Time to Throw out the Balance Sheet

This essay was originally published in the Snapshots of Empire project blog. It is reposted here with the permission of the author.

by Alan Lester

A bit of a departure from our standard project blog, this essay responds to the latest rehashing of the British Empire in the media (The Rhodes statue debate and a YouGov poll have both made the British Empire topical again). The Independent has called for the empire to be taught ‘warts and all’ so that the 44% of Britons who are proud of it have a little more to think about.

This is no bad thing, but the problem comes when we identify the ‘warts’. When the public are invited to consider imperial legacies, it is always in the form of pros and cons. The gifts that Britain gave the world versus the violence and destruction that came along with them. It is time to stop thinking about the empire in these terms. And it’s not enough to call for schools to teach about the empire’s bad bits as well as the good that it did, because it leads only to the same balance sheet approach. It’s the entire assumption that a balance sheet is meaningful that we need to throw out once and for all.

Why? Because the approach always makes ‘benefits’ that worked very unevenly seem universal, while it reduces ‘costs’ to specific episodes rather than systematic features of imperial rule. The good was always structural, the bad always specific. Let’s take the ‘costs’ first.

Whenever we speak of the ‘bad’ side of empire, we want a list of atrocities. The events and episodes that were patently evil. The slave trade, the Indian famines, incidents of aggression like the Amritsar Massacre, the Boer War concentration camps and the suppression of Mau Mau. We’re told the British sometimes did some pretty nasty things. But the yardstick that most people use for atrocity is the Holocaust, followed perhaps by more recent genocides. It’s pretty clear that what the British did in their empire pales by comparison. Given that we’re talking about a 400 year period and much of the world, a few episodes of violence are only to be expected.

In any case, the British often put right what they had done wrong, as with slavery, the most systematic ‘wrong’, didn’t they? And sometimes they weren’t really to blame at all. If they made the Indian famines worse, they didn’t actually cause them. The debit side of the balance sheet always appears a little light in comparison with the regimes in world history that we know were evil.

Contrast that with the credit side. Here we are not talking about random acts of violence here and there, but rather systematic, enduring things. Railways, education systems, the rule of law, the English language, free trade and democracy. All forces of modernity, all benefiting the ruled as well as the rulers, all laying the foundations for our current global prosperity. Surely any sensible person would weigh these far more heavily than the odd episode of repression and exploitation? And don’t many Indians say that their country was better off under the Raj because of such things?

Well yes, many people, white and black, in Britain and the colonies, became much better off as a result of these British investments. Let’s look at each in turn. With railways male entrepreneurs from all communities and settlers growing produce on what had been Indigenous peoples’ land were able to access ports to supply consumers in Britain and elsewhere. Colonial governments were able to put down resistance easier. But black people generally weren’t allowed to travel on the railways on the same terms as white people. Gandhi’s political awakening came when he was thrown out of a whites only carriage on a South African railway. Indigenous farmers and Indian peasants were generally denied access altogether and women were often barred from travelling.

Government-run education systems varied hugely in time and place but were generally not extended to ‘natives’. Their education was left to mission societies able to reach only a tiny proportion of them, mostly boys. The Indian Residential Schools of Canada and many of the institutions into which Aboriginal and so-called ‘half caste’ children were forced in Australia were notoriously neglectful and abusive in their attempts to forcibly assimilate Indigenous peoples. One of the first things that some Indigenous elites did with their education was challenge white peoples’ entitlement to rule their countries.

The new ‘rule of law’ generally worked in favour of white settlers, elites and men. Even where explicitly racist legislation was avoided, proxies for race such as English language tests were used. These either imposed different standards on ‘native’ populations or kept Asian people out of settler colonies unless their labour was required. The wider adoption of English certainly facilitated more global conversations and business transactions among male elites. But it only served to heighten the exclusion of most, non-English speaking subjects and women from access to the credit and political capital that flowed through Anglophone global networks.

Much the same could be said of free trade. It benefited companies like Jardine Matheson (now a top 200 trans-national company registered in Bermuda for some reason), its stockholders in Britain and its Indian and Chinese trading partners. But one look at the purposes to which free trade could be put reminds us that the benefits were not universal. When British companies kicked up the biggest fuss about defending the principle of free trade in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t so that the restrictive practices of some oriental despot could be challenged, or so that slavery could be replaced by ‘legitimate commerce’ in Africa.

It was because Jardine Matheson and others wanted to defend the right to sell smuggled opium to Chinese addicts, at a time when the Chinese authorities were trying to ban the trade. An argument in favour of free trade that Columbian and Afghan drug smugglers might struggle to try on today was used by the East India Company and its allies to punish the Qing empire with the loss of Hong Kong and that start of China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’.

Finally, democracy: not actually a concept with which British elites were comfortable, or with which colonised peoples were familiar throughout most of the era of Britain’s imperial rule. Rather, this was something hard won, both by the working classes and women at home and by colonised peoples in the empire, largely once the British had left. Even where there were non-racial franchises, such as in the Cape Colony from the mid-nineteenth century, black participation in the vote was deliberately limited by a property qualification (Rhodes’ own Glen Grey Act was designed so as to limit Africans’ vote). In the largest democracy in the world –India – there was no universal suffrage until 1950, after independence from Britain. Women’s participation in democracy came first in the British colony of New Zealand, but partly so that white female voters could act as a racial counterweight to limited Maori inclusion.

So where does all this leave us with our balance sheets? It doesn’t mean that we simply have to shift the scales so as to weigh the two columns more evenly, or even to tip them decisively in favour of the debit column. Although, it would be a good thing to recognise that ‘structural’ benefits were actually quite specific, and that specific ‘costs’ could actually be quite structural.

What is the global racial humiliation of a colour bar if not structural? It would also be good to recognise that the commonly identified beneficial legacies of empire were often developed by colonised peoples in the wake of empire, rather than being gifted by Britons. What it does mean is that the ‘benefits’ of empire and its ‘costs’ are too both complex and too quotidian to be reduced to such a simplistic gauge. They are geographically and socially uneven, so a calculation that empire was broadly of benefit to many in Britain does not mean that it was broadly of benefit universally. The ‘benefits’ were also uneven within each colony, no matter how nostalgic some Indians are for the Raj.

We never get to hear from most of those who suffered from empire, whereas those who did well tend to be more visible. Reducing empire to a costs/benefits analysis does no one any favours. Let’s tell lots of stories of empire, with different outcomes for different people in different places at different times, instead. In doing so, let’s be aware of the demographics involved – the uneven numbers of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. And let’s appreciate that the way we might experience empire’s legacies in Britain may be very different from the way that other people experience them.





Alan Lester is Director of Interdisciplinary Research, Professor of Historical Geography, and Co-Director of the Colonial and Postcolonial Studies Network

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