25th Mar 2020 5:30pm-7:00pm
M2, Grand Parade
John Siblon (Birkbeck College)
In the First World War, men from Britain and its Empire were mobilized to fight and kill those from the empires of the Central Powers. Where bodies of those killed were located, they were placed in makeshift cemeteries awaiting formal interment at the cessation of hostilities. Bodies were eventually buried in plots in military cemeteries, such as across the former Western Front, where they were arranged in rows with headstones or had their names inscribed on memorials where a body could not be found. The organisation responsible for creating the war cemeteries, the Imperial War Graves Commission, was founded on a principle of egalitarianism. There would be distinction of race, rank, or creed in the memorialization of the ‘million dead of empire’. My research has shown, however, that there was variation in policy, especially in the African continent. It is estimated that over 300,000 Africans were killed in military service. Yet, it is not possible to see headstones for Africans such as in Europe or Gallipoli. Where black colonial units were commemorated, it was due to their Christianity. In this talk, I will argue that officials behind the British imperial project organised colonial society through an intersectional hierarchy to ensure their dominance and that this same thinking was applied representation in memorial culture in the post-war years. Was the memorial landscape interpreted as a visible representation of imperial hierarchy or were they imagined as hybrid sites of memory?
John Siblon is a History Teacher in London and is completing a PhD on hierarchy and the representation of black colonial servicemen after the First World War. He has published work on aspects of black British history pre-1850, identity, and the lack of monuments to black Britons and peoples of the British Empire. He has campaigned for a more inclusive History curriculum, and is a member of the Race, Equality & Ethnicity Working Group for the Royal Historical Society. His latest publication was ‘‘Race', rank, and the politics of inter-war commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen in Britain.’ in Hakim Adi (ed.), Black British History: New Perspectives from the Roman Times to the Present Day (London: Zed Books, 2019).