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Gaslit history

It is hardly a surprise that most Britons have not heard of Quintus Lollius Urbicus

A few years ago, as a fun summer project, I wrote a bad little book about historical connections between Britain and Poland. I wanted more people to know about the existence of men like Jan Łaski, a Polish Calvinist who influenced the English Reformation, and Józef Korzeniowski, who, as Joseph Conrad, would become one of Britain’s finest novelists. 

I liked to believe I was promoting some curious footnotes to history. If I’d wanted to give the book a bit more punch, on the other hand, I would have claimed that it was “shocking” that most Britons had not heard of such people. I would have claimed that Łaski, for example, was “integral” to British history. But that would have been untrue.

Half of Britons can’t name a Black British historical figure, survey finds,” the Guardian laments. This is “shocking”, apparently. Atinuke, author of the new book Brilliant Black British History, says “disbelief is really the only word”:

She would have expected people to name figures such as Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who became governor of Roman Britain; the formerly enslaved Olaudah Equiano, who became an abolitionist and writer; Mary Seacole, who provided sustenance and care for British soldiers during the Crimean war, and the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Really? She would have expected the average Briton to know Samuel Coleridge-Taylor? No offence to the average Briton — because I’m sure that one could say similar things about the average citizens of most if not all nations — but I doubt the average Briton knows Samuel Taylor Coleridge, never mind Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. I feel bad for writing this because I mean no disrespect to the legacy of Mr Coleridge-Taylor — a fine composer, I’m sure, who must have faced an uphill battle as he built his reputation. But it would surprise me if the average Briton knows Edward Elgar. We’re just not that culturally literate.

Olaudah Equiano, too, certainly had an interesting life. It’s good to know about him. But could the average Briton name William Pitt (elder or younger), Robert Clive or Edmund Burke? Maybe. But I doubt it. Frankly, I’d be relieved if more than 50 per cent of Britons have heard of James Cook. About a third of Britons don’t know, according to a poll commissioned by HISTORY, that the Blitz and the Battle of Britain were World War Two events.

I’d be surprised if most Britains knew we had a Jewish prime minister, never mind a North African governor

As for Quintus Lollius Urbicus, well — I’d be surprised if most Britains knew we had a Jewish prime minister, never mind a North African governor. How many governors of Roman Britain do you know? I’m waaaaaiting. A shiny pound for anyone who isn’t a historian and can name more than five. I don’t think I’m the most ignorant of Britons but I’m looking at Wikipedia’s list of Roman governors of Britain and I recognise four: Plautius, Paulinus, Agricola and, yes, Urbicus. Of them, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Urbicus had the least significant career. 

Whether Numidian Berbers like Urbicus would even count as black in modern terms seems dubious. Numidia stood where Algeria stands today, and no one would think of Algerians as black. I doubt that Urbicus would have considered himself British in any sense. He was, after all, a member of an occupying army. Should we think of Warren Hastings as Indian?

Polls like this, claims Rebecca McNally, publishing director and editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Children’s Books, “demonstrate an urgent need for books … that spotlight integral parts of our history that have been pushed to one side for far too long.” Integral, eh? Again, I don’t want to sound like I think Olaudah Equiano or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor are historical trivialities. They were important men with great accomplishments. To say that someone was not “integral” is no insult because so few people have achieved that status. (I’m not integral to my apartment block, never mind British history.) But, frankly, they weren’t.

What they are is integral to an ideological campaign — an ideological campaign to cast British history as deeply and essentially diverse. It is why we hear ahistorical tales about how the Windrush generation rebuilt modern Britain. It is why we hear delusional claims about Britain always having been an “immigrant nation” — ignoring, in the words of Sir Walter Bodmer, the remarkable stability of the British people.” It is why Steven Moffat, showrunner of Dr Who, has said that in creating drama, “we’ve kind of got to tell a lie: we’ll go back into history and there will be black people where, historically, there wouldn’t have been.”

Of course, no one could deny that British history is multi-ethnic insofar as the British Empire and the Atlantic slave trade are such important milestones. Britain itself has been made up of different peoples, of course, inasmuch as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish history overlaps without being one and the same. But in racial terms it has been, until recent decades, more homogeneous than it has been heterogeneous, and that offends people who want to insinuate that, in the recent words of the official Twitter account of the Premier League, “we are nothing without our diversity”.

Whatever you think of the politics involved, politics is no excuse for falsehoods. Now, who can tell me the names of five Britons of Polish descent?

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