British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has flicked open a can of worms that had stayed stubbornly sealed half a century past its use-by date. Worms that will eat away at rosy memories of far pavilions in which colonials in Jodhpurs and sola topees moodily sipped pink gins while being entertained by snake-charmers. Actually, Corbyn’s speech in Bristol concerned Black History Month and was a response to the Windrush scandal this year, when Theresa May’s government deported or wrongfully stripped the welfare rights of Caribbean immigrants, whose arrival aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948 is regarded as the beginning of multicultural Britain. He has called for more teaching of British colonial history in schools as a universal specific.
Learning about the British trade in narcotics and slaves, which changed world history, is certainly more mind-expanding than boning up on the Danelaw and the Wars of the Roses, which were only of local significance. But it also means exposure to uncomfortable truths which were buried for decades by the myth of the white man’s burden. It means that while celebrating Field Marshal Montgomery, students would have to know a little something about Brigadier-General Dyer, too. Not quite painless, you know.
The very idea of multicultural Britain was a course correction, of course, but it’s a mixed picture. This year, while May’s government was hounding people from the Caribbean, the port of Tilbury celebrated the docking of the Empire Windrush. But the idea of reparation to India, or of an apology for Jallianwala Bagh, is no longer dismissed out of hand. And interestingly, a portrait of Patna native Dean Mahomet, inventor of chicken tikka masala and shampoo, and the first Indian to author an English book, has been widely exhibited. Now, while the going is good, shall we demand the return of the Kohinoor, too?