I love history because you can learn so much from it and even more from what historians choose to forget. Such is my obsession that I have spent the last three years shunning family and friends in preference for rummaging through the indexes and files of archives and libraries. The focus of my interest has been my research for a book – Rogue Nation: 1001 forgotten anniversaries that shame Britain. I don’t use the phrase ‘rogue nation’ in the glib propaganda manner in which we label our enemies, but rather in the literal sense that Britain has routinely pursued its interests by force or by collaborating with repressive regimes, often without any respect for international norms or even international law. Unearthing 1001 forgotten anniversaries from such a lengthy and complex history, impacting dozens of countries, has been a herculean task and unfortunately the project is still not finished, but I am now publishing an initial 230,000 word draft online in the hope of getting some constructive criticism and feedback. You should find the website simple to navigate, just choose a month or a year or select from a list of countries – all from the top menu.
You can find many ‘on this day in history’ books, but they all spotlight Britain’s more magnificent moments, while mostly ignoring our country’s long history of rogue actions across the world, from infecting Native Americans with smallpox to our direct support for Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of Yemen. It is only natural that we prefer to bask in the celebration of ‘heroic’ Britons from Admiral Lord Nelson to Winston Churchill. It is a gratifying and self-righteous approach to history, reflected in the many statues and memorials to ‘British valour’ and the almost complete absence of any similar references to uglier episodes. The media also panders to an understandable desire to behold ourselves in the best possible light, but the danger, to cite the philosopher and historian Noam Chomsky, is that such a selective memory of the past ‘not only… undermines moral and intellectual integrity but it also… lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.’1
Please don’t assume from the book’s title that I am a self-hating Brit. This project is not based on any sense of guilt nor any grudge or animosity, but rather on an elementary moral principle, that we should first look at our own crimes before we properly turn to highlighting the crimes committed by other countries. Personally, I’m not too worried if people still insist that I’m somehow anti-British. I am, however, anxious about whether readers think I am attempting to cover too great a range of history without sufficient depth and context. So, I should explain that my aim is not to provide a complete account of every anniversary, but rather to write hundreds of brief summaries to encourage reflection on the wider topic of the forgotten crimes of British imperialism and how we should examine our real role in world affairs, past and present.
At the same time, I have also devoted many hours to combing through newspaper and other archives to provide new details on many of the events detailed here. I hope that my research might provide at least some useful signposts towards further reading and investigation, whether for students, political activists or indeed anyone interested in reading about the sort of history which was never taught at school. It’s a hidden history which needs to be rediscovered and splashed across posters in every library and school classroom. The project, however, is still far from complete, with only an initial draft written for 646 forgotten anniversaries so far, and I would greatly appreciate suggestions and comments. I would also love to have any quotable contributions from anyone who can actually remember any of these less glorious moments from out nation’s past.
- Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World ? Penguin, London, 2016, p. 43.
Alisdare Hickson is a graduate of the London School of Economics, with an MSc in Economic History. He also holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex. After a period working as a researcher, he returned to his true passions of history, politics and photography.