It must have been a decade or more ago that a conversation at a dinner party prompted me to reflect on complicity in colonialism/imperialism. I drafted a blog but never posted it. Every few years I would have a look at the draft, tinker with it, and then move on. Now I think it's about time to put it out there - nothing all that revealing, but all the same worth posting:
I have thought quite a lot recently about complicity in colonialism. I once said at a dinner party how surprised I was by the number of friends from the Home Counties who had someone in the family’s past who had done something in India – and in my upbringing I couldn’t think of anyone who had an India hand among their antecedents (apart from perhaps a bit of war service). I then added that the north was less complicit in the Imperial project.
This drew a vehement snort of derision from a black feminist present. And it has made me think –
My maternal great-grandfather from Belfast was a merchant seaman who sailed the world, my mother grew up with the Hindi-derived Glaswegian term ‘peely wally’, her father worked in those hubs of Empire Harland and Wolff and then the Govan shipyards and ended his working life as a foreman in an engineering factory in South Africa.
On my father’s side, one family member spent time in Argentina, my grandfather’s woollen factory was built around export (particularly to the Gulf - I remember collecting the Saudi postage stamps) and when it closed, the machinery was parcelled off and sent to India. My father had war service as a trainee pilot in Rhodesia.
I joined the World Service, and went out to India (pith helmet metaphorically in my baggage) to work for the most Imperial of news services, and came back with a PIO card and and what would once have been called a bibi (aka Anu). Much of my historical research and writing has been about Kashmir - even though I don't speak or read Kashmiri or Urdu.
So I can hardly say that Empire didn’t intrude into my and my family’s life.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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