Can anyone sing this song whilst recognising the history of the British Empire?
The row over the jingoistic anthem ‘Rule, Britannia!’ appears wholly to be a construction of the British right-wing press, but one that the Prime Minister saw to fit to ‘personally intervene’ — when he didn’t think that the A-level scandal (the biggest government education failure in decades) warranted the same level of attention. It serves as a convenient distraction from the latest government failures, and appeals to the Tories right-wing base. It’s another opportunity to divide — rather than unite — along lines of class, race and nationality. Surely then, even by writing this piece I’m falling into the government trap myself? And what possible relevance could a nearly 300 year-old song have today?
Briefly, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was originally part of a performance on the theme of King Alfred, written by James Thomson and Thomas Ame in 1740. It was commissioned by the Prince of Wales to ingratiate himself with his father, George II. This was also the year that the War of the Austrian Succession kicked off. Europe was still in turmoil without the established borders familiar to us today, fighting over territory and power within the European continent as well as colonial territory and naval dominance of trade routes. The slave trade across the Atlantic was up and running, supplying labour to the cotton and sugar plantations of the colonies, but it is more likely given the context that the slavery and ‘tyrants’ of the original lyric were that of the Viking raiders of Alfred’s time and there was no comparison being employed. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th Century that we see the British very much developed and popularised racism in order to justify the practice of slavery.
Far from being, yet again, the ‘cancel culture’ ‘rewriting of history’ it is very important to recognise and contextualise the historical origin of these songs (or statues) and they should be used to educate the public about the history and legacy of empire in the way that our school system regrettably doesn’t do. We should also recognise that when the straw-boated Union Flag bedecked mob sings this song, they very much aren’t celebrating that history or epoch — they are celebrating the myth of empire, a nationalistic concept entirely removed from the full truth and horror of those times.
The lyrics have also changed over time, so they are no longer an exhortation but a statement (from ‘Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!’ to ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.’) Over time, the song did become a celebration of Empire and in particular was naturally adopted by the Royal Navy. The character of Britannia was always depicted holding a trident — the weapon of the sea god Poseidon/Neptune.
It’s not in essence the song itself that should be banned or not, a song is a song after all. But knowing the historical context and what the empire actually meant and did to millions of indigenous peoples across the globe, and the crimes that the UK continued (and continues) to commit, what are you really celebrating when singing that song today? What the UK and the British people must do is surely recognise our bloody history and learn from it — not celebrate centuries of slavery, oppression and murder. Just this morning yet again we treated to a Tory MP who supporting this constructed controversy reminded us that the UK was the first state to abolish slavery. Of course he left out the words except in India and also that slaves were largely replaced by indentured labourers from China and India.
This last week we remembered VJ Day, the surrender of the Japanese Empire after the murderous bombings of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was played to greet Earl Mountbatten as he boarded the USS Missouri to witness the surrender on September 2nd, 1945. Thankfully, the planned celebrations for the 70th anniversary were very much curtailed. Did you know that Britain invented the term Japanese Surrendered Personnel (JSP) so that they could claim that the Geneva Convention did not apply, and then used these POWs both as slave labour and retained them under arms to be commanded by British officers to help put down independence movements across the European colonies in the Far East? Mountbatten had 35,000 Japanese troops under his command in Indonesia, including units of the infamous Kempeitai. This action was condemned by the US government, though tacitly supported. The deliberate policy of retaining Japanese POWs in this way and not repatriating them was described by General MacArthur in 1947 as ‘[a] stain which would blemish the honor of the United Kingdom…’
The fundamental problem with nationalistic patriotism and jingoism is that the history of no country bears up to historical scrutiny. The kind of patriots we see in the media these days are ignorant, some of them wilfully, of the horrors committed under the flags they wave and wear. What we must not tolerate is the whitewashing of our history. It should be taught. Some parts celebrated if they contribute to the general good and exemplify the best of humanity. Others should be condemned, but not to forget, but to learn from those mistakes and recognise that our civilisation is still developing and evolving.
In the full knowledge of what the British Empire represented, can we still sing ‘Rule, Britannia!’ with pride? Should we?