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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Britain had an Empire?

Dissidentvoice.org - http://dissidentvoice.org/2015/08/britain-had-an-empire/

An online video of Indian MP Shashi Tharoor arguing that Britain should pay India reparations for its colonial legacy has gone viral. It prompted much enthusiasm in the Indian press and parliament, as well as responses in the British press arguing both for and against Tharoor’s proposal. Interestingly, it also prompted a short article in the Guardian newspaper, ‘How much did you really learn about the British empire in school?
The article did not really answer the title’s question, even though the answer is ‘bugger all’.
It is quite extraordinary that British school children learn essentially nothing about an empire upon which ‘the sun never set’, which invaded every country on the planet bar 22 countries, spawned the world’s superpower, the United States, and that drew up the borders to so many countries with long-lasting negative results – Pakistan/India (Kashmir conflict), Sykes-Picot (divided up the Middle East), Nigeria, South Africa, and so on.
I had a British education in the 1980s and 1990s. In history lessons we touched on ancient Egypt, the Romans, the Vikings, then flash forwarded to Agincourt, Tudor England, the Industrial Revolution, the two World Wars, and some Cold War history. Colonialism was barely mentioned, or de-colonisation. Students had no idea about the true scale and the long history of the British empire. Then at university, where I studied international history and international politics, I encountered next to nothing about British colonialism; one course was on de-colonisation in Africa, but that was a class only history students took. In fact, I learned more about the British empire from the Flashman novels than I did at school or university – through George McDonald Fraser’s witty novels I read for the first time about the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-6), the Indian War of Independence (or Mutiny as the Brits call it in 1857), the British and French invasion of China (the Second Opium War, 1856-1860), the invasion of Abyssinia (1868), and the White Rajah of Sarawak.
While Fraser had no real truck with imperialism, his extensive footnotes allowed you to read between the lines, and importantly learn something about what perfidious Albion was up to in the nineteenth century.
The Flashman novels aside, there are few other popular novels about the British empire (although J.G. Farrell’s excellent Empire Trilogy comes to mind), or films for that matter, certainly with a critical perspective produced over the past few decades. It is as if there is a collective amnesia about Britain’s imperial past. The one place you do encounter it is at the Imperial War Museum in London, but that is very much a hagiographic experience, not touching on the dark side of colonialism.
This amnesia extends to political studies too. Despite studying international relations at university, British foreign policy – old and contemporary – was not taught. An internet search showed that only one British university covers British foreign policy, as if Britain was not at all an actor on the world stage, not a part of the G8 or the UN Security Council, and was practising isolationism, when we know that is far from being the case. This is also extraordinary. There were – and still are – plenty of research papers and essays written about US foreign policy – invariably bashing it – but the same does not apply to British foreign policy; Europe yes, but not about what is coming out of Westminster and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Indeed, the FCO’s title says it all really, which should mean students, academics and journalists should be devoting as much, if not more, attention to its activities than Washington’s.
In conversation with Mark Curtis shortly after he published “Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses”, in which he states Britain bears “significant responsibility” since 1945 for the direct or indirect deaths of 8.6 million to 13.5 million people throughout the world, I asked him how many people were going through declassified British documents. He answered just one other research he knew of, Caroline Elkins, for her book “Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya”.
No academics or investigative journalists? He answered in the negative. That may, one hopes, have changed since 2005. But the title to George Monbiot’s article in 2012 discussing Elkins’ book still holds true, ‘Deny the British empire’s crimes? No, we ignore them’.
To have discovered about Britain’s past – varnished and unvarnished – has been a long term endeavour, from one’s own volition. Travel has also helped to discover the true extent of Britain’s empire and its legacy. The fact that all plug sockets in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are British speaks volumes. Unless I had been there and read about the Gulf, I would never have known that the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain all got their independence from Britain in 1971, and Kuwait in 1961. Or known that Cyprus got independence in 1960 – despite the ongoing presence of British Sovereign Base Areas – Uganda in 1962 and Tanzania in 1963. Hong Kong in 1997.
None of these ‘handbacks’ are very old, at all, yet few Brits below a certain age would know, and I would bet the vast majority of schoolchildren as well as university students today wouldn’t know either. Students wouldn’t be able to point on the map the countries that were British colonies. India perhaps. But would they know about the rest of Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean? Perhaps from the Commonwealth Games the public would have an idea, but the history of how Britain ‘acquired’ its colonies would be missing.
Tharoor’s suggestion that Britain should pay India reparations, even a token £1 ($1.54) a year as a form of apology for 200 years of occupation, should be strongly considered. Teaching children about the British empire should also be a major component of the curriculum. It is, quite simply, ridiculous that such a broad sway of history is not touched upon, especially a history that has had such a profound effect on the modern world.

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