Cultural Encounters: Part I

Here begins my series on Cultural Encounters, where I aim to learn more about British culture in history, the plethora of cultures I encountered growing up in south London and also a look into the cultures that make up my family history too. This is primarily a learning exercise from my perspective, I am not trying to change others opinions. Hopefully, at the end of this, I will have a far better understanding of the world and its many varied cultures.

Very recently, as part of my degree, I’ve been learning about the “cultural encounter” between Britain and Benin (the city in Nigeria, not the country). Before the British arrived, Benin had a thriving trade with Portugal which was peaceful and prosperous for both parties. Benin had a King and a beautiful, unique art form of Bronze sculpture, Benin Bronzes is probably how most people have heard of the area.

However, guess what happened when the British arrived? Slaughter and the deposition of their King and chiefs. The British defended this act as defence, or prevention of something worse happening to the British. I find this slightly hard to believe as Portugal traded very peacefully for a long time before the British arrived, but thats my opinion. Whilst reading about Benin’s “encounters” with the British, I was reminded of a quote from the BBC production ’37 days’, a dramatisation of the days between the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and the outbreak of the first world war. The scene I’m referencing is from the first episode and is a discussion about British reactions to a Balkan war between Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia and the British Ambassador. The Ambassador pointed out Britain’s maternal instinct to smaller countries, to which the Kaiser replied, “Unless Britain serves as the oppressor, and then they call it Paternalism”.

Paternalism, annoyingly a very fitting description of Britain’s history from the point of view of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Once the word Paternalism is bought into the situation of Benin, a lot of other situations appeared in my mind where Paternalism could just as easily be applied to Britain’s treatment of other culture’s. During the settlement of America, the Native American’s were pushed out of their native territory and their way of life disrespected in favour of Puritanism amongst other things. Our colonisation of Australia did a similar thing to Native Aboriginals. There was also our “encounters” with India, the Caribbean, large parts of Africa and Ireland. It wasn’t always just the British, and it wasn’t every Briton but there certainly is a running theme.

It could be argued that it is not all Britain’s fault, originally a celtic island it was invaded by: the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. So perhaps it is British culture to invade. I really hope that is not the case. What worries me though is how little any of this side to British history is taught in schools, maybe its changed since I left school four years ago but whilst I was there I learnt about Henry VIII standing up to the Catholic centre of Rome, Women’s suffrage, and the British victories in the first and second world war. All very noble, all very true, but this could colour young people’s opinion of what it is to be British. Yes, Britain’s had lots of incidents where we’ve stood up for what is right, but we’ve had a lot of incidents where we have not done things to the best of our moral ability. It could be said that this gives Britain a lack of wisdom. Wisdom is the sum of experience, so how can future leaders of the UK have a true understanding of what is right without first knowing what is wrong.

At the moment, the UK is going through an “immigration crisis”, I use inverted commas as it depends who you ask what term they use. Some people in the UK see this as a cultural encounter which allows us to learn more about the world around us and and add to our already wonderful mix of cultures. However, there are those who sees it as more of a cultural clash, an “us versus them” sort of scenario, from what I’ve studied of British history, this thought process worries me. Refusing to interact with people who simply have a difference of culture has not done anyone any good in the past and will not do any one any good now.