I think I can understand Lady Susan Hussey’s repeated quizzing of a woman of colour at a Buckingham Palace reception. Understand, but not condone or excuse. Understand, because I am of the same generation.
When I recall my days in primary school, over 70 years ago, I remember how our knowledge of the wider world was characterised by the products that came to us from the Empire. The plains of Canada were our bread basket. Bananas and sugar came from the Caribbean. Tea arrived from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Cocoa from West Africa, lamb from New Zealand, cotton from Egypt, oranges from South Africa. We learned little or nothing about the working conditions of the people who planted and harvested this bounty.
We rarely encountered a person of colour. If we did it was in the context of the person as a servant or in a low skilled job. The Church encouraged us to support Christian charities providing education for the poor children of Africa and India. Implicit in these appeals was the assumption that they — the children of Africa and India — were inferior to us and needed our help to raise them up to our level.
Slavery was never mentioned except in self-congratulation for the liberal reformers who successfully campaigned to end it. Nothing about our complicity in instigating the abhorrent trade and perpetuating it throughout almost four centuries during which the British aristocracy increased their wealth as a direct result. Little recognition that the trade that brought us all those good things from the Caribbean was built on slavery.
Meanwhile, at playtime, we acted out ‘Cowboys and Indians’ scenarios gleaned from Hollywood’s interpretation of the plainsmen’s conquest of the American West. The (white) cowboys were always the good guys whilst the ‘Indians’ (native Americans) were marauding savages intent on burning the pioneering farmers’ homes and barns. In 1964 Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins and Michael Caine gave us ‘Zulu’, the movie depiction of the battle of Rorke’s Drift where, according to the plot summary at IMDb, “150 [British] troops [fought] about 4,000 Zulus in one of the most courageous battles in history.”