Imperial amnesia

There’s a pub carved into a corner of the lively market in Norwich, the city where I teach at the University of East Anglia. It’s called The Sir Garnet, its name shortened after a recent refurbishment from The Sir Garnet Wolseley. Sometimes, when giving public talks in or around Norwich, I’ve asked people if they know who Sir Garnet was. No one has ever been able to answer. For all that many people claim to love history – and in Britain, to love British history and British heritage – it’s funny how much history we forget. Or choose to ignore.

Cartoon from the American magazine Harper’s Weekly, 16 September 1882 – General Wolseley complains to ‘that “horrible pasha”‘ that the British invasion has caused Wolseley, ‘an officer and a gentleman in the Queen’s Army’, to miss a dinner engagement in London. Source:

In August and September 1882, Garnet Wolseley’s name was on the front page of every newspaper in Great Britain, because he was commander-in-chief of the British expeditionary force that invaded Egypt, using the Suez Canal as the backdoor for a land invasion to suppress a nationalist uprising led by the Egyptian military leader Ahmed Orabi (also spelled Urabi; he held the honorary civil rank of pasha, too).

The uprising had been rumbling for years, reflecting growing popular resentment of foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs. The British navy had already bombarded Alexandria in July 1882 after a series of riots broke out, aimed against the many European residents of the city – who were associated with preferential treatment and decades of economic exploitation. A full day of shelling, and the fires that followed, destroyed swathes of the city, as documented by Italian photographer Luigi Fiorillo in the days and weeks afterwards. British troops entered and occupied the city as Orabi and his forces fled. In Britain, Prime Minister William Gladstone appointed Wolseley to head an expeditionary force to invade Egypt by land and secure the all-important Canal route. Wolseley’s forces defeated Orabi’s troops at the battle of Tel el-Kebir and soon occupied Cairo. In November, the British Parliament promoted Wolseley to full general, gave him a bonus of £30,000, and made him Baron Wolseley of Cairo and Wolseley. 1
Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet Edward Seymour (left) and General Garnet Wolseley, photographs pasted into the back page of the Luigi Fiorillo album concerning the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 and its aftermath. Source: The American University in Cairo, Rare Books and Special Collections Library (link to album page here).

The importance of the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, which was front-page news for months, is why I suspect Norwich’s marketplace pub got its name that year. Not that Wolseley wasn’t in the news at other points in his long career.* His was a typical colonial officer’s life: from Anglo-Irish (Protestant) origins, he served in almost every outpost of the British Empire, from Burma (Myanmar) to Crimea to Canada, where he ventured to the USA to observe the Civil War there. He met generals on both sides, including William Tecumseh Sherman (born in my hometown), but Wolseley’s sympathies lay with the Confederate side –  he was a big fan of General Lee. From Canada, Wolseley went to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to suppress anti-British revolts by the Asante people, and from there it was on to southern Africa and Cyprus. Wolseley longed to serve in the ‘jewel in the Crown’, India, but it was not to be. After the successful campaign in Egypt, Wolseley next joined the failed British expedition to try to rescue Gordon, Governor-General of Sudan, at Khartoum, where the Mahdist uprising threatened British (and Ottoman Egyptian) ambitions to control the entire Nile and exploit the mining opportunities of the surrounding deserts and mountains. The relief effort – which used Thomas Cook steamers to carry supplies – arrived two days after Gordon had been killed. Britain would spend several more decades occupying Egypt and trying to subdue the Sudan.

Wait, isn’t this a blog about Tutankhamun, photography, and archaeology? Yes it is, which is why I’m talking about pubs and politics today. Because they all go together. I studied for many years to become an Egyptologist, but as I’ve written about here before, I often question whether I still can, or want to, call myself an Egyptologist. That’s partly because my own research interests and methodological approaches have always drawn on scholarship from other fields, like art history, classical archaeology, anthropology, and critical heritage and museum studies. And it’s partly because the more I’ve worked with and thought about archival sources concerned with Egyptology – like the excavation archive of the tomb of Tutankhamun – the more aware I am of how impossible it is to get to any kind of knowledge of the ancient past without being very carefully attuned to all the layers of recent history that go with it.

I’m just back from the annual colloquium hosted by the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan – which this year had as its theme ‘Displaying Egypt’. (You can find the programme and paper abstracts here, and see the hashtag #Displaying Egypt on Twitter for some live tweets and follow-up discussion.) One of the speakers on the last day was an Egyptian Egyptologist, the fantastic Heba Abd el Gawad, who is writing her PhD at Durham University and has worked on several curatorial projects in the UK. At one point in her talk – which was about Egyptians’ riffs on ancient Egypt, via social media – Heba checked to see whether the audience knew who Orabi Pasha was. In the part of the auditorium where I was sitting, the audience was silent – the kind of dead silence I hear in a roomful of students when I realize I’ve just made a cultural reference that isn’t on their radar (Bruce Springsteen lyrics or anything to do with gardening will have this effect, I find.)

But Orabi Pasha, in a room that was mostly full of people studying Egyptology, working in Egyptology, or interested enough in Egyptology to pay the registration fee and spend two days in the British Museum’s lecture theatre, listening to papers about how Egypt has been, or could be, presented in museums? That shouldn’t be the case. There is a fundamental flaw in the teaching and public presentation of the ancient past if the people who want to study and work with that past never learn – never even feel they should learn – anything about the modern circumstances in which more than 200 years of ‘discovering’, collecting, and interpreting that ancient past have taken place. A similar argument can be made for knowledge of the Arabic language: of the six years I spent studying hieroglyphs, quite fruitlessly (I’m terrible with dead languages), I now wish I’d spent the time studying Arabic instead.

My own talk at the colloquium bridges some work that I present near the end of the Photographing Tutankhamun book (going to print next week!) and some new work I’ve been doing, about the planning and impact of the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition held at the British Museum in 1972 and later followed up by an American version.

Photograph of a photograph (my study shot from the British Museum’s Central Archives): Harry Burton’s photographs from the tomb of Tutankhamun, blown up and printed in sepia tones for the record-breaking 1972 ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition at the British Museum.

I wanted to make a point about the twin phenomena of imperialist nostalgia and imperialist amnesia.** Because in all the many versions of the touring Tutankhamun show, no mention whatsoever is made of the political context of the find, which you can read more about in this blog by Juliette Desplat at The National Archives. All archaeology was (and is) political. But Tutankhamun played a major role in the diplomatic dance between Britain and Egypt as Egypt tried, not for the first or last time, to determine its own path as a fully-fledged nation-state.

The silence that hung over that part of British and Egyptian history in 1972 (and, frankly, now) seems to me a perfect example of the entrenched amnesia where the colonial and imperial past is concerned – in Britain and elsewhere. If the colonial context of archaeology is mentioned at all within archaeology or Egyptology, it’s often reduced to an adventure story, all ‘discovery’ and ‘disinterested science’, with a dash of gold and glory. No violence, no suppression, no injustice, no economic or political interests at stake. What exactly do British audiences think all those uprisings – from the Gold Coast to India, by way of Egypt and Sudan – were rising up against? It certainly wasn’t Bruce Springsteen lyrics or when to plant broad beans, so why has everyone drawn a blank?

That’s amnesia for you. Which histories do we remember, which histories do we teach in our schools, and which histories do we present in our museums? I’m interested in the subtle, unspoken ways in which photographs reinforce the silence even as they purport to show us history as it really was. Here’s the thing: photographs don’t show us facts. They don’t show us ‘how it really was’. Photographs need to be treated with the same scrupulous care we give to any other historical document.^ Who took that photograph, and how, and where, and why? What happened to it afterwards? What assumptions went into taking it, how many people were involved, in what language did they communicate?

Those are the kinds of questions I’ve asked of the Tutankhamun photographs, for instance. Look again, above, at Burton’s photograph of the ‘untouched’ Antechamber of the tomb, taken in December 1922. That chamber had been opened for almost a month, and rigged for electricity supplied by the Egyptian government for the purpose. At least a dozen people, more likely two dozen, had been in and out, and there were probably three or four Egyptian assistants behind the camera or out-of-shot, working alongside Harry Burton to take the photographs the world was waiting for. That tomb chamber is about as ‘untouched’ as the tea and cake stall at my village’s summer fete last weekend. Because that’s the nature of photography. It needs time, it needs equipment, and it needs a reason and a will. Same goes for Luigi Fiorillo’s photographs of Alexandria after the British bombardment, and for the way they’ve been mounted into an album book-ended by portraits of the main military and political actors (Orabi and the khedive appear in front).

Don’t let photographs compound our amnesia about the colonial and imperial past. They can be so wonderfully deceptive, these images that make us feel like we were there the first time Howard Carter peered into the tomb. At the British Museum colloquium, several speakers spoke about ‘context’, meaning archaeological context, but only two or three of us mentioned colonialism – that is, the historical context in which every collection and museum discussed was formed. Young British men like Howard Carter, or Harry Burton, could go to Egypt to try their luck because a British army was based right in the middle of Cairo, and a British consul-general – Norfolk’s own Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer – pulled the strings of the government nominally headed by the khedive.

It was Cromer who instituted policies such as banning state-funded education for Egyptians. No wonder it was the Egyptian speakers and audience members at the British Museum colloquium who knew perfectly well who Orabi was. He remains a symbol of Egyptian pride, resilience, and resistance: Orabi came from a modest Egyptian background, rather than the Turco-Circassian class who then dominated the country, but he went on to obtain a university education and lead an uprising that threatened the most powerful empire of the day. What kind of amnesia is the United Kingdom – the origin of that empire – suffering from, if the university students I teach, the public audiences I talk to, and many of the Egyptologists I meet, here on imperial home turf, don’t know this history, and much more besides?

It’s not just knowing history, of course. It’s what you do with it. I asked this question in my talk yesterday: What could Egyptology do with its past other than hang it up on the wall to admire? That’s a rhetorical question, but I hope one day I’ll see some answers.


(*) The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a great source for figures in British History like Wolseley, but it does require a subscription for full access. Your public library or a university library may be able to help.

(**) Here are two papers I’ve found helpful: Renato Rosaldo, ‘Imperalist Amnesia’, Representations 26 (1989), pp. 107-22 (; the whole issue is devoted to memory and counter-memory), and Robert Fletcher, ‘The art of forgetting: Imperialist amnesia and public secrecy’, Third World Quarterly 33.3 (2012), pp. 423-39 ( Fletcher uses one of my favourite, if frustrating and challenging, works in anthropology: Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative, Stanford University Press, 1999.

(^) See the ever-excellent Jennifer Tucker, in collaboration with Tina Campt, ‘Entwined practices: Engagements with photography in historical inquiry’, History and Theory 48.4 (2009), pp. 1-8 (