Would we be nostalgic for the British Empire if we really understood it?

20 Mar 2020

 

Many of us don’t remember much from our history lessons at school. A long trawl through English monarchs one by one (but often in no particular order), interspersed with bursts of teaching on evacuees and rationing during World War Two is perhaps quite a common experience for many of us who grew up in the British education system.

 

So the news that 32% of British people are proud of the British Empire, while shocking, perhaps should not be seen as very surprising.

 

I don’t recall learning much about Britain’s former colonies at school, though both my parents were born in one. We touched on the subject of empire when we were learning about the Victorians in primary school; but what empire really meant was never very clear to me. If anything, the empire was something that had made us great and powerful during the Victorian era - and its former existence was what ensured our continuing status as a world power in the modern age. 

 

Until I was a little older, this was what I believed. I didn’t realise what the implications of an empire truly were for those who bore the weight of it. I didn’t know what kind of atrocities were carried out in its name. And I did not realise that empire can only be sustained on a belief that those colonised under imperial rule are somehow deserving of their subjugation. 

 

An empire is defined by the OED as ‘an extensive group of states or countries ruled over by a single monarch, an oligarchy, or a sovereign state.’ This unequivocally implies one state having total control over several others - and is why the attempts to frame the EU as some kind of imperial power were so misleading. Whereas EU laws are made by bodies comprised of representatives from the member countries, an empire’s laws are generated in one state alone, and are applied as that state determines to other territories under its control. This is not how the EU has ever worked.

 

But that some people do misapply the term ‘empire’ to the European Union is perhaps a good indication that many are unaware of what an empire actually is. Either that, or there is a wilful ignorance to confront truths about Britain’s past.

 

Britain was never a ‘vassal’ or subordinate (and subjugated) state as part of the EU, though Jacob Rees-Mogg did his best to characterise it as such. In actuality, Britain has an unfortunate history of having made vassal states of many other countries. 

 

And yet it is with rose-tinted glasses that many of us look back at the times when other states were totally under British rule. 33% of Brits believe that the places Britain colonised are better off for it - failing to see how suppressing a country’s culture and language, massacring unarmed colonised peoples, or enslaving people and shipping them across the ocean might affect a country’s development - or, at least, leave it fundamentally different that what it otherwise would have been.

 

This is undoubtedly a question of education. Not just what we teach our children - but what we are brave enough to let them understand. 

 

British history lessons are full of stories of the terrible things others have done. Nazi Germany and the Holocaust were both covered more than once throughout my time in school, and all the while used as a backdrop against which British actions during World War Two could be contrasted. 

 

Just 9% of Germans surveyed were proud of their colonial past - and perhaps this is because it is a country which has been forced to confront its own shame because of the horrors of the Holocaust - still in living memory for many. But in Britain it seems we struggle to do the same, forgetting or ignoring that the legacy of what we have done still affects the world today.

 

 

In 2012, Britain’s only museum confronting its colonial past was forced to close, and just last December, the government refused funding for a memorial depicting the history of slavery in Hyde Park. These are the signs of a country unwilling to face the past, and in being unwilling to do so, we are failing to recognise the past for what it was. 

 

In fact, our entire colonial strategy was a game of pretence - pretence that our exploitative and greedy economic schemes were somehow enriching to those they subjugated. 

 

And this may be why we see the issues we do in Britain’s former colonies. The partition of India, for example, displayed a chilling degree of indifference towards colonised peoples, leaving the newly created Pakistan and India locked in decades of conflict over poorly drawn-out dividing lines. Britain did little or nothing to help, despite being the divider of the states.

 

Or take the formation of Biafra, a breakaway state in eastern Nigeria, in 1967. With the slaughter of Igbo peoples across the northern and western regions of the country, Biafra formed to provide a place of refuge and safety for the Igbo. A civil war broke out in the former British colony. Britain’s continual support of the Nigerian state, and the support of the blockade of Biafra, left two million dead from starvation.

 

Britain’s failure to take responsibility for what it did as a colonial power means it has forgotten its responsibilities for the legacies of colonialism. And maybe this is deliberate. The cynic in me believes that Britain may deliberately have fuelled conflicts in its former colonies. Because if these countries experienced strife and war after Britain’s official control of them had ended, maybe it would appear to all the world that colonisation was a noble and necessary undertaking.

 

But whatever the underlying motives or feelings were, we cannot keep pretending that we do not have blood on our hands. This is not about hating our country, but about learning that we cannot love it blindly. Unless we learn our lessons now, Britain will never be able to atone for its past, or make the best of its future.

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