minefields. Passion is as much engaged as reason, facts and perceptions especially hard to disentangle.  But we must try, because passionately held perceptions about the values, virtues and iniquities of empires can obscure reality and create more conflict than clarity.


Arguments over the nature of imperialism have existed since the late 19th century.  Empires have existed from time immemorial in a myriad of different forms.  Sometimes they have been a convenient way of enabling diverse peoples to live in close proximity under an overarching authority without coming into constant conflict.  At other times they have been a means of consolidating support against a rival (as Thucidydes explained brutally in the ‘Melian dialogue’ in his account of the Peloponnesian War), or of forcibly building buffer zones to protect a homeland, or making space for a growing population. And sometimes they have been simply a means of extracting surplus, to build the wealth of one people at the expense of others.  ‘Modern’ empires, built up during the 18th century as industrial capitalism began to replace simple mercantilism, are often seen as falling into the last category – imperialism as a pioneer of capitalism and technology, and the motor of the globalisation of the world economy.

For some in this country, the British Empire remains a great and glorious part of Britain’s past, something to be proud of, a tribute to the country’s enterprising spirit, energy and endeavour.  This attitude survived through what was seen as a willing and peaceful transfer of power when nationalists demanded their independence.   This was the version of history taught in schools for many decades, an empire justified by its ‘civilising mission’ and a tribute to those who acquired, ruled and decolonised it.  It became, like Britain ‘standing alone’ in the Second World War, an integral part of the national myth.

For others, it was an iniquitous enterprise that built an industrial revolution on the bodies and blood of slaves, sold into servitude in Africa and transported across the Atlantic to a life of misery and hardship in British colonies, which destroyed the economies of India and China to reap profits for trade and industry at home, and which retreated from empire only when it, with the US, had constructed a set of global institutions that entrenched the West’s dominance of world affairs.  Along the spectrum between these extremes, academics, commentators and plain ordinary folk try to sift the facts from the fiction and find a balance that fits their own world view.

What matters is to be honest about the past.  There were good people amongst the imperialists, doing good deeds in a difficult world.  There were many good people amongst the conquered, who resisted imperial rule to protect their people, their way of life and their freedom.  And there were bad amongst both – people who took what was not theirs, by force if necessary, who sold people into slavery, who committed or connived in oppression.  The rose-tinting of the past serves no-one’s interests.  There will always be arguments about what really happened, and the truth is rarely simple; but the argument should be welcomed to help us get at the truth, not suppressed in the interests of an ‘official view’.

‘Balance’ is easier to seek than to find.  So sometimes we must continue to live with ambiguity and argument.  But that is better than living with an imperial lie.


Racism, like empire, can come in many forms.  Some see its origins in basic human attitudes; others see it in economic structures, as an invention to justify the economic exploitation of black men by white.  Some argue there is no such thing as race – we are all one human race.  And yet racism can still exist if people perceive it.

Nor is racism an exclusively black-white issue.  There is a human tendency to distrust ‘the other’, the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, and more especially those who look different.  Ancient Greeks were dismissive of ‘barbarians’ – wild white men with beards.  Anti-semitism was pervasive across Europe for centuries.  Antagonism between Christians and Muslims predated the Crusades and the Réconquista.  Ancient Chinese regarded anyone who did not speak their language as uncivilised.  None of these attitudes were universal: examples of tolerance and coexistence can be found in most places.  But even so, in most civilisations you can find examples of hostility, prejudice or simply superiority vis-a-vis those of another colour, creed or culture.

At what point such prejudice against others turns into what we define as racism is hard to pin down.  But if all human beings are truly to be treated with equal dignity, such attitudes have to be constrained and changed, through education and the law.  And such action needs to be acknowledged and sustained, not just by the government, but by businesses and institutions, including of learning, everywhere.

Personal perspectives matter a lot.  Many deny that white privilege exists because they have no experience of life without it.  But it is equally possible, as a BAME person in this country, to grow up without privilege and still believe there is equality of opportunity.  If you won a place at Oxford University, earned a PhD, and were selected for senior appointments in government – even in No 10 itself – you may feel that you have never suffered from racial discrimination, and that therefore it doesn’t exist.  On the contrary, you may argue that those who failed to climb the same ladder of success have a chip on their shoulder and are merely excusing their own failure.  If, on the other hand, you went to a local state school where expectations were low, are stopped and searched repeatedly by police for no other reason than that you are a young black male living on an estate, and find yourself working (very hard) as a hospital porter without adequate PPE to protect you from infection, even though you are known to be more susceptible to it, you know that discrimination does exist and that you have suffered from it.  Other people’s denial of that fact can infuriate, and simply confirm that many privileged people are either oblivious to their privilege or choose to deny it.  For many, it is systemic, hard-wired into the structures of British life.  Recent books by Akala (Natives: Race and Class in the ruins of Empire) and Afua Hirsch (Brit-ish) give a very clear explanation of why.

Some argue that race is really all about class.  This has been hotly debated in the historiography of South Africa, but reached no consensus, nor conclusive answer.  Even if it had an economic origin in terms of subordinating a working class, racial prejudice existed and was felt personally, not just as a surrogate for (or diversion from) class struggle.   A cynic might say that in the current Conservative Party there is certainly racial equality of opportunity – if you went to Eton or Oxford (ideally both).  That may be unfair, but it is a common perception. 

So Oxford is again part of this debate.  It was seen in the past as a bastion of the Establishment, a means of entrenching the privilege of the ruling class.  Since the Sixties it has tried to remake itself as a promoter of that social mobility which is essential to build a more democratic and egalitarian society, before remaking itself again as an international centre of excellence in learning, a pillar of global meritocracy.  Many in Oxford are already aware that racism is another issue to which a more adequate response is needed if the university is to play the leadership role to which it aspires.


Slavery is at the intersection of empire and race.

The shadow of the slave trade lies long and dark across the world’s history.  The accusation that in British school history syllabuses slavery only exists when it is abolished – a heroic tale of the courageous struggle for human rights and justice – has some truth.  The facts about the 200 year involvement of British merchants in this profitable trade, the production of sugar in the West Indies by slave labour, and the investment it enabled in 18th century Britain, have long been known and need to be an integral part of the story.  Abolition itself was controversial, with compensation paid to the slave owners, not the slaves. The vigorous efforts of the Royal Navy to enforce the ban on the slave trade by foreign traders could even be considered an early example of what we would now call ensuring a ‘level playing field’ for competitors.  These aspects of the story need to be told along with the rest.

Even so the abolition of slavery by European countries (led by Denmark) and subsequently by the United States and all other countries, were noble acts.  In the world today, there is a universal consensus that slavery is abhorrent and should never be allowed to return to human society. Yet its legacy persists.

This is because, underpinning the brutal trade, was the assumption that all human beings were not equal.  The traders and plantation owners wanted to believe that black people were inferior and could be treated effectively as little more than animals – bought, sold, owned and abused.  And it has proven easier to abolish the institution of slavery than to change people’s attitudes.  The eugenics movement was going strong still during the first half of the 20th century until effectively destroyed by the horror of Nazism.


It doesn’t help anyone to hide parts of the past.  On the contrary, it does real damage because in hiding part of reality, we allow false consciousness and fallacy to gain a foothold in the public mind.  In their persistent efforts to shore up the ‘Greatness’ of Britain, politicians and media, and individuals, risk repeating the mistakes of the past and thereby imperilling the future.

Tio take the case of the Empire and the Second World Was, the reality is that Britain did win the war (with a lot of help from our friends and subjects) but then lost the empire (under irresistable pressure from those same subjects).  The very effort and cost of winning the war, involving the intensive mobilisation of imperial resources, set in train events that led inevitably to its decolonisation – immediately in the case of India; with a 10-15 year delay in the case of Africa.  Even so, many British politicians failed to recognise reality until it slapped them in the face – as happened to Anthony Eden in the Suez crisis. 

But to say Britain ‘lost’ the empire is not entirely true.  Not because we ‘magnanimously’ transferred power, ‘gave it away’, ‘granted independence’.  We had no choice: it could only be kept by force of arms that British people, after the war, would have refused to support and certainly refused to pay for. No, it is because it is not lost.  It lives here at home, in Britain itself - not in the myths of past greatness, but in the people who live here.  People who migrated here from Commonwealth countries or are descended from those migrants (and let’s not separate white from black nor make any false distinction between Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders and Ugandans, Bangladeshis, South Africans and Nigerians – all came from the Commonwealth, from former imperial possessions) and are an integral part of what Britain now is.  We are not Britain without them. In fact, 'they' are 'us', part of who the British are.  We are not Britain without all of us.

If Britain is to continue to be Great, it is in part because of these communities.  It is true, and entirely fair, that they may not like everything Britain did in the past, as the profits of the slave trade and the racism underpinning the imperial project were visited on their ancestors.  But there is no point pretending these aspects of our common past did not exist.  Every country, every nation evolves over time and needs to regularly re-examine its past, the bad as well as the good, to understand its present and define a constructive future.

We are at one of those points of re-examination now.

But to make the disputes over statues, symbols and history books into a culture war risks tearing this country even further apart than Brexit did.  Brexit was a matter of opinion and democratic decision: both can change (not to say they will, but they could).  Colour is not – it is a matter of both fact and attitude.  To claim to be colour blind ((“All lives matter”) often conceals an unwillingness to accept that prejudice still exists, that the playing field is not level, that existing structures do not provide genuinely equal opportunities.

If we really wish to honour the legacy of empire, we should not preserve the prejudices that underpinned it, but embrace the people that it brought here.  This is who we British now are.

Oxford and St John’s

All this matters for Oxford, as for all our universities.  Oxford University is an important national institution.  It is ‘elite’ certainly, but (I hope) in the sense that it aspires to be a national and international leader in education, learning and research.  But its role goes beyond that.  It should equally be a leader in helping this country face up to its past and forge a new, more balanced, more open, more imaginative, more tolerant future.  Oxford is playing that leadership role in the search for a coronavirus vaccine.  Its leadership is needed now more than ever to help build a social, economic and institutional future for the country that recognises the past and supports real equality for the future.

Oxford played an important part in Britain’s interaction with its empire.  The profits of empire helped fund its growth; generations of young men (almost exclusively: but gender is another issue for another day) were trained here to govern the empire.  A smaller (but crucial) number of Indians, Asians, Africans and others were educated here to challenge that colonial rule, and since independence Oxford has been a place where students and academics from throughout the Commonwealth could come to learn, meet, exchange and educate themselves along with the rest of the world. 

History is the consequence of human actions, and therefore, like humans, is never perfect, logical or entirely explicable.  To acknowledge the sins of the past strengthens us for the future; trying to deny them makes us weaker, not stronger.  Reparations are difficult: history is too full of evils and errors for everybody to spend their lives paying for the sins of their ancestors.  But repentance is essential.  Without it, we cannot live with our past and forge a more humane, tolerant, balanced and honest future.

That is where this project fits in.  It looks at the human beings involved.  It helps us understand the past, warts and all, and will enable us to do better in the future.  The deeper we dig, the more water we’ll find, the more life we can sustain for the future.  So we must dig away.


22 June 2020