Empire circumscribed: silence, disconnection, public secrets, and the absent-presence of the British Empire in Bristol
Gapud, Alex Jason
This thesis explores the ways in which the British Empire is understood and represented in historical discourse and heritage practice in the city of Bristol. It attempts to develop a wider literature on metropolitan post-colonial memory, looking at the ways in which European Empires are understood and talked about in their former metropoles. While commentators including journalists and other scholars have suggested that Britain has an amnesiac relationship with its history of Empire, this thesis uses a more nuanced framework, largely based off of Ann Stoler’s concept of colonial aphasia. As with Stoler, I suggest that this is not so much a matter of memory or forgetting as much as it is about processes of silence, displacement, and disconnection. A central assumption concerning histories of Empire is that they happened a long time ago, somewhere over there and thus, have limited relevance in present-day Britain as artefacts of the past. This thesis looks at both anthropological theory and its own ethnographic data to critically explore what work this central temporal and spatial assumption does, arguing that it is a way in which Britain can effectively displace or write around this fundamentally constitutive and uncomfortably ambivalent aspect of its own history and construction, despite its ongoing material presence. The work ultimately seeks to further destabilise this central assumption, noting the ways in which a port city like Bristol was both fundamental to and fundamentally built by the imperial encounter, both historically and in the present, not least of all through ongoing debates about Bristol’s contentious history as an epicentre of the transatlantic slave trade. Based off of 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork with an emphasis on history workers (particularly heritage volunteers and alternative [non-council] historical actors), the thesis explores various practices taken by these history workers to interpret, narrate, and represent the both the city’s material, urban landscape and its history. Looking at materiality through walking tours, the thesis explores the ways in which the present-absence of Empire is manifested in the cityscape, even if it is not explicitly addressed in the Council’s narrative of the city’s history. Furthermore, Council museum representations effectively circumscribe the wider history of Empire from present day Bristol in accordance with the central assumption above with the exception of discussions of the slave trade which is contained and compartmentalised from the rest of the city’s history. However, while these circumscribed histories of Empire are not effectively addressed by Council actors, they are confronted through alternative, non-Council heritage actors and sometimes framed as a conspiracy by the city’s elite (with ties and roots to Bristol’s mercantile trade) to conceal Bristol’s problematic histories. In this light, taking into account theorisations of materiality and memory, silence, and public secrets, I ultimately argue that Bristol’s history debates over its past are debates about the very nature of British and English identities, as well as the time and place of Empire in the politics of the present.