Black lives Matter has blown open the subject of race in a fashion that nobody could have imagined. That it took the death of an African American in the sort of white police brutality which is not uncommon in America shows what was bubbling beneath the surface not just in America but the wider world. It just needed a spark and the tragic death of George Floyd has provided that spark. I cannot think of another event that has led to so many initiatives from Boris Johnson announcing yet another study on racial discrimination in this county headed by a woman who does not believe there is systemic racism to Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equality Commission, launching History Matters Project. Yes, history does matter but the question is what history and whose history. If we do not tackle this issue then all this debate and argument will be mere froth that does not fundamentally change attitudes only causes more division and bitterness.
I could not agree more with Boris Johnson when, reacting to threats to the statue of Winston Churchill, he said we should not whitewash history. I have always agreed with the American philosopher George Santayana that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The problem is the we cannot agree on what the past was. So, when Johnson talks of history he means, although he does not put it that way, history as written and presented by white Europeans. Since Europe for over four hundred years ruled the world and in the process made the modern world they have also written the history of the world. The problem is Europeans claim this is universal history. But it is not. British involvement in India is part of my history but it is not my entire history. There is also what my ancestors did and their view of British actions. So, if I want that history represented am I whitewashing history? If so how?
Let me give two examples. The first is what I call Machiavelli versus Chanakya. We all know who the Italian was even if we may not have read The Prince his great book on statecraft. But how many outside India know about Chanakya? He lived 1700 years before Machiavelli and wrote a book on statecraft called Arthasastra. If you read it you would think Machiavelli plagiarised Chanakya. Recently there have been books on Machiavelli. None of the reviewers mentioned Chanakya. They clearly did not know about him. You would have to be an Indian to know. Or a diplomat in India as the diplomatic enclave in New Delhi is called Chanakyapuri, the home of Chanakya. But if history is, to be universal should Europeans, particularly experts on Machiavelli, not know about Chanakya?
My other example comes from a television broadcast. I am doing the Paper Review on BBC News Channel and Aretha Franklin has died. The papers are full of how she was the greatest singer in the world and that her voice reached millions. Greatest? I immediately think of Lata Mangeshkar. Her voice reaches many more millions than Aretha Franklin. I am not talking of the quality of singing. I am talking of how many people know about the singer. To talk in global terms of Aretha Franklin you have to consider Lata Mangeshkar. But to mention her name in a BBC broadcast, even though it has a worldwide audience, would mean I would have to explain who she is, talk of Bollywood, play back singing and there is no time to provide a history lesson. So, I go along with agreeing Aretha Franklin was the greatest singer of our times.
Some years ago, when I published a new edition of my book The Maidan View, the magic of Indian cricket I mentioned that before the British conquered India, India was the second most important economic power in the world, next only to China. In February 1583, Elizabeth I wrote a begging letter to Emperor Akbar, the Mughal Emperor, calling him “the most invincible and mighty Prince . . . Invincible Emperor”, spoke of his “humanity”, and said she would be “beholden” if he looked after her subjects who wanted to trade with India. Then India and China were the great economic giants of the world, a position they held for the next two centuries. Economists have estimated that the annual revenue of Aurangzeb, Akbar’s great grandson, who reigned from 1659 to 1701, was $450,000,000, more than ten times that of his contemporary Louis XIV, and that, in 1638, the Mughal court had accumulated a treasure equivalent to one and a half billion dollars.
Based as they are on pre-First World War dollar figures, these may need to be multiplied twenty-five or more times to get the present dollar figures. In 1750, five years before Clive’s victory at Plassey, India had 24.5 per cent of world trade, second only to China with 32.8 per cent, while the UK had 1.9 per cent. Indeed, India’s share of world manufacturing output was higher than that of Europe as whole which was 23.2 per cent. All that changed dramatically once the British conquered India and by 1900 Britain’s share stood at 18.5 and India’s at 1.7. This is not to say the average Indian was well off under the Mughals he was not. But he was perhaps slightly better off than the average English under Elizabeth 1.
I mentioned all this to Stephen Fay a very distinguished journalist, an old colleague of mine from the Sunday Times and by then editor of a cricket magazine. Now Stephen was a very well-read man of great distinction. But he laughed at my idea that India was an economic giant and had industry which produced goods that were exported all over the world. He thought I was spinning a yarn. Many years later shortly before he died when I met him he confessed he was wrong and that he just did not know.
I cannot blame Stephen for I must say I myself did not know about India’s pre-British economic power when I was growing up as my history books, still bearing the mark of the colonial regime that had only just ended, did not mention any of this. As for people in the west to discover such facts they would have to search out specialised books which only started being published in the late 1980s. One such was Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Nations quoting the work of economists like Bairoch on India’s pre-British economic power. But Kennedy was clearly shocked for he called Bairoch’s suggestion “remarkable and horrifying”. That book is interesting because it was published during the 1988 US Presidential election and provoked much debate as to whether America was declining as a great power something George Bush senior, who was seeking election, promised to prevent.
I can give many examples of how history from the white, European, perspective is presented as universal history. My shelf has many such books. Let me talk of one called The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness to History 2000. The subtitle reads Eyewitness accounts of great historical moments from 2700 BC to AD 2000, edited by Jon E. Lewis and published by Carroll & Graf, a publisher in New York. It is 630 pages long. With a couple of exceptions nearly all the events deal with what happened to white men and women and even when non-whites feature the writers quoted are whites. So, the story of smallpox in Turkey in April 1717 is by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the wife of the British ambassador in Turkey. Gandhi’s epic civil disobedience campaign is by Webb Miller, who boasts he was the only foreign correspondent to witness it. Nelson Mandela voting for the first time in 1994 is by another white writer. So even when you have non-white history the voice you hear is that of a white person. I would have no problem if the title said Eyewitness History 2000 as seen by whites. But it does not. It claims to be universal history and it is not universal. So who is whitewashing history, Boris? That the editor could have missed such wonderful historical works as the memoirs of the Mughal Emperors starting with Babar, a classic of its kind, is quite astonishing for a book making such extravagant claims.
To give another example in 2015 Ferdinand Mount, a former adviser to Mrs Thatcher, listed top ten books about the British in India. He said, “I have been bewitched by the story of the British in India” and wanted to find out more. All the books he listed were by British authors. One of them had the title The Great Mutiny describing the revolt of 1857 which Indians see as the First War of Independence. Again he is entitled to his choice of books but the list is clearly not meant for me. It is meant for white British readers and that it was published in the Guardian suggests that the Guardian’s editors thought that even their liberal readers while wanting to know about India want it as portrayed by British writers.
What this means is that for us non-whites to find the history of our ancestors we have to do what Thomas Carlyle did when writing about Oliver Cromwell, dig things up from the huge amount of earth that have buried them for so long. As I have found this is not easy.
The question we face is how we get a history that can really be called universal history that tells the whole story of mankind without making the excluded millions, who are the majority population of the world, feel they will always be the others. There is no easy answer but unless we find a solution the enormous historical chasm between whites and non-whites will not be bridged.
Also Read: Discrimination & Racism in Britain