Men of Harlech and Wales’ awkward relationship with the British Empire
Watching the film Zulu over Christmas provoked a certain discomfort, particularly during a scene in which Men of Harlech was sung by the Brecon-based regiment.
Here were the Welsh singing a song of defiance against English authority whilst fighting on behalf of their coloniser against another colonised people. The scene itself is a historical inaccuracy, but the awkwardness remains as the song has long been associated with Welsh regiments within the British Army.
Adam Price talked of this paradox between Wales being colonised and a coloniser last year, sparking an ongoing conversation on the topic. The appropriation of Men of Harlech lives as a testimony to this duality. Plaid Cymru, along with the YesCymru movement more broadly, must acknowledge this history if it is to make Welsh independence both meaningful and achievable.
The precise origin of Men of Harlech is uncertain, as is the case with many folk songs. It either details the fall of Harlech Castle to Henry V in 1408-9 during Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion or the later siege between 1461 and 1468 during the Wars of the Roses in which Welsh Lancastrians held out against Yorkist attackers. Either way, the song’s original significance was to honour Welsh resistance in the face of outside invaders.
Men of Harlech was later adopted by Welsh regiments within the British Army as a military march. The song’s prominence is expressed in the 1964 film Zulu, which although inaccurately claims the song was fought at the battle of Rorke’s Drift, correctly identifies its status among regiments such as the Royal Welsh and Welsh Guards.
The British Army, which Welshmen have fought within, facilitated British colonialism overseas. The use of Men of Harlech in this context therefore presents an ugly distortion away from its original significance, leaving an uncomfortable irony.
Wales has both undeniably suffered from English conquest, and has been a participant in, and benefitted from the British Empire’s imperial endeavours overseas.
Men of Harlech provides a demonstration of the duality of Wales’ experience with colonisation, of a nation caught between being the victim and perpetrator of imperialism. The song’s use simultaneously both rejects and embraces empire, in an ugly limbo between the two that reflects the state Wales finds itself in.
The British Isles’ Celtic nations have found themselves in an awkward situation within the British Empire more broadly. Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have claims towards being its first pieces. But they have also benefited from the riches it has exploited from other parts of the globe.
Although Wales suffered from English rule, its experience is certainly not equivalent to those of Britain’s colonies and dominions in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Men of Harlech remains a staple of Welsh choir singing and singing in Wales more widely. I have sung it many times before Cardiff City’s home matches.
When it is sung, often collectively, which of the two concepts does it commemorate? Does it celebrate defiance of English authority or a pride to have been a part of it? It undeniably has pride of place within Welsh culture, but to what significance? Can you celebrate both its conflicting aspects at the same time? I doubt it.
The ongoing discussion and debate surrounding Wales’ place as a part of the UK, both historically and in modern day, mirrors the ambiguity of the song’s use.
Is Wales proud of being a part of Britain, and formerly its Empire, or is it ashamed? What parts of Wales’ history do we condemn and what parts do we cherish?
I would imagine the answers to these questions will be similar for both the song and for Wales, and a consensus acknowledging Wales’ part in colonisation is pivotal for the advancement of Welsh nationalist politics.
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