What Have Historians Been Arguing About... migration and empire

A Polychronicon of the past

By Lauren Working, published 3rd July 2020

In autumn 2019, Kara Walker’s monumental sculpture, Fons Americanus, went on display in the Tate Modern, offering a poignant, troubling challenge to national commemoration. Walker depicts not the lingering vestiges of imperial glory, but sharks, tears, and haunted memories. She brings history into conversation with its contemporary legacies and engages with a wider question: how can we recover silenced or ignored voices, and why is it important to do so?

In previous centuries, English historians often celebrated the actions of English people (usually men) in other territories. Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake were viewed as national heroes, and historians studied the growth of English settlement and trade overseas. Decolonisation and waves of migration in the twentieth century, however, brought more critical questions about the power structures and inequalities of colonial systems. What really constitutes ‘Great Britain’? Might the concept of a ‘Greater Britain’ or an ‘Atlantic archipelago’ better encapsulate the connectedness of different peoples and geographic spaces?

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