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The danger of over-simplifying history

The Benin Bronzes: a “sorry saga”. David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

Sooner or later, says Robert Tombs in The Daily Telegraph, “anti-colonial” activists were bound to find the monarchy an irresistible target. So we shouldn’t be surprised that a Manchester PhD student has announced she is investigating the role of the “King Georges” in the slave trade. It’s obviously no secret that Britain was involved in the global slave economy – along with “nearly every other country”. What can be overlooked is Britain’s successful campaign to end slavery, which was “strongly resisted by American, European, Arab and, of course, African states”. So why is this part of our history so often downplayed? For some, it’s ideological. But there are plenty of “less exalted motives”.

Today, being “anti-racist” is a “shrewd career move”. There’s also fear: the well-meaning trustees of “august institutions” repeatedly give in to junior staff with, in some cases, irreversible consequences. Take the “sorry saga” of the Benin Bronzes. Benin was a “violent slave-owning despotism that killed slaves for ritual purposes”. In 1897, a British expedition put a stop to it, and brought back some carvings. Yet now, museums around the world have pledged to return this “colonial loot” to Nigeria – despite the crucial “anti-slavery aspect” of the story, and despite protests from American descendants of Africans who were sold as slaves by the Beninese. When publicly funded institutions give in to this kind of empty “virtue signalling”, they teach the young to “despise everything about our common past” – one of the foundations of national solidarity.