Learning to live in harmony with the legacies of Empire. Different experiences in Great Britain and Ireland

In the culture wars over shifting national identities it’s striking how nationalist Ireland is further along the road to reconciliation with its troubled past than a UK has reached in its troubled present. That is a journey that feels as if it has barely begun. Perhaps all that righteous victimhood has become easier to cope than all that tortured guilt.

 BLM –  Gladstone and Churchill off their pedestals   

The focus is turned on the role of Empire and in particular slavery, by the British version of Black Lives Matter. Moving on from supporting characters like Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colson, Britain’s greatest wartime and peace time prime ministers are in the crosshairs.

Professor Kehinde Andrews, author of The Psychosis of Whiteness, said Churchill was: “The perfect embodiment of white supremacy” “The British Empire far worse than the Nazis and lasted far longer… That’s just a fact.  But if you state something like that it’s like heresy.”

Mr Gladstone is written about by people who know little about him beyond the undoubted fact that  his father was a slave  owner  like  most who traded in the West Indies  before slavery as abolished in 1833, 30 years before  the US in civil war. The young William argued for the compensation generally awarded to prevent economies from collapsing.

Like the pre- 1863 Abraham Lincoln he was far from an uncomplicated abolitionist , arguing that  physical emancipation should be preceded by moral emancipation through the adoption of a universal system of Christian education and the inculcation of ‘honest and industrious habits’. Then ‘with the utmost speed that prudence will permit, we shall arrive at that exceedingly desired consummation, the utter extinction of slavery

In 19th century terms Gladstone as PM believed in the civilising mission, a  term and a concept scorned today. He  was the great reformer over free trade, education, extending the vote, and a critic of jingoism. He compared Irish landlords to slave owners. He did not support Liberal idealists who called for the expansion of empire for the sake of suppressing slavery. He ended his life continuing his long campaign against the Turkish oppression of Europeans in their waning empire.

Gladstone’s long career spanned Victoria’s reign.   White racial superiority was a given and  moral – that is Christian –  worth was bound up in it. Slavery was an admitted social wrong to be dispensed with as soon as possible, the equivalent of the struggle between class equality and the incentives of a capitalist economy today.   However great the effort required, they cannot be judged on equal terms today.

What’s worrying is that the authorities in universities and other public institutions are failing to mount reasoned defences for the continuing memorialisation of at least some  major historic figures who are tumbling like ninepins.  They treat their students as angry customers who are always right rather the in statu pupillari of the old unlamented relationship.. Just as worrying is that the cause of “retain and explain” is being taken up by Johnson’s government. This is likely to polarise a complex controversy along party lines.

Empire’s essential character, massacre and slavery   

So we come to the record of Empire where there has been a steady stream of reappraisal. One of the latest is Sathnam Sanghera’s  Empireland

In the endless catalogue of British imperial atrocities, the unprovoked invasion of Tibet in 1903 was a minor but fairly typical episode. Tibetans, explained the expedition’s cultural expert, were savages, “more like hideous gnomes than human beings”. Thousands of them were massacred defending their homeland, “knocked over like skittles” by the invaders’ state-of-the-art machine guns. “I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire,” wrote a British lieutenant, “though the General’s order was to make as big a bag as possible.” As big a bag as possible – killing inferior people was a kind of blood sport. 

The empire, he argues, still shapes British society – its delusions of exceptionalism, its immense private and public wealth, the fabric of its cities, the dominance of the City of London, even the entitled and drunken behaviour of British expats and holidaymakers abroad. Yet the British choose not to see this: wilful amnesia about the darker sides of imperialism may be its most pernicious legacy.

Among other things, it allows the British to deny their modern, multicultural identity.

n the early 19th century, three major insurrections – in Barbados in 1816, British Guyana in 1823, and Jamaica in 1831-32 – helped force the hands of the British. Abolition was partly an attempt to prevent black people from emancipating themselves and capturing valuable British territories by force – as the rebel slaves of France’s main colony had done when they established the free republic of Haiti in 1804… What’s more, ending slavery didn’t stop the gigantic system of trade and exploitation it had spawned. On the contrary, it was meant to enhance it. The British government paid out colossal sums to compensate slaveowners – but nothing to enslaved people themselves. Instead, the law abolishing slavery forced them to continue to labour for years on their existing plantations, as unpaid “apprentices”.

 The Empire fights back

Atrocity has no defence, nor should it be allowed to hide in the darker recesses of history.  Yet for Empire itself the historian of England and France Robert Toombs provides a contextual defence worth reading in full.

Why the Empire has again become an issue seems clear. Brexit, and the frequent Remainer jibe that it was motivated by ‘imperial nostalgia’, is one element…. Moreover, it is a convenient way of combining various ‘intersectional’ grievances and nourishing a sense of victimhood. In short, this is not really a debate about history.. This is politics masquerading as history..

The Empire was not a massive power structure. As one official put it in the 1920s, it was ‘a brontosaurus with huge vulnerable limbs which the central nervous system had little capacity to protect, direct or control.’ Under Queen Victoria the Indian Civil Service numbered only 2,000, and Uganda had just 25 British officials. It only functioned because most of its subject peoples were willing, and sometimes eager, to acquiesce in a system that offered (though could not always deliver) peace, order and access to trade.

The great imperial cities – Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Cape Town and so on – were built by the economic dynamism of their citizens, not by imperial fiat. The Empire was a joint creation of rulers and ruled, which gave it unusual legitimacy in the eyes of its subjects, millions of whom fought for it.

Perhaps the most emotive concerns slavery. During the 18th century, the peak of the huge and lucrative Atlantic slave trade, British merchants bought slaves from African rulers – on average, 120 people every day by the 1780s – and sold them primarily to French, Portuguese-Brazilian and British planters. Was this the source of Britain’s wealth, and the fuel of the Industrial Revolution? Profit from the slave trade made individuals rich, but accounted for about one per cent of national income. The Industrial Revolution’s key element was coal, of which Britain had a lot.

Where the British Empire’s relationship with slavery was unique was in combatting it. Britain abolished its own slave trade in 1807. In 1834 it abolished slavery throughout the Empire. British subjects were forbidden to own slaves anywhere in the world. 

.What of India, ‘the jewel in the Crown’ (no jewel, said Disraeli, was so costly)? Was it permanently impoverished by imperial exploitation?

By 1900 India had the fourth largest textile industry in the world, after Britain, the USA and Russia. It also had the fourth largest railway system in the world (paid for by Indians but with British technical direction and aided by cheap British capital) with three-quarters of Asia’s total track – 35 times more than independent China.

And Africa? The Colonial Development and Welfare Act (passed during the dark days of 1940) founded ‘welfare colonialism’ – the conscious equivalent of the ‘welfare state’ under the  post-war Labour government, with new money for education, infrastructure and health and veterinary services, leading to a rise in female literacy and agricultural improvement

today’s aid budgets would do well to equal. But that history has been effaced.

 One can blame everything on the Empire as long as one forgets everything else. There was indeed violence, harshness and disastrous error, recorded in British official documents which, notes one historian, give more detail of policy failings than one would get from United Nations reports today – or from the independent governments of some former colonies. But for many violent and disturbed parts of the globe, the British Empire managed to stop endemic warfare, bring relative peace and order, and in some regions create substantial economic development. Would the world have been better or worse without the Empire? Who can say?

Britain today is affected by its imperial history, perhaps most obviously because many of us are ‘children of Empire’, the descendants of families from former colonies, some of whom moved round the Empire in search of opportunity. I remember after speaking at a school being approached by a sixth former of East-African Asian descent who told me she did not feel that her family fitted into British history. But, as I said to her, they are part of that history: she and her family saga embody one of its great themes.

We should not accept the caricature which portrays us as living shamefully amid the ruins of a decadent evil empire. It seeks to demoralise and divide us, and displays a haughty contempt for the lives of those thus misrepresented.

White racial superiority was a norm until well into the 20th century.  There are excellent reasons for exposing it in action for the very different country of today. But the rough edges of   corrections should not cut away complexity nor assume that the ills of today’s society lie exclusively in a long unbroken narrative of racial oppression.

 The Empire and Ireland   

What of Ireland  in the decade of commemoration?   President Michael  D Higgins is leading a review.

As president of Ireland, I have been engaging with our citizens in an exercise of ethical remembering of this period… his journey of ethical remembering has allowed us to examine the nature of commemoration itself and how it might unburden us of history’s capacity to create obstacles to a better, shared future.

It is vital to understand the nature of the British imperialist mindset of that time if we are to understand the history of coexisting support for, active resistance to, and, for most, a resigned acceptance of British rule in Ireland. While our nations have been utterly transformed over the past century, I suggest that there are important benefits for all on these islands of engaging with the shadows cast by our shared past.

From the perspective of the British imperialist mind of its time, attitudes to the Irish for example, were never, and could never be, about a people who were equal, had a different culture, or could be trusted in a civilised discourse of equals. From the perspective of the Irish, who had their own ancient language, social and legal systems and a rich monastic contribution to the world, this view had to be resisted.

At its core, imperialism involves the making of a number of claims that are invoked to justify its assumptions and practices – including its inherent violence. One of those claims is the assumption of superiority of culture and it is always present in the imperialising project. Forcing an acceptance on those subjugated of the inferiority of their culture as a dominated Other is the reverse side of the coin.

Injustices perpetrated in the name of imperialism, and in resistance to it, often had a brutalising effect, leaving a bitter residue of pain and resentment, sometimes passed down through generations and left available to those willing to reignite inherited grievances.

What our current reflection consists of, I suggest, is not the offering of a set of competing rationalisations for different kinds of violence. Instead it is about understanding the contexts in which they occurred.

The rewards for this will come in the form in restoring the connection between moral instinct and public policy. That is an authenticity for which so many of our citizens, on this shared, vulnerable planet, yearn.

Professor Jane Ohlmeyer of TCD has begin a major exploration of Ireland and Empire.     Like  Prof Robert Tombs, she starts in Brexit territory, but in her case to deliver a sharp rap to Boris Johnson.

In July 2019 Boris Johnson asked why Leo Varadkar isn’t “called Murphy like all the rest of them”. This ethnocentricity has a long history in an Ireland that for centuries was a laboratory for empire, where racist ideologies were formulated and then exported around the rest of the British empire.

Over these centuries, Ireland also served as laboratory both for imperial rule and for resistance to that rule.. Until recently few fully appreciated the significance of Ireland’s imperial past but this is changing and there is a growing awareness of the importance of discussion and debate. The fact that the great Irish philosopher George Berkeley owned slaves on his plantation in Rhode Island in the 1720s made national headlines over the summer, as did the revelation that John Mitchel, a revered 19th-century Irish patriot, supported slavery. Our imperial legacy is complex. The great 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke was a vocal critic of the East India Company and compared Ireland and India on the basis that they were “similarly victimised”

Today in Ireland some celebrate and some excoriate connections with the British Empire. Others have either conveniently forgotten or are simply ignorant of Ireland’s imperial past. However, the decade of commemorations (2012-2022) and the rise of English nationalism has kindled a greater awareness of the importance of revisiting the history of empire, if only to better understand its legacy and how it has formed the present. How we, as a proud nation of Murphys and Varadkars, can best engage with our nearest neighbour in the post-Brexit world.     

Jane Ohlmeyer’s Ford Lectures on Agents of Empire are quite brilliant and highly recommended.

Yet another legacy to cope with..       

Jane and the socialist that is Michael D may be committed reconcilers but they reveal no doubts that British rule was oppressive in nature  to the end. No suggestion here that the carapace of British rule was very thin indeed by the early 1900s and the incentives to remain with the UK in the form of Home Rule – farm grants, old age pensions and national   insurance  –  were on the way  to such a degree that  militant nationalists feared they‘d better strike soon or lose their chance of freedom forever. And for Unionists today?  Irish reconciliation has yet to reveal its hand. So far it straddles the ground between acceptance of the status quo and benign unification. The contrast is mortifying between Irish self confidence with just a touch of complacency, and British confusion over its future.   A jaundiced unionist Brexiteer might ask : who are the imperialists now?

Contemplating national traditions is like how we think of parents.  Even in bad relationships, we try to think well of them for the sake of our own healthy development. Remove that instinct and we are left with our own confusion.

I end not with the Philip Larkin’s famous view of parents but with the last verse of a little poem  he wrote about the UK’s withdrawal  from  east of Suez in the late 1960s. Like  so much that happened to him, it left a certain emptiness. Compare and contrast for contemporary relevance.

From Homage to a Government

Next year we shall be living in a country

That brought it soldiers home for lack of money

The statues will be standing in the same

Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same

Our children will not know it’s a different country

All we can hope to leave them now is money.         

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