Uncover the British Empire’s dark past with four prominent historians from around the world
What is the first thing to pop into your head when you hear the phrase ‘British Empire’, and why?
Richard Toye: Oh gosh! Nostalgia, I suppose. Just thinking about the current Brexit issues being inflected by the romantic views of the lost empire.
James Walvin: The Last Night of the
Proms — it’s all that pomp and circumstance with the drums and trumpets. It’s a modern-day celebration of something from the past that has a dark side we’re not really interested in talking about, and it somehow represents a view of the British Empire that I don’t really buy into and don’t much like. The irony is that they sing ‘Britain never will be slaves’, yet when that song was written at the accession of George II [in 1727], the British were carrying tens of thousands of Africans across the Atlantic in their slave ships.
John Broich: Anyone who answers that they think of anything other than the old map with the empire coloured in pink is lying — they probably think that’s not a sophisticated enough answer. After I envision that map, it tends to get a lot messier in my mind’s eye. I see fuzzy outlines, weird illuminated strands of an uneven web connecting the world, pulses of energy moving between parts of the map.
Almost everything on the face of the world is touched by this. This is the real map of the historical empire — an almost impossibly complicated network of influences ricocheting around the planet.
Shrabani Basu: As an Indian, obviously it starts with the crushing of the mutiny and then I think of so many things that are not good: the Bengal famine, all those people who were hanged for fighting for Indian independence. It’s a long, unsavoury list, I’m afraid.
What aspect of the empire do you wish was more widely understood or acknowledged?
SB: The very fact that the empire was built on the people. It was the people who created it who should be acknowledged for everything. You walk through London and it was all made with money from the empire. You see all these grand country houses and half of them were built with fortunes from the East India Company. That’s how those merchants made their money — they owe a lot to the wealth they got from India.
But it’s not just about the money. I think what I want to see as a historian is that the role of the colonies is acknowledged in the world wars and all these little stories that people don’t know.
One and a half million people came to fight in World War I, two and a half million came in World War II. They fought in a war that wasn’t theirs
“The British don’t really talk about the dark side of the empire that much because it doesn’t look very favourable”
and the harshest battles were in Kohima, where the Indians took on the Japanese.
All of these facts need to be known from a very early stage, from school — it should be part of the education curriculum, that’s how I see it. The damage is done but at least now the people should be acknowledged.
The dialogue has always been along the lines of we gave them parliamentary democracy and railways but that is very one-sided. [The British] got money from the empire that helped to run [the] health service, the education system and everything else — the money from [India] was gone. It needs to be recognised now.
Money aside — it can be recovered, now India is recovering — I think the harshest legacy is the wounds of partition that still fester and that is lasting damage that the empire dealt.
JW: I suppose the dark side of the empire should be more widely acknowledged, in a way. The benefits are all around us, right down to the kind of statuary that you find in English civil buildings and public squares. For instance, lions are everywhere in the United Kingdom. I was walking through Hull a couple of years ago with a very eminent African historian and he looked up at these lions and asked, “Is the lion a native of East Yorkshire?”
You’d imagine that would be the case because somehow the lion sums up empire and the British. There is a dark side to the animal that seems to reflect the ruthlessness of the way the British, Europeans and Americans governed their own native citizens and their conquered people, as well as what they wanted to extract from them and their land. It is a very harsh story and while you can try to counterbalance it by saying we gave them the English language, we gave them democracy, we gave them the rule of law, even that presumes a lot.
The British don’t really talk about the dark side of the empire that much because it doesn’t look very favourable to them. People have come to [the British Empire] via their own indigenous roots. Indians have found their own story, which, understandably, looks at the British Empire in a very different light.
Equally, the peoples of the Caribbean have a story that is embedded in the slave past and the whole great swathes of Africans that came very quickly under imperial control from the 1870s onwards. All of that was done at the end of a sword or a gun with the ambition of exploiting the natural resources and the labour that went with it. So local people have come to the story later because they’ve only really woken up to the nature of history more recently.
RT: I think it would be good if there was more recognition or further attempts to bring to light those people who were the subjects of the empire. By that, I mean the ordinary people from a wide variety of different countries and with their particular experiences.
A lot of the historiography — and I include myself here — tends to focus on the views of those at the centre, so the colonial officials who were doing lots of record-keeping, and that the voices of those who experienced the empire when other people came and took over their countries and administered them are often lost.
JB: The sort of things I teach a new set of students every year: that the British Empire was not like the Galactic Empire, it was not maintained by imperial stormtroopers. Yes, the Royal Navy was an awesome power and hugely influential, but its reach was limited. Influence occurred in a million other ways.
How fundamental was slavery to the birth of the British Empire?
JW: Slavery was really one of the key elements in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The British wealth was accumulated from trade in the Atlantic, Africa and the Caribbean, and that laid the basis for all kinds of imperial strength, like the rise of the great cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. Glasgow was built on tobacco that was cultivated by Africans and the sugar coming into London and Liverpool from the Caribbean was also important.
The empire had started before slavery. What the British did was plug into a slave system in the Atlantic that the Spanish and Portuguese had managed to perfect before them. We were latecomers to empire but once we got into our stride, we became the great pacemakers. Once we got involved, slavery became instrumental to the development of us as an imperial nation.
But, of course, that all runs parallel to another empire — the one in Asia, particularly India. If you think of these two things together, the British shipping Africans to the Americas and tapping their wealth and the wealth that they are acquiring from their activities in India, you have the two streams that go to shape this extraordinary powerhouse that was Britain in the late 18th century.
JB: If there had been no slavery, there would have been no slave trade and no British Empire as we know it. Murderous slave labour operations made the transformation of the Caribbean and the American southeast into a huge sugar factory possible — it multiplied Britain’s productive land many times over.
That sugar and rum fuelled the British Empire and the resulting money further drove Britain. The slave trade and carrying trade and Royal and merchant navies funded and trained generations of British sailors.
SB: Slavery played a major role, of course. They say that the slaves were liberated but you also had indentured labour that followed. This was exactly like slavery because those [former slaves] couldn’t go back home.
You got the indentured labour to go to the [British] Caribbean islands — and a lot of Indians went there from Eastern India as well — and they worked in the sugar cane fields but they could never return home. This replaced slavery but it was exactly the same, just with a different word — and yes, it built the empire.
Conversely, how fundamental or transformative to the British Empire was the battle to end slavery?
RT: I would say that there’s often a lot of selfcongratulation among the British, particularly politicians, about Britain’s obviously important role in ending the slave trade. However, there isn’t much acknowledgement of its role in promoting it in the first place.
SB: All you hear about the abolition is William Wilberforce but abolition also happened because black people themselves fought against it and that’s a story we don’t hear. It wasn’t just the [British] giving it away. There was a lot of rioting and enough resistance so they had to give it away — that’s a story we also need to know and it’s waiting to be told.
JW: I think we need to get back to a much more old-fashioned way of thinking about slavery and the fact that it ended clean across the Americas for a lot of very complex factors. First of all, the slaves themselves constantly shook their shackles — they wanted out of this, they wanted to be free. Sometimes, that took the form of revolt or just working slowly.
But slavery came to an a end in a very short space of time partly because the Europeans lost confidence in it and in what they were doing. They were beginning to realise that slavery was morally tainted in a way that they hadn’t really thought of before.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the British thought slavery was wrong in 1833. Over 1.3 million people from all walks of life signed petitions against it and that hadn’t happened in 1733 or 1633. Something had changed.
The British people became much more influenced by nonconformity, Baptists, missionaries, aspects of Anglicanism. They also came to believe in the rights of man — it’s the age of revolution, the ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality, all of those issues that had come from the French and American revolutions, and they became blended between 1780 and 1830. It
was a 50-year period where what they saw in the Americas was deeply tainted and what gave that feeling a much sharper edge was learning about the way in which the slaves were actually being treated in the Caribbean and the Americas.
To start with, more and more people were becoming literate and there was also more cheap print available — a lot of British citizens could now read about slavery. Missionaries, fresh from Jamaica, came back to the United Kingdom to tell the stories about the violation of slaves in crowded churches and there was a building sense of a moral outrage about this.
If you think about it, ending slavery was an extraordinary transformation. What’s interesting is that not only did the British decide they didn’t want anything more to do with slavery for a whole host of complex reasons, but that they then became abolitionists in an imperial sense.
The British wanted to embark on abolition as an aspect of their imperialism and to do so they had to oblige other people to become abolitionists in the way they were. They tried to persuade the French, the Spaniards, the Portuguese and the Americans by treaty, and they tried to convince the Africans by force and diplomacy.
Everyone must accord to British abolition — the poacher of the 18th century became the gamekeeper of the 19th century and the irony is that Britain’s conversion to abolition became a key element in its determination to impose empire in other parts of the world. For instance, they had to make sure that the Africans didn’t become slavers, and to do that they had to control them. SB: We should ensure that we never discount the role played by the English liberals not just in slavery, but also in opposing colonialism. There were a lot of people who were against what was happening and they helped India. They were on the other side, assisting the freedom struggle, and I appreciate the efforts and the contributions that they made.
We also have to remember to look at things as a two-way relationship — the situation is never in black and white. We really need to make sure that we understand and give respect where it’s due.
JB: The battle to end slavery was extremely transformative to the British Empire. We just have to look to the Royal Navy’s suppression of the slave trade on the west and later east coasts of Africa to see the roots of military humanitarian intervention that we still have today.
As cynical as we tend to be, and as critically as we want to examine all British imperial history, the sacrifices of British and African (Kroomen) sailors on these stations were great and the expenditure from the British treasure very high.
“The slaves themselves constantly shook their shackles”
From the Royal African Company in the 17th century to the East India Company in the 18th to Cecil Rhodes in the 19th, the engine of the British Empire was enterprise. How responsible, then, was the British state?
JW: This wasn’t just an economic phenomenon. I mean, it was the rise of great economic systems but it was encouraged at all points by the British state. Acts of Parliament controlled this — the Navigation Acts dictated what could and couldn’t be carried in British ships. The Royal Navy developed in the 18th century and was used in the Atlantic as well as in Asia and the Indian Ocean to safeguard the interests of the British state, which was actively involved in this.
It’s not as if the British were innocent bystanders, just watching companies get on with it — they had colonial officials, armies, militia and Royal Navy depots in place. What they were doing was making sure that Britain’s economic interests were safeguarded by whatever means necessary. In the 18th century, that meant going to war, so the conflicts with the French were a battle between two great empires in India and the Atlantic for dominance that would yield economic benefits to the victor.
RT: Well, as with anything, it was a combination of factors. There were those who felt as though they had moral imperatives to civilise things that from our perspective might not look like genuine morality but were nonetheless deeply felt at the time — though how effectively that was done is a different question.
I certainly think it’s important to emphasise that the British Empire can’t just been seen as being centrally run and directed from London, where a decision was made by the men in Whitehall and then immediately implemented in the colonies or in India.
This was, of course, a time of slow communication and therefore an important principle was that things should be left to the man on the spot. However, that left a big window of opportunity for traders and businessmen to get a foothold in places where authorities may not necessarily have been wholly comfortable with what they were doing but they didn’t really see a very powerful reason — or perhaps didn’t even have the power — to stop it from happening.
JB: The responsibility was mixed. The British state had its own Crown Colonies and later the Indian Empire, for which it was directly responsible. It was authoritative, too, in that it granted monopolies or other concessions to semiprivate colonial operations. But yes, sometimes a great deal of blame for the horrors belongs to individual people — like Rhodes, an express global white supremacist.
SB: It was built entirely [on] cotton. Manchester and Lancashire were big industrial areas and they grew on the strength of the textile industry and Indian cotton coming in, but also at the expense
“It’s not simply the case that every time there was decolonisation it was accompanied by huge waves of violence”
of Indian production because the local industry was then killed.
You could write so many books on how the British destroyed the entire cotton spinning industry in India. Weavers were put out of a job, so real lasting damage that was done. RT: That’s a bit of a loaded question because the Victorian concept of civilisation may not have been entirely welcomed by the people who were on the receiving end. If you look at it simply in terms of building infrastructure, then the Victorians were certainly quite successful — whether that served any great benefit to the people who lived in the conquered countries is much more questionable, though.
I think that if you were really to take the question literally of if they succeeded, it’s basically asking to what extent did they really manage to convert the rest of the empire to the British values of the time. To that, you have to say that the decolonisation phase shows that, at the very least, the British had failed to win significant elements of those societies to their side. If the British had really adhered to what they wanted in terms of their effects on the indigenous people, the empire would presumably still be going in some form today.
JW: The empire was successful in the sense that it brought hundreds of millions of people together under one flag — the imperial British flag. You can’t look at a map of the world in 1914 and not say that the exercise wasn’t a success — the whole world seems to be pink!
In fact, that was one of my first memories of learning about the empire in primary school: looking at maps and the teacher saying, “This is ours.” Great swathes of India, the Americas
— it was ours. It included the Commonwealth countries, of course, and so if empire is successful in terms of its spread around the world and control, then the British Empire triumphed.
How you calibrate the empire’s success in terms of ‘civilising’ I don’t know because it also brutalised. It imposed certain political, educational and language systems on native peoples at the gunpoint. SB: It wasn’t — it was purely a money-making exercise. From the beginning to the end, it was all about the money. I mean, you can justify it by saying that the British were on a civilising mission, and I’m sure they believed that, but it is actually completely untrue.
JB: Violence and coercion can never be civilising. RT: I think it was a catch-22 in the sense that it’s always possible to say that decisions could have been taken better and that the bloody violence of partition could really have been averted. Could it have been minimised or made less awful? Well maybe, but you’ve got to remember that there were peaceful handovers, too. It’s not simply the case that every time there was decolonisation it was accompanied by huge waves of violence.
In the case of India, I think that it’s incredibly difficult to see how the British could have extracted themselves without that occurring. Of course, the point is that the British themselves had quite consciously stoked up the communal tensions between the different ethnic and religious groups in India as a policy of dividing and ruling over the decades. If the British had been more receptive to Indian nationalism earlier on and had been prepared to work more a little more constructively at an earlier stage, perhaps things could have turned out differently.
By the end of World War II, the British really were in a catch-22. The Labour government [of 1945-51 under Clement
Attlee] sincerely wanted to withdraw for very good, practical reasons; its hands were tied really in terms of needing to speed things up. It’s difficult to see if those tensions that were already so high could have been permanently suppressed.
JW: It is a catch-22, I think. I’m not sure that the British handled the ending of the Indian Empire well and that may be partly due to Louis Mountbatten, the governor-general of India. There was a certain kind of arrogance to the man that tainted the way he ordered withdrawal from India and partition but I’m not sure that the outcome would have been any less violent.
It looks as if what happened was a concoction of circumstances, made worse by Mountbatten and also the doggedness of Muhammad Ali Jinnah not making concessions when he needed to. Whether it had to be quite as violent as it was is difficult to say.
JB: The horror of empire is that it almost always ends the way it did in India, and if you break it, you own it. It’s not simply that the British executed their withdrawal there, or from Palestine or areas of Africa, poorly — it’s that during their rule, they created conditions that favoured such blood-letting. It was their divide-and-conquer techniques, the suppression of democratic movements, and the systematic underdevelopment of industry, education, electrification and so forth.
SB: I think [the British] were responsible. They stood back and watched the rioting and they were there. It was their responsibility to ensure a smooth transfer and to look after the situation. The police were part of the British police before this but Pakistan didn’t have a police force after the partition. While the administrators were transitioning, they had nothing over there — it’s not a situation that you can just walk away from after 200 years. The police were given instructions to look after the British and make sure they weren’t hurt in the riots. It’s completely outrageous, really.
Another example is the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the carving up of the Middle East. In your opinion, could Britain have known about the divisions that would result, or is that only capable with hindsight?
JW: Had they known what was to happen now, I doubt it would have occurred — but who could have predicted that there would be warfare from 1948? Who could have known when the Balfour Declaration was made that Hitler would do what he did to European Jews?
No one knew that the Final Solution was going to come and alter the whole game plan. Who in their right mind could even have thought that would happen? It looked a generous offer to the Zionists but it was made at the expense of others and I don’t think it was fully appreciated just how costly it would be to the Arabs.
RT: It’s not as if everybody thought that the Balfour Declaration was a brilliant idea. Edwin Montagu was secretary of state for India from 1917 to 1922 and although he was Jewish, he was strongly opposed to it because he resented the Zionist idea that Jews ought to live in a special
nation with the possible risk that they’d be seen as not being legitimate or come under attack in the countries that they’d originally been born in.
Put it this way: it wasn’t obvious to everyone that this would be unproblematic. I’m not saying Montagu foresaw the precise issues that emerged in terms of the resentment between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine and he probably couldn’t have predicted what that was going to involve, but I think it would take enormous foresight to realise that doing this could be dubious.
The British did wake up to the full difficulties of it to some extent in the 1920s and they did try to carry out a balancing act. The wording of the declaration states that “the freedom of the existing population, both economic and political” must be maintained. Of course, people were aware that there was a nonjewish population but the British should arguably have shown more foresight.
JB: No, there were plenty of people who could have told them that there was a Palestinian Arab and pan-arab nationalism extent in the area at the time of the Balfour Declaration and that they were making an implicit choice to favour the Jews. When the British and Indians drove the Ottomans out of Palestine, in other words, there were a lot of excited young dreamers envisioning a free or federated Arab nation just as there were those picturing a Jewish nation.
SB: Every problem in the world has at some point been caused by Britain. I think it’s a heavy burden that it has to accept responsibility for. JW: The English language, English legal systems in certain parts of the world and certain kinds of democracy, although they weren’t always suitable — but how you balance these achievements against the disadvantages is hard to say.
If you look at a map of
Africa with its straight lines and rectangles divided up into countries that owe no loyalty to those lines whatsoever, it’s difficult to determine if the harm that came with that, riding roughshod over tribal, ethnic divisions, is actually counterbalanced by the fact that they were taught in English and were given certain parliamentary procedures. It is a very precarious balance.
RT: I think I’m going to say none because if you start talking about positives and negatives and begin weighing things up, it’s that’s not particularly helpful for the historical understanding of what went on.
It’s problematic because you can get to a situation where it’s very tempting to go down a route where people say, “Well yes, there were quite a few massacres and there were famines and there was slavery — but on the upside we built loads of bridges and railways, and we spread the rule of law. On balance, can’t we say that the British Empire on the whole was rather a good thing?”
I think that’s a line of thought that many people find compelling, and yet I feel as though it reinforces a lot of cosy assumptions that the British may have about themselves.
What sounds like a fair approach can end up whitewashing some of the darker episodes.
What positive achievement of the British Empire — if you believe it has any — is the most significant?
“The horror of empire is that it almost always ends the way it did in India, and if you break it, you own it”
When trying to look for some light,
I suppose that one can point to the positive relations between many of the countries in the Commonwealth and perhaps there is or has been some goodwill from them.
I don’t want to go down the route of saying that the history of the British Empire was just nonstop massacres, which is over the top, but the legacy of the empire has been very problematic. But this isn’t to say that everything that has gone wrong in decolonised countries since they have left the empire necessarily has to be laid wholly at the feet of the British.
JB: I think it’s a categorical error to speak of the achievements of empire. By all means, we should study hard and regard the consequences of the British Empire, but celebrating them is not only not good history, it also threatens to mask its coercive nature.
We’re glad that the two Africa Squadrons diverted or blocked hundreds of thousands from spending their lives in slavery, for example, but there would have been no transatlantic or Indian slave trade without imperialism. All of these things can’t be disentangled.
SB: I think we just have the consequences. We have a huge Indian diaspora — is that an advantage? Who knows? Indians often had no choice — they came to Britain for jobs in the factories and these are all consequences.
We [South Asians] are all children of empire. Did we ask for it? No, but we are. Whatever has happened since then is what has happened in history. We speak English like our mother tongue and we’ve forgotten our own original language — is that a good thing? No it’s not, but it has happened and we can’t change that.
Of the British Empire’s darker legacy, what do you believe to be its single greatest shame?
JW: There are so many of them: the governance and violence in India, the ending of the empire in India, the wars in Africa to secure it, although I do think that the British getting out of Africa was much less troublesome than it could have been.
I think the Atlantic slave trade must be up there among the top of the greatest shames, though. Again, that’s not by way of apology, that’s just fact. 12 million people being shipped onto slave ships over a period of 200-300 years is a spectacular crime not merely to Africa but to the individuals involved and what happened to them in the Americas. That’s really as dark an episode as you’d care to find.
JB: Take your pick: slavery, robbery, wars of rapacity and arbitrary horrors like the Victorian famine responses in India. The list goes on.
RT: Well, I think that slavery would probably have to be the obvious one.
SB: It’s the exploitation of people for material gains to the extent that you hang anyone who opposes it. You kill them, you destroy their country — what could be worse than that?
Redcoats cross the Modder River during the Boer War, 1899
The empire celebrated its greatness at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851 Edward Colston was a slave trader who became a member of parliament
An illustration from 1902 showing Britannia fighting against barbarism
Emblem of the British Antii-slavery Society in 1795
Illustrations of plantation life that accompanied Amelia Opie’s 1826 anti-slavery poem The Black Man’s Lament
John Hawkins was the first English trader to profit from the Triangle Trade
An Indian maid serves in the house of a British MP, George Clive, in 1765
Emergency trains crowded with desperate refugees during the Partition of India
The future King Edward VII visits India in 1876