Talking About Slavery and Responding to the Objections

Alan Lester I’ve been spending a lot of time recently talking about slavery in British history to people who really don’t want to hear it. I don’t mean haranguing shoppers in Oxford Street, but talks to church, community and business groups comprised of small ‘c’ conservative White people who’ve been willing at least to hear me out. I’ve kept it factual and based it on two main databases: on British participation in the trans-Atlantic slave ‘trade’ and on slave ownership. On every occasion, there have been the two main objections. In case it’s useful for others, here they […]

The West Africa Squadron Memorial: An Exercise in Virtue Signalling and Denial

Alan Lester* In recent months the Daily Mail and right wing groups have mounted a clamour for a new memorial to be built in Portsmouth. In principle, the proposal seems reasonable, since it is to commemorate a British antislavery initiative. However, given its motivations, they way that it has been promoted and its proposed design, this particular memorial campaign has attracted considerable opposition. In this blog I examine the case for and against it, concluding that the project is an exercise in White virtue signalling, historical falsification and the denial of racism. Four months after Black Lives Matter protestors drowned […]

The Right Wing Culture War and the Refusal to Listen

Response to Nigel Biggar, ‘History lessened: Who gets to decide how we see the past?’ Alan Lester Background The Spectator emailed me this week to ask if I would record a segment for their Edition podcast with Nigel Biggar the next day, about an article of his that they were about to publish. I spent the evening reading the article and preparing to discuss it, only to be told at 10 pm that night that the podcast had been cancelled. I replied saying that I presumed Nigel Biggar had got cold feet. The Spectator did not deny it, but promised […]

Imperial Mismeasurement

Kemi Badenoch, The Institute of Economic Affairs and the Distortion of Colonial History[1] Alan Lester De Beers African Migrant Labour Compound, c.1886 The IEA (Institute for Economic Affairs) was last in the news when its advice informed Liz Truss’ and

The Very Model of a Modern Major Liar?

By Alan Lester The Red River Expedition with Colonel Garnet Wolseley’s boat featured flying the ensign at Kakabeka Falls, Frances Anne Hopkins, 1877: We understand the British Empire’s military campaigns mainly via the accounts of the officers who led them. These records render the acquisition of territory, the crushing of dissent and the seizing of plunder into honourable enterprises but, when published, they were also about self-promotion. A heroic narrative, leavened with the correct dose of self-deprecation, could launch the career of an ambitious officer with literary flair. The best-known example is probably Winston Churchill, whose talent for burnishing […]

Response to Kemi Badenoch’s, Nigel Biggar’s and the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Whitewashing of Colonial History

In April 2024, the Conservative MP Kemi Badenoch gave a speech in which she sought to deny the extent to which Britain’s economic trajectory was reliant on colonialism. When criticised by William Dalrymple, Toby Young, responded with this tweet, linking to an article in support of Badenoch by Nigel Biggar. This is my quickfire response to Badenoch’s and Biggar’s case: Biggar makes three historical arguments, each of which is tendentious and based on the construction of straw men: He starts with the economic foundations of the South African War, arguing that the antisemitic Hobson’s thesis that Cecil Rhodes and other […]

When the Raj Came to Brighton

Alan Lester In the early stages of World War I, the Raj came to the south coast of England in the form of over 4,000 wounded Indian soldiers. They convalesced in a number of specially constructed hospitals, including in the Brighton Pavilion. Between 1914 and 1916 the former Prince Regent’s Oriental-style palace became charged with the hubris and anxiety of the largest and most diverse Empire the world had ever seen. [1] A Palace Becomes a Hospital In August 1914, the Indian Army was roughly the same size as the regular British Army (around 240,000 men), but their deployment against the […]

Winston Churchill in the Culture War: Defending an Icon

Alan Lester University of Sussex and La Trobe University Winston Churchill is an iconic figure. For many, he stands for the idealised qualities of the British nation: a bulldog spirit leavened with a sense of fair play and deep attachment to freedom. His character, contribution to historical events and legacy have been contested to greater or lesser extents ever since he became a public figure at the beginning of the twentieth century, but after Black Lives Matter protestors named him a racist by graffitiing his stocky, brooding statue in Westminster in June 2020, he also become more central to the […]

Researching, Talking and Writing About British Colonialism in a Time of Culture War 

Talk delivered to ALES virtual event: Communications of Archives as Public History  18 March 2024  The sociologist James Davison Hunter first used the term ‘culture war’ in a book on American religious authority and politics since the 1960s, first published in 1991. He identified a worrying tendency: a ‘political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding’.[1] Hunter believed this new form of divisiveness was emerging over issues such as reproductive rights, child-care, affirmative action, gay rights and multiculturalism. These issues all rest upon moral authority – ‘the basis by which people determine whether something is good or […]