Kim A. Wagner is a professor of global and imperial history at Queen Mary, University of London. His research has concentrated on violence and cultural (mis)understanding within the British Empire, and between the western and the non-western worlds more generally.
He is currently writing the first scholarly account of the Bud Dajo Massacre in the Philippines.
Was there a moment when you realised history would be your lifelong passion?
I have always been interested in the British Empire, so there’s no one moment – I’m a nerd through and through! At 14, I got a copy of Meadows Taylor’s novel Confessions of a Thug, about the Indian highway robbers, and that became the topic of my PhD. I’m publishing a new edition of that novel with Oxford World Classics and there is a certain satisfaction in having come full circle.
How has that passion developed over time?
I have written my way through 19th-century India and my last book was about the 1919 Amritsar Massacre. Increasingly, I have studied colonial violence within a broader global framework, and my next project is about atrocity, photography and the American occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century. There is a clear sense of continuity as well as change, which I suspect is healthy. You don’t want to spend your career researching and teaching the exact same subject.
What is the secret to teaching history effectively?
I spend a lot of time looking at how people have tried to make sense of their circumstances and experiences. History is not just about what happened, but also the stories people told themselves, and others, about what happened – using fiction, images and films is a great way of examining how historical narratives came into being.
“History is not about judging the past but trying to understand it”
Are there ways in which you’d like to see it taught differently?
There is a common trope that the history of Empire is not being properly told in the UK – that may have held true 10 years ago, but not today. I sense that history teachers at all levels are doing a tremendous job revising the curriculum and critically interrogating the conventional story of British exceptionalism. It is frustrating how the ‘balance-sheet’ approach dominates public debate. Reducing the past to simplistic notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ does not constitute a meaningful historical analysis and is not an approach we take to any other historical subject. History is not about judging the past, but trying to understand it. To note that Cecil Rhodes was a white supremacist, for instance, is not imposing modern values on the past, it’s a basic statement of fact.
The National Trust is criticised for examining its properties’ relationships to colonialism, and the reaction to David Olusoga’s thoughts on British slavery and the Colston statue moved him to say: “My job is to be a historian. It’s not to make people feel good.” Is it troubling to see people apparently want to close down discussion on history?
I agree with David Olusoga – statues are political statements, not historical archives: you can only celebrate a figure such as Colston by deliberately ignoring his role in the slave trade. Historians are opening much broader discussion by examining the very history that statues obscure, and that rubs some people the wrong way. Whether particular statues should be taken down is a different matter, but it’s absurd to suggest that doing so erases the past. Americans haven’t forgotten about British rule just because they pulled down the statue of George III in 1776. People in Britain have nothing to be ashamed about, as long as they are willing to face the oftentimes uncomfortable realities of the Empire – we are not responsible for the past, but we are responsible for what we choose to remember and forget.
Follow Kim on Twitter @KimAtiWagner
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