Un­cover the Bri­tish Em­pire’s dark past with four prom­i­nent his­to­ri­ans from around the world

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Harry Cun­ning­ham

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

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