Romanticising the Empire

Louise Wylie examines British media’s nostalgic portrayal of its colonial past

Nostalgia is a powerful tool, and right now we’re seeing a rise in the creation of nostalgia for nationalistic ends. This is nowhere more obvious than in the films and television we consume, where there seems to be a trend for romances set in the heady days of the British Empire. These productions present an idealised empire, estranged from the reality of the time.

In the trailer for newly released Victoria and Abdul, Queen Vic (Judi Dench) dismisses the Prime Minister when he informs her of a famine in India. “Prime Minister, you really are terribly depressing” she bites. Cue laughter. Good old Victoria, never one for political correctness. It’s somewhat less funny when you realise that the famine in question killed one million people.

There’s a similar, if less stark, problem in the recently cancelled Channel 4 programme Indian Summers. Set in Simla near the Himalayas, the plot revolves around the political intrigues of colonial authorities and a select number of Indians. Yes, there’s racial discrimination depicted, and yes, the protagonist gets involved in the independence movement, but it’s all an over-simplification of an especially dark and shameful time in British history – which is saying a lot. Indian nationalists are either minor characters or cartoon villains. White British characters are given much more depth and nuance, and with very few exceptions the Indian characters were slotted neatly into stereotypes.

In a show like Indian Summers, where the whole plot revolved around the colonial system and British rule, it is inexcusable to not properly represent the horror of the British Raj. Skimming over the devastating damage caused by imperialism presents a nostalgic picture through rose-tinted specs. The show’s creators decided to plant their story into 1930s India. They can’t then ignore the situation in place at that time. Talking about the British impact, including the murder of Indians either directly through military force or indirectly via preventable famines, is a minimum requirement.

Funnily enough, popular culture has an impact on popular opinion, and filmmakers have a responsibility to not gloss over historical realities when they portray so-called “true” stories. With propaganda like this, it’s no wonder that a 43% of respondents in a recent YouGov poll thought that the British Empire was overall a good thing.

Now I’m not saying we can’t have romance films or shows set in colonial periods whatsoever. The issue is about whether history is represented in an accurate way. You couldn’t make a romance film set in the Holocaust and skim over the horror to focus instead on the aesthetic. You shouldn’t make a TV show about the mass displacement and murder of Native Americans and only allude to the genocide in snippets of dialogue. It’s the same with depictions of the British Empire.

You can still make a successful romantic film under colonialism and show oppression. Just watch Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom. Romance? Check. Heart-warming? Check. Explicitly shows the callous and racist exploitation of a people by the machinery of the British Empire? Check. This is one of the reasons why we need to make more opportunities for people of colour and those whose families have lived under the weight of imperialism. Asante bucks the trend of dolling-up our history for jingoistic purposes. We need to better educate people on what the British Empire actually meant so that we can stop trying to recreate it in the present day.

Our history helps shape our future, and this clinging onto our colonial past is having an impact on our reality now. Politicians have made bold claims about forging trading links with commonwealth countries, as if we still have an empire which is capable of exploiting and plundering around the world. Under the dictionary definition of “wee guy syndrome” you’ll see a Union Jack, and it’s media like this which spurs it on. If all you see on screen of the British Empire is royalty sitting about drinking tea and governing over the “natives”, that’s all you’ll think about. Just because a white British woman can fall in love with a Parsi man in a TV show does not mean that the system depicted in the show wasn’t institutionally racist. Just because Victoria had a Muslim Indian friend does not mean that she didn’t rule over a murderous, exploitative, invasive colonial system which oppressed hundreds of millions of people. She wasn’t a secret anti-racist, she directly ruled one of the most racist institutions ever created.

At a time when dangerous nationalism is on the rise, the last thing we should be doing is harking back to an imaginary time when Brits ruled a benevolent and prosperous empire. How can we learn from history if we keep revising it? We need to stop going along with propaganda like this and face up to the truth that imperialism is not something to yearn for, but to shudder at.

[Louise Wylie – @womanpendulum]

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