The Coronavirus lockdown canopied a decade-defining race relations crisis when news of George Floyd’s murder broke across the Western world. Initially obliged to ruminate at home, many expressed their outrage for perceived racial disparities on social media and reiterated their contempt for crimes committed by countries centuries ago.
In Britain, the expanding clamour for a re-estimation of our self-regard led to a concerted call for more education on our imperial past and a deeper insight into its connections with slavery. There is no doubt that we should improve the way we teach history and think about what kind of history we ought to teach, but a strange paradox was repeatedly posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook of: “I don’t know enough about the British Empire and we all need to know how evil it was.” Well, if you concede ignorance on a subject, you can’t then make a value-judgement about it. It’s like a food critic exclaiming ‘this dish looks disgusting!’ before suddenly leaving to write a piece about how poor the culinary skills of a famous chef are. Many people have come to a conclusion about the Empire without delving into its context, causes and considerations. This benighted brood are the loudest with regards to this topic and unfortunately their commentaries belie the complex social origins and developments that constitute British Imperial history. Considerable accomplishments were achieved and horrific crimes were carried out, but all should be accounted for so as to supply us with a full picture of what actually transpired.
The story of the British Empire is axiomatically complicated. It controlled approximately a quarter of the world’s population and land mass. It spanned several centuries and endured the unprecedented evolutions of war, science, finance, and politics. This necessitated the involvement of an array of administrators with hugely divergent outlooks who were employed to deal with distinct issues. Not since Rome had a single force exerted so much cultural and economic influence abroad. It determined the fates of millions of lives from almost every major ethnic group and faith and held dominion over the most varied and vast territory ever conquered. In its day it was the biggest exporter of democracy, of the rule of law, of habeas corpus, of agricultural and medicinal technology, of the education of women, of judicial systems and of government infrastructures ever. It established the foundations on which globalism functions, transmitted a single language across the world, diminished the gap between distant nations, cultivated successful trade routes and economic processes and exposed humanity to a new standard of prosperity. It prohibited customs of violence, rape and murder, curated conditions for a persistent peace, pioneered the abolition of slavery and created a global middle class who were more industrially capable than their immediate ancestors.
Debates over the motives for British empire-building resemble disagreements about the appeal of the crusades to European knights in the 11th and 12th century. For decades some senior historians ascribed the zeal and will of Frankish campaigns in Palestine purely to a desire for wealth and power. Examples of unchivalrous knights are numerous and the behaviour of many serious figures at the court of Jerusalem can seemingly be explained by a supposed pursuit of profit. But the lavish titles and lands the first crusaders abandoned in Europe undermines these accusations and the religious and moral incentives expatiated in contemporary chronicles have become a more popular explanation for that extraordinary exodus and resettlement of people. It appears to have been a lethal blend of both and the same mixture of idealism and exploitation seems to have also incentivised advocates of British imperial policy in the 18th and 19th century. The crude caricatures of sexually repressed, moustachioed sadists sailing around the world to collect treasures and desecrate cultures offers a false and flimsy exposition of imperial events. Charles Gordon of Khartoum fits that stuffy Victorian image comfortably, but he tirelessly attempted to end the Sudanese slave trade in the 1870s by regularly putting himself in harm’s way, understanding full well that he himself might die trying. He is seldom remembered for these efforts.
This is not to say that the empathetic actions of certain imperial agents should eclipse atrocities exacted by the same regime. It is now well-noted that decisions done in the Empire’s name led to the irreparable damage of many different communities across the world. Instances like the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, the creation and use of concentration camps during the Boer War, its enrichment via the slave trade throughout the 1700s, the controversial partition of India in 1947, Britain’s duplicity in the Middle East after WWI, its contributions to the Bengali famine of 1943 and the Irish potato famine of 1845, all of which must never be forgotten or misunderstood. Millions of people died unnecessarily due to poor administrative choices or malicious regulations. The cost of an ostensibly upgraded culture shouldn’t mean the loss of innocent life. It is too lamentable a price to pay. But that is what eventuated and so that is what must be appraised. To truly know how our era came about, we should acknowledge the cures for international woes the Empire discovered whilst appreciating the incomparable pain the Empire inflicted.
Its investment of money, policy, morality and time into a quarter of the globe’s population resulted in returns which the world is still reckoning. An action can only be adequately appraised once its consequences have come to an end. Until then we cannot determine whether an occurrence was inherently good or bad. We can only make transitory judgements, but for the sake of veracity and fairness, we can change the way in which we make those transitory judgements.
When we study the Roman and Alexandrian empires, we don’t emerge with a particular love or disdain for either entity. Rome civilised the provinces it occupied, cemented a sense of citizenship and planted the seeds for the culture which accommodates our time. Its most famous champion, Julius Caesar, also committed genocide in the Gallic Wars. Alexander the Great hellenised huge lagging swathes of Asia, paved a trading route from Athens to Afghanistan, but also slaughtered the entire population of Thebes. Such behaviour would warrant a cross-examination in today’s Hague, but we seldom grudge ancient tyrants their misdemeanours so long as they imparted something positive which presently persists. We don’t really feel anything for them other than awe. What we do gain when studying them is an understanding of how they contributed to the development of the world and what our world owes to their actions. This is the desirable approach to studying history.
It is more likely that an increased understanding of the Empire will result in wide-spread ambivalence rather than outright revulsion. Its significance should provoke a healthy kind of intellectual dissonance by diminishing the current critical trend of ethical and ideological absolutism. We should be impressed by its feats and repulsed by its failures, and feel fascinated by, but unsentimental about, the triumphs and transgressions of its leaders.
As people seek convenient examples to substantiate their preconceived assertions, the absurdity of not knowing but judging can warp the core lessons an examination of history ought to uncover: the endless variety of human life and the mysterious recurrences that render us one. Hasty assessments of the past and crude reductions of difficult debates help nothing at all. If these calls for a better understanding of history are sincere, then the arch-advocates should emerge less enraged and more cautious. Lenin said; “events are always very confused and complicated. They can be compared with a chain. To hold the whole chain, you must grasp the main link. Not a link chosen at random.” We often find that what attracted us to a particular area of history is not the explanatory attribute we believed it to be. No one should possess a prejudice before having made a dispassionate evaluation of everything relevant to the concern. The word ‘history’ itself is a derivative of the Ancient Greek ‘historia’ which means ‘inquiry’. Only when we come to the end of an inquiry should we comment. Until then, silence is safer, if accuracy is your aim.