Current affairs cannot be understood without an appreciation of history. It goes without saying that history is an ongoing process, and that the status quo of politics and international relations in which we operate is the culmination of centuries of events. It is therefore insufficient to merely watch the news, absorb its narrative, and regurgitate its zeitgeist without a greater consideration of the wider historical context.
Just as the origins of the Second World War cannot be understood without an appreciation of the First World War, equally, the origins of the civil war in Syria lay far deeper in history than the events of the Arab Spring, and police brutality against the black community in the United States is but a more recent incarnation of historic institutional racism.
Take the issue of Brexit, for example. The decision to leave the European Union will likely be the most important political decision made in Britain for a generation. Admittedly, BBC Question Time is no longer – if ever it were – the epitome of informed and accessible debate on politics and current affairs. Nevertheless, what the participation of its audience betrays is the astonishing prevalence of historical illiteracy in this country, even among those who are comparatively engaged with current affairs. The rose-tinted jingoism of Question Time‘s Brexiteer audience members, who are sufficiently interested in the subject matter as to seek participation, represents a galling ignorance of crucial history and a disregard more generally of the importance of examining historical context.
Every Thursday night, David Dimbleby unwittingly invites the obligatory pompous Brexiteer in the audience to ignorantly eulogise about the glorious centuries of long since lost British grandeur. Last night was no different. One audience member, demanding that Labour’s Owen Smith stop “whinging” about Brexit, and denouncing the European Union as an obstacle to true democracy in Britain, declared that:
“For thousands of years, Britain has ruled in a wonderful way. We’ve been a light unto the world!”
It is difficult to know where to begin with that assessment. Some leapt to her defence, citing her right to an opinion. Frankly, however, the validity of amateur opinion on the subject of imperial rule pales against its demonstrable realities. Moreover, it is this propagation of ill-informed jingoism that betrays the shameful prevalence of historical illiteracy and imperial hubris in this country. Most disconcertingly, this is the expressed conviction of someone who, by participating in Question Time, is demonstrating an engagement with current affairs far greater than that of much of the public. If even those who claim an interest in current affairs fail to appreciate the importance of historical context, the likely ignorance of wider society to such themes ought to be alarming.
I will, however, leave aside my previously expressed thoughts on Brexit and focus on addressing the myriad absurdities spectacularly crammed into that seven-second statement.
Firstly, the simple claim of “thousands of years” of British rule. I must be somewhat ignorant of the dominance of the British in the Neolithic era of three thousand plus years ago, during which time Britons began renouncing their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, instead adopting the newfangled practices of agriculture. Two thousand years ago, it was the Romans ruling Britannica. After them came the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, and – ignoring the fact that they were not at all British – they were still far from ruling the world. Even one thousand years ago, the Normans had not yet arrived, and it was China that ruled with the British irrelevant on the world stage. Indeed, during the thirteenth century, the Mongols decided against invading deeper into Europe because the potential spoils of war were far greater in China and the Middle East.
Secondly, the claim that Britain “ruled in a wonderful way”. I’ll go into a little more detail here, just in the hope of smashing a few astonishingly prevalent myths surrounding British history. Instead of “thousands of years” of British rule, then, this audience member was presumably referring to the period of several hundred years during which Britain arguably exercised global dominance. Herein lies the problem. There is little accounting for the motivations, methods and justification through which such dominance was achieved. The answer, of course, is that it was achieved through, and guaranteed by, empire. That empire was not given, earned or acquired fairly, but stolen through invasion, subjugation and murder, and maintained through devastation, exploitation and genocide. What seems disconcertingly to be required, is a sobering recognition of the brutalities of British imperialism, pursued solely for the rapid accumulation of wealth and power, with “scientific racism” embraced as a means by which to legitimise the depredation of the inferior Other.
1) Transatlantic Trafficking of Enslaved Africans
Before the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, Britain had been the foremost slave trading nation in Europe. In 245 years, British ships made 11,000 voyages to the New World, trafficking 3.4 million enslaved Africans and condemning them to a lifetime of brutal oppression on the plantations of the Caribbean and the Americas.
The abolition of the slave trade, however, was not the product of a moral awakening as to its inhumanity. On the contrary, it was a pragmatic response to shifting economic conditions and the threat of slave revolt, as witnessed in Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804. The institution of slavery continued in British colonies until 1833, and in territories delegated to the East India Company until as late as 1847. When slavery was finally outlawed, it was the expropriated former slaveowners – not the former slaves – that received financial compensation from the government.
2) British Concentration Camps in the Boer War
During the Second Boer War, the British army established concentration camps in which it imprisoned around 115,000 civilians, mostly women and children, to prevent their support of enemy fighters. Black people were also forced into camps as labourers for the re-opened gold mines.
With insufficient food supplies, unsanitary conditions and inadequate medical arrangements, around 28,000 Boer women and children and at least 20,000 black people died in these concentration camps.
3) The Partition of India
In 1947, Cyril Radcliffe was tasked with doing something for which the British were already notorious – drawing ill-considered, often arbitrary, straight lines on a map to create volatile new states. The border between India and Pakistan was decided over the course of one single lunch.
The border was drawn along religious lines, dividing colonial India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Ten million Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the line were uprooted, and around 1 million people died in the ensuing violence.
4) The Suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising
In 1952, Mau Mau fighters from Kenya’s major ethnic group, the Kikuyu, rebelled against the colonial rule responsible for their economic marginalisation and the expropriation of their lands by white settlers.
The British declared a state of emergency and moved in army reinforcements. The Kenya Human Rights Commission claims 90,000 Kenyans were executed in the ensuing violence, with thousands more tortured and abused during the suppression of the uprising.
5) Famines in India
Under British rule between 1765 and 1947, there were 15 major famines in colonial India, leading to the deaths of between 12 and 29 million people.
In 1943, Winston Churchill diverted food supplies from India to British troops fighting in the Second World War. As many as 4 million Bengalis starved to death as a result.
Contrary to the assertion of that audience member, then, British rule was far from “a light unto the world”. Although such a brazen claim resonates as chillingly jingoistic to any reader of history, the reality is that she is far from alone in clinging to this absurd conviction. A recent poll found that 59% of Brits believe that the British Empire is something to be proud of, and almost half of survey respondents felt that the former colonies “were better off” as a result of their colonisation. Particularly prevalent since the Brexiteers promise to “take our country back”, this imperial pomp has been diagnosed by academic Paul Gilroy as a symptom of “postcolonial melancholia”. Integral to this nostalgic yearning for a time when Britain “ruled the waves” as a great power are the silencing of the brutality of empire, the neglect of the hundreds of millions of people who died at the hands of its vicious regime, and an ignorance of the fact that it was eventually the rebellions of the oppressed that forced its rightful collapse.
Herein lies the crux of my argument. The persistence of such troubling public opinion is an indictment of the failure of our school system to provide even a cursory history of empire. Given the shameful atrocities detailed above, it is perhaps scarcely surprising that school children might skip from Henry VIII to the Nazis, omitting that vital period in between in which Britain ruled over the greatest empire ever known. Yet, it is in this void of inadequate education that foments a misplaced nostalgia for former glories, a subscription to the comforting myth of benign British rule, and a susceptibility to what Winston Churchill described as “its glories and all the services it rendered to mankind”. Simply, if the history of empire is not taught at school, it is too rarely learned later. In popular culture, the narrative of empire is artfully navigated. Allusions to such history concede merely superficial detail so as to avoid the disturbing reckoning with the brutality of colonialism that its accurate depiction would provoke. Thus, an unapologetic adulation of empire cajoles the uninformed into believing in a falsified version of benevolent imperialism in order to avoid confessing to the shameful realities of “scientific racism” and the systematic exploitation of a fifth of the world’s population.
It is therefore excruciating to hear this lauding of the value of the Commonwealth and the express wish to exploit its plentiful bounty, precisely because such a mentality ignores this relevant history. Brexiteers revel in citing the ambiguous “shared values” of the Commonwealth and in espousing fanciful dreams of favourable trade deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Yet, their appeal to the Commonwealth is itself the result of this resurgent imperial nostalgia, and it belies a conceited albeit abstract longing for the reinstatement of the glorious British dominance of that relationship. Brexiteers decry the injustices of immigration laws that elevate the status of EU citizens above that of those from the Commonwealth. Yet, studies into the motivations of Leave voters suggest that they would object to the influx of immigrants from Jamaica, Nigeria and Pakistan likely incurred as a result of the revival of trading relations with the Commonwealth.
The absurdity of the term “Commonwealth” is itself normalised. The very notion of “Great” Britain, and the wealth in which it basks to this day, is intimately tied to the subjugation and exploitation of these countries through empire, colonialism and slavery. The stolen profits of this tyrannical hegemony fuelled the ascension of Britain to global power status, while fomenting the devastating poverty, instability and conflict that continue to wreak havoc on many parts of the Commonwealth. In truth, nothing could be further from the truth than this myth of the creation of, and sharing in, a “common wealth”.
Perhaps we reminisce about the days of empire, and pine for Britain to be great again, because to do so avoids any uncomfortable reckoning with its terrible colonial legacy. Perhaps an education of the horrific brutality at the dark heart of empire would provide a necessary antidote to these destructive currents of post-colonial melancholia which, sadly, remain prevalent in our societies to this day. Perhaps it is only through the study of history that we may ever hope to arrest the slide of mankind towards further atrocities.