david lammy war graves empire racism
Society and Social Structures

David Lammy and the anti-Empire racism of religious illiteracy

When it transpired recently that thousands of black and Asian soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire had been ‘unequally’ commemorated in death, the absence of headstones and other memorials to their service was swiftly attributed to “pervasive racism” and the evils of the British Empire. If tens of thousands of predominantly Indian and African service personnel were not remembered in the same way as the white man, what else could the explanation be, apart from “the entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes”.

According to a report by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (previously the Imperial War Graves Commission), this was emphatically the reason. Their founding principle of equality of treatment in death had been apparently abrogated, if not disdained.

For some, rather than marking their graves individually, as the IWGC would have done in Europe, these men were commemorated collectively on memorials. For others who were missing, their names were recorded in registers rather than in stone..

So their blackness and brownness became a shameful cause of unequal treatment in death, and the CWGC apologised for their institutional racism and manifest failure.

On hearing this news, Labour MP David Lammy shed a tear. He had previously visited Kenya and Tanzania to make a Remembrance Day documentary for Channel 4, where he found mass burial grounds “that put Britain to shame”. He wrote of his experience:

Antonny Wachira Kimani is the caretaker for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery in Voi in southern Kenya, maintaining rows of graves near hills that lead south towards Tanzania. Paying my respects to the fallen, I read names of British captains and corporals who died far from home. I ask Kimani where the bodies of the Africans are buried. He points beyond the perimeter fence of the immaculately kept grounds into the bush, where homeless locals sometimes sleep in the undergrowth and dogs pee among rubbish.

…But this is not the result of Kimani neglecting his duties but of a political decision taken thousands of miles away at the highest levels of the British establishment. I had to accept that one of the British institutions I always admired, the CWGC, was hiding a scandal.

And one particular name (or, more often, a nameless ‘colonial governor’) is quoted again and again for allegedly racist comments he made in a letter sent in 1923:

..the average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone and that the original suggestion of the O.C. Troops, viz:- a central statue of a soldier of the Gold Coast Regiment – was a more reasonable suggestion. Such a memorial would be understood and greatly appreciated by the tribes from whom the majority of the men in the Regiment were recruited.

It was written by FG Guggisberg who was then Governor of the Gold Coast in Africa, and the suggestion that the “average native” would neither understand nor appreciate a headstone now causes great offence. What is interesting, however, according to historian Dr Zareer Masani, is that they wouldn’t have understood or appreciated western funerary customs. He wrote to the Times:

And he isn’t the only academic to have taken issue with viewing this matter through the distorting lens of ‘Black Lives Matter’:

Dr Masani followed up his letter to the Times with an article in the Telegraph, Honour Britain’s imperial troops as heroes of empire, in which he observes:

…there are also dangers in raking over these old coals a century later in an attempt to placate the likes of David Lammy and David Olusoga. For the woke Left, this is not just about properly honouring those who gave their lives for Britain, but buttressing a narrative that the Empire was inherently evil and its peoples inevitably victims.

What the critics often ignore is the fact that many of the black and Asian troops who fought in both world wars were salaried volunteers, who were proud to serve in its defence. In India, for example, there was no conscription, even though some over-eager landlords sometimes dragooned their tenants to serve. The British Indian Army was the largest professional, volunteer force in world history, supplying almost two million troops, drawn mostly from the Sikh, Jat, Rajput and Muslim communities of the north, who had served imperial armies, Hindu, Mughal and British, for millennia. For them, military service was no martyrdom, but a highly lucrative profession that visibly enriched large swathes of rural Punjab.

And he reiterates the point that Sikh and Hindu soldiers would have been cremated, their ashes scattered (often in the Ganges), with no graves to mark their resting place because their spirit has been reincarnated and they live on. And Muslims, although they bury their dead, reserved tombstones for princes and grandees. “Headstones are a predominantly Christian custom,” he says, “and one would be hard-pressed to find any even today among Indians or Pakistanis.”

In addition to this religious enlightenment, it is worth adding that when people leap to portray FG Guggisberg as racist, they might consider that the Gold Coast “Chiefs and people” erected a statue to “of blessed memory” some 50 years after his departure. Who else has had a statue commissioned by the children and grandchildren of “average natives”, now governing themselves, half a century after their departure? In 1909, he published with his wife (who was a leading actress and suffragette), a book entitled ‘We two in Africa‘, where it is very clear (p310ff) that he was well aware of local burial customs and that this clearly guided his later advice. FG Guggisberg was no racist, but rather a respected and honoured colonial governor.

Of course, there was racism and some appalling atrocities in the British Empire, and there were undoubtedly some affronts to cultural sensitivities and errors made in how some war dead were (or were not) honoured. But on the whole, governors like FG Guggisberg got it right, and were blessed for their inculturation and religious sensitivity. So when politicians like David Lammy insist that Indian and African Hindu, Sikh and Muslim soldiers who fought voluntarily for King and Empire should have white, western funerary customs imposed upon them in death, are they not guilty of “imperial attitudes”, if not religious illiteracy and racism?