When History Gets Uncomfortable

I love British history. That's why I called my blog Love British History. But sometimes there are parts of history that makes us feel uncomfortable, and we don't really love that aspect of it, do we? 

It was the plunge in my stomach when I went to write, sympathetically, about little-known women murder victims for Women's History Month - and then awkwardly discovered that actually, a number of violent murders had been committed by women. 

Or the ache in my heart when I learned that the British had traded millions of African men, women and children, took away their names and identities and shackled them in boats, transporting them to the colonies to be treated as nothing more than property. Double that sinking feeling when I researched my family tree and found to my horror that one eighteenth-century ancestor had married a plantation owner in the Caribbean. Meaning that my own family was almost certainly directly involved in the slave trade.  

I get an uneasy feeling when I visit a museum that proudly exhibits an ancient Egyptian Mummy, brought over without negotiation by British archaeologists in the nineteenth century. Shouldn't that person be left to rest in their own country, where they belong? And what right did we have to take them anyway? 

Slaves working on a sugar plantation, 1823. Public Domain. Photo by British Library on Unsplash

So what do we do about it? 

I know that winners write the history, but that doesn't mean that the rest is always left out entirely. In my mind, we need those 'lost' bits to piece together what happened to understand it fully. It doesn't make for easy reading, but it needs to be done. That's what studying history is all about. I mean, we're not writing happily-ever-after fairytales here. 

You won't understand the BLM movement if you don't look back to exploration in Tudor and Stuart Britain or segregation in the 1900s. You won't understand women's history if you don't look back to some of the violent acts of the Suffragettes in the early 1900s. For too long, historians have done too much picking and choosing of events to fit a particular narrative, or to support some sort of ancient, idealised legend, built on yellowed, dog-eared accounts of centuries-old propaganda.

I don't know any other British person personally that sees the British Empire as a thing to be unwaveringly proud of. Any talk of Georgian or Victorian rule - along with the battles, bloodshed, taxation and dominance - over parts of Africa, India and other parts of the world make us shift uncomfortably a little bit in our seats.

Approaches to history do seem to be changing. We no longer feel as if we need to cling so protectively to property taken in conquest (like the Benin Bronzes), and leaders now often issue public apologies for historical acts of terrorism or persecution. More than ever before I think, we look at the past with more compassion and understanding. 

I'd bet that pretty much every country's history has those skeletons in the closet, those awkward bits that you don't really want brought up at dinner parties. And although it may be difficult to consider, I reckon it's important. By really digging into the sources we understand the whole of history - and today's world - from a far more compassionate and understanding place. In turn, we can highlight new areas of study, improve education and get on better with our next door neighbours. And how can that not be a good thing? 

Do you have any thoughts? What parts of history make uncomfortable reading for you? Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below... 


  1. Make-up: A Glamorous History - BBC Two, does not shy away from 'uncomfortable' subject areas such as the Slave trade.


Post a Comment