Updated: Jul 27, 2020
By Jaya Pathak
About two weeks ago, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests in London, someone painted “was a racist” on Winston Churchill’s statue in London’s Parliament Square. I was sat at home scrolling through social media and news reports, seeing a lot of outrage which was not directed at the action of desecration, but more so at the statement itself. As is increasingly becoming the case when trying to process everything that is happening in our world at the moment, I channelled all of my frustration into 240 characters. The gist of my tweet was simple: Churchill can exist as both a man who helped defeat the Nazis and as a racist. When our education system is not truly reflective of the truth about our country’s past, we must take it upon ourselves to look at history with nuance and to encourage others to do the same, regardless of whether our education system catches up or not.
When my tweet went viral, I inevitably saw an influx of comments, most in agreement with me, some which definitely were not. A few claimed that I supported the desecration of statues- I responded saying that my tweet never even mentioned anything about the statues themselves. Many of those who didn’t agree with me chose to say something sexist, racist or derogatory. It proved what so many of us already knew, that denying Churchill was a racist more often than not leads back to two paths- one in which people are unaware, seemingly because of a lack of education (and this is often reflected in our education system), or one in which people know that Churchill is a racist but choose to deny this truth. When approached to share my experiences, I spent long and hard thinking about how to communicate the facts. Truth cannot and should not be debated, for it is not an opinion, and it was with this conclusion that I decided to present just a handful of truths of what Churchill himself said and did. Let’s see what conclusion you get to at the end of reading these. • Churchill was a keen follower and admirer of physicist Frederick Lindemann, who supported eugenics and the theory of scientific racism.
• Churchill was a ruthless imperialist, with a desire to colonise more nations based on his belief that "the Aryan stock is bound to triumph".
• In 1937, Churchill stated that he thought “no great wrong” had been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. • In the 1943 Bengal famine, Churchill stated that Indians bred “like rabbits”, and contributed to the creation of policies which would lead to the famine and inevitable deaths of 3-4 million Indians. Churchill was also quoted saying that he did in fact “hate Indians”, stating that “they are a beastly people with a beastly religion". At other times, he said the plague was “merrily” culling the population.
• In 1954 Churchill told a white Kenyan settler, named Michael Blundell, that he "did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people".
• During the Kikuyu uprising against British colonial rule, between the years of 1952 and 1960, Churchill held primary responsibility for the forced internment, often at gunpoint, and brutal torture of 150,000 people. These detention camps have often been referred to as “Britain’s gulag”. Churchill also called the local Kikuyu “brutish children”.
• Churchill described Palestinians as “barbaric hoards who ate little but camel dung”. Churchill often referred to tribes as “uncivilised”. If we critically analyse some of the sources of disagreement with these statements, we can see that Churchill’s role in the Second World War makes it hard for some people to accept that he could also be a racist. How could someone who helped defeat an enemy, who themselves perpetuated discrimination against a group of people who were seen as a different race or ethnicity, also be a racist? Being anti-Nazi does not mean being anti-racist, and the first priority for Churchill was to defeat the fascists. Furthermore, to call Churchill a “man of his time” can only explain very few of his views and does not provide the reasoning behind his contribution to the Bengal famine, or his demeaning statements about people of colour, of which there can never be a justification for. There were others from his time who did not have any involvement in the mass murder of groups of people seen as less than them because they were not white or British. To create a heroic image of Churchill, that is without acceptance of the flaws that he possessed, is simply ahistorical. To call Churchill an anti-racist hero, and solely that, is revisionism.
Does that mean we forget the good because of the bad? Of course not. It simply means we accept both. To present a historical figure as one or the other, a saint or a devil is both hugely detrimental and a hindrance to the development of our society. If you are not British, or if you are of multiple nationalities, it is easy to understand why Churchill can represent pain and anguish to your community. As a British Indian myself, I understand this sentiment wholeheartedly.
Ranging from Britain’s history of colonialism, all the way through to the development of our political parties, we have been taught in a way that respects the way that the British want to portray history. The very fact that certain things are kept out of our curriculum is indicative enough of the fact that there is something to hide and is not only about what we can fit into the curriculum. This also raises the question- is Britain’s past with colonialism and racism not worth teaching?
Now let’s think about what needs to change. Our curriculum needs to be adapted to present the wider scope and real truth about British history. We need to have a better selection of sources available for teachers and students to use, and for our wider society to have access to for further learning. We need the work of scholars and historians, who are experts at approaching historical studies with nuance, to be made available to the wider public. We need our politicians, our community leaders and our educators to accept our past and acknowledge that these things happened, as well as how they have shaped our world today and the impact that this has had on our BAME communities. Until then, it will sadly and disappointedly continue to feel as though the history of our diverse communities, full of people of colour, migrants and refugees, is rejected and not considered.
Here is to hoping that these unsettling times will force the hand of change to occur, in which more of us start to comprehend that the past is not kept in the past, but rather is carried over into our present and our future͙ and until then, we can count on those of us who are committed to continuing to defend the truth of the past, to keep on doing so.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.