Living in Britain as a young black woman is exhausting. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum vote and subsequent exit from Europe in January, I have felt nothing short of fear for my future here. Despite the fact that I was born here and hold a British passport, the attitudes towards black and brown people on this island have made me feel very uncomfortable. Hearing people say they want Britain to go back to "what it used to be" makes me wince because do they really know what it was like?
At school, we weren't told of the concentration camps where around a sixth (107,000) of the South African Boer population - mainly women and children - were detained by the British. 27,927 subsequently died. We didn't learn about the thousands of elderly Kenyans who were allegedly mistreated, raped and tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau Uprising only 70 years ago. Nor were we told about the tragedy of the partitioning of India.
The latter is the subject of the first episode We Need To Talk About The British Empire, a new 6-part podcast by writer and journalist Afua Hirsch. Hirsch speaks to six people about their family history and how their lives have been impacted by the British Empire. In episode one we hear from journalist and broadcaster Anita Rani, whose grandfather was affected by the partition of India in 1947 which created two states – India and Pakistan. The state of Bangladesh came much later in 1971. The partition sparked the biggest mass movement of people in human history in which 15 million people became refugees as they split to different states.
Rani explains that it was during the partition when women had only three choices: to be killed by the enemy, be killed by their family (as an alternative to being killed by the enemy) or to kill themselves. Her grandfather's wife and children didn't survive.
The Empire treated people around the world as second class citizens.
The episode highlights the brutality of the British Empire and a history that has been spoken about only in hushed tones for many years. For Rani, it's also part of her own history that is still deeply traumatising. "It has 100% changed who I am in a way I don't understand yet," she says. "It has made me realise the importance of understanding the way the Empire treated people around the world as second class citizens. Something in your belly starts to burn because they are our ancestors."
In a 2014 survey establishing British attitudes to the empire, YouGov found 44% of people were proud of Britain's history of colonialism. Only 21% regretted that it happened and 23% held neither view. But the British Empire has had a lasting impact on many lives and Hirsch believes people have been misinformed. Her podcast aims to change and correct these attitudes. "We rarely hear the stories of the colonised," she says. "It's the voices of the colonisers that have shaped our ideas of British empire."
Hirsh brings together some powerful voices to unpack Britain's history. The podcast features novelist Nadifa Mohamed and actress Diana Rigg alongside author and poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who notably rejected his OBE in 2003. His mother was a Windrush-era Jamaican immigrant and in his episode, he explains how she struggled to juggle racism she experienced in the UK, with the belief it was British people who had helped her come to this country in the first place.
Zephaniah's mother's experience is similar to my own family's history. 70 years ago, my Jamaican grandmother arrived in the UK. She was led to believe Britain was the 'Mother Country' and was told that the Empire would "look after its children", but when she arrived, she was shocked to discover that she wasn't wanted. She experienced abuse and racism, a memory my father relays to me with great emotion.
I don't recall being taught about British colonial history in school. My school books were filled with pages about the brutality of others – we studied Nazi Germany, the French Revolution and the American Civil War. But there was a gaping hole when it came to our own history. Yes, we were taught in great detail about Henry VIII beheading his eight wives, the Plague and the Great Fire of London, but nothing about the British Empire and its part in slavery.
At its height in 1922, the British Empire covered a fifth of the world's population and a quarter of the world's total land area. And yet, its impact is an open secret no one wants to talk about.
Britain has skeletons in its closet that it needs to address and the only way we can move forward in an inclusive society is to accept and rectify our mistakes. It's not about pointing the finger, it's allowing people to live their truth without having their history erased. As Rani tells Hirsch in the podcast: "This is Britain, this isn't about shaming anyone, it's about humility. Why not talk about it?"