In Britain we have what is called The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It is a set of honours established by King George V in 1917 to honour those who had served in a non-combative role and expanded the Order to reward contributions to the Arts, Sciences, Charitable work and Public Service. However, the honour system in general in Britain dates back to as early as 1066.
At its peak, the British Empire was the largest formal empire that the world had ever known. It was made up of colonies, dominions, protectorates and other territories.
It is important to note that empires are built on violence, theft and murder.
England conquered its neighbouring nations and then expanded its reach to the rest of the world. After America declared its independence from England, efforts then focused on extending The Empire to Asia, Africa and the Pacific. England later came back to the Americas, this time focusing on Latin America and what we know today as the Caribbean. Attempts date back to the 1600s, however they weren’t particularly successful. It was later on that the British Empire colonised the area and labelled the region ‘The British West Indies’; made up of 18 nations, including Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados and more. The colonisation of these islands and some African nations paved the way for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The Empire was complicit in the Slave Trade.
Of course, most of The Empire’s colonies have since declared independence, but the legacy of the period can still be felt.
So what’s the issue with Black people accepting the honours?
The concept in theory is fine, recognising people’s positive contributions to their communities and society as a whole. Giving people their flowers. However, given the violent history of The Empire, why are we still giving out awards that are rooted in it? These awards commemorate the violence perpetrated for over 2 centuries. Every time an OBE, CBE or MBE is bestowed, it glamorises and glosses over the true history of the empire. They serve as a distraction.
The issue is, The Establishment has never formally acknowledged or apologised for its atrocities (atrocities that are still ongoing by the way). Prince -now King- Charles said he believed the Transatlantic Slave Trade was an ‘atrocity’, but that’s where it ended. Reparations weren’t offered, no promises to remove remnants of the empire, just an empty statement. The Establishment just expects the descendants of slavery to simply move on.
So as a descendant of those who were brutalised by The Empire, why would you willingly accept these awards? Said awards were previously given to Generals and other military dignitaries, people who had a major role in the extension of the empire; and others who directly benefited from the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Why would you want to be a Member of the British Empire? An Officer of the Order of the British Empire?
Many think of the British Empire as a distant relic, that British society has since evolved. That would of course be incorrect. The Commonwealth is a flagrant parade of Britain’s former ‘glory’. Former colonies who have declared themselves independent but still have the monarchy as their head of state. The racism faced by our grandparents when they moved to this country, the racism faced by us as adults in various institutions and even the racism faced by our children in schools and in their interactions with the police. Or how about the Windrush Scandal? West Indian migrants who were invited over to help rebuild the country but have since been treated abominably. We are constantly reminded of the remnants of the empire and its effect.
The poet Benjamin Zephaniah turned down his OBE in 2003, in a very public manner. Here he speaks about the reasoning behind that decision.
He is not the only Black person to have rejected an award. He is joined by footballer Howard Gayle, education campaigner Gus John, George the Poet, LGBTQ+ activist Lady Phyll and the academic Savenaca Siwatibau. The list is unfortunately rather short. The list of Black people who have accepted an honour is much longer, and when questioned many have given weak excuses. I’m not here to pass judgement on individuals, but I’m definitely side-eyeing them small. Black people who have dedicated their careers to campaigning for our rights and fighting against injustice are happy to have the empire in letters after their names – it’s mind-boggling.
Whilst I understand that the feeling of recognition for one’s work must be euphoric, we must remind ourselves that that euphoria was built on the backs of our ancestors. By accepting these awards, we are not dismantling racism or ‘sticking it to the man’. Instead we are being complicit. We are disrespecting and disregarding the efforts of those who have gone before us. Being an Officer or Member of the Order of The British Empire should be seen as a badge of shame, not honour. It helps to further perpetuate the rampant anti-Blackness in this nation. Feuling the rhetoric that if you work hard enough you’ll be seen as different, set apart from the rest; despite this rhetoric being rooted in white supremacy. Being part of the 4.7% of recipients to be Black isn’t the win for diversity you may think it is.
In all, it is important that we as Black people living in Britain do not forget our history. We cannot be participants in the ongoing attempts to rebrand The British Empire.