Last Updated on August 31, 2021 by MyGh.Online
It’s a question that ignores the fact that Britain, like Australia, has long been home to non-white people. Hirsch’s own maternal grandfather, PK Owusu, grew up on the Gold Coast, the British colony that preceded the Republic of Ghana, before attending Cambridge in the 1940s on scholarship.
For Hirsch, the implication that people of colour are always new immigrants stems from national anxieties about who really counts as “British”, an insecurity that also extends to Australia.
“That conversation in Australia is interesting because white people [there] are quite recent migrants,” says Hirsch, who, in 2011, moved to Ghana as a West African correspondent for The Guardian and the Observer and co-runs the ethical fashion label, AFUA X SIKA, which celebrates traditional Ghanaian designs.
“In Britain there’s a similar myth [around] indigeneity of whiteness that is very complicated. Many white people also have fascinating immigration stories – Huguenot, Celtic, Jewish, Irish. [The idea] that if you are white, you must be British, allows for a certain nostalgia that has become a very powerful and toxic force.”
Colonial nostalgia is alive in Britain. A March 2020 poll from YouGov found a third of people in the UK are proud of the British Empire. This is despite the fact the colonialism was implicated in atrocities such as the transatlantic slave trade, the Stolen Generation and the Bengal Famine, which killed nearly three million people. Hirsch has a cure for this cultural amnesia.
“I think one of the approaches to take on a pragmatic level is to attack Britain with its own values,” says Hirsch, who is also the host of We Need to Talk About the British Empire, a six-part Audible podcast that traces the way colonialism reverberates through the lives of individuals and informs Britain’s relationship with different parts of the world.
“Britain prides itself on its academic institutions. It regards itself as having a curiosity about its history. These are genuinely things I love about Britain. For a nation that regards itself as having this intellectual capacity to be addicted to a version of history that has no basis in fact is falling short of its values.”
She stops for a moment, to consider this.
“If we don’t understand history in a way that has a basis in fact, then we are creating generations of people who aren’t equipped to navigate and understand their own society. To me, to miseducate is a gross act of negligence. I think it’s criminal and I don’t mince my words with that.”
Along with Samuel L. Jackson, Hirsch co-presents Enslaved, a gripping BBC docuseries, now streaming on ABC iView. The show, which sees a team of divers explore the underwater wrecks of slave ships, traces the directly proportional relationship between wealth creation and slavery along with profound stories of resistance and freedom.
But it also indicts figures like Edward Colston, a Bristol-born merchant who transported enslaved Africans as part of his role as deputy governor of the Royal Africa Company.
Last year, Colston’s statue, which had stood in the centre of Bristol for 125 years, was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest. There are parallels with Australia’s history of making monuments to figures caught up in frontier violence, such as Joseph Banks and James Cook.
“It’s really remarkable what countries like Britain and Australia have done, eulogised these figures, remade their images,” says Hirsch, who also runs a production company called Born in Me, which is involved in an upcoming BBC series Black Art Matters, tracing the cultural influence of African culture, art and style.
“In every British city you have these colonial, military war heroes. They are visible and present but at the same time, they have removed references to colonial wrongdoing.”
Over the past few years, figures like Colston and Cook have attracted scrutiny. But Hirsch believes looking closely at their lives can also make the colonial past more tangible. She says the people we once mythologised can bring us closer to a more honest reckoning with the way colonialism shapes the countries in which we live.
“If you talk about what Colston did, the 20,000 people that he personally trafficked whose lives and bodies he profited from, that is an opportunity to understand how Britain located itself in this big history,” she says. “Understanding the structural nature is important, but understanding the human story is also important.”
She marvels at how little has changed.
“The former 1 per cent of plantation owners are still the wealthy 1 per cent in Britain,” she says. “I am yet to see an example of an economy based on racist oppression that has transformed itself into a system where there is meritocracy.”
Hirsch believes this work, which she says is often unfairly the burden of brown and black people, is central to creating societies that are fairer and more equitable.
“[Working] out how to make a sustainable future is the most important thing that countries have to do.”
End of Empire streams as part of Antidote at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday September 5.