Mealtimes, “institutional racism” and the “historical amnesia of British colonialism”. They were all there on January 27 when a group of fourteen, led by students at SOAS (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), chanting, “We have nothing to lose but our chains”, protested in the Blighty UK Café in Finsbury Park, London. They demanded that Chris Evans, the owner, “apologise to the local community” for commemorating Winston Churchill instead of presenting him as a racist who perpetuated the injustices of the empire. The café offers a breakfast called “The Winston” and décor featuring model Spitfires and a mock-up of an air-raid shelter. A change of décor and menu was demanded.
The SOAS Students’ Union, in a statement, declared that the café “exercises a concerted historical amnesia of British colonialism, which is offensive to those who continue to experience institutional racism”. Earlier, a large mural of Churchill had been repeatedly defaced. The phlegmatic Evans remarked, “If you cannot celebrate Britain and great Britons you are just erasing history and if you cannot celebrate Churchill, you cannot celebrate anyone.” In 2002 Churchill was voted the “Greatest Briton” in a large-scale BBC poll.
Subsequently, in March, some of the same protesters took part in a violent blockade of the main building of SOAS, their statement protesting at “the white-supremacist hetero-patriarchal capitalist order” of university life.
This essay appears in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Meanwhile, in February, the controversy was over the exhibition “The Past is Now” at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, in which information boards claimed that “the relationship between European colonialism, industrial production and capitalism is unique in its brutality”. The key Birmingham politician of the Victorian period, Joseph Chamberlain, was described as “still revered despite his aggressive and racist imperial policy”. One board blamed Britain’s “hasty” departure from India in 1947 for “trauma and misogyny” and another offered another partisan context: “capitalism is a system that prioritises the interests of individuals and their companies at the expense of the majority”. Janine Eason, the museum’s Director of Engagement, said it was “not possible” for a museum to present a “neutral voice, particularly for something as multifaceted as stories relating to the British Empire”, and, instead, that the exhibition was both a way to serve the multicultural population of Birmingham and was intended “to provoke”.
Of course, real provocation would have been to offer a different account, one that was more grounded in historical awareness, or, even more provocative, two or more accounts. Indeed, empire is an aspect of the culture wars, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes bitter, sometimes both, in Britain and elsewhere, of recent years, as well as of the problematic nature, across the world, of national history and national identity.
Between 1750 and 1900, Britain became the foremost power in the world, both territorially and in economic terms. An intellectual powerhouse, Britain also became a model political system for much of the world. These changes were connected. Territorial expansion provided raw materials, markets and employment and, combined with Protestant evangelicalism and liberal self-confidence, encouraged a sense in Britain of being at the cutting edge of civilisation. Indeed, empire was in part supported on the grounds that it provided opportunities for the advance of civilisation. This was seen not least by ending what were regarded as uncivilised as well as un-Christian practices, such as widow-burning and ritual banditry in India, and slavery and piracy across the world. In turn, these policies, and the presentation of them, helped to define British views of civilisation. Moreover, British exceptionalism was to be the godparent of its American successor, as the one world system succeeded the other.
To treat these contemporary attitudes to empire (like also the social conditions then or the treatment of women) as if Britain could have been abstracted from the age, and should be judged accordingly, is unhelpful and ahistorical. It is not a case of historical amnesia, but, rather, amnesia about history; or at least the latter as approached in a scholarly, rather than polemical, fashion. Moreover, within the constraints of the attitudes and technologies of the nineteenth century, Britain was more liberal culturally, economically, socially and politically than the other European powers. Britain offered a powerful support to the struggles for independence in Latin America and Greece, from Spanish and Turkish rule respectively.
In addition, the British, although earlier the most active of the slave traders, were instrumental in ending the slave trade and slavery. This was despite the economic damage thereby done to the British colonies in the West Indies. The Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807) reflected the strength of the moral strand in British public life. This strand drew greatly on the world of public discussion in Britain that reached into every hamlet, through the press and public collections and meetings. For example, anti-slavery literature was prolific and struck evangelical, providential and humanitarian notes as well as those focused on economics; as also earlier the opposition to the slave trade had done. Causes such as Greek independence and, later, the Italian Risorgimento were genuinely popular, as was that of support for the Union side in the American Civil War.
The balance and character of moral concerns and engagement in the past may appear flawed through the perspective of hindsight, indeed very flawed (as ours will be), but such concerns and engagement were strong. Furthermore, those who deploy hindsight might be better served directing their energy at urgent present abuses, which include the slave trade and slavery—in Britain and elsewhere. A consideration of the past can lend urgency and energy to debate about the present, but applying hindsight is easier than correcting present abuses.
Blaming imperial rule serves a variety of cultural, intellectual and political purposes, and at a number of levels. Domestically, aside from the “culture wars” and identity struggles which, always vibrant, appear to be becoming more active and potent, it is in part a strategy designed to create a new public identity. This is not least by integrating immigrant communities as an aspect of a rejection of a past that could also be used to stigmatise an alternative present.
At the global level, criticism of empire serves a similar purpose. It is used repeatedly in order to try to ease political relations between one-time imperial powers and colonies, notably by appealing to public opinion in the latter, and thus seeking to ground relations in a wider support. Apologising at the expense of the past costs little in modern Western culture. Indeed, it can appear glib and a diversion, as well as helpful. Perception of the process is varied and, to a degree, important in its evaluation. This is an aspect of the “virtue signalling” of conspicuous morality.
Presentism is an inevitable aspect of historical understanding, popular, governmental and scholarly, for it is the concerns of the present that help explain why topics are undertaken and how they are perceived. And so also for the empire. Presentism explains the focus on the subject, as well as the standard way in which it is treated—the two being closely linked. In a sense, the style and tone of attention have been transformed. There was a culture of imperialism in which the fact and process of imperial rule (or rather of Western imperial rule, for Western praise for imperial rule did not extend to rule by non-Western powers, such as China) was believed and proclaimed to be valuable. This value was believed to be the case both for the imperialists and for those who experienced their attention. Each supposedly benefited from character building, albeit of a very different form. Moreover, the teleology expressed in the language of imperialism fed into the imperialists’ belief that it had a normative and necessary character and, as such, took a key role in historical development.
Their empire was presented by British commentators, or at least most of them until there was a significant shift of perspective in the mid-twentieth century, as the apogee of the historical process. This process was supposedly founded on the ancient civilisations of the Middle East and Mediterranean, which were described as the “cradles of civilisation”, and also looking back to the Holy Land. This linkage implied a powerful theme of continuity, indeed another version of the medieval translatio imperii in which the transfer of rule kept the dream of Classical Rome alive.
The linkage was also part of a diffusionist model of cultural history, with Classical Rome and modern Britain each shaping their world, and to positive purposes. In an essay on colonies published in the Rambler, a Catholic monthly, in 1862, Sir John Acton, a Liberal MP and later, as Lord Acton, a prominent historian, presented colonialisation as a necessary prelude to the spread of Christian civilisation: “We may assume (as part of the divine economy which appears in the whole history of religion) that the conquest of the world by the Christian powers is the preliminary step to its conversion.” As a child I was taught “history” at school in a process that twice began with the Classical world.
In turn, and notably in recent decades, has come a strong hostility to imperialism as a process that supposedly distorted the imperialists and the “imperialised”, and, in particular, exposed the latter to the toxicity of imperial rule. The clear-cut rejection of imperial rule that influences the presentation of the past can also lead to a misleading division between “collaborators” and “resisters”, a division that fails to understand the contingencies, compromises and nuances of the past, not least the way in which people then understood their position.
Each of these approaches is, to a degree, highly questionable and ahistorical but also rooted in its time. The move from one approach to the other raises questions about historical method and the conceptual tools available for discussing the past and our relationship with it. The assumption that it is essentially the past that constructed myths is all too convenient. Instead, just as past views and practices attract valuable critical scrutiny, so the same should be the case for the situation today, as we will face E.P. Thompson’s “enormous condescension of posterity”. Moreover, there is a danger that, in presenting people as victims of imperialism, they are robbed of agency. The charge of “false consciousness” is a concept that is too easy to deploy in this context, when assessing past and present, as are the reductionism and instrumentalism it offers to underline criticism. Doubtless this also will be the case when the present is considered in the future.
Historians of empire and decolonisation, whether in imperial homelands or in former colonies, whether for the British Empire or for all others, are very much taking part in the process they discuss. The difficulty is not that there are intellectual, literary and professional strategies propagating partisan, somewhat narrow, often ideological, views, for that is always the case, but rather that many, maybe most, writers do not accept that that is what they are doing. Moreover, as a related but different point, one of great methodological interest, writers can and will tend to argue by the assertion of their views, and the omission or misrepresentation of those of others. Writing in a political or theoretical mindset or “bubble”, as most do, can accentuate this approach.
These are far from the sole conceptual, methodological and historiographical issues involved, indeed frequently at stake. Among the many that are significant is the strong, even insistent, tendency to focus on the last 150 years of empire. This is at the expense both of a longer time-span and of what can be gained from such a time-span and from comparative consideration accordingly. Imperial history is too significant, too interesting and too complex to be defined and described simply, and solely, in terms of such an “end-loaded” coverage and analysis, however convenient—indeed highly convenient—it might appear in academic or political terms.
There is, moreover, the tendency to focus on a linear narrative, notably, but not only, of success or failure, and on a teleology accordingly. The rise and fall of empires has become a narrative that adds epic interest and moral notes to the cyclical patterns beloved by so many writers. This cycle is particularly observed in the treatment of the British Empire, even if it can be subliminal as much as explicit.
Separate from such narratives, the bitter identity politics of empire and even more of “ex-empire” leads to claims about collective memories, amnesia and forgetfulness. This politics encourages the deployment of empire as a case-study for modern intellectual concerns, notably, but not only, about race and gender; while, in turn, these concerns become, for many, the way to study and present empire. All interesting, but scarcely a rounded account.
Furthermore, because a national basis for states became a dominant ideological rhetoric, first in the West and then elsewhere, so alternatives appear inappropriate, wrong and anachronistic, the last notably so in developmental terms of world history. Imperialism has been set up as the highly undesirable “other” and its supposed values presented in a hostile fashion that validate this undesirability.
Ironically, many of the newly independent states were authoritarian or military, for example Egypt, a point that underlines the complexity of judging British policy in the Suez Crisis of 1956. The nationalist stance, moreover, can appear of scant validity from the historical perspective, notably given the extent to which, across much of the world, there was only a limited sense of national identity for most of history. Moreover, in many areas, particularly but not only in cities, there was a variety of ethnic groups. In a major instance of transnationalism, this variety can be seen as contributing greatly to multi-national empires, which therefore were more than states simply incorporating areas each of which had coherent national populations. The Ottoman empire was a good instance of one in which ethnic groups were mixed, not least in Alexandria, Smyrna, Salonica and Constantinople. Such cities contained large numbers of minority groups, notably Armenians, Greeks, Jews and Kurds. Similarly, there were considerable numbers of Muslims in rural areas in the Balkans, particularly in Kosovo and Albania.
Subsequent problems in these (and other) areas are not so much a legacy of empire, particularly the British Empire, as Jack Straw suggested in 2002 when British Foreign Secretary—“a lot of the problems we are having to deal with now are a consequence of our colonial past”—but, rather, a legacy of the end of empire, both British and other. “Ethnic cleansing” or, at least, ethnic control is logical from the perspective of ethnically based states, such as Turkey, Serbia and Burma; but not from that of polyglot empires, or not to the same extent. Under the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 ending the Greek-Turkish conflict following the First World War and marking the replacement of the Ottoman empire by Turkey, there was a large-scale expulsion of those who, on religious grounds, were judged alien. Similarly, Protestants did not benefit from Irish independence. Instead, aside from suffering intimidation, there was a longer-lasting discrimination in which their chances of getting jobs declined.
Apology was scarcely restricted to Straw. In 2011, when visiting Pakistan, David Cameron, then British Prime Minister, replied when questioned about the Kashmir question: “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.” This remark underplayed the extent to which the question is really about sectarian and geopolitical disputes between India and Pakistan and also arises from politics within them.
From the perspective of many groups, such as Copts and Jews, empires such as those ruled by the Ottomans, Habsburgs and Britain were frequently more benign than the ethnically based nation-states that succeeded them. The plight of the East African Indians once British rule ended was a clear example. Not all empires were benign to minority ethnic groups, but many were. The British notably sought to end the enslavement of minorities and can be criticised today by those who seek to enforce a monoglot interpretation of nationhood, for example Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka. This point needs to be borne in mind in any debate about imperialism, as does the argument that ethnic variety itself was functionally an advantage for imperial systems, particularly for their commercial viability.
Today, in an increasingly multi-cultural world, marked by mass migrations and new intermixing of peoples, the larger and more capacious political unit can, to some, appear more attractive than the narrower and more exclusive ones, whether one is looking in present-day terms or historically. Empires should arouse particular scholarly interest at present because, for all their faults, they embody a wealth of experience in the management of difference and diversity. They were necessarily multi-faceted and diverse.
Jeremy Black, Professor of History at the University of Exeter and Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is the author of many books including Imperial Legacies (forthcoming).