Many modern-day Britons proudly claim that the empire brought democracy and civility to deprived sections of the globe. Who else would have brought an end to the barbarism of the Sati ritual (where Indian widows were burned alive after their husband’s deaths) and spread the principle of liberal democracy? Sure, British actions may have erred on the side of brutality from time to time but, viewed within their historical contexts and casting aside the anachronistically politically-correct moralism’s of the far-left, should one not give credit where credit is due?
The sense of gritty realism associated with accepting empire despite the shocking violence it includes is appealing. It separates apologists from allegedly naïve idealists (who jump to ultra-critical conclusions) and reassures them of their sense of intellectual maturity. However, the basis of imperial pride is an acceptance of racism, murder and extreme brutality in a fashion that is neither mature nor moral.
Firstly, claiming that Britain honestly advanced the cause of democracy in her colonies is absurd. The democratic reforms conducted within the Empire were always concessions made to stabilise British dominance or to accept the inevitability of independence. This was true of the 1838 Durham Report (written in response to 1837-38 Canadian revolts) which led to Canada, New Zealand and most Australian colonies being granted responsible government over the next two decades. It was also true of the granting of independence to India in 1947. After Britain’s post-World War Two economic dependence on the US had left them unable to continue to repress nationalism as they previously had (in the 1919 Amritsar massacre and in the killing of over 1,000 and arrests of nearly 100,000 in response to Gandhi’s 1942 Quit India campaign) independence was inevitable.
Even in the Empire’s later stages, it was international pressures rather than British benevolence that led to the granting of independence. Britain, in £21 billion debt after World War Two, had been utterly reliant on the US through their £900,000,000 loan and $3.3 billion in Marshall Aid to uphold the Sterling. After Eden was forced to call a ceasefire during the Suez Canal Crisis (1956) to maintain US aid, it was clear that Britain could not supress colonial nationalism as she had in the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) and the crushing of the Mau Mau (1952-60). Therefore, many colonies were granted independence in the following decade including: Malaya, Nigeria, Somaliland, Cyprus, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika, Uganda, Samoa and Jamaica.
As Macmillan suggested in his mention of a ‘managed decline’ in his 1960 Wind of Change speech, democratic reforms were carried out because the empire was inevitably dissolving and not because Britain necessarily wanted to advance democracy. In fact, decolonisation, more than anything else, advanced democracy by allowing full democratic self-government in the colonies. Therefore, to credit empire with advancing democracy would be as legitimate as saying that a bank robber releasing a hostage encouraged individual liberty.
In addition to this, although certain reprehensible practices such as the Sati ritual were banned by Britain, Britain exploited these flaws in native practices to brand natives as inferior in India (and in other colonies) to justify their own brutality towards natives. This was evident in the indiscriminate violence in Pathan ordered by General Neil during the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858) and mass executions conducted by Britain where rebellious Sepoys (Indian soldiers serving Britain) were forced to drink the blood of dead comrades before hangings. These actions were rationalised through sensationalised reporting of incidents such as the Well of Cawnpore where 200 British women and children had been killed by mutineers. This illustrates how attempts to ‘civilize’ natives by condemning/ prohibiting corrupt practices were simply pretexts for justifying imperial brutality.
This was also the case in the brutal raping and abusing of the Kenyans in response to the 1950s Mau Mau uprising. Outrage at Mau Mau rebels killing Kenyans who refused to take the Mau Mau oath as well as the killing of white settlers was used to justify abuse. This abuse allegedly included a detained Kenyan girl being forced, by British soldiers, to have sex with her father, which seriously undermines any claim of the empire spreading civility.
Some may claim that to condemn such atrocities as well as other examples of imperial brutality (such as Boer War concentration camps, the Batang Kali massacre and the Irish Potato famine) would be inherently anachronistic. It ignores the fact that these events occurred in a different time with different ethics where these actions may have been considered entirely acceptable (if not admirable).
However, such a defence is, again, deeply flawed. To make this claim ignores the fact that many of these atrocities such as the Boer War concentration camps were condemned (at the time) by Irish nationalists, by campaigners such as Emily Hobhouse and by Liberals such as Henry Campbell-Bannerman referring to atrocities as “methods of barbarism”. In addition, in the case of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s brutal role in the Bengal famine; concerns about his racism had been raised previously when he was appointed to Baldwin’s cabinet. When he later ignored the pleas for food supplies by British officials, refusing to grant aid on the basis that Indians were at fault for “breeding like rabbits”, 1-4 million Indians subsequently starved to death. Therefore, to suggest that the perpetrators of imperial atrocities could not have known the evils of their own actions as they were uniformly supported by their contemporaries is patently untrue.
Considering this, there really is no reason for today’s Britons to take pride in their empire as it did not genuinely advance the cause of democracy and it was often barbaric even by contemporary standards. The continued popularity of imperial pride thus suggests that the general principles of the White Man’s Burden are more popular today than many would like to admit and thus there are still serious issues of remnant white supremacy that need to be addressed in Britain.