image The power of old stories and our British imperial past

Richard Pantlin, OxISC, Oxford Institute of Systemic Constellations, Healing Social TraumaBy Richard Pantlin

We British, whatever our ethnic origins, stand to gain fresh self-assurance in these uncertain times through exploring the personal impact that the British Empire and its wars have had on our parents, their ancestors and consequently on us too. Family Constellations offers a non-judgemental, embodied and soulful way for us to do so.  It is a profoundly individual process and yet held within a collective space in which all participants play a role – if only as witnesses, quietly absorbing their own lessons. It is a methodology developed in Germany by Bert Hellinger and his many collaborators, including my teacher, Albrecht Mahr. It took off in the nineties as a means for Germans to come to terms with their Nazi past, previously taboo area of enquiry.

It is my hope and intention that it can help us British come to terms with our imperial past – it is certainly time.   We think we are a modern, cosmopolitan, multi-cultural society but the ghosts of empire still linger – as we see with Brexit amongst other things.  And yes, we can be that society, but not fully, until our inner secret stories and historic family sufferings are shared into one common story.

Let me illustrate the power of our past stories with a personal experience.

My marriage to my first wife was under strain but I was looking forward to a nice evening out together at the Oxford Playhouse, to watch a play set in Ireland around the time of the English Civil War and the coming to power of Cromwell. It was a great production and well-written. There were two main protagonists:

One was the younger son of an English aristocrat who had been sent by his father to look after their recently acquired lands in Ireland; the other was a proud and fiery local Irish lass. They fell in love, married and had children, but in the meantime the “security situation” was worsening. Starting peacefully, the Englishman just wanted good relations with the locals and to improve the productivity of the farm estate for all concerned.  However, the government back in London put them under pressure by raising taxes and sending more troops to enforce collection.  Inevitably, the English troops played rough with uppity locals and the wife’s brother took to the hills to fight the English invaders.  The Englishman was caught between loyalty to his wife and her family and the responsibilities of his role as a local landlord to collect taxes. He tried in vain to urge restraint on both sides. The story did not have a good ending.  Eventually, the wife takes their child off into the hills to join her brother and his “freedom fighters”.  The play ended there, but we know from history that a few years later Cromwell’s army massacred thousands of Irish at Drogheda.  And thus was England’s first colony established.

Sadly for my marriage, I expressed sympathy – a fellow-feeling – for the Englishman, despite fully appreciating and understanding the positions of the Irish – I had, after all, been a passionate defender of Irish nationalism before I first met my wife.  My wife was born British in Shropshire, but her parents were black immigrants from Jamaica.  And she was fiery, with sympathy only for the wife of the story.  Not too long afterwards, she also took to the hills with our son.

My second “wife” – we had a child but never legally married – was a different product of the British Empire. She was a daughter of the British Army: both parents became majors (her mother as a teacher of squaddies).  My second wife was born in Germany, where her parents were stationed, then, on the next posting in Malaysia in the late 1960’s, was looked after by a native “aya” (nanny).  Her father had earlier fought in Aden (which is now called Yemen and suffering so badly again).  He won a military award for – in his own provocative words – “paddy-bashing” in Northern Ireland during the 1970s struggles there. My second wife’s brothers and almost all her male friends went to English private boarding schools from a fairly young age.  When I first met them at her 38th birthday party, I was staggered by how immature they all seemed.  It is now accepted that private boarding schools right up to the 1970s were often abusive institutions. They had served their function well for over 150 years in producing an arrogant and detached male ruling class for the Empire, but that was now no longer needed.  (It’s interesting to note that many have now reinvented themselves as educators of choice for the new global elites.)

And let us at this point remember what tipped us into the Brexit vote: it was the boyhood rivalry between David Cameron and Boorish Johnson, stemming from their days together at our top private school of Eton.

My second wife voted “Green” and helped me respect and love England and its people (of which I am one).  It is a country that her parents were defending as public servants.

But some part of me remains a rebel – perhaps it comes from my maternal great-grandfather, an international socialist in Liverpool before the First World War. He was the illegitimate child of a Cheshire squire and a local lass.  Or perhaps it comes from my paternal grandmother who had to hide her Jewishness while working as a maid in a country house, where she first encountered her future husband (my grandfather) as a visiting house guest.

These few fragments of personal history provide just some examples of how we British have been formed by our various experiences of empire, war and class. I’m sure that, if we gave it some thought, we could all come up with equivalent stories.

The historic dislocation caused to so many people who have come to England from former colonies is clear.  And I remember the anti-racist slogan of the 1980s very well:  “We are here, because you were there.”

What has been harder to acknowledge is the ancestral suffering of upper-middle class people who were caught up in administering (and enforcing) the British Empire.  I have seen in Family Constellation workshops how the impact of their dislocation continues to have an impact on current generations.  I wrote about this in the international Constellations magazine “The Knowing Field” under the title “British ghosts and orphan culture”.  I concluded as follows:

“We British, and all of us from the “Western” colonising world, must come to terms with the very real historic traumas that we have inflicted on many of the other peoples of the world, be it Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, displaced peoples of the Indian sub-continent or arbitrarily divided tribes in Africa ruthlessly separated from their own indigenous spiritual belief systems.

These were very real external effects that our ancestors had a responsibility for, just as many more recent German ancestors had a responsibility for Nazism. The impacts of colonialism persist to this day and will do for generations to come. We “Westerners” will not find peace within the multi-polar, multi-cultural world of the twenty-first century unless we come to terms with these “ghosts” of our own.

And feeling ashamed or guilty of our colonial past will not particularly help anyone either – there lies the power of constellations to phenomenologically “see” and “re-member” the reality of our ancestral past and understand its internal dynamics and impacts as well as its external effects.”

The full article, including what I mean by “orphan culture”, is available in TKF 28 here:

On the morning of the Brexit vote – sometimes called the “Little England” vote – I messaged a dear black friend in Zimbabwe to say: “Here starts the final chapter of the English Empire”.  His response: “Halleluyah!”

I personally am starting a delightful new chapter in my life – I have married a “born free” from Zimbabwe, a member of the greater Zulu nation, whose proud and disciplined warriors put up such a fierce resistance to the British Empire back in the nineteenth century.  In the 1960s their traditional ancestral spiritual practices were to provide an early inspiration to the founder of Family Constellations, Bert Hellinger.

As you see, I have a very personal interest in starting to exorcise the ghosts of the British Empire.  So let’s get to work!

I’d love to see you at Anngwyn’s workshop – and if you can’t make it, let me know and we will arrange more events with the intention of exploring this topic.

And by the way, you are welcome to bring and explore whatever issue you wish with Anngwyn.  Or just come to witness.  Essentially, she and I share an interest in historic trauma at a societal and cultural level, which inspires me to dig deeper into the mystery of how we come to be as we are.

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