Questioning the ‘Over There’ and ‘A Long Time Ago’ of Imperialism

By Alex Gapud (Staff Writer) 

In The Satanic Verses, one of Salman Rushdie’s characters speaks the words, ‘The trouble with the Engenglish is that their hiss hiss history happened overseas, so they dodo don’t know what it means.’[1]   

I am a social anthropology student who focuses on memory rather than history.  I have an interest in post-colonialism from an English perspective, and I’m often met with some confused looks before I explain my research at length.  Often, people think I’m a history student (implying that I’m interested in looking at the past alone) or suggest that I talk to their colleague or friend somewhere in Africa/Asia/Latin America.  This suggests to me that there’s a common conception present that imperialism was ‘a long time ago’ and ‘over there.’ 

Sure, we might talk about US foreign policy and its resemblance to old imperial policies and attitudes, or financial institutions and trade arrangements—and rightfully so.  But what if imperialism shapes us here and now in more subtle and banal ways we either take for granted, or simply refuse to address?  What if it’s deeply ingrained in our cityscapes via buildings and place names, as well as demographically in our ethnic diversity, or culinarily in potatoes and tea and coffee?  What if it’s inherent in any notions of Englishness or Britishness?  What if it’s deep within the way we see the world—my own discipline included--and perhaps most prominently, as an aspect of our ongoing conversations about immigration?

I want to ask then, what if imperialism isn’t a phenomenon so spatially and temporally distant?  What if in many ways, it was always over here and still is?  Where is that conversation happening? If it’s not, why isn’t it? By asking these questions, I'm not suggesting that imperialism doesn't have an historic aspect or that it didn't happen ‘over there’ at all, but rather, by suggesting its ‘here and nowness,’ I am asking whether we could actually expand and deepen our conversations about imperialism and post-colonialism and the world in which we live today?  In the context of the British Empire, we often speak of the Empire bit, but we’re apprehensive to speak of the British aspect of it. Quite simply, what did the Empire mean here, in Britain?

I’m currently doing my fieldwork in Bristol, in southwest England.  For the unfamiliar, Bristol is a vibrant and wealthy city (on the whole) that largely made its fortune off imperial trade networks and commodities for over three centuries, trading in slaves, sugar, chocolate, alcohol, and in particular, tobacco.  These imperial trades and networks have been so crucial to the city that almost everyone I speak to references the significance of wealth accumulated from slaves (and by extension, slave produced commodities such as tobacco and sugar) in building the city.  As far as larger imperial trades, the role of Wills Tobacco in South Bristol in providing jobs and creating infrastructure is indubitable.  And as is commonly commented, the University of Bristol owes its existence primarily to the Wills family and their tobacco empire.  The grandeur and magnificence of Wills Memorial Building, the University’s flagship building and one of the city’s most prominent landmarks hints at the wealth created from tobacco. Its enduring presence in the city serves as not merely a (however silent or explicit) homage to Henry Overton Wills III and his family, but the tobacco trade and the empire which made their wealth possible.

This is just one example of the role of empire in building Bristol and this is replicated countless times over in many cities throughout not only the UK, but Europe and the Americas.  These buildings are present and enduring legacies of imperialism in our midst, whether we acknowledge them as such or not.   

I recently had the honour of giving a paper at the University of Ghent in Belgium, where I found myself speaking quite literally in the shadow of a 10 foot tall portrait (and I imagine, to the ghost) of King Leopold II.  As the conference organisers noted, the awkwardness, the poignancy, and the haunting presence of that portrait was inescapable for a conference about memory of the colonial past in present day Belgium.  But I think it demonstrated the points in my paper about the links between materiality and memory in regards to Empire. It illustrates my point here about the enduring and ongoing presence of Empire among us, with us here and now.

It would be fair enough if these material objects were isolated in museums and Royal Academies, but the reality is that they are not isolated; we live among these objects. These buildings and accompanying street names and places, in their own way, subtly shape and constitute and frame our lives in ways that often elude our superficial consciousness. They're not necessarily harmless, value-free objects in our midst, but rather, as Daniel Miller suggests, serve as frames which subtly act on us, often in subliminal ways.  Miller refers to this as ‘the humility of things.’[2] But most poignantly for my work, just like with that portrait of Leopold II, they are present: they are here, with us now.

It brings me to a wider point and set of questions which can’t simply be answered in a blog post: If these imperial legacies are with us here and now; if they are not merely ‘over there, a long time ago,’ how do we talk about them?  And beyond the remit of my work but a related question nevertheless, how should we talk about them? 

If we admit for a second that imperialism is over here and endures in the present, how might we not only enrich our historical understanding, but furthermore, gain historical perspective in our understanding that many of the contemporary political issues which we deal with—such as immigration and race relations—have deep roots in the colonial encounter? 

For my friends in places like Bristol, and for perhaps many of you readers, it’s a legacy and a memory that’s yet to really be reckoned with.  Perhaps because it’s a difficult thing to engage—after all, how do we remember something that both fundamentally shapes us (if not benefits us, or perhaps harms us?) but which also violates our contemporary moral codes and understandings?[3]

It’s a question far from simple resolution, but what if part of how we actually attempt to ‘deal’ with that difficult heritage is through a displacement in our consciousness—through believing it was simply ‘over there, a long time ago?  What if instead of engaging this part of our heritage head on here and now, we’ve been deferring it to a temporally distant past and a spatially removed ‘over there’?  Could deconstructing this commonly held and convenient misperception actually spark a vibrant and constructive conversation in its own right and illuminate others, such as conversations about Britishness, race, and immigration?  If we deny the false perception and look at what the illusion does and creates, are we then more able to respond to a reality which it seems many would rather ignore?

I feel obliged, in closing, to discuss my own context and who I am in conducting the research I’m doing.  For although many of you are disgusted by the colonial encounter and may view it as entirely bad, I cannot, with any integrity or honesty to my family and our past, label it so bluntly.  As I tell people, ‘I cannot look at the mirror and tell you it was all bad.’  For I myself, as a Filipino-American, have been a beneficiary and a conscious child of the imperial encounter—an encounter, which, I lament, most of my fellow Americans are completely oblivious of.[4]  For better or worse, despite the abuses inflicted upon my ancestors in the colonial encounter, that encounter gave my grandparents and my parents educational opportunities to pursue and to succeed in profound ways which have constituted and benefitted my life, not least of all, my education and current research. I think if we are honest, most of us currently in the West with roots in former colonies can empathise with this embrace of ambiguity.  We may view that ambiguity as myriad shades of grey, and we respond to that greyness with a range of emotions from regret to anger and resentment, as well as apathy and ignorance.  But the ambiguity, I believe, isn’t ours alone. 

[1] Rushdie, Salman. 1988. The Satanic Verses. London:Viking.

[2] Miller, Daniel. 2010. Stuff. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[3] Moral codes and understandings, such as the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, which, according to Jeffrey Olick (2007:123) are a manifestly postwar construct, despite preceding discourses which gave shape to the human rights discourse. See Olick, Jeffrey. 2007. The Politics of Regret. London:Routledge.

[4] The US governed the Philippines as a ‘protectorate’ (i.e., colony, except Americans don’t like that word) from 1898-1946, with the exception from late 1941-1944 when it was under Japanese occupation.  Most patronisingly, the US ceded independence to the Philippines on 4 July 1946.