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A Blindspot in History: The Truth About Churchill

Churchill Fellow Nishtha Chugh argues that Britain will only truly understand its imperial history with a fuller appreciation of its wartime leader’s legacy

Black Lives Matter protesters at the Churchill statue in Parliament Square. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

A Blindspot in HistoryThe Truth About Churchill

Churchill Fellow Nishtha Chugh argues that Britain will only truly understand its imperial history with a fuller appreciation of its wartime leader’s legacy

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The Enola Gay Problem

In the early 1990s, Enola Gay, the American warplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, became embroiled in a bitter controversy over its exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. 

As Washington’s Smithsonian Institution grappled with curating the proposed exhibition, the competing historical narratives around the bomber and the atomic cargo it dropped to secure Japan’s surrender turned into a fiery debate between scholars, war veterans and anti-nuclear activists.  

To many, exhibiting the newly-restored bomber glorified, even celebrated, the use of nuclear weapons against humanity. To countless veterans and politicians, however, the B-29’s display alongside perturbing artefacts and photographs of the bombing victims from Japan established a false moral equivalence between the aggressor and the aggrieved. 

So long as Britain refuses to examine its heroes and history, it will continually need to protect its statues

Following years of wrangling over the accurate version of Enola Gay’s history, the Smithsonian eventually cancelled the exhibition.

Today, the bomber remains on display at the National Air and Space museum with little historical context to Hiroshima.

Always Mentioning the War

The tide of anger over the death of George Floyd and a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the world has resurrected Britain’s own Enola Gay problem.

In recent weeks, the statues of Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes and Robert Milligan have lost claim to their lofty perches as universities and banks own up to their historic links to the slave trade.

The country’s colonial past, steeped in racism and oppression, has made for an uncomfortable retrospection – including confronting the beliefs of its most beloved leader, Winston Churchill. 

In the Anglo-American historiography, Churchill is relentlessly cast as the torchbearer of democracy, the champion of freedom who led Britain and its allies to victory in World War Two. But his memorialised legacy has for years embodied a singlular version of history; a version that is limited to the memory of Britain’s precarious military struggle against Nazi Germany.

It is not the memory shared by peoples of its erstwhile colonies, whose fates Churchill came to shape. 

The story of Britain’s victory in World War Two is also the story of the sweat and blood the country exacted from its colonies to finance the war efforts. The freedom Churchill won for his 41 million compatriots in 1945 was enabled by the sacrifices of 550 million people in the colonies – nearly 25% of the world’s population at the time.

Despite their services to the British Empire, the colonies suffered exploitation and racial subjugation while their struggle for self-determination was brutally crushed at every opportunity on Churchill’s watch. His contempt for the inferior non-white colonials – from ‘savage Sudanese to ‘beastly’ Indians and ‘uncivilised Kurdish tribes’ – is well-documented.

When travelling overseas for work, my introduction as a Churchill Fellow often elicits looks of surprise, sometimes harmless jokes punch-lining the irony.

“You do know he loathed Indians?” many ask to ascertain if I am indeed sufficiently familiar with the history of the British Empire and her most famous leader’s views of her colonial subjects.

The inquiry of and intrigue over my moral stand on accepting the fellowship as a British Indian has continued ever since I won the highly competitive grant programme – with a success rate of 5% – in 2016. Unsurprisingly, it sometimes exceeds interest in my two-year-long fellowship research on black and ethnic minority communities across three continents. 

A Blindspot in History

It is no coincidence that these innocuous questions almost always come from the non-British.

The accounts of Britain’s imperial conquests, rapacity and atrocities remain conspicuously missing from the textbooks of its post-war generations. Ironically, one in three Britons thinks that the colonies were better off under Empire. No wonder then that the Home Office’s own review into the shameful Windrush Scandal recommended its staff be educated in the country’s colonial history. 

Today, slavery and imperialism may no longer be acceptable, and the benefactions of men such as Rhodes and Churchill improving the prospects of people of colour like myself may seem like a middle-finger to their social Darwinist ideals. But the visceral outrage over Floyd’s death has shown that racism and discrimination in Britain remains as rife and toxic as it was 30 years ago.  

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson accuses those who pulled down Colston’s statue in Bristol of photo-shopping the past, he essentially rejects the historical asymmetry that still exists for millions of non-white Britons, many of whom have slave and colonial ancestry. In doing so he also delegitimises their anger and grievances rooted in centuries of disempowerment and indignation.

My five-year-old, born three miles from where the statue fell, cannot hope for a future of equality and respect when his history books make no space for his roots and identity in its majoritarian accounts of white nostalgia, pride and moral glory. 

Any debate about Britain’s heroes and history, as author Nikesh Shukla says, cannot always be about being grateful for the railways. Like Enola Gay, we need historical context to our past. Equality means being able to debate the moral failures of leaders like Churchill and Horatio Nelson without being told to “leave if we don’t like it here”. 

So long as Britain refuses to examine its heroes and history, it will continually need to protect its statues.

As we witness the shifting of racial tectonic plates, it may take just one more George Floyd dying in a white chokehold before the plinths beneath Churchill’s legacy start to crumble.

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