I’m not sure why, but it seems in the British media recently self-flagellation because of Britain’s colonial past, and paltry atonement for its once earth-straddling empire, are at a fever pitch.
Reports noting that 43% of Britons thought Britain’s Imperial roots are a “good thing” were branded in headlines followed by critical think pieces listing the atrocities committed by our forefathers, and urging us to, just at the very least, feel a tad ashamed as we sip our tea.
The tone is insidious. One that evokes angered, judgmental eyes and an aggressive, exasperated “phhhah!” before it asks “how dare you?! How dare you walk in British streets as a British person and not feel ashamed for the oppression and exploitation your countrymen wrought upon colonials all those years ago?! How dare you? THINK ABOUT IT ALL THE FUCKING TIME YOU WORTHLESS PIECE OF SHIT!”
Now, I’m not going to try and argue that abominable acts weren’t carried out by mustachioed, explorer-hatted, pip-pipping gentlemen who liked to carry canes and wear trousers that puff out at the thighs, all in the name of the British Empire. They most certainly were. Concentration camps in Boer at the turn of the century in which nearly 30,000 Boers died, the massacre in Amritsar in 1919 in which 1,000 Indians were killed by British soldiers, and the Mau Mau concentration camps in the ’50s in which at least 20,000 Kenyans died are all a testament to this.
Neither am I going to argue that the Empire was good for the lands it colonised and the people over whom it ruled. Although, one cannot deny that the British Empire vastly improved and sometimes even built from scratch the infrastructures of many of the countries it ruled over, it imported medicines and modern science, and it provided a blueprint to countries like India and the US for their democracies.
No, rather, I’ll only say this: for all the bad that happened, and the wealth of good, it is irrelevant, for if we hadn’t done it – any of it – someone else would have.
If it hadn’t been the British empire, it would have been another one. Because that was the age of Empires, the age of competition and world domination, and it was either win or lose.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not living in some swirling UKIPian dream, pining for Empire, masturbating over the Queen and plotting my revenge on the yanks. It would be far better had humans realised immediately, rather than slowly as we are now doing, that we are all equal and better off working together and that fairness and the success of each individual leads to the betterment of the whole.
But we have to realise we inhabit the world we inhabit, and history happened as it happened, not as we wish it did. And the age of Empires happened, and Britain won, and a great many countries lost. Britain didn’t invent the idea of the Empire, it didn’t commence conquest and plundering and colonisation; but I suppose, in the simplest of senses, it realised that that was the game, and that to win it had to play.
I therefore will not feel ashamed for my country’s Imperial legacy.
In fact, I am glad it happened.
And if you live in Britain and enjoy a good quality of life, access to vast opportunity, the fruits of London being the most competitive financial centre in the world and Britain being the sixth best country in the world to do business, the protection and access granted you by your passport – the most powerful passport in the world, the fact that everyone everywhere in the world speaks your language and you needn’t learn their’s, the international clout of your qualifications taken as they were at great British educational institutions, and the great diversity in this country – to name but a few advantages of being British – then you, my friend, are glad the Empire happened as well.
Because make no mistake; you would have none of that had your forefathers not conquered and plundered the world.
There is no superiority in outrage, only in intelligence and intellectual honesty. We must be honest with ourselves, and we can be satisfied with neither celebrating, nor constantly chiding ourselves for the Empire. Though we need, of course, to make reparations where they are due – so long, of course, as those reparations don’t adversely affect us. Indeed one may argue that our foreign aid budget – nearly £12,000,000,000 – and the fact that we were the first G7 country to ring fence 0.7% of our gross national income for foreign aid, goes someway towards reparations. For otherwise we owe nothing to other countries. We are using our prosperity, prosperity that it is no small part a hangover of the Empire, to benefit other countries.
One flash point for Imperial regret and the scorn of the perpetually pissed-off is the statue of Rhodes at Oxford University. Rhodes was by all accounts a bastard – he obtained mining concessions in South Africa for the British government and seized control of, what he named – in the pattern of all great tyrants – Rhodesia; thereafter he stole land from the black population and effectively disenfranchised them.
A young, highly intelligent boy called Ntokozo Qwabe has decided to aim his intelligence toward taking up the flag of a meaningless cause in trying to get the statue of Rhodes felled. Because like an atheist who constantly seeks religious debate, he wants an easy target, I suppose.
To accusations of hypocrisy on his part through being at Oxford in the first place thanks to the scholarship set up in Rhodes’ name, he has responded that “I’m no beneficiary of Rhodes, I’m a beneficiary of the resources and labor of my people which Rhodes pillaged and slaved.” And I would be inclined to agree with that line of thinking; that he is merely accepting reparations in the form of opportunity denied his relatives because of the Empire.
However, while that is fair and right and must be our aim as a country that has benefited from the sufferance of other countries, erasing our history at the behest of a vocal minority is unjustified.
One strain of argument may be that if you don’t like Oxford’s colonial roots, don’t go there. Of course, one may well opine in response that that is reductive, childish reasoning. People should have the freedom to be educated wherever they want, dependent on their merit and their work ethic, and should not be put off by what they deem to be exclusionary symbolism. But then, one must ask the question, why do you want to be educated at Oxford? Because, of course, it is one of the best universities in the world, with a global reputation. And how did it get to be that? Why, of course, through the fruits of the Empire, through things such as the money bequeathed by Cecil Rhodes.
Either you want to reap the benefits of this great country, attributable as they are to our dark Imperial past, or you want to overturn everything, to destroy everything you see as a vestige of the Empire – in the interests of intellectual consistency, of course. In which case, the whole of Britain must burn. Because, I’m afraid, you cannot have those benefits and not acknowledge where they came from.
The rampant and blinkered hyper-morality of the #RhodesMustFall crew was best exemplified in their reaction to the reason for Oriel College deciding not to take the statue down. Through reports leaked by the Telegraph, it came to light that if they were to, they would lose more than £100,000,000. To this the campaigners charged the University with ‘selling out’. For which there is but one reasonable response. Are you fucking stupid? Do they think that education is free? That world class lecturers and expertly written text books and wonderful, ornate libraries are free?
This need to try to constantly censor the parts of history that are undesirable because certain groups feel they were robbed of something as a result of it, is one that can never be satisfied. It is an endless spiral, an ouroboros. Because to condemn the Empire so fervently assumes that things would have turned out differently had it not happened, it is to act retrospectively to right a perceived wrong, to ‘correct’ our timeline’s trajectory, or indeed try to recreate a parallel timeline that was never allowed to come to fruition; it is to second guess chaos theory.
The need is for more information, not less of it. Teach the Empire’s holocausts in school, shout them from the rooftops. But stop trying to cover up the bits of its legacy you don’t like.
Be glad the Empire happened, because it allowed us to learn our lessons and to begin to develop into a better humanity. Humans have a penchant for learning lessons the hard way. We didn’t decide nuclear weapons were a bad thing without first using them, that slavery was awful without first giving it a go or that Jedward need culling without first letting them sing.
The Empire happened, and spending all your time on trying to fell Rhodes or inspire guilt in it won’t bring about renewable energy reliance or stop needless wars in the Middle East or tackle real and contemporary systemic and institutionalised racism and sexism.