On January 26 1988, the Aboriginal actor and ecologist Burnam Burnam landed at Dover and laid claim to England, solemnly undertaking to rule justly and never to souvenir, pickle or preserve English heads.1 His colourful and dramatic contribution to the Australian bicentennutial celebrations reminds us of an aspect of Empire that we in Britain would probably rather forget. It is not widely known that in the nineteenth century there was a good market in London for dried human heads from the South Pacific. Attempts by humanitarians to suppress the trade were resisted: a prominent Mayfair buyer named Thomas Pringle regularly wrote letters to The Times pointing out that attempts at suppression ran counter to traditional British policies on Free Trade. This aspect of Empire is generally edited out of British perceptions. As Ann Dummett has observed: 'The real truth about the history of the Empire is not palatable to English people' - because it is not what they have been taught, and because it conflicts with the basic standards of good behaviour and British decency that they have also learnt in growing up. 'They know that England abolished the slave trade; they do not know that England first grew rich enough to capitalize the world's first industrial revolution on the profits of slavery that had accrued over two centuries.'2
Brown, Ruth, The Songlines and the Empire that Never Happened, Kunapipi, 13(3), 1991.