How did we let our history become one long mea culpa?

The West has taken a very strange and unfortunate turn in recent years. Instead of seeking meaningful – even joyous – survival as the leaders of the free world, we have turned in on ourselves. We should be shoring up our strength as the planet becomes ever more starkly carved up between the forces of good and bad, but instead we have become obsessed with baroque ways of undermining and naysaying ourselves.

Take the treatment of our history which – once regarded as complex, complete with glorious and ignominious bits – has become a relentless ideological lesson about racism. It is no longer a history, but an angry, self-abasing mea culpa. Thus, not content to study and glean insight from the multi-sided past, cultural arbiters – guardians of our cultural objects, in the most literal sense – want to devote as much energy as possible to trying to correct the past, and make amends for our allegedly evil, wholly racist crimes of colonial greed.

In Britain, nexus of what was once the largest empire of all time, the fixation is all-consuming, and the vogue for repatriation of objects “plundered” by imperial forces has been gathering pace. The latest instalment in this campaign is the return of a Benin bronze stave by the Great North Museum in Newcastle, following similar action by museums in Europe and the US. The museum has proudly announced its proactive stance on returning the stave, which was taken during the “punitive” British expedition of 1897.

It’s just a stave, some might say. Or it’s just a cockerel, such as the one that Jesus College Cambridge recently sent smugly, and with great fanfare and back-patting. back to Nigeria. But it isn’t just a few objects. It is a massively, dangerously slippery slope that begs the question: where does this end? Western civilisation is a patchwork of cultural inheritance from a huge variety of sources, the vast majority of which can never pass the stringent moral tests of the righteous elites in charge today. Should we dismantle the whole culture? If we seek to make drastic amends for anything tainted by racism or colonialism, we will literally have nothing left, from our greatest, impeccably cared-for treasures (which are also peerless educational resources) to literature and philosophy, also strenuously under attack by the “decolonise” bunch.

The return of objects gained in the course of imperial expeditions, punitive or not, is particularly wrong-headed. Empire was the universal form of governance until relatively recently, with even the most moderate, humane voices – including Edmund Burke in the 18th century – arguing that, if run right and with humanity, the British empire was conducive to peace and prosperity.

Indeed, the history of the world is completely enmeshed with the existence of empire – including those far worse than Britain’s. Yet now, in distinct opposition to what some of our finest historians are telling us, empire must be seen as unequivocally bad, full stop – with Britain’s the worst of all.

Cue the colourless droning of brainwashed curators that, in the words of Vee Pollock, the academic in charge of the Newcastle collection: “There is no real question for us that the right thing to do was to offer its return.” But of course there’s a question – there’s every question, and it’s called ‘context’.

Meanwhile, Kevin Mirren, director of Tyne and Wear archives and museums and operating under a “repatriation and decolonisation policy”, intoned with bizarre over-reach into woo-woo land that “repatriation can be a powerful cultural, spiritual and symbolic act which recognises the wrongs of the past and restores some sense of justice”.

Come again? We are now operating cultural policy in Britain on the basis of ‘spiritual’ power, and the principles of restorative justice? It’s as if our understanding not just of history, but of the present – of the nature of Western culture in general – has been hijacked by hippies.

On the surface, it seems perfectly noble to want to make amends, a childishly satisfying act of repair for a theft. But the reality is not so clear-cut. These acquisitions were not simply the result of illegal pinching. They took place within a framework of military-imperial action that fell within international, social and political norms at the time.

And the repatriation of Benin objects is even more complicated. In an open letter to Sonia Alleyne, the master of Jesus College, Robert Tombs, the Cambridge professor of history and writer for this newspaper, suggested that the college at least be honest about the full scope of the history it was purporting to condemn and avenge when it returned the cockerel. As he pointed out, the college, in a ceremony of great pomp, “expressed moral satisfaction at returning the artefact, confiscated by a British expedition in 1897” and “presented this as an unambiguously moral decision, made unanimously”.

What was not hinted at, even slightly, was “the type of society that the Kingdom of Benin was until British intervention in 1897 – a brutal slave-raiding and slave-trading society, in which enslaved victims were regularly and horribly killed, often being buried alive as a ritual”.

Tombs does not necessarily object to the gesture of return, then, but as a historian, he was horrified by its implication: the simple binary whereby a violent slave-owning and trading nation, by dint of being African, can never be culpable, only ever violently raided. Of course that doesn’t mean that everything the West ever did was right, very far from it, but in this case at least it should give us all pause.

As the intensifying fight over the rightful home of Elgin marbles shows, there is momentum to the cause. But insisting on morally correcting history itself is to demand the disbanding of our culture, piece by piece, a project as nihilistic as it is

“That doesn’t mean everything the West ever did was fair play, but in this case at least it should give us all pause.” – we should harden this a little for print and online, to something like “Of course that doesn’t mean that everything the West ever did was right, very far from it, but…”

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