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History | Geography | Citizenship

‘Apartheid in death’ for Black and Asian troops

Is it too late to apologise for World War One racism? Yesterday, the British government said it deeply regrets the failure to properly commemorate thousands of Black and Asian conscripts. In southern Kenya, Mwamkon Mwavaka has no place to grieve. Just over a century ago, at the height of World War One, his grandfather served the British Army. As a porter, his backbreaking work carrying supplies to the frontline was essential – and dangerous. And like many Africans, it is possible Chichole was there because he was threatened, or perhaps even beaten into submission. When Chichole died, only his hair was returned to his family. Today, nobody knows where his body lies. He has no grave and no memorial. Mwamkon Mwavaka’s story is shocking. But unfortunately, his experience is not unusual. Yesterday, a new report found that thousands of Black and Asian people who died fighting for the British Empire were not remembered in the same way as White war victims. The figures are staggering. As many as 350,000 African and Middle Eastern casualties of World War One were not commemorated by name, if at all. And another 45,000 to 54,000 African and Asian victims were “commemorated unequally”, their names recorded only in huge lists of the dead. The report was clear: “pervasive racism” was to blame for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) failure to stand by its founding principle that all should have equal treatment in their grave. “Most of the natives who have died are of a semi-savage nature and do not attach any sentiment to the graves of the dead,” declared one document from 1920s Kenya. Now, the British government has formally apologised. So has the commission: “The events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now.” Yet for historian David Olusoga, the apologies are too late. “People knew about this,” he says. “This is not something that’s been uncovered by this report. It is being acknowledged by this report.” The details are devastating, but the unequal treatment of White and non-White soldiers in the early 20th Century will come as no surprise to many scholars. In 1920, social critic WEB Du Bois described a “new religion of whiteness” that had taken over the world, founded on the belief that “of all the hues of God, whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness and tan”. Du Bois thought that “whiteness” as a classification of identity had emerged a century earlier, in the 1800s. Now, most historians point to the late 1600s and the attempts of early British colonialists to justify slavery. At first, slave owners justified depriving Africans of their freedom on the basis that they were not Christian. Then, when enslaved Africans began converting, laws turned to the word “white” instead. Today, 300 years later, David Olusoga still wonders how the CWGC would have reacted if they had discovered 100,000 white soldiers had been abandoned in mass graves without a memorial. For him, the commission’s actions amount to only one thing: “apartheid in death”. Is it too late to apologise for World War One racism? At the going down of the sun This is too little, too late, say some. World War One ended more than 100 years ago. It is likely that much of the damage done in the early 1920s can now no longer be fixed. It will be impossible now to identify and commemorate many of the thousands of Black and Asian people who died. An apology does nothing to make up for the indignity of being forgotten. It is never too late to say sorry, others claim. The apology by the commission is not really about the past – after all, nothing can change that now. Instead, it is about the future. It is vital that we recognise that the world was and still can be a deeply racist place. Only by acknowledging and making amends for the past can we work towards a more equal future. KeywordsCommission - When a government launches a commission, they appoint an individual to perform a special piece of work. Cyberbullying: Harassing or bullying others online, whether through rumours, threats or posting personal information about a victim. According to the UK's Office of National Statistics, 19% of children aged 10 to 15 experienced online bullying between March 2019 and 2020. Nearsightedness: Also known as myopia. Nearsightedness people find it difficult to see far away objects clearly. Eighth-graders: A class in the American school system spanning ages 13 to 14, the same as Britain's Year 9. Accessible: According to Statista, 3.80 billion people - 48.33% of the world population - own a smartphone. 4.88 billion, or 62.07%, own a mobile. Atlases: In Ancient Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan condemned to hold up the globe for eternity as punishment for trying to depose the gods. Encyclopaedias: The modern word descends from two separate Greek words, enkyklios paideia, general education, which a 15th-Century scribe accidentally copied as a single word.

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