Imperial and World History seminar
15 October 2012
Tom Bentley (University of Sussex)
Reshaping the past: the lingering colonial present

This podcast is about 20 minutes long.

Gravestones after Herero Genocide

Violence is a driving force of colonialism, but it is not the only narrative available.  There is another that glosses Empire still in its contemporary terms: adventure, chivalry, civilising, and the saving of heathen souls.  That narrative, whilst more subdued than in the past, still exists.  You only need to look as far as the London Olympics Opening Ceremony to see a glimpse of that.

Tom Bentley’s paper looks at the present day view of the colonial past through four examples of apologies made by western leaders.

1)      Germany to the Herero (Namibia) for genocide – 2004

2)      Belgium for their complicity in the assassination of the then Republic of Congo’s leader – 2002

3)      Italy to Libya regarding colonisation – 2008

4)      Britain to Northern Ireland for Bloody Sunday – 2010

Bentley examines the language used in these apologies and asks why they are being made and for whom.  For example leaders often use apologies for their own agenda; cultivating an image of themselves as distant from previous governments and from those who had caused the act in the first place.  They talk to their own people, more than those whom they are making the apology.  The apology also seems to attempt a circumvention of plans to seek reparations by distancing their government from those who had caused the atrocity in the first place.

Secondly, Bentley looks at the familiar narratives in the apology.  The words sanitise the past and offer only an apology for one particular event.  These apologises are not, for example, for the entire colonisation programme, but for one blip where things went wrong.  The apology also serves the present, asking something of those they are apologising to and often seeking a gain for themselves.

Finally, the apology seeks to stamp on the event a conclusive official account of the event.  The apologiser is authorising a particular history of an event and making it official.

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