The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History has recently published my Extended Critique of Nigel Biggar’s book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. Prof. Biggar’s Replywas published alongside it.
Like his history of colonialism, Biggar’s reply has unorthodox features, some of which I will engage with, others I will not.
Balance: Page 276
Prof Biggar seeks to respond to each of my nine examples of his misuse of data. He does not explain why his errors, some of which he admits to, others not, all tend in the same direction: towards the justification and mitigation of colonialism’s violence and racism. He complains that my article fails to reflect his balanced approach to colonialism, noting that he is “candid about the evils and injustices of the Empire and provide[s] a summary on page 276”. Later, he claims that I “need only to have read 276 to find a summary of the different kinds of evil and injustice for which I hold British imperialists and colonialist either responsible or culpable”. This page would have to be very weighty to balance the other 428 pages of substantive text and footnotes generally justifying colonialism. Yet, p. 276 seems to be aimed at providing mitigation rather than analysis. We are instructed that, for all its faults, the British Empire was not as bad as Nazi Germany’s death camps or the Soviet Union’s Gulags.
Readers will judge for themselves whether the claim that Africans lack compassion compared to Europeans is not racist, as long as it is environmental rather than biological determinism that underpins that claim. In his response Biggar doubles down on his claim that only biological determinism counts as racism: “it is perfectly possible to regard certain current features of another person’s culture as inferior in certain respects, and still to accord that person a basic human respect, which includes the view that he or she has the same human potential to learn and grow as anyone else. Such an attitude, in my view, is not racist.” Let me quote from Stuart Hall on the relationship between biological and cultural racism: “so called biological racism has never been separated from cultural inferiorisation. Blackness always functioned as a sign that people of African decent are (a) closer to nature and therefore (b) more likely for that reason to be lazy, indolent, lacking in higher intellectual faculties, driven by emotion 8 not reason, oversexualised, prone to violence, etc, etc… The two logics have always been intertwined, ever since the beginning … There has never been one or other of these logics in the structure of social exclusion. It is of course true that in different historical contexts one or other of these two logics (biological racism or cultural inferiorisation) has often been foregrounded and this has had different effects in different historical communities. Leading to the necessity of our now speaking of racisms in the plural and bringing biological racism and cultural inferiorisation together in an expanded conception of what racialisation is about in the modern world”.
Biggar has completely ignored the statement of my own political position and done exactly what I sought to guard against when including it: allege that I am driven as much by Left wing politics in my approach to history as he is by his Right wing views. He makes no effort to refute my analysis of his own political motivations. To suggest, without any basis whatsoever, that my longstanding professional involvement in colonial history is as politically driven as his own, which he admits dates only from his political decision to resist the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, is simply a deflection from the analysis of his book.
Culture Warrior or Colonial Analyst?
Nothing proves Biggar’s immersion in the tactics of the culture war, over and above any interest in debating colonialism, better than his second deflection. This is to the unrelated controversy concerning Prof Kathleen Stock.
In my review article, I located Biggar in a culture war context because it determines entirely his book’s approach to colonial history. Biggar chooses not to reject that association but rather to attempt ‘retaliation’ against the reviewer. He seeks to connect me to a different ‘front’ in the culture war – one which has nothing to do with the book’s purported subject or my comments on it.
His only reasoning for a connection is that fact that Prof Stock and I worked at the same university. It seems hypocritical of Biggar to then rail against another historian for apparently associating him with Thomas Carlyle based on their birthplaces and with Richard Dearlove based on their shared school. In attempting tit-for-tat rather than refuting the point I was making, Biggar only demonstrates that it is indeed political contestation rather than scholarly debate that drives his intervention.
Having first tried to smear me by association with the activists who sought Prof Stock’s dismissal, Biggar asks “What does the fact that Viktor Orbán was interviewed as an inspirational figure during the 2020 National Conservatism conference in the U.S. say about me? Nothing at all. So why report it?” The answer is obvious. With many conferences one would not expect any political alignment between participants. The National Conservatism conference is not just any conference. As has been widely reported, it is sponsored by the Trump-aligned far right in the USA and it exists to propagate its political ideology of National Conservatism. All of its speakers are chosen because they align with that shared political doctrine. Furthermore, Biggar is linked directly with Orbán’s government. He was a keynote speaker at the Brussels launch of Orbán’s Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), a body created to ‘educate’ (one might argue, indoctrinate) the next generation of Hungarians with exclusive nationalist ideology. Its chair of trustees is Orbán’s brother, Dr Balázs Orbán. I drew attention to Biggar’s association with the National Conservative movement because its political doctrine determines his arguments in the book.
Whereas I associate Biggar with the doctrines that drive his analysis of colonialism; he tries to associate me with all sorts of things that have nothing to do with that phenomenon, and with no evidence for any association in the first place.
Biggar complains about my and Jon Wilson’s observation that he constructs “anticolonial” straw men against whom to argue. Again he slants his defence towards the ad hominem, suggesting that this might be because we are “miffed” that he has not paid attention to our own work. “If so”, he continues, “the reason is simple: the likes of Hilary Beckles, Dan Hicks, and Caroline Elkins have far more influence on the wider, public world than they do.”
However, Biggar’s book does not just condemn any supposed excesses of these more popular historians. It is a history of empire of its own, upon which Biggar then casts moral judgement. In constructing that history, he ignores not just the work of Jon Wilson and myself, but an enormous scholarship on that empire in general, produced by hundreds of colleagues around the world. This is poor scholarly practice in any discipline. The only explanation that I can offer is that this scholarship includes insights of an empirical nature that cannot simply be dismissed as politically motivated, but which do not accord with Biggar’s political preferences.
On the Tasmanian genocide, Biggar succeeds in reinforcing my point. He states that “historians such as Henry Reynolds and Dirk Moses reject [the use of the concept of ‘genocide’ to describe what happened in Tasmania in the 1820s-30s] for the same reasons I do … If there is some particular text that would add an important philosophical or legal contribution to my discussion of genocide, Professor Lester does not identify it.” I would be happy to supply Biggar with a reading list but my first suggestion is that he read in full the sources that he already cites.
While he complicates the use of the word “genocide”, Dirk Moses does not reject the concept in Tasmania at all. Rather he identifies “genocidal processes” there, but also and more particularly in Queensland, which Biggar ignores along with most other violent colonial frontiers. Dirk Moses tells me that the claim of Biggar’s that he is in agreement with his work is “totally disingenuous”. Moses arranged the publication of Raphael Lemkin’s unpublished essay on genocide in Tasmania precisely to show how the concept applied there. Lemkin was the originator of the legal concept of genocide. Biggar could also profit from reading the full article by Ann Curthoys, which he again cites without apparently being familiar with its contents. As I pointed out, Curthoys concludes clearly that genocide applies to Tasmania.
Prof. Biggar complains that I have nothing positive to say about his book. This is correct. I have published reviews of over 40 academic books on colonialism. I have had analytical points of difference with some of their authors, but I have always made a point of emphasising the things that we can learn from reading their analyses. Even if their interpretations differed wildly, all of these scholars were intent on understanding and explaining the actors and actions involved in colonialism. They developed and adapted their arguments in response to a wide range of primary and secondary sources. None was driven from the start to tell a highly selective story purely in the interests of a contemporary political project.
The British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former and current Home Secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman are all second generation Indian East Africans. Families like theirs acquired a precarious status, subordinate to White settlers and officials but elevated above African subjects in the British colonies of southeast and East Africa. Indian intermediaries are most closely associated with the colonies of Kenya and Uganda. Notoriously, the post-independence Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled some 80,000 Indian subjects in 1972.
These communities took root mainly from the mid-1890s, but relatively few historians have appreciated that Sir Henry Bartle Frere, a famous antislavery reformer, had drawn up a scheme to employ Indian subjects in the management of colonised African people some twenty years beforehand. Frere was one of the first imperial officials to argue that certain classes of Indians could serve as a buffer between relatively few white officials and a conquered, dispossessed mass of African subjects.
There had been trading connections between India and East Africa long before the arrival of the British, with Indian merchants established in small numbers along the East African coastline. From the 1850s, tens of thousands of Indian labourers were recruited under contracts of indenture to work White-owned sugar plantations in the colony of Natal. Colonial planters there were following the precedent set by former slave owners experiencing post-emancipation labour shortages in the Caribbean and Central American colonies.
The Indian population in Uganda and Kenya owed its origins to the recruitment of labourers, mainly from the Punjab, to build the Uganda Railway from 1895. The track was laid at the cost of 4 Indian workers’ lives per mile, around 30 workers having been killed by the notorious ‘Tsavo maneater’ lions, mentioned in a series of parliamentary debates about funding for the railway in 1900. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury made a joke of the issue in the House of Lords, saying, “With respect to the lions, I feel bound to say something in their behalf. They are not so aristocratic that they will only feed on coolies; they took a medical man the other day, and I expect it will be found that they have taken many other people.”
The subsequent arrival of so-called ‘passenger Indians’ boosted the numbers who decided to stay in each of these southern and East African colonies, creating an Indian middle class whose lives were generally seen by British employers and administrators as less expendable.
Many of those migrating to Uganda were traders from Gujurat who saw opportunities for economic advancement. ‘Passenger’ Indians were attracted to Kenya mainly from the Bombay (Mumbai) region after the British East Africa Association (later British East Africa Company) was founded there in 1887. Although it later moved its headquarters to Mombasa, it already employed Indian accountants, guards and officials. Many more Indians arrived once the Company had morphed into the East Africa Protectorate in 1895, with the rupee as its currency and its law imported from British India.
Some British officials envisaged developing Kenya as the ‘America of the Hindu’, with middle class Indians as intermediaries who would help the British lead Africans towards ‘civilization’. However, when White settlers claimed the best land in the highlands, Indians already living there were expelled. In 1927 Indians won the right to five seats on the legislative council. Although Europeans had eleven seats, Indian representatives agreed that Africans should be excluded entirely.
After independence, Kenyan Indians were not expelled in the same way as those in Uganda, but policies of Africanisation and anti-Indian discrimination persuaded many of them to utilise their British citizenship and emigrate to the UK along with the expelled Indian Ugandans.
The employment of Punjabis in the Kenyan police during the early twentieth century is relatively well known, but what is not often appreciated is that Bartle Free’s scheme predated these developments by some two decades. Although his vision never came to pass, it is worth telling Bartle Frere’s story for what it reveals about imperial men’s utilisation of the links between India and eastern Africa.
Bartle Frere: Governor and antislavery activist
The young Bartle Frere graduated top of his year at the East India Company’s Haileybury College. His first employment was as a writer in the Bombay civil service. In 1842, he was promoted to private secretary to George Arthur, Governor of the Bombay Presidency. Within two years he was married to Arthur’s daughter, Catherine. By 1847, he was the Company’s Resident in Satara, one of the first princely states to be subject to Governor General Dalhousie’s doctrine of lapse and brought under direct East India Company rule. From there, he moved to Sind, where he guided the installation of a postal system based on Britain’s, which was subsequently adopted across India.
Frere’s swift action during the Indian Uprising in 1857, sending troops to support British forces in the Punjab, earned him the thanks of both houses of parliament and a knighthood. His promotion of literacy in the Sindhi language was rewarded with membership of the Viceroy’s Council in 1859, and in 1862, he succeeded his father-in-law as Governor of Bombay. Frere sought to use his authority for modernizing, liberal projects. He is remembered in Mumbai as the driving force behind the Deccan College at Pune, famed for instructing Indians in civil engineering. The city’s growth led to his being appointed to the Secretary of State for India’s Council of India when he returned to London in 1867.
Frere’s imperial career transcended India in 1872, when the Foreign Office commissioned him to travel to Zanzibar. Whilst governor of Bombay, Frere had hosted David Livingstone as he prepared for his expedition to find the source of the Nile. Frere seconded a number of Bombay army sepoys to accompany the expedition and, in January 1866, sent it underway to Zanzibar in a Bombay government steamer. Livingstone had then famously disappeared, at least as far as the British public were concerned, until 1871, when the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley found him on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
At the same time that British writers were elevating Livingstone into an icon of Christianity, Commerce and Civilization, Frere was helping to lead a revived antislavery campaign. A high churchman and a member of the Antislavery Society, he had long condemned the ‘fashion of looking down on all men who differed from us in colour or in race.’ He also bemoaned the British public’s general ignorance of the Arab-led East African slave trade. It was Frere’s well-known position on Arab slavery that led to his next employment on behalf of the British imperial government. The Foreign Office was concerned that Barghash bin Said, the sultan of Zanzibar’s, support for an Islamic revivalist movement threatened British control of the region. The convergence of a popular British lobby against Zanzibari slave trading and this strategic interest led to Frere’s appointment as British envoy to the sultan. Frere was given the autonomy to draw up his own instructions.
When he arrived in Zanzibar he found that Barghash was emboldened by the French promise of support for his independence. Frere acted immediately, ordering the Royal Navy to seize any slave ships sailing between Zanzibar and the African coast. He then threatened Barghash with a total blockade. The Foreign Office was obliged, belatedly and somewhat reluctantly, to approve of his forceful actions. Barghash was forced to close the slave market, end the import and export of enslaved people, and ban British subjects, including Indians, from owning enslaved people. Arab slave owners, however, were left in possession of their ‘property’. Bargash’s promised French support never materialised.
By the mid-1870s Frere was famous in Britain as a proponent of liberal education, civic investment, modernization and antislavery. By the end of the decade, though, he was the Empire’s leading warmonger.
Warmonger in Chief
During the 1870s the Colonial Office was encountering difficulties trying to confederate the separate British colonies, Boer republics, and African kingdoms of South Africa. Given Frere’s success in Zanzibar, they turned to him for assistance. In October 1876, Lord Carnarvon, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, offered him a “special” appointment, rather than an ordinary governorship. He would be equipped with far more power than the governors of the existing British colonies of the Cape and Natal and, as High Commissioner, would also be commander-in- chief of all British military forces in the region. The normal gubernatorial salary was supplemented by an imperial grant of £2,000 and he was promised a peerage if he succeeded in effecting the merger of the region’s fractured governments.
Frere’s first task was to incorporate the lands of the still independent Gcaleka Xhosa in the Transkei, a region which, along with Mpondo territory, separated the Cape from Natal. He seized upon the pretext of a fight between some Xhosa men and Mfengu, who were allies of the Cape Colony, to declare war, announcing that the Gcaleka king, Sarhili, was deposed. Frere anticipated that the Xhosa territory would be governed indirectly, in the way that he had once overseen Satara on behalf of the East India Company. When British troops entered the Amatola Mountains in March 1878, however, they were ambushed repeatedly. In the end, it took a well-organized system of mounted units pursuing scorched earth tactics to secure Sarhili’s surrender.
By mid-1878, Frere’s plan was coming to fruition. The last independent Xhosa chiefdoms, were being subjected to British authority through Resident Agents backed by British troops. His next target was the powerful Zulu kingdom on Natal’s northern, and the Transvaal’s eastern, border.
In London, however, the government was losing its enthusiasm for South African confederation. The renewed threat of a war to prevent Russian expansion in the Balkans meant that colonial military commitments had to be scaled back. A new colonial secretary told Frere, ‘it is the desire of Her Majesty’s Government not to furnish means for a campaign of invasion and conquest … I can by no means arrive at the conclusion that war with the Zulus should be unavoidable, and I am confident that you … will … avoid an evil so much to be deprecated as a Zulu war’. For the second time in his career though, Frere was determined to act independently. On 11th December 1878, he presented Cetshwayo with an ultimatum. In the time-honoured tradition of justifying unprovoked attacks on independent peoples, he claimed that he was acting ‘on behalf of the Zulu people, to secure for them that measure of good government which we undertook to promise for them.’ The Zulu king was told that he had until 10th January 1879 to fulfil a number of conditions. Among other things such as the payment of fines for various alleged misdemeanours, Cetshwayo must disband his army and discontinue the Zulu military system, based on age-group cohorts of men known as amabutho (inaccurately likened by the British to their regiments). He must abandon his control of amabutho-based marriage arrangements, give freedom to missionaries to convert Zulu subjects and, of course, accept a British Resident Agent to oversee the kingdom’s future governance.
Once the Colonial Office heard of Frere’s provocations, it replied:
‘… the communications which had previously been received from you had not entirely prepared [the Colonial Office] for the course which you have deemed it necessary to take … I took the opportunity of impressing upon you the importance of using every effort to avoid war. But the terms which you have dictated to the Zulu king … are evidently such as he may not improbably refuse, even at the risk of war; and I regret that the necessity for immediate action should have appeared to you so imperative as to preclude you from incurring the delay which would have been involved in consulting Her Majesty’s Government upon a subject of so much importance.’ By the time this admonition reached him, Frere had already launched the invasion of Zululand with 18,000 troops, and also encountered a disastrous setback: the loss of nearly 1,700 men at the Battle of Isandhlwana.
Frere’s Scheme for the Zulu
After Isandhlwana, Frere spent the time awaiting reinforcements from Britain planning for the post-war occupation of Zululand. What Frere had in mind reverted once again to his Indian experience. He requested that the Colonial Office mediate with the India Office and War Office to send him Indian soldiers – sepoys – to assist in the control of Zululand.
‘There are objections of race and colour, which would be obstacles to an experiment anywhere but in the neighbourhood of Natal, where Indian Coolies are already present in considerable numbers [on the colony’s sugar plantations]; but Sepoys would probably be found very useful in garrison between the Drakensberg and the sea, anywhere from the Kei northwards to the Limpopo … Sepoy Regiments do not suffer either in health or discipline from being cut up into small detachments as European Regiments do … for a very moderate allowance of hutting money, they provide their own quarters, and do not require permanent barracks, and … the pioneer regiments do an immense deal of useful engineering work … When the strength of the Zulu Army is once broken, and the people relegated to their natural pastoral and agricultural avocations, it would take a very small force of Sepoys to keep 400,000 of them in order with the aid of a good Zulu police. I have Zululand in view rather than Natal, in the above observations; but if any Indian authority would consider the force necessary to keep in order a million of men of the most martial races in India, he would probably name a garrison very much smaller than anything yet contemplated for Natal and Zululand combined’.
Once discharged, Frere continued, the imported sepoys could join the ranks of the indentured workers occupied on Natal’s sugar plantations and in the colony’s trade, ‘though a Madras Sepoy would probably find himself more at home at once among the Indian Coolies than Sepoys from other parts of India.’ As for the existing Indian population of the colony, ‘that … material is generally much inferior to the Indian Sepoy of the same race – the ordinary Sepoys are the finest of the population, while the ordinary coolies who emigrate, are often the poorest and weakest.’ The Colonial Office response was lukewarm. It referred the matter to the War Office, asking it to estimate the relative costs of maintaining Indian and British garrisons overseas. This information, it suggested, might be obtained best from the dual British and Indian garrisons maintained in Malta. The Colonial Secretary himself commented that, given the recent experience at Isandhlwana, ‘the Zulu or Kaffir is, man for man, better than the Sepoy – and that therefore this experiment might be dangerous.’
The nail in the coffin for Frere’s scheme was advice from the India Office that the terms on which sepoys might accept service in South Africa ‘would certainly require a considerably higher rate of pay than the Government of India give for Indian service, even across the seas’. This led the Secretary of State for India to doubt ‘whether the charges would fall so far short of those of British Troops as would compensate for the difference in value of the two classes.’
All this remained speculative, of course, until the disaster at Isandhlwana could be reversed and the Zulu defeated. This was finally achieved with the Battle of Ulundi and the subsequent fragmentation of the Zulu Kingdom. In the meantime, Frere had transitioned from an improving administrator of India and antislavery activist to a rampaging conqueror of independent African kingdoms (in his pursuit of confederation he had also started wars against the Griqua and Pedi). His vision for an Indian-policed colony in Zululand was not to be fulfilled, although Indians came to constitute a significant proportion of Natal’s population. It was Gandhi’s experience of discrimination in the Transvaal that set him on the path of activism, initially on behalf of middle class South African Indians and later for all Indians.
I doubt that Frere’s scheme for Zululand acted as a direct precedent for the later East African colonial administrations, but what it does highlight is the way in which Britain’s imperial administrators thought of India as a resource not only of labour for other parts of the empire, but also of intermediaries to help them maintain control of that empire.
Before he became a beleaguered Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng wrote that “generations of politicians, historians and campaigners have made the British empire in their own image, promoting it as a vehicle for whatever cause they happen to espouse”. Since then, his government has waged a culture war in which a moral defence of the British Empire, against accusations of its intrinsic racism, has been central. The motivation seems clear. As a recent social survey shows, condemnation of the so-called “woke”, a category which includes campaigners against racism, has “the potential to keep the Brexit debate – and the electoral coalition that gave the Conservatives victory – alive at the next election.”
For someone like me who has spent over thirty years as a scholar of British colonialism, witnessing the explosion of polarised and simplistic argumentation over the Empire’s legacies in the last few years feels like a glimpse of what virologists and vaccinologists must have experienced as public discussion of Covid-19 exploded. As with so much of our post-Brexit politics, complexity, honesty and integrity in public discussions of Empire have become rare commodities.
Most professional historians of British colonialism, of whom I know many, base their research on evidence while admitting its limitations. They strive for objectivity whilst recognising that it is evasive, and they are driven by curiosity rather than contemporary politics, seeking to mitigate the ways in which the latter inevitably shapes the former. They are far from being the Marxist/Maoist/Critical Race Theory – inspired radicals portrayed by some right-wing journalists and politicians. Their implicit distaste for unprovoked invasion and racism stems from their humanity and basic morality. It is not directed solely and vindictively against “the British” and it is not the result of a “Far Left” political disposition. For the most part they refuse to be drawn into the culture war’s polarising binaries. In the meantime, however, a wider section of society is being exposed to politicised caricatures of the British Empire that do an active disservice to the public understanding of history.
The culture war solidifies one unrealistic notion of the relationship between past and present in particular: that legacies from the past are like family heirlooms, bequeathed in this case by “the British” and employed by their inheritors either wisely or foolishly. For conservatives these legacies of over three hundred years of British imperial rule, at one point over a quarter of the Earth’s surface, include globalisation, free trade, democracy, law, railways, education and medicine. Yes, these accomplishments may have been marred by certain instances of massacre, dispossession, racism and even genocide, but their effect has been overwhelmingly to benefit humanity. Things only got worse after the British left. Even the famines that killed tens of millions of British Indian subjects were opportunities for British innovation in famine-relief.
These justifications for imperialism were originally formulated during the imperial period itself, not least by historians. Prior to the current right-wing backlash against the “woke”, Niall Ferguson’s 2003-4 TV series and book Empire was a revival of the idea that human progress and the British Empire were indissolubly linked. In his case the argument was employed in support of the disastrous Western military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. As conservatives gained traction in the right-wing media and in government after Brexit and the Black Lives Matter protests, so some of those on the Left and anti-racists especially felt they had to respond with more strident assertions of the Empire’s pernicious legacies. Some have re-centred violent, racist White British actors in the drama of empire, albeit as villains rather than goodies. In doing so they have alienated many Britons who know little about colonialism.
Thanks to the British Empire being a relatively minor and optional part of the curriculum, and thanks to a long-established, convenient and self-comforting amnesia, we can, as Raymond Williams put it, “select and reselect our ancestors” in ignorance of their activities and beliefs. Add to this the fact that the archive through which we access the past is full of the self-justifications of those who carried out acts of colonialism, and the fact that Britain has never been forced to confront discomfiting aspects of its past in the same way that defeated Germany was after WWII, and we can see why conservatives have gained ground among those struggling to confront certain realities.
For those contesting the Right’s rehabilitation of colonialism, the modern European empires and especially Britain’s are indelibly associated with globalised and intergenerational racism. For Indigenous peoples still campaigning against the loss of sovereignty and land in the former settler colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, the idea of a “legacy” of British colonialism is absurd since the British never left. They simply became Australians, Pākehā, Canadians and Americans. Elsewhere the legacies of Empire identified by liberals and the Left include dispossession of people of colour, a more unequal world, the loss of sovereignty, and political instability brought about by divide and rule in places like India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine or combine and rule in much of Africa including Nigeria. Kwasi Kwarteng’s book pointed to these legacies rather than those of universal human progress.
Zadie Smith warns us that “… the past is not our plaything … degrees of manipulation and distortion exist, and the aim is surely to mitigate against the most egregious forms of both.” So how might we get beyond an endlessly confrontational and unproductive repetition of binaries, of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ legacies, in our discussion of the British Empire?
I would suggest three main steps. First, we need to distinguish between legacies on the one hand and historical continuities and discontinuities on the other. Secondly, we should consider whether the idea of a legacy is substituting for nostalgia. And thirdly, we need to think beyond “the British” as the only agents who mattered in the British Empire.
When commentators discuss legacies of the empire, what they are often referring to is not actually something that is handed down the generations, but rather the fiction of a moment frozen in time. A completely unrealistic concept given that change is continuous. It is the impossible and yet necessary job of the historian to study that change in all its complexity and variety. We can start by recognising that there is a distinction between the past and history, and then by acknowledging that history does not allow us clearly to distinguish legacies from any one frozen moment.
The late Hilary Mantel expressed the relationship between the past and history especially eloquently: “Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past … It’s the plan of positions taken, when we stop the dance to slow them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It’s no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey.”
If the past itself is unknowable except through such fragments, remnants and representations, its “legacies” – the things that “remain from an earlier time” – are even more difficult to pin down. Traces of an Empire that grew and contracted, was pursued through business, governmental, philanthropic and emigrant settler projects, and that resulted from diverse interactions with multiple indigenous and other imperial actors, take various forms. To do history with integrity we need to differentiate between them, and to understand the ways that they changed constantly.
Let us take public health in India as an example. On Twitter and elsewhere, members of the conservative History Reclaimed group have claimed advances in public health as a key beneficial legacy of British rule. The basis for these claims is notable scientific and medicinal advances against diseases such as smallpox and malaria, and the institution of public health programmes based upon them. Subsequent improvements in public health undoubtedly built upon both the scientific and practical lessons learned through these initiatives under British rule.
However, Indians running Municipal, District and Village Boards were behind many of these initiatives, sometimes in the face of resistance from local British officials. British colonial governments generally cared little about the health of disenfranchised colonial subjects unless epidemic diseases threatened to spread to White colonial communities. The capacity of the colonial state was always limited and it had other priorities than public health. A larger scale Indian public health service was spurred only by the threat of losing ground to the Quit India movement against British rule during the Second World War. Newly independent governments tended to invest far more in the health and welfare of their populations than had colonial governments. As Sunil Amrith notes, “The claim to care for the welfare of the Indian people, in a way that no colonial government could do, was central to constructing the legitimacy of the post-colonial state”.
Global health indices generally show far more drastic improvements after the demise not just of the British, but of all the European empires. As the graph below shows, infant mortality dropped precipitously in India only after independence in 1947. This correlation does not imply causation but it does suggest that the colonial government’s interventions were a late and limited adjustment.
One could see all this as indicating simply that the post-1947 government of India took a positive if limited “legacy” of British rule and made it more universally beneficial. Amrith, however, shows that things are more complicated even than this. “The concerns of India’s elite with racial purity and degeneration; the concern of social reformers with the misery of India’s villagers and the concern of modernists with using the state to transform society and economy – drawing on the most ‘advanced’ models then available – melded in sometimes contradictory ways to shape the political culture of health in India”.
This blend of actors and motivations resulted in the world’s most extensive malaria prevention campaign in the 1950s and 60s. It was funded more by American aid than British, and inspired by European, Soviet and New Zealand models of public health as well as British. The whole notion of distinguishing any straightforward British imperial “legacy” of public health care in India becomes unsustainable in the light of this complex trajectory, and that is without even considering regional variations.
Can we credit “the British” for public health improvements that they may have helped pioneer, but which occurred largely under an anti-colonial Indian movement? Can we separate “British” scientific and medical advances in the first place from those of other collaborating scientists around the world, and from the influence of Indians within the British administration who sometimes faced resistance from British officials? Can we say that it was British colonial precedents upon which the post-independence state built when it drew also upon public health interventions in the Soviet Union and elsewhere? What we can say is that when contemporary politics alone guides our approach to history, “legacies” become simplified, distorted and conflated with finely wrought continuities and discontinuities.
Built and Institutional Legacies
The most tangible legacies from the imperial past are of the material kind: physical structures such as cities, schools, hospitals, railway stations, judicial and legislative buildings, roads, canals and bridges. Claimed by those on the Right as benefits bestowed by “the British” and inherited by post-independence states, these were financed at least in part by British investors (albeit often with guarantees derived from taxing colonial subjects) and undertaken on British initiative. They were generally intended in the first instance to serve British military and business interests, though, and constructed by colonised labourers, who were often unpaid and coerced.
There may be general agreement about the continuing utility of many of these built legacies for post-colonial governments and populations. However, it all becomes more complicated once we start to examine their crediting to “the British”. Can we credit British rule with the advent of more representative parliamentary institutions today when they inhabit a building such as the Union Building in Pretoria that was designed by Hebert Baker for exclusively White legislators? Does such a building appear on the credit or debit side of imperial “legacies” when it was put to service on behalf of the population as a whole only after British rule (and in this case the apartheid governments that succeeded it)?
Conservatives claim that the “law and order” which inhabits colonial era judicial buildings is also a legacy of British rule, but of course some kind of law and order existed everywhere before British rule as well as after. What changed was its nature, most notably the groups it was designed to safeguard. Imperial apologists assert that British rule discriminated between different kinds of subjects less, was more impartial, less corruptible and less clientelist; that the neutrality and independence of the judiciary broke down only after the British left. Repression and everyday violence were characteristic of British rule though, as they are of any other form of discriminatory governance.
British law and order existed mainly to maintain White dominance in the colonies where British colonists dwelt. When the Colonial Office or India Office (after 1858) in London prescribed that colonial law be non-racial, that intent was generally undermined by local colonial interests. Since the demise of colonial regimes, of course law and order has often worked partially too, in favour of other minorities defined ethnically, regionally, by kinship or clientelism. In these instances, conservatives use phrases such as corruption that they tend not to apply to equivalent British colonial practices that favoured White people.
James Fitzjames Stephen played a leading role in defining which of Britain’s legal principles applied to India during the 1870s. He declared
“If it be asked how the system works in practice, I can only say that it enables a handful of unsympathetic foreigners … to rule justly and firmly about 200,000,000 persons of many races …The Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the institutions which they regulate, are somewhat grim presents for one people to make to another, and are little calculated to excite affection; but they are eminently well-calculated to protect peaceable men and to beat down wrongdoers, to extort respect, and to enforce obedience … If, however, the authority of the Government is once materially relaxed, if the essential character of the enterprise is misunderstood and the delusion that it can be carried out by assemblies representing the opinions of the natives is admitted, nothing but anarchy, and ruin can be the result”.
Enforcement of Stephen’s law codes was entirely dependent on Indian policemen, record keepers and magistrates, employed in a vastly expanded Indian Civil Service and trained in new universities. But Indians were trusted neither to govern nor to make those laws.
Those approaching the imperial past with the justification of Britons in mind often deal in counterfactuals to evade such objections, arguing that if it were not for colonialism, neither the buildings themselves nor their current deployment for more democratic purposes would ever have developed in the colonies. The problem for historians who rely on sources relating to what actually happened rather than speculating about what might have happened, is evidencing those assertions.
Democracy developed after decolonisation in some countries subject to British rule and not in others. None of the benefits of the world today compared to that in say 1900 are necessarily the result of colonial conquest. The simple answer, whether the institutions supporting democracy, railways or health care would have developed in former colonies without British rule, is and always will be “who knows?”
If legacies of the past get artificially separated from continuities and discontinuities, they are also often mixed up with nostalgia: the longing for things to have remained the way that we imagine they were. The notion of a legacy preserves some notion of the past and makes it portable between generations, but most of the things that we want to preserve in this way never actually took the form we imagine. They are phantasms, dreams of what was and what might still be recovered.
Peter Mitchell and Hannah Rose Woods have both recently analysed convincingly nostalgia’s role in the culture war. We may think that it is a property only of conservatives, with their fondness for White memsahibs on palanquins borne by Indian servants and District Officers telling the natives what to do. But nostalgia has a more flexible political utility. It can be both pro-empire and anti-colonial, as when Narendra Modi mobilises a sectarian vision of precolonial Hindu society against both Muslims and the Raj.
When it comes to Hong Kong, nostalgia works for quite different agendas. For British conservatives it is seen as the prime example of a successful colony. Kwarteng admits that “the British Empire had nothing to do with liberal democracy”, and the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, introduced steps towards it only to frustrate the Chinese takeover. Nonetheless conservatives assert that the colony was governed with the consent of its subjects and with mutual prosperity in mind.
It is entirely understandable that a return to perceived colonial rule right now, for all its faults, would seem attractive not just to conservatives in the UK, but also to many dissident Chinese subjects in the former colony. But here too, nostalgia becomes conflated with legacy. Under British rule Hong Kong served as an imperial entrepot, creating wealth and opportunity for British and Chinese business elites. However, the British elites insisted on racial exclusion. The expatriate White community excluded even elite Chinese from the most luxurious residential districts on the Peak and kept their social clubs racially exclusive. When they pressed for more democracy they still intended to exclude those identified as Chinese. Most Hong Kong subjects’ well-being was left to Chinese and missionary charities until the 1950s, with British elites here, as elsewhere, concerned mainly about the risk of disease spreading to Whites.
Yet these features of colonial rule are set aside as those subjected to active state repression in Hong Kong are inspired to resist by an alternative past.
More broadly too, nostalgia is a resource for those subjected to ever-evolving forms of oppression or poverty in the places that Britons once governed. This is because, as David Lowenthal explained, “Nostalgia reaffirms identities bruised by recent turmoil”. For many in Hong Kong the turmoil consists of the more vicious imposition of Chinese state authoritarianism. For conservatives in Britain, it is part of a more diffuse cultural change in which “fundamental taken for granted convictions about man, woman, habits, manners, laws, society and God” are challenged by more inclusive values.
Much of the problem with the discussion of imperial legacies is its continual re-centring of “the British” as the only agents who matter in shaping them.
My first issue is with the word “the” before “British”. There never was any one British imperial project. How colonialism took root in each colony depended as much on tensions and debates among Britons as it did between Britons and other actors. Missionaries, philanthropists, businessmen, governing officials and settlers all had their own imperatives and favoured different kinds of relations with different groups of colonised people. Like the business elites in Hong Kong, certain of these groups predominated in particular colonies for particular periods.
In New Zealand, missionaries fought until 1840 to keep the Māori to themselves, since they saw them as potential converts who might be deterred by the unchristian behaviour of British traders and settlers. In West Africa in the late nineteenth century, it was palm oil and ivory traders who lay behind British attacks on African kingdoms, while in South Africa Rhodes faced opposition from liberal White politicians when he tried to force a convergence between his mining business’ demand for cheap African labour and the Cape Colony’s policies. We can no more assume a British consensus on colonialism, or a legacy of “the” British, than we can consensus among Britons on any other political issue.
My second issue is to do with the focus on Britons, however attentive we are to their differences. What are thought of as legacies passed from one generation to the next are, as we have seen, continually reshaped, and not only by Britons. British colonists, like other historical actors, were entangled in relationships that they often dominated but never entirely controlled. These relationships were not only with other Britons pursuing different projects, but also with a diverse array of colonised peoples with their own varied agendas, and with those representing other empires. In our discussions of Empire, we need to challenge the sense of national exceptionalism that characterises the culture war.
In India British rule was entangled with the collapse of Mughal power, in Australasia and North America it was spurred by French and other European rivalries; in central Asia and the Middle East some of the most dramatic (and disastrous) developments such as multiple invasions of Afghanistan were the result of fears of Russian expansion. By the same token, Britain’s imperial decline was related to growing American and German influence and a Japanese insistence on modern imperialism being more than just a White European and North American project.
Aside from other empires, the pattern of British colonialism was inherently the result of interactions with colonised peoples themselves. The extent of their resistance, accommodation, adaptation, collaboration, and appropriation of British rule varied enormously across the different parts of the empire and over time. Whatever legacies we might imagine the British left behind are as much a product of their agency as that of “the British”, regardless of whether they are identified as positive or negative.
We might try to identify the legacies of the empire that all these actors forged by imagining it frozen in some snapshot taken at the moment of decolonisation in any particular colony. This would be Mantel’s “plan of positions taken, when we stop the dance to slow them down”. But however that frozen schema appeared, and however successful our attempts to characterise it, post-independence governments and populations were already repurposing it. Some of the features of those snapshots were allowed to fade into obscurity, some were sustained, extended and reconditioned for newly enfranchised citizens rather than subject peoples. Other features were continued, but in even more authoritarian guises. How can we possibly now distinguish between those which can fairly be identified as legacies of Empire, to be blamed on, or credited to, “the British”, from those for which responsibility is more diffuse?
More to the point perhaps, was British conquest and racially discriminatory rule ever necessary for the dissemination of medical, technological, and scientific advances? I would suggest that the burden of proof is on the ultra conservatives defending colonialism – a project that inevitably entails violence and conquest – to prove that they were, but I don’t rate their chances.
Alan Lester Professor of Historical Geography, University of Sussex and Adjunct Professor of History, La Trobe University
One of the Brexit populists’ most successful political strategies, played out in the recent Tory leadership contest, has been culture war: an assault on reformist and liberal agendas including anti-racism, that are now condemned as “woke”. With Suella Braverman Priti Patel’s successor at the Home Office, it shows no sign of abating. A key plank of the strategy has been attacks on those who attempt to educate and inform the public about the racial discrimination and legacies of the British Empire, the latest manifestation being the conservative activist group Restore Trust‘s ongoing attempt to pack the National trust Council with members who will censor it from saying more about the role of slavery and colonialism in its properties’ history. Accusations that those who try to educate about the empire are ‘anti-British’, however, are not entirely novel. They are contemporary twists on debates about the Empire staged over the last 200 years. When enslaved people secured emancipation and indigenous people raised their right to survive the onslaught of British colonisation, their liberal allies in Britain faced a similar conservative backlash. It may not have been referred to at the time as a culture war but it did much to shape enduring divisions over race in Britain and Britain’s place in the world.
This manufactured hysteria has politicised Britain’s heritage to a degree unimaginable just a few years ago. Some of the rhetoric in the Mail’s online forums reflects the belief of the trans-national extreme right in The Great Replacement. This bizarre notion of an existential threat to White racial survival stemming from fellow citizens of colour and their “woke” allies is what motivated the terrorist atrocities in Oslo in 2011 and Christchurch in 2019. Boris Johnson’s advisor on race, Samuel Kasumu, quit recently, complaining that “some people in the government … feel like the right way to win is to pick a fight on the culture war and to exploit division.” These elements, Kasumu feared, were facilitating a repeat of the murder of Jo Cox’, the Labour MP killed by a right wing racist in 2016. While it might be more subtle, the Telegraph’s use of “woke” is also not so far from the idea of a “collaborator” with sinister forces threatening White people. It has ranted that the woke “want to make all White people feel guilty and feel ashamed of their skin colour. In a White majority country”.
All this conservative culture war activity echoes the backlash against liberal concern for colonial subjects of colour that began in the context of a reforming British Empire in the early nineteenth century. Enslaved and colonised peoples themselves played the leading roles in securing emancipation and representing their communities as best they could in Britain, but like Black Lives Matter activists, they were working in alliances, often tense ones, with White allies. Some of the most illustrious and famous conservatives of the day led the charge against them.
When sugar production plummeted in the wake of emancipation in Jamaica and the 1846 Sugar Duties Act abolished the former slave owners’ preferential rates on sugar imports, one of the most famous critics of the day, Thomas Carlyle, fulminated against both the “naïve” philanthropists and the free trade economists, who, between them, had helped free slaves into a state of wage labour while abandoning British planters. Carlyle argued that emancipation had condemned Black Jamaicans to idle pauperism, just as greater freedom had the Irish. The Irish, he argued, had been reduced to “human swinery”, a “black howling Babel of superstitious savages” during the Famine. In a deliberately provocative article, which he boasted “you will not, in the least like” entitled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro [later substituted for the N word] Question”, he described the freed slaves of Jamaica “Sitting yonder, with their beautiful muzzles up to the ears in pumpkins, imbibing sweet pulps and juices; the grinder and incisor teeth ready for every new work; while the sugar crops rot round them, uncut, because labour cannot be hired”.
Despite the protests of liberal friends like John Stuart Mill, Carlyle’s unabashed racism sharpened and articulated the British public’s sense of disappointment in Africans’ ability to become “civilised”. Together with the stream of racial invective pouring into British homes from colonial newspapers extracted by the British press, in the private correspondence of settlers to their contacts at home, and in publications such as the Memorials of the Settlers in the Eastern Cape, it reinforced the notion that white Britons had a particular, if not unique, claim to that mantle.
The most popular author of the day, Charles Dickens soon arrayed himself alongside Carlyle as a leading mid-nineteenth century culture warrior. In October 1857, when news of the Indian Uprising massacre of 120 British women and children at Cawnpore dominated the British press, Dickens summed up the public’s mood of vengeance: “I wish I were the Commander in Chief in India …. I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested … proceeding, with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth.”
Carlyle and Dickens ridiculed people like Thomas Fowell Buxton, who had taken over from Wilberforce as the leading anti-slavery and colonial humanitarian campaigner. In the wake of the abolition of slavery, the two writers asserted that philanthropists and missionary supporters had been proved wrong. The formerly enslaved had not diligently continued to work on the plantations, as philanthropists had promised. Instead, they had sought to reunite families torn apart when parents and children were sold to different owners.
The lesson, however, was not that family could mean as much to Black as to White British subjects. It was that Black and indigenous people had squandered the freedom, and the gift of civilisation, that the British had offered them. Dickens’ Bleak House helped to invent the stereotype of the “woke”; the cause-obsessed, misguided and dangerous philanthropists who had helped them waste the opportunity. The book’s character, Mrs Jellyby, summed up nineteenth century wokeness. She is so preoccupied saving the souls of heathen Africans she has never met that she neglects her own children. White British children like the road sweep Jo, die pitifully on the streets of London while the “humanitarians” extend their sympathies only to distant savages, who refuse to learn. Rather than continuing with their “telescopic philanthropy”, Dickens moralised, Britons should focus on the needs of White kith and kin at home.
If a conservative reaction against the “woke” is nothing new, neither is the leading role taken by a Prime Minister. On the day that Boris Johnson became Prime Minister I came across the following extract from Reynolds’s Newspaper on Lord Palmerston, the Liberal PM in 1857: “What a truly melancholy exhibition! The foremost nation of all the Old World rushing, and screaming, and swearing, and shouting in mad hysterical hallelujahs, the praises of a man whose principal characteristic was an unconquerable disposition to jest at national calamities, and whose greatest recommendation was a species of boasts”. When Laurence Fox , himself a vocal right wing culture warrior, played Lord Palmerston in ITV’s Victoria, he admitted that the character “may have had a bit of the Boris about him”. Johnson and Palmerston shared undiplomatic careers as womanising, flippant Foreign Secretaries and a wit and charm that made them popular with large sections of the public, if not always with their peers in parliament. The parallels do not end there, however.
In 1857, Palmerston wanted war with China, which had had the temerity to prevent British ships illegally smuggling opium into Canton. Palmerston’s government intended to force Chinese markets open to “free trade” from British narcotics and industrial manufacturers. His problem was that many of his own liberal MPs objected to the war on moral grounds. Lord Lyndhurst asked, “was there ever conduct more abominable, more flagrant, in which … more false pretence has been put forward by a public man in the service of the British government?” After it became clear that British officials had ordered the shelling of the city, Parliament passed a motion, carried by sixteen votes, that the government had failed “to establish satisfactory grounds for the violent measures resorted to at Canton”. Anticipating Johnson’s Get Brexit Done election by one hundred and sixty-two years, the Prime Minister suspended parliament to appeal directly to the electorate.
In the 1857 general election, patriotic fervour was brought to bear against the Chinese rather than the EU. Palmerston declared that the problem with those who criticised the war on China was that “Everything that was English was wrong, and everything that was hostile to England was right”. Amid complaints of creating an “artificial public opinion”, the prime minister solicited the cartoonist George Cruikshank to circulate images of Chinese methods of torture and execution and fabricated a story that British heads had been displayed on the walls of Canton. It was printed in The Times and other evening newspapers and distributed as a flyer across Britain. In the midst of what Charles Greville called the Prime Minister’s “enormous and shameful lying”, Palmerston won a landslide victory. Many of his opponents lost their seats. All thanks, the Daily News claimed, to “the excited ignorance of a misinformed public”.
If Palmerston had not opportunistically seized upon the mid-nineteenth century culture war to portray activists of colour and their white reformist allies as woke threats to the nation, perhaps China’s Century of Humiliation and ensuing determination to reassert itself against global western domination might have taken a different direction. If key figures like Carlyle and Dickens had not entrenched British racism in the wake of emancipation, then perhaps we might have fewer of the structural issues that today’s antiracist “woke” activists are still having to combat. Who knows, given the speculative nature of counterfactual history? Perhaps the greatest irony, however, is that today’s conservative culture warriors, in pressure groups like Restore Trust, now claim emancipation from slavery and humanitarian concern for the welfare of colonised people as Britain’s greatest imperial achievements.
The problem with making the history of the British empire a weapon in a divisive culture war is the omission of empathy that such an act entails.
Conservatives feel that radical activists are determined to see Empire as an evil project, regardless of the sensitivities of Britons brought up to believe in their ancestors’ good intentions. Tearing down statues, reinterpreting National Trust properties, browbeating museum visitors with new and critical content, and lecturing White Britons on their inherited racism are all seen as acts which lack any sympathy or understanding for the majority of Britons. Conservatives are especially triggered when their national heroes like Winston Churchill are challenged as racists, and when their iconography of an innocent and quintessentially English countryside, graced by stately mansions and their landscaped gardens, is interpreted as the product of slave ownership and racial exploitation (even though they may acknowledge with a shrug of the shoulders that the exploitation of British workers is engrained in it).
White friends of mine have argued that, if only the assaults on their long held beliefs and identities were not so vehement, if only those drawing attention to the violent realities of Empire were more reasonable in attempting to persuade them – if only they showed more empathy – then they would be more inclined to listen.
The fact that much of the government’s discussion of racial disparities is conditioned by the defence that there’s no structural racism to see here, helps to persuade many of my White friends that they are being unfairly maligned for the supposed sins of their generally well-intentioned ancestors.
Those reacting against a supposed ‘woke’ assault on history are enraged that empathy seems to be directed solely towards Empire’s victims, with no appreciation of the good intentions of British colonisers. One of Nigel Biggar’s constant refrains, demonstrated in his critique of Dan Hicks’ Brutish Museum is that Hicks shows no empathy for the British who invaded Benin, burned its capital and stole its treasures. Hicks seems to empathise only with the expedition’s victims, and neither with the British invaders themselves nor the enslaved victims of Benin’s own rulers. Biggar accuses Hicks of “an ethical schizophrenia—on the one hand morally neutral and indulgent toward non-Western, African culture, on the other hand morally absolutist and unforgiving toward Western, British culture”. Biggar goes on to detail the accusations made by expedition members that there was widespread and revolting evidence of the kingdom’s practice of human sacrifice in Benin.
A project that I am involved with providing a new interpretation board for the statue of the Victorian army general Redvers Buller in Exeter tries to pay attention to this conservative feeling of a lack of empathy among Empire’s new critics – a feeling that has been mobilised so effectively by the government’s culture warriors. We are trying to proceed through dialogue and engagement with all sides in what has become a highly charged debate over the fate of the statue.
However, what has become clear in the course of this and other projects of late is that it is also incumbent on all Britons today to empathise with those now seeking to challenge our dominant understanding of the national past and especially of the Empire’s role in it.
There were many people of colour around the world who, once rendered British subjects by conquest, adapted and even prospered from alliances and negotiations with their new rulers. Indian merchant families especially collaborated with East India Company and other investors and sought to share in the education offered by the British even as they were denied a share in central governance. As one would expect during any radical reconfiguration of power relations, certain groups enhanced their power over traditional rivals by allying with British rulers and accepting what limited degrees of autonomy they could negotiate with them in return. During the Scramble for Africa especially, some African and Pacific leaders saw British rule as the lesser of two evils when confronted with a sudden French, Belgian or German determination to catch up and match Britain’s exploitation of colonies. For Hendrick Witbooi of the Nama, for instance, a British protectorate would have been a far better fate than German colonisation.
But we delude ourselves quite spectacularly if we think that a fond appreciation of British colonisation was the norm among subjugated peoples. Millions of people of colour were killed trying to resist the British takeover of their lands. In Ruling the World we examined three years of the nineteenth century closely and estimated that in the wars of conquest fought in and around those years alone (including two Opium Wars in China, two invasions of Afghanistan, the Indian Uprising, and a series of wars to confederate southern Africa) over a million died, although it is difficult to be precise because the deaths of people of colour were not recorded in the same way that White people’s deaths were. Millions more died in famines that the British colonial governments could and likely would have done far more to prevent had the victims been White rather than Black and Indian British subjects (although their semi-racialised brand of Whiteness did not protect Catholic Irish subjects from mass starvation during the Great Famine). Sixty five so-called “small wars” were fought by late Victorian armies either to annex new territory or to punish African, Asian and Indigenous societies which resisted British demands. This is not to mention the disastrous long term effects of British attempts to govern Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and other zones in Britain’s rather than local peoples’ interests, nor the attempts to cling to influence after World War II in Egypt, Aden, Malaya and Kenya.
Well after the abolition of slavery, colonial laws ensured that people of colour’s labour was supplied to White employers freely, or as cheaply as possible, and colonial laws discriminated between coloniser and colonised whatever the British government itself claimed of their non-racialism. With formal empire on the wane, many more British subjects of colour migrated, invited, to Britain to become citizens, and found themselves rejected as equals. The ideologies of racial difference that had sustained colonial rule out there in the empire for so long were now applied more systematically against people of colour in Britain as Enoch Powell and others feared national disintegration from their presence and ever more racially restrictive immigration laws were passed.
Is it too much to expect the majority of White Britons to empathise with Black Britons over these aspects of our national story? To the defence that things have changed, that there is a progressive move away from overt racism, and that Britain is less racist than other European countries despite its legacy of empire, I would urge the ‘anti-woke’ to examine two things.
First, how such progress has come about. From their victimisation in the 1919 race riots through the Bristol bus boycotts, the New Cross fire, the Stephen Lawrence campaign and other instances, it has been the mobilisation primarily of Black Britons against racism which has spurred official enquiry and legal reform. This progress too is a result of the empire. Britain’s vibrant communities of Black activists, themselves a product of late- and post-imperial migration, and their white allies have been responsible for what progress there has been. It is the European countries that are overwhelmingly White which still tend to espouse the racial ideas that were disseminated within and beyond the British Empire most vigorously. Secondly, there is still a long way to go to address the structural inequalities that racial discrimination over centuries, and across the world, has seeded in the UK itself. One need only look at the Office for National Statistics figures on ethnic and racial disparity or the painful and ongoing Windrush scandal to understand this.
Culture warrior scholars like Nigel Biggar could certainly do with showing a little more empathy. He may criticise Hicks for having little sympathy for Victorian Englishmen, but his own account of the Benin Expedition derives solely from the racist pretexts that these men provided for their assault. He makes no attempt to engage with historians who have examined the expedition from the perspective of its African victims. At the very least, some more engagement with historians might have allowed him to contextualise the horrors that the British expedition members reported. This does not entail excusing the evidence of human sacrifice (explained by experts on the region as the ritual punishment of criminals and those accused of witchcraft rather than arbitrary and mass killing), but it might entail an appreciation that perhaps the sacking and looting of a city and the killing of those who resisted might be seen as a fairly extreme response to what was essentially a trade dispute.
Biggar’s other claim to justification for the expedition was the “massacre” of a “a diplomatic mission, whose nine White members, led by Acting Consul James Phillips, had been deliberately unarmed, “apart from revolvers”. In fact Phillips had written to the Foreign Office before his departure for Benin that he intended “to depose and remove the King of Benin and to establish a native council in his place”. It was not just nine “unarmed” (if we can describe revolvers as not arms) white men on the mission. Phillips reported that he had “a sufficient armed Force, consisting of 250 troops, two seven pounder guns, 1 Maxim, and 1 rocket apparatus of the N.C.PE, and a detachment of Lagos Hausas 150 strong.” The postscript was appended: “I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory may be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses in removing the king from his stool” (Evo Ekpo, The Dialects of Definitions: “Massacre” and “sack” in the history of the Punitive Expedition, African Arts, 30, 3, Summer 1997, 34-5; James D. Graham, The Slave Trade, Depopulation and Human Sacrifice in Benin History: The general approach, Cahiers d’Études Africaines , 5, 18, 1965, 317-334).
If it is incumbent on activists to attend to the sensitivities of those who cherish imperial era statues and legitimations, then perhaps it is even more incumbent on those of us brought up to cherish these things to listen to, and empathise with, those whose heritage includes mass killing, dispossession, oppression, and exploitation by White Britons engaged in imperial projects. Can we not empathise enough with Black Britons today to see how commemorating men who enslaved, killed, conquered and exploited their ancestors might not be conducive to a “shared national story”, as History Reclaimed puts it?
The Education secretary has now joined the Equalities Minister, arguing that the ‘positives’ of the British Empire should be taught to British schoolchildren. As if they haven’t been taught to us all for the last one hundred years.
Nadhim Zahawi’s choice of example is striking though. He suggests that children could be taught about the benefits that the British colonial civil service created to govern Iraq brought to the country’s people. That civil service was set up after the former Ottoman territory was mandated to British rule, without local people having any say in the matter, following the First World War.
In the light of our own government’s attempts to continue justifying invasion, suppression, occupation and the denial of sovereignty to others, perhaps we also should be more forgiving of President Putin’s attempts to brainwash the Russian people in favour of the invasion of Ukraine? After all, who knows, future generations of Ukrainians might be just as grateful for a Russian administration imposed upon their country as modern Iraqis are for the British civil service?
One hundred years ago an Iraqi rebellion against British rule was finally ended with the aid of the world’s first major aerial bombing campaign. It was led by ‘Bomber Harries’ twenty years before his more famous campaign against Germany. Few Britons know about it, but it played a significant role in creating the Middle East as we know it today, and helped set the scene for the rise of ISIS.
The rebellion in Mesopotamia (Iraq) resulted in a pattern of Western-backed, authoritarian governments suppressing Arab nationalist movements. The prospects for democratic, liberal states have since been squeezed between the extremes of such client states on the one hand, and enraged Islamic fundamentalist opposition on the other.
The seeds were sown during the First World War. Britain occupied the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the centre and Basra in the south. When British and Indian forces marched into Baghdad in 1917, they proclaimed themselves liberators rather than conquerors. T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) suggested a form of governance on the model of the princely states in British India, where the local nobility was cajoled, bullied and bribed into governing largely on Britain’s behalf, but the first British High Commissioner, Percy Cox disagreed.
Cox felt that ‘the people of Mesopotamia had come to accept the fact of our occupation and were resigned to the prospect of a permanent British administration’. His successor, Col. Arnold Wilson, abolished what representative institutions the Ottoman Empire had installed and replaced Arab with British officials, refusing permission for an Arab delegation to seek independence at the Paris peace conference. The calculations of a dependence on oil and knowledge of the resources that lay under the ground played a vital role in the British strategy to hold on to the region, as Zahawi’s colleague, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng recognised in his well-researched history of the empire.
With the League of Nations granting Britain the region as a mandate, the three provinces were merged to create the modern nation state of Iraq. British forces suppressed the protests and demonstrations that ensued. Britain had seized upon the opportunity provided by the League of Nations mandate to extend its influence across the oil rich Middle East, along a strategic belt between Suez and the Persian Gulf – a belt already surrounded by existing British possessions. Despite the League of Nations’ insistence on the right of national self-determination, the interests of the local population were very much a secondary consideration. The British helped establish a tradition where its strategic location and resources made the Middle East too attractive to Western powers for them to allow for self-determination.
The mandated government, with its newly established civil service, was effectively a military occupation. As Lawrence tried to explain to the British public, ‘Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows’. In 1919, the Kurds were the first to rebel, with British forces crushing their resistance. By June 1920, the occupying British forces were facing a much larger insurrection as disbanded ex-Ottoman soldiers, Islamists objecting to heathen governance and pro-independence Arab forces, both Sunni and Shia, combined to eject the ‘liberators’. A particular issue was the insensitivity of demanding a burial tax for Shias in the Wadi-us-Salaam Cemetery in Najaf.
Facing 130,000 rebels the British found themselves embroiled in the largest British-led military campaign of the inter-war period. The commander in chief, General Haldane, cabled London that the ‘rebellion has spread almost to Baghdad, where my position is by no means secure’.
The rebellion was gradually brought under control using similar tactics to those of the Boer War, with mobile columns trapping rebels between blockhouses along railways and using scorched earth tactics, burning villages, destroying food supplies and killing livestock, regardless of the impact on non-combatants.
A new tactic was added, however, once War Secretary Winston Churchill authorised it. Rebel clusters were bombed from the air, with the British at least planning to use ‘gas shells in quantity … with excellent moral effect’ among 100 tonnes of bombs. Churchill admitted, ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes … [to] spread a lively terror’. By 1922, as the rebellion fizzled out, over four hundred British and Indian soldiers had been killed with rebel fatalities officially 8,450 but likely closer to 10,000 given the inability to count casualties of the bombs.
Bomber Harris proclaimed that the Arabs and Kurds ‘now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured’.
By the beginning of 1922, embarrassed by the costs of maintaining direct rule against such opposition, Britain had overseen the installation of their wartime Arab ally King Faisal, to govern Iraq with British interests in mind. Even after Iraqi independence in 1932, the British insisted on retaining RAF bases with which to threaten continued bombing in the region. It did so to help the new client Iraqi regime suppress ongoing Kurdish resistance.
British imperial authorities, the autocrats that they promoted to govern in their interests, and the Islamic radical movements that arose in response to their interference, have all played their part in stymying the development of liberal democracies in the Middle East. This is just one more facet of our Empire’s legacies that we choose to overlook when we celebrate our imperial past, and especially when we proclaim its legacy of liberal democracy and good governance around the world. If the current government really want to distance themselves from the kind of nationalistic propaganda that Putin is purveying to justify the bombing of innocent civilians and the denial of self-determination, perhaps they should cease urging that similar propaganda be taught to our children.
Background: On 9th January 2022, Robert Tombs, Emeritus Professor of French History at the University of Cambridge and myself debated the legacies of the British empire, all too briefly, on the GB TV News Channel’s The Debate programme. I followed up by contacting Prof Tombs, asking if he would like to engage in further debate. He invited me to submit an essay, to which he would respond, on his History Reclaimed website. I agreed and suggested that the exchange be about the relationship between the British Empire and Race, to which he assented. Below is that exchange with my initial essay, Prof Tombs’ response and my final rejoinder, which Prof Tombs kindly agreed to have as the ‘last word’ since he had had that privilege in the TV debate. At present I am awaiting publication of that rejoinder, only just sent to Prof Tombs, on the History Reclaimed website, but here is the exchange in full in the meantime:
The British Empire and Race
By Alan Lester
Historians’ approach to the past is inevitably inflected by the politics of our own time. However, the ‘culture’ war has been marked by purely politically motivated commentary on the British Empire. The Empire cannot be reduced to racism but nor should the extent of its racism be denied as part of a backlash against Black Lives Matter. The following broad conclusions are based on extensive archival research and consensus among specialists.
Racial Violence Empires have been the norm in history. Britain’s was possible only with indigenous collaboration. Resistance to it was fractured by ‘tribal’, religious, and other distinctions. Its violence was not directed only against people of colour.
Yet the British Empire’s maintenance of White people’s rule over people of colour on six continents was unique. Only the other modern European and American empires came close in scale and racial differentiation. Antecedent empires were generally founded on contiguous land annexation and with shallower gradations of phenotypical difference.
White colonists’ building of Caribbean and American plantation colonies with enslaved African people’s labour from the 17th to the early 19th centuries, was a key foundation of the Empire’s enduring association between ‘race’ and status. By 1807 Britons had transported 3 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. Within the next half century, they and their descendants had decimated Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians; subjected the Xhosa to eight wars of colonial expansion; exploited the Mughal collapse to conquer much of India; and fought three wars against Māori.
When Germany and Belgium developed empires in the Scramble for Africa later in the 19th century, some indigenous leaders appealed for British ‘Protection’ to retain self-determination. Elsewhere Britons continued to extend their interests aggressively. Just three years, 1838, 1857 and 1879, saw the first and second invasions of Afghanistan, the first and second Opium Wars, the suppression of the Indian Uprising and wars of conquest against Xhosa, Griqua, Pedi and Zulu. In 1896, Colonel Callwell wrote a guide for British soldiers engaged in the empire’s ‘small wars’, against ‘savages … provided with poor weapons.’ There were over sixty such wars during the second half of the nineteenth century.
It is impossible to calculate how many people of colour were killed in Britain’s imperial conquests since they were never systematically counted, but from the estimates we have of recorded conflicts, it is safe to say they number in the millions.
Discriminatory Rule and Consent Despite a tradition of anti-colonial thought in Britain, people of colour were generally subordinated in status to White colonists. In most colonies even the poorest White women had access to Black people’s domestic labour, and corporal punishment of servants was common. Across the Empire, racial discrimination, often finely graded according to ethnicity or skin shade, conditioned everyday life, including access to jobs, the law, health care, education, democracy, and the railways.
British rule in India was distinct, with Indian elites acting as subordinate partners. The East India Company controlled the nobility and brought security to merchants. After the 1857 Uprising, a British-educated Indian middle class grew to administer the civil service. These groups prospered amidst increasing inequality.
There is insufficient data to track the well-being of the mass of the Indian population under British rule, but the government spent little on agriculture, healthcare, or education while some Indian taxation revenue was transferred to Britain as East India Company shareholder dividends, railway investor subsidies, and ‘home charges’. A conservative estimate is that 20 million Indians died in the major famines under British rule. Aside from the devastating Bengal Famine in 1943, major famines became rarer and government responses better in the 20th century, with none after independence.
Across the Empire, rebellions were a regular occurrence. In 1860 the Colonial Office advised on the distribution of imperial military resources. Perceiving the main threat at this time not so much from external powers as from subjects ruled without their consent, they used a formula based on each colony’s ratio of White colonists to ‘natives’.
Abolishing Slavery and Expanding the Empire Britain’s role in anti-slavery is erroneously conflated with anti-racism. When Britain followed Denmark in abolishing its slave trade in 1807 it also sent patrols to seize other nations’ slave ships: the result both of antislavery campaigners’ commitment and of an attempt to deny rival nations the benefits of the trade. The Royal Navy rescued 60,000 African captives, most of whom were either pressed into the British military or assigned to colonists as unpaid ‘apprentices’ for 10-20 years.
Upon the British abolition of slavery in 1834, fifty years after northern US states had outlawed it and forty years after Saint-Domingue rebels had overthrown it, British slave owners were compensated for the loss of their ‘property’. Many reinvested in settler colonies, and in British infrastructure and institutions. Labour shortages on plantations were met through the indenture and transport of 1.5 million British Indian subjects.
Most African colonies were conquered after slavery was abolished, some with the justification of supressing indigenous slavery. Despite continuing British action against slavery around the world, the wars of confederation in southern Africa from 1878 to 1902 were influenced by Charles Dilke’s popular vision of a Greater Britain reflecting ‘the grandeur of our race.’ Dilke saw the ‘defeat of the cheaper by the dearer peoples’ as essential for the spread of civilization and applauded the fact that ‘the Anglo-Saxon is the only extirpating race on earth’.
Scientific racism developed after abolition and Britain led the way in eugenics even if it did not apply these principles as extensively as in the USA and Germany. The most popular notion in Britain was that that Black people lagged as children do to adults. Colonialism would eventually render them responsible enough for a share in their own governance. Missionaries and antislavery campaigners supported the Empire on these grounds. However, the records of British colonists themselves are characterised by an everyday, condescending sense of racial superiority.
When indigenous subjects assimilated to British culture and claimed the civilisational rights promised they were still treated as inferior. Lord Salisbury, Secretary of State for India, admitted that ‘If England was to remain supreme … she must tolerate the political role of Indian princes and of participation by Indians in the administration’, but that ‘if the number of well-educated Indians … should increase, the government would face the … necessity of closing that avenue to them’. British-educated Indians and their counterparts in Africa turned to anticolonial nationalism to demand equality and policies of colonial development came too late to appease them. Meanwhile, Canadian and Australian colonial governments removed indigenous and so-called ‘half-caste’ children from their families and placed them in White-run institutions, often characterised by abuse, to prevent future generations of distinct indigenous people.
Transitioning from Empire After WWII the British Empire was in retreat, but its geography has left an indelible imprint. Generations of Britons have been conditioned to think of Britain as a White country even if most of its subjects were people of colour located overseas. The fact that Britain was an empire rather than an island nation was widely disavowed until the empire ‘came home’.
From 1948, many more Black and Asian citizens exercising their right to live in the UK were met with verbal and physical abuse and discrimination, which confined them to poorer housing, schooling, and occupation. Most Britons agreed with Enoch Powell that inter-communal conflict would result from further immigration. Labour and Conservative governments have responded with increasingly restrictive and racially discriminatory immigration legislation, enabling the Windrush scandal.
Antiracist campaigning has rendered it illegal to racially abuse and discriminate and a larger proportion of the White population now oppose racism. In the absence of any decisive rupture or reckoning with nostalgic views of Empire, however, many still hold the view that ‘those natives were never meant to come here and live next door’. Official figures reveal disparities in income, criminal justice, housing, and employment that cannot be explained in the absence of institutional racism, and similar numbers of people believe racism exists in the country today (84%) as believe it existed 30 years ago (86%). The British Empire secured prosperity for many people, but we should acknowledge that its legacy of racism is not a fiction of the Black Lives Matter movement.
 Thanks to Saul Dubow, Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History, University of Cambridge, Catherine Hall, Professor Emerita of Modern British History at University College London, and Michael Taylor, historian and author, for very helpful comments on a first draft of this essay. Any lapses are my own.
 See for example, Trevor Burnard, Jamaica in the Age of Revolution, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020; Kate Fullagar, Michael A. McDonnell and Daniel K. Richter (eds), Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018; Lester, Imperial Networks; Jon Wilson, India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire, Simon and Schuster, 2017; Ann Curthoys and Jessie Mitchell, Taking Liberty: Indigenous Rights and Settler Self-Government in Colonial Australia, 1830-1890, Cambridge University Press, 2018; James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders, Penguin, 2007.
 Thomas Packenham, The Scramble for Africa, Abacus, 1992; Jane Samson, Imperial Benevolence: Making British Authority in the Pacific Islands, University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
 Alan Lester, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
 Stephen M. Miller (ed) Queen Victoria’s Wars: British Military Campaigns, 1857-1902, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
 Cecily Jones, Engendering Whiteness: White Women and Colonialism in Barbados and North Carolina, 1627-1865, Manchester University Press, 2007; Fae Dussart, In the Service of Empire: Domestic Service and Mastery in Metropole and Colony, Bloomsbury, 2022.
 See for example Curthoys and Mitchell, Taking Liberty; Elizabeth Kolsky, Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law, Cambridge University Press, 2011; Saul Dubow, Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid in South Africa, 1919–36, Oxford University Press, 1989; Thomas Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991; Jon Wilson, India Conquered.
 Tirthankar Roy, The Economic History of India, 1857-2010, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, 2020, and An Economic History of India 1707-1857, 2nd Edition, Routledge, 2022.
 Roy, The Economic History of India, 1857-2010, 67, 94, 335.
 Tirthankar Roy, Were Indian Famines ‘Natural’ Or ‘Manmade’? LSE Economic History Working Papers No: 243/2016
 Richard Brown, Resistance and Rebellion in the British Empire 1600-1980, Clio Publishing, 2013
 Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy, Liberated Africans and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807-1896, Rochester University Press, 2020.
 Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland, Nicholas Draper, Katie Donington, and Rachel Lang, Legacies of British Slave-ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2014; Alan Lester and Nikita Vanderbyl, Feature: Legacies Of Slave
Ownership: ‘The Restructuring of the British Empire and the Colonization of Australia, 1832–8’, History Workshop Journal, Volume 90, Autumn 2020, 165–252.
 David Northrup, Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834-1922, Cambridge University Press, 1995; Madhavi Kale, Fragments of Empire: Capital, Slavery, and Indian Indentured Labor in the British Caribbean, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998; Adam McKeown, ‘Global Migration 1846-1940’, Journal of World History, 19,2, 2004, 158.
 C. W. Dilke, Greater BritainA Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries During 1866-7, J. B. Lippincott and Macmillan, 1869, preface.
 R. Jenkins, Dilke: A Victorian Tragedy, Bloomsbury, 1996, 28; Duncan Bell, Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America, Princeton University Press, 2020.
 Philippa Levine, Eugenics: A Very Short introduction, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2017.
 Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867, Verso, 2002.
 For one example among hundreds of studies, see Brett Shadle, The Souls of White Folk: White Settlers in Kenya, 1900s-1920s, Manchester University Press, 2015.
 P. Smith, ‘Cecil, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-, third marquess of Salisbury (1830–1903), prime minister, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2011, retrieved 28 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-32339
 Judith Brown, Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1991; Saul Dubow, The African National Congress, Sutton, 2000; Roy, The Economic History of India, 213; Joseph M. Hodge, Gerald Hödl and Maryina Kopf, Developing Africa: Concepts and Practices in Twentieth-Century Colonialism, Manchester University Press, 2014.
 Julie Evans, Patricia Grimshaw, David Philips, and Shurlee Swain, Equal subjects, Unequal Rights: Indigenous People in British settler colonies, 1830s–1910, Manchester University Press, 2018.
 Eleanor Passmore and Andrew Thompson, ‘Multiculturalism, Decolonisation and Immigration
Policy in Britain and France after the Second World War’, in Andrew Thompson and Kent Fedorowich (eds), Empire, Migration and Identity in the British World, Manchester University Press, 2015, 247-64.
 The figures in opinion polls ranged from 67 to 82 per cent. Bill Schwarz, The White Man’s World: Memories of Empire vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2011, 48.
 Ian Sanjkay Patel, We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire, Verso 2021.
 Quote from Patel, We’re Here, vii. Observation from personal experience of conversations among White people.
Reply: The British Empire in Context By Robert Tombs
I never expected that I would find myself writing in defence of the British Empire, which is not a scholarly interest of mine, and I do not pretend to any expertise. I will not try to contest Professor Lester in detail, however occasionally tempting. For example, the ‘decimation’ of aboriginal peoples in Australia was probably due to smallpox carried by South Asian fishermen; Britain was never an empire, nor was there free movement within the empire; it is misleading to suggest that slavery was abolished in the northern USA before it was abolished throughout the British empire; although slave owners received compensation, it was not paid by the slaves – unlike the unfortunate Russian serfs a generation later; it is tendentious to imply that famines in India were caused by imperial government, when that government’s Famine Codes pioneered modern responses to famine; and so on.
I am more interested in the overall approach taken by many academics and commentators today, of whom Professor Lester is a notable example. I agree with his balanced comment that “the ‘culture’ war has been marked by purely politically motivated commentary on the British Empire … Empires have been the norm in history. Britain’s was possible only with indigenous collaboration.” Most of his own article, in contrast, is written as an indictment, avowedly politically informed. Are sustained negativity and rigorous selectivity convincing? Is this the only credible interpretation?
The Empire conferred certain benefits, including protection from foreign attack, access to international trade, modern administration, technology, capital investment and order. It did so fairly cheaply: taxation was lower than in independent states. There were gainers and losers, and whether its subject people regarded it positively or negatively depends on who, when and where. The voices of freed slaves, women spared forced marriages, or people saved from ritual sacrifice are mainly lost, unlike those of the celebrated anti-colonial elite. Independence gave huge advantages to the latter, who took power in former colonies, but this was not a liberation for all their peoples, many of whom were worse governed after independence. The end of the empire over the 1940s, 50s and 60s was in many ways a liberation for Britain, whose economy, finances and security had been skewed by possession of an empire. I don’t think any of this is contentious. Why then should there now have appeared, at least in some quarters, an obsessive interest in the Empire?
I think Alan Lester’s piece helps us to understand. He is a serious scholar. Nevertheless, his focus – to the exclusion of almost everything else – is on race and violence. What was unique about the British Empire, he suggests, was the extent of “White people’s rule over people of colour”, whereas most other empires had “shallower gradations of phenotypical difference.” The unusual phraseology is a significant clue. He is approaching the history of the empire through the eyes of the 21st century, or more precisely, through certain 21st-century eyes – seemingly those of post-colonial nationalism and Critical Race Theory, whose political record and theoretical assertions are highly questionable.
In part this revives a very old historical debate. Is our aim to understand the past as ‘a foreign country’ (an insight that ‘humanity gradually learned’), or to summarily annex it to our own times and subordinate it to our own beliefs? There is no easy answer. It would be repugnant to attempt to judge Nazism or Communism by their own standards. But it would be ludicrous to criticize the Ottoman Empire for, let us say, not being a democracy.
Can the British Empire be assessed dispassionately, in the way we might assess the Ottoman or Mughal empires? I remember being struck by one very distinguished global historian referring to massive violence by the Mughals as ‘extreme solutions’ to achieve ‘internal pacification’. We would not use those terms of the British in Amritsar in 1919.
This is not simply a chronological question, by which one might say that dispassionate analysis is possible after a certain lapse of time. It is also dependent on whether there are people alive who claim some stake: people who are, or who consider themselves to be, in some way victims of empire, or indeed its beneficiaries. There is also ideology. Many people judge ‘colonialism’ more evil than the alternatives, and this inevitably colours their work. Even defensive wars are considered wars of aggression if they take place within an empire.
The recent desire among some academics – often very publicly manifested — to pass moral judgment on the British Empire is unusual. Historians of the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, or the Mughal Empire rarely if ever pronounce moral verdicts or support campaigns to pull down statues of Mehmed II or Aurangzeb, or place apologetic notices on the Coliseum. That is not what modern historiography is about. Historians normally seek to analyse how things worked, and how people thought. Yet numerous academics tried to stop Professor Nigel Biggar’s research project on ‘Ideas of Empire’, and several other historians of empire are cancelled and even threatened if they undertake such analysis.
Professor Lester seems to condemn the British Empire and other European empires firstly because pale-skinned people ruled darker-skinned people – that gradation of phenotypes. He gives a list of violent episodes and inequalities because they seem to back up his overall standpoint. Do they?
Imagine trying to assess the British Empire — ‘a global mosaic of almost ungraspable complexity and staggering contrasts’ — in the way that other historical empires – ‘the norm in history’ in Lester’s words –are assessed. What would one need to do? To look at its economic policies and their outcomes; at its effectiveness in keeping the peace and in fostering health and education, its costs in terms of taxation or other forms of economic extraction, its cultural achievements, and the degree of support given by its peoples. And one would need some standard of comparison: with contemporary empires, such as the French, Russian or Dutch; with settler states such as the USA or Brazil; with states that were not colonized (for example China, Thailand, or Ethiopia); with non-state societies (such as New Guinea); with previous rulers; and with successor governments in former colonies.
But comparison seems lacking. Indeed, some comparisons seem to be taboo, and those who make them risk being vilified and silenced. Many academics appear to espouse the nationalist myths of postcolonial states, which in some notable cases are their own countries. These myths highlight oppression and resistance, and privilege the voices of opponents of empire. These were often the nationalist elites of those societies, whose rule, when it came, was sometimes more oppressive, more corrupt, and indeed more violent and racist, than that of the former colonial authorities.
One could list episodes of pre-colonial and post-colonial violence as Professor Lester lists cases of colonial violence. I am not clear whether he and those who adopt similar positions think that violence committed by Zulus, Asante, Marathas, Arab slave traders and so on is morally neutral. If so, is this not adopting the position he ascribes to the colonialists – that indigenous peoples are like children? And are today’s oppressors not being let off the hook?
Comparison may be difficult, requiring a wide range of knowledge. Yet without at least a broad comparative perspective, judgments are arbitrary, even meaningless. Professor Lester characterizes the British Empire as violent. Was it more violent than other empires, European and non-European? More violent than the rulers it replaced, or than those who succeeded it? What exactly is being claimed?
What is really going on in postcolonial studies? Here again, Professor Lester indicates the crux of the matter. Studying the empire is important because “its legacy of racism”, he asserts, makes us institutionally racist today. This, surely, is what this is really about, and it is reflected in monographs rolling off University presses as well as in fashionable best-sellers and school textbooks. It does not pretend to be dispassionate scholarship. Is it any more than sophisticated propaganda?
For many commentators, “empire” has become not a historical phenomenon to be understood: an improvised and imperfect attempt to manage an unstable 19th century world and control the collision of societies at different stages of development. Rather, it is an abstract symbol: of ‘oppression’, of ‘whiteness’, of ‘institutional racism’. No other perspective is to be entertained. Hence Lester’s reductionist portrayal of the Empire as a single minded process of aggressive racial conquest. We see a parallel attempt to make slavery central to empire: both by downplaying the significance of abolition, and by attempting to discredit it as merely an excuse for imperial expansion (ironically, the very argument used by 19th century slave traders). From this follows the widespread campaign to ‘decolonize’ almost everything.
But is it true that Britain today is institutionally racist as a consequence of empire? Alan Lester cites as evidence hostile journalistic reactions to the Sewell Report. But there is a large recent (2018) study, and a comparative one, which provides a meaningful assessment. It was carried out by the European Union covering all member states including Britain, and it is based on the experiences of members of ethnic minorities. Perceptions of being racially harassed are lowest in Britain and Malta. Violence between people of different ethnic groups is lowest in Britain and Portugal. Friction with the police is among the lowest in the UK, and awareness of anti-discrimination laws is highest. Discrimination in employment is lowest in the UK, and the percentage not in work, education or training is also lowest. Pay for men is highest, and for women second highest. The experience of being discriminated against by landlords is lowest, and ownership of accommodation highest. Among the most racist countries, in contrast, are Ireland and Finland, where the experience of racial violence is roughly four times higher than in Britain. Where does this leave Alan Lester’s grand narrative? “The British Empire secured prosperity for many people, but we should acknowledge that its legacy of racism is not a fiction of the Black Lives Matter movement.” The evidence suggests that only the first part of this statement is true.
 Judy Campbell, Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780-1880 (Melbourne University Press, 2002)
 Helen Toye and John O’Neill, eds, A World Without Famine? New Approaches to Aid and Development (London: Macmillan, 1998)
 David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country: Revisited (Cambridge University Press, 2015)
 Sir Christopher Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) pp 91-2
 Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968 (Cambridge University Press, 2006) p 3
I want to begin by thanking Professor Tombs for providing this opportunity to respond to his comments. In return I have promised to be very brief. I will not, therefore, further substantiate the five relatively minor contextual points with which Professor Tombs takes issue, especially after his admirable admission of a lack of expertise. Rather, I will follow his lead and discuss the broad contours of our respective approaches, using a metaphorical shotgun rather than a rapier.
Most of Professor Tombs’ objections can be addressed quite simply. We agreed that my preliminary essay was to be on the relationship between the British Empire and race. Hence its title, hence my focus, ‘to the exclusion of almost everything else … on race and violence’, and hence my lack of attention to Russian serfs, Mughal ‘pacification’ or the record of any other empire. Perhaps naively, I had assumed that Professor Tombs would stick to the same topic. However, his response calls for a moral comparison of the British and other empires. Had I been offered such a topic I would have declined. Neither of us has the expertise to comment on other empires meaningfully; the data with which to compare subjects’ experiences of different empires is inconsistent, inaccessible to us and inadequate; there is no objective basis on which to compare imperial moralities, and there is no space to do so without absurd reductionism. To evaluate the British Empire against others is thus a political rather than an historical approach. It is rich that Professor Tombs characterises my research of the last thirty years as being politically driven. Over the last decade Professor Tombs’ historical reflections have included Briefings for Britain – an historical toolkit for pro-Brexit politicians – and articles in the mainstream press about how our memorial heritage should be preserved in the wake of Black Lives Matter. I leave it for the reader to judge which of us is ‘approaching the history of the empire through the eyes of the 21st century, or more precisely, through certain 21st-century eyes’.
I will conclude by returning to what can be said about the British Empire and race. Professor Tombs chooses not to contest my main points: that the British Empire was founded in violence against people of colour; that its colonies were governed through racial stratification so that gains and losses were apportioned primarily (although not exclusively) according to race; that British antislavery was not antiracism and did not preclude further violent conquest, and that Black citizens of empire faced racial discrimination when they settled in Britain. Rather, he concludes by mentioning a 2018 survey showing that other European countries were more racist. This finding does not surprise me. The White supremacist ideas that the British Empire did so much to contribute to the world were of course shared by other Europeans. Their legacy is everywhere. We must acknowledge that significant progress has been made in contesting and rejecting these ideas, especially in Britain, since it became a more diverse society. We should also recognise those primarily responsible for that progress: the relatively large community of Black Britons descended from colonised people and their White allies, who have campaigned against racism for the last seventy years or so. Finally, we should ask ourselves whether we want that progress to continue to outstrip the progress of other countries. I suggest that if we do, dismissing antiracist campaigners as ‘woke’ and denying that there is still significant racism to deal with is not the way to go.
A group of scholars including Andrew Roberts, Robert Tombs, Zareer Masani and the ubiquitous Nigel Biggar, has banded together to create the History Reclaimed Project. It consists at present of a website and social media presence that aims to rescue neutral, disinterested, evidence-based historical enquiry from a supposed ‘woke’ assault. In particular the group believes this assault is directed at our understanding of Britain’s imperial past. Most of the short articles and book reviews on the site, including Gilley’s now notorious “The Case for Colonialsm“, have been published elsewhere. They are collated under the project’s auspices to create economies of scale for a group of scholars who believe themselves to be marginalised and gagged (despite Biggar’s CBE).
The group introduces its project as defending a “shared history” and speaks of society needing “a sense of common purpose and self-worth”. It claims that these attributes are being undermined by historians and activists who draw attention to the racialised violence of the British Empire. A “shared history”, it says, “is a necessary foundation for a successful democracy”. The language betrays the most problematic element of the way that some conservatives more broadly have responded to the challenge of Black Lives Matter. For the history that this group defends is far from “shared’”. It is the history created by White Britons over many decades to justify their denial of sovereignty to others. The millions of people of colour around the world who were made British subjects whether they liked it or not, tended to endure a very different historical experience from these White Britons – as subjects rather than citizens, as enslaved, indentured or otherwise coerced labourers rather than employers, as servants rather than masters and mistresses, and as dispossessed rather than landed. Continuing to write their experiences out of “our” supposedly “shared” history means denying that Black Britons’ heritage belongs to “our” national story. History Reclaimed refuses to recognise this continuing exclusion of Black Britons from a dominant vein of historical interpretation. Accordingly it misplaces the blame for the division and dissent that it detects in Britain and its former settler colonies. This group blames the “woke”, when it is the continuing resistance that Black Britons and Indigenous peoples face as they seek to make their voices heard that is the root cause.
Activists motivated by the need to address racism and denial do sometimes get historical detail and individual attribution wrong, but what they get right, and what History Reclaimed gets so wrong, is the bigger picture: the British Empire was, above all else, a vehicle of white supremacy. Whatever its liberal adherents at home in Britain desired and said, it rested upon people of colour being violently subjugated, their land taken and their being put to work for White Britons. History Reclaimed exists not so as to rescue History from inaccuracy or bias (both of which characteristics are abundantly in evidence in its own pages), but in order to perpetuate ignorance of this central characteristic of Empire. This otherwise quite disparate group of contributors is intent on continuing a pattern of denial and disavowal which dates from the days of empire itself. What they want to reclaim history from is the truth.
Scholarship and Propaganda There are some things on the History Reclaimed site which seem perfectly reasonable. Saul David offers a decent précis of the complex array of actors involved in the South African War and points to its legacies for a racially segregationist form of governance. I wouldn’t disagree with the framing of its introduction – that ‘Boer War’ memorial interpretations should take this complexity into account. What seems to drive this group’s broader approach, however, is a Manichean view of history: a belief that the primary purpose and effect of history writing is either to condemn or to redeem White Britons. Where they see scholars of empire piling on condemnation, their belief is that they are needed to restore redemptive balance.
Given the general lack of engagement with the recent academic historiography, the group’s claim to protect nuanced, complex and holistic historical research seems disingenuous. Nigel Biggar’s review of Dan Hick’s Brutish Museums and Robert Tombs’ criticism of the V&A for returning some looted Asante treasures both take imperial propaganda of the late nineteenth century, which justified the assaults on Benin and Asante respectively, as a truth overlooked by their targets. Biggar emphasises the brutality of the Benin kingdom and Tombs points out that the Asante kingdom was founded in part on slave trading. They miss the broader point completely, that such justification served to legitimate British wars of aggression and occupation which contributed to tens of thousands of deaths, the Scramble for Africa, the denial of sovereignty to African people and their treatment as second class subjects governed directly or indirectly by White people in their own territories. Rather than rigorous historical enquiry, it is the propaganda for aggressive wars, racial supremacy and overseas occupation that they seek to “reclaim”.
Hyperbole Some of History Reclaimed’s featured articles, such as Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes’ defence of Churchill’s reputation react to the hyperbole of detractors, but descend into their own fantasies of legal equality and an apparently universal British desire for “the best for the peoples of their Empire”. Many of the articles suffer from their own forms of hyperbole. Joanna Williams’ article on critical race theory starts promisingly, with a reasonable overview of its origins in the recognition of structural racism but descends into a rant about the existential threat that the scholarly field now poses to Western civilisation. Many of the other contributions also stereotype antiracist initiatives, rather than the failure to act sufficiently against racism, as fundamentally undermining Western societies.
In an article primarily on the Canadian Historical Association’s decision to adopt the description “genocide” for the forced assimilation of First Nations people, Liam Kennedy declares that “the CHA directive is worse than any of the ideologically-loaded pronouncements that shaped the Irish Famine debates. None of the antagonists in those controversies sought to close down discussion. There was no burning of books”. As far as I am aware the CHA has not called for discussion to be closed or for books to be burned. Kennedy also asks, “But do they [the CHA] want to go a stage further and endorse the genocide thesis as a test of faith or virtual entry requirement to the profession?” Well, no.
I quite agree with Kennedy that “Hallmarks of the historian include confronting complex historical experiences with intellectual integrity and attention to context, evidence, and the values of the time. Holistic accounts are normally preferred to selective and partisan renderings of the past that can be dished up so easily in the service of contemporary political positions”. Following this advice, however, surely means refusing to overlook the evidence of forced assimilation and governmental attempts to eradicate a separate Indigenous culture? A project designed to exonerate Britons of past culpability for acts of oppression seems to me just as void of intellectual integrity as any extreme “woke” statement.
Both C. R. Hallpik and Nigel Biggar are willing to go further than Kennedy, explicitly positioning Indigenous and African groups lower than White Britons in a hierarchy of civilisation. Hallpik’s article asserts that it is quite legitimate and accurate to portray Indigenous societies as primitive and less culturally evolved than Western societies. Presumably the point of its inclusion here is for us to infer that the colonisation of such societies by Britons, the usurpation of their land, the killing of those who resisted, and the enforced cultural assimilation of survivors, was justifiable on the grounds of some greater human good. Perhaps the real clue as to what drives this project as a whole is found in Biggar’s comment: “It is clear that the [British colonial] officials did regard the cultures of many African peoples as “primitive”. But I doubt they deserve blame for that, since — whether in terms of science, technology or medicine — African cultures were, compared to European ones, obviously underdeveloped in the 1920s”.
Liberalism and Culture War In an article reproduced from the Telegraph, Nigel Biggar and Doug Stokes argue that ‘woke’ criticisms of the West’s history undermine the liberalism upon which Westerners rely for their security and prosperity. They fail to see that they are part of the backlash against precisely the most precious aspects of Western liberalism that have been won since 1945 – gains such as the rights of women and civil rights of Black people, that are now under assault from populists on the Right. The culture wars were started in the USA in the 1960s by conservatives resisting these most progressive elements of Western liberalism. The group is aligned with those doing their very best to undermine these gains with their complaints about the nihilism of the ‘woke’.
The academic historians whose work I have read in many years of reviewing for many publishers generally seek to characterise the British Empire as accurately and inclusively as possible, regardless of the feelings of patriotic readers. They are written in pursuit of historical veracity rather than historical validation. They eschew the idea of historical goodies and baddies. They recognise that human agency is complex; that people who consider themselves humane can participate in oppression and that White Britons were no better or worse, intrinsically, than any other people. There is a huge body of literature on the accommodations and adaptations that colonised people made to colonial regimes, as well as on their resistance. Entangled and intimate relationships between White colonisers and Indigenous people are noted and explored sensitively in this literature. Characters are humanised.
These historians, however, also feel obliged to draw attention to the everyday racial assumptions that generally rendered White Britons citizens and colonised people of colour subjects of empire. They do not simply ignore systems of governance that enabled White people to be masters and Black people servants; White people to be employers and Black people labourers, White people to be land owners and Black people to be dispossessed. Of course there were individual and group exceptions to these patterns. Imperial subjects of colour could be employers, land owners and slave owners. As the recent scholarship indicates, by overthrowing regimes that exclude and suppress in other ways, imperialism presented new opportunities to some colonised people relative to others. But any account of empire which seeks to deny its consistent patterning of White racial privilege over colonised people of colour is blinkered to say the least.
“History has become one of the major battlegrounds in the culture wars” not because of colonial historians’ efforts but because members of History Reclaimed along with allies in the Conservative Party and the right wing press have become determined, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, to stake a defence of a racially unequal status quo on the ground of history. The group declares its aim “to inform and support individuals and institutions who feel uncertain in the face of the culture wars.” But defending a propagandistic view of the past aimed at the denial of racism will not help such people. Perhaps the best critique of the History Reclaimed project comes from the rhetoric of the group itself: “Tendentious and even blatantly false readings of history are creating divisions, resentments, and even violence. This is damaging to democracy and to a free society.”
Charles Moore uses theSpectator of 3 June to rally support for a rebel National Trust group. Calling themselves Restore Trust, this group of disaffected members and former members bemoan the institution’s supposed surrender to ‘wokeness’. They also claim a victory against it. The ‘wokeness’ is supposedly manifested in a report that the National Trust commissioned to find out more about the role that slave trading, slave ownership and colonial activities played in its properties’ history. The victory Moore claims is the resignation of the body’s chair, Tim Parker. However, the article is misleading about the cause of Parker’s resignation and, knowingly or not, it defends a racist view of British history and identity.
Moore suggests that Restore Trust, with ‘thousands of members, tens of thousands of pounds and lively contributions to its website’ pressured Parker to resign. Restore Trust has 6,100 members out of a total National Trust membership of around 6 million. That is 0.1 per cent. I cannot say how much money its tight-knit, influential leadership has raised, but having just examined its website I would contest the claim that it is ‘lively’.
Moore proclaims that ‘Restore Trust drew up resolutions for the Trust’s AGM in October. The first expressed no confidence in Mr Parker and called for his resignation. A few days after this appeared in the press, his departure was announced’. He does not mention that Parker was due to resign last year, but had agreed to continue in post until the worst of the Covid crisis was over. Nor does he mention that Parker had formally told trustees of his intention to step down a week before Restore Trust announced its resolution. The National Trust has issued a statement explaining the real cause of Parker’s resignation, stating explicitly that it had nothing to do with the agitation of the tiny minority of members opposed to an invented ‘wokeness’. Under Parker the Trust’s membership rose from 4.2 to 6 million. Leaving all this out renders Moore’s interpretation disingenuous at best.
This all follows an attempt by the same faction to get the National Trust in trouble with the charities regulator for acting outside its charitable purposes with the report. That failed when the regulator found that the Trust had acted in line with its charitable purposes and there were no grounds for regulatory action against it.
If Moore and the Restore Trust’s members are upset by the Trust offering more information to visitors, one must ask why? After all, it’s not as if Trust volunteers are being trained to grip its members in a headlock when they visit a property, drag them to a new interpretation board and supply them with whips for obligatory self-flagellation. We are free to ignore information about the origins of owning families’ wealth, just as we are to ignore all of the other contextual information about those families’ lives, and the architecture, design and provenance of the buildings, furniture, paintings and textiles that the NT also supplies. Despite the protestations of the Restore group, no one’s experience of visiting a property will be altered by this knowledge unless their curiosity gets the better of them and they seek it out.
My nearest property, Sheffield Park, has beautiful gardens enjoyed by my children on many visits in the past, even if they did sometimes illicitly climb on the trees. The National Trust website entry still tells of the eighteenth century landscape designers Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton, of Arthur Soames who owned it in the early twentieth century, of the cricket matches that were played there, and of its use by the Canadian military during World War II. The new report adds to that information that the park’s first owner, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr (1577–1618), was the first Lord Governor of the Virginia Company of London in 1609 and that the Delaware tribe, bay and river – as well as the US state – are named after him. I learned from the report that in 1769, the property was sold to John Baker Holroyd (1735–1821), later the 1st Earl of Sheffield, who defended the Atlantic slave trade. He published Observations on the Project for Abolishing the Slave Trade, writing that ‘nothing is more vain and empty than the idea that the British Legislature could immediately abolish slavery’. He denounced the ‘madness’ of the anti-slavery movement in a speech against the abolition of the slave trade in the House of Commons. Moore alleges that the NT’s report passes judgement rather than simply illuminating the past. This seems to me untrue. The bald statement of facts about Sheffield Park’s owners passes no judgement. I pass my own judgement in learning of them, although my extra understanding is actually going to make me visit Sheffield Park more often, so that my kids’ knowledge of history can be enhanced.
Moore, however, argues that the report’s passing of judgement comes ‘without writing a sentence, by its prior decision to treat ‘colonialism’ (tendentious word) as being on a par with slavery.’ Here a basic lesson in the character and history of the British Empire, which apologists like Moore defend without really understanding, seems necessary.
Slavery was but one aspect of colonialism. Abolishing it did not mean that Britons ceased conquering, subordinating and exploiting people of colour. By the mid nineteenth century, when many of the Trust’s properties had been built, the British Empire rested on three main foundations: the former slave colonies of the Caribbean, now reliant on indentured labourers recruited from colonial India; India itself, used as a source of rent extraction to line the pockets of East India Company shareholders and the Treasury, and to grow opium for smuggling into China; and the settler colonies of North America, southern Africa and Australasia, where British emigrants had forced Indigenous peoples off their land with a devastating impact on their societies. During the following decades, and despite the continued coercion of colonised people of colour to work for white Britons around the empire, the argument that Britons were an antislavery nation helped justify the conquest of further African societies.
Around a third of the National Trust’s properties were built, extended, restored or owned by people engaged in these activities. We have to ask why drawing attention to this fact so enrages Moore and his friends.
The Restore group’s engagement with history, like that of the Common Sense group of Conservative MPs in my last blog, reveals a level of emotional vulnerability that might almost be labelled ‘snowflake’. The Britishness that defines them is grounded in a history of exploration, discovery, conquest, colonisation and rule over people of colour. It is also one of civilising, Christianising and freeing those less privileged. Britain’s heritage is that of a powerful white nation only recently inundated with troublesome people of colour. It is a version of history that denies Black people’s belonging, either in Britain itself, in “our” national story, or in its manifestation in the country houses of our elite. Black Britons’ ancestral story of being colonised, enslaved and exploited by members of this elite is distanced and disavowed in this version of Britishness. Including it upsets them so greatly that they form a splinter group to take the National Trust to task for doing so.
The national heritage that Moore claims to defend is one of colonised Black British subjects’ violent dispossession, enslavement, coercion and exploitation, as much as it is one of white Britons’ generation of wealth and power through such activities. National Trust properties are testament to both sides of this story. The blinkers that Moore wants us to wear when we visit them are those of race.
Moore explains the Trust’s new work on the history of its properties, which he so despises, as a kneejerk response to ‘the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing propaganda pile-on to British institutions by Black Lives Matter’, a movement which he describes as ‘wholly, violently political, and wholly unconnected with the care of Britain’s heritage’. But Black Lives Matter is all about Britain’s heritage. It forces us to confront the question of whether Black people belong to that heritage; whether their ancestral history matters as much as white Britons’. Moore would seem to prefer it if they didn’t. Thankfully the vast majority of National Trust members seem to disagree with him.
On 7th June it will be one year since Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters dumped the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue into Bristol Harbour. Around 50 Brexiteering Tory MPs styling themselves the Common Sense Group has published Common Sense: Conservative Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age, outlining their response.
Upon first reading it I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh at its monstrous hypocrisy or cry at the very scary prospect of its “post-liberal” agenda being realised. I do know what I feel, however, about this group of hyper-nationalists’ attacks on history and BLM.
These MPs are trying to persuade a notoriously impressionable Prime Minister that Conservatives must engage in an all-out culture war. They claim that this war was started under Tony Blair’s premiership, when leftists encroached on conservative cultural assumptions. There is plenty of evidence here, though, that it is actually they who are the aggressors.
“The Battle for Britain has begun”, writes the group’s chair, Sir John Hayes, and “it must be won by those who, inspired by the people’s will, stand for the common good in the national interest.” Winning this war is the Common Sense group’s immediate objective, but there is a longer term aim behind it. This is where foreboding displaces ridicule.
These MPs want to discard Britain’s uncodified liberal constitution. “Leaving the EU”, Hayes warns, “is just the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end of this process. What is required is nothing less than a complete reconfiguration of the relationship between the individual, society, the economy and the state.” Winning the culture war “is vital to such a national rebirth” (a phrase often used by twentieth century Fascists).
All the traditional concerns of Conservatives are here – immigration, family integrity, the Royal Family, crime and policing – but more sinister stuff is threaded throughout. Alexander Stafford insists that their agenda “will require both Government action and courage”, most immediately: to undermine the 2010 Equality Act, repeal hate speech laws, and break up the BBC. They want to “end the need for impartiality” in news reporting. We’ll then have the enticing prospect of exclusively right wing news channels like GB News, playing the role of Trump’s favourite Fox News, here in the UK.
The Red Wall The MPs behind this book are riding high on the divisions that brought them to power in the post-Brexit election. Ten of them were elected for the first time in 2019 and three won traditionally non-Conservative seats. The Express, one of whose writers contributes, says “The book aims at providing a blueprint to help keep the former red wall seats”.
The contributors understand their success in these constituencies as being the result of two promises. The first was “levelling up”, flowing from a tsunami of government investment in the neglected infrastructure and industries of northern England. The second was to align with constituents against perceived threats from “metropolitan elites”, including the immigration they allowed from the EU.
In the light of the post-Covid deficit, levelling up now seems much less likely. Now that Brexit is “done” it too looks increasingly unlikely to deliver promised material rewards. Without being able to deliver economically, a culture war becomes not merely a defence of values that these MPs cherish; it is also all that’s left of a strategy to retain these seats.
All the contributors to Common Sense are intent on perpetuating the divisions that saw them into power. Continued momentum depends upon the creation of a new enemy – a spectre as contemptible as that of the EU conjured up before the 2016 EU referendum. “Once the Brexit transition period is over”, writes Stafford, the Conservative Party will be at a crossroads. We must double down on the social conservatism that voters in our constituencies expect of us. We must avoid losing our way”.
The new spectre is the “woke”. Tory hyper-nationalists made a start in sketching it out in the immediate aftermath of the BLM protests last summer, opening two main fronts: against the practice and teaching of history and BLM.
The Attack on History Common Sense assaults history in all its guises: academic research on the past, heritage preservation and interpretation, and teaching in schools and universities. All publicly funded practitioners, its authors believe, “should be required to promote British values, traditions and history”. But only of a certain kind. No free speech here.
“Britain is under attack”, writes Gareth Bacon. “Not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense. Our heritage is under a direct assault – the very sense of what it is to be British has been called into question, institutions have been undermined, the reputation of key figures in our country’s history have been traduced”. Bacon’s visceral sense of endangerment reminds us that this culture war is not solely about appealing to the perceived socially conservative views of red wall voters.
The Common Sense group’s engagement with history reveals deep emotion and genuine perplexity. Like the statues I wrote about in my last blog, these are petrified white men. The story of Britishness that defined their sense of national belonging is the same as that which shaped me growing up in the 1970s and 80s. I understand it. It is one of exploration, discovery, conquest, colonisation and rule over people of colour. It is also one of civilising, Christianising and freeing those less privileged than “us”.
The founders of the modern nation who did all these things were white, and Britain’s heritage is that of a white nation only recently inundated with people of colour. It is a version of history that denies Black people’s belonging, either in Britain itself, or in “our” national story.
Those people of colour, both threatening and pitiable, who were made British subjects by Empire whether they liked it or not, were acted upon by Britons. They were not proper Britons themselves. Their ancestral story of being colonised, enslaved and exploited was certainly not part of the story of Britain and Britishness. The hyper-nationalists’ favourite anthem, Rule Britannia, though, is premised on a lie: “Britons never … shall be slaves”. The act of enslaving African people and putting them to work on British colonial plantations rendered them British subjects. So Britons were slaves. The fact that most of us today still see the white enslavers as British and the Black enslaved as something other means that the descendants of the enslaved are still written out of “our national story”.
For these culture warriors resisting any revision of this story, Britishness is still whiteness. We need, however, to start seeing slavery as something that Britons did to other Britons if we are to move towards racial reconciliation in this country.
Gareth Bacon most sincerely wants to believe that the British Empire was “a modernising, civilising force that spread trade, wealth and the rule of law around the globe”. He is no doubt genuinely disoriented to be told that yes, it spread trade – but only that which was favourable to Britons. Free trade in British manufacturers’ and merchants’ interests was often enforced at the point of a gun. At the very same time that Manchester saw a monster anti-Corn Law demonstration to open up trade on behalf of the British poor, British steamships and marines were forcing China to accept an illegal trade in opium, grown for Britons by their Indian subjects.
And yes, the Empire spread wealth – mainly to white Britons who either stayed at home, perhaps as absentee slave owners, or East India Company shareholders, or emigrated to become settlers. Their wealth came from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the violent destruction of their societies in North America, Southern Africa and Australasia.
And yes, the Empire spread the rule of law – applied almost universally so as to maintain white supremacy, within legislative systems from which people of colour were generally excluded. The rule of law was not universal until colonised people kicked the British out of former colonies.
The Common Sense group and their allies may choose to look the other way, but as we show in Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Britain’s Empire rested by the mid-nineteenth century on three main pillars: a tropical plantation system beginning with enslaved African labour in the Caribbean and spreading to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, with the use of indentured Indian workers thereafter; the extraction of rent for Company shareholders from Indians, and their coerced production of opium to smuggle into China; and a British diaspora of some twenty million over the course of the century, to create the settler colonies, later dominions.
Gareth Bacon MP fears a woke-revised, “slanted and de-contextualised” history. Omitting the most blatantly obvious characteristic of British imperial rule – its ability to put people of colour around the world to work on behalf of white Britons – is the real slanting and decontextualizing. Historians wearing nationalistic blinkers have been getting away with it for far too long.
The fact that both historians and activists have brought a sense of self and nation premised on white superiority into question, is deeply unsettling for those who have invested their identities in it. Even though they clearly do not consider themselves racist, the recovery of colonised Black British subjects’ experiences of the past is causing genuine bafflement among the Common Sense group. They obviously feel that their virtue and their value is at stake. However, they cannot bring themselves to welcome a revision of Britain’s national story so as to include Black subjects. Instead, railing against the “diminution of our country’s stature and history,” they are seeking to preserve a fundamentally racist idea of what their country is and what it should be.
What they need to appreciate is that historians like myself who work on the Empire do not “despise[e] the history and culture of the United Kingdom”. I love being British and I am not ashamed to be white British either. What I despise is a whitewashing of our history that exacerbates racial divisions and makes the United Kingdom a less pleasant place to live in.
So what, exactly, has been undermining the Common Sense group’s cherished version of national history, causing them to be so upset? Two things, I think, are primarily responsible.
The first is history itself: the process of seeking better to understand the past. Projects like the Legacies of British Slave Ownership database at UCL are the result of painstaking historical research over decades, inquiring into aspects of Britain’s past that have been obscured or buried by previous generations of historians. This particular project has brought slavery home, revealing how ordinary Britons who had never seen an enslaved person in their lives nevertheless owned and profited from these people of colour at a distance. Each of us can find out who owned enslaved people in our home towns. They include, for instance, the vicar of my local church in Uckfield, East Sussex, and the man upon whose former estate my housing estate was built.
The East India Company at Home project has shown how Britons were rapacious in the eastern half of their empire too, with Company shareholders “earning” dividends by charging Indians rent for the privilege of living on their own land and profiting from opium trading, and then using the proceeds to build country estates. Much of this new historical work, revising what we thought we knew of our imperial past, is now being popularised due to the work of British TV’s first major Black historian, David Olusoga
It tends to be more recent research of two women in particular that especially incenses the Common Sense group and their supporters. The Daily Mail was obliged to pay £25,000 to the author of Insurgent Empire, Priyamvada Gopal, after falsely accusing her of inciting a race war in in article based on tweets mocked up by right wing trolls. Corinne Fowler’s work with the National Trust is referred to in the manifesto as the epitome of hated historical revisionism. Professor Fowler, who has also been subject to Daily Mail rants, worked with the National Trust and primary school children on a project revealing how many of our stately homes were built upon the proceeds of slavery, opium -trading and other forms of colonial exploitation. As the blurb on the back of her book, Green Unpleasant Land notes, “The heatedness of the recent media response … shows just what is at stake: a selective vision of nation that underplays the impact of four colonial centuries, or a version that embraces, as Paul Gilroy expresses it, a post-imperial ‘convivial culture’”.
These academics have been exposed to precisely what Bacon alleges the “woke” are doing: “an explicit campaign of aggressive bullying, intimidation and censorship.”
Fowler’s work with the National Trust has been criticised by a group of members aligned with the Common Sense group, with The Telegraph insinuating (falsely according to the National Trust itself) that its chairman had been obliged to resign because of its “woke” agenda. The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has insisted on the replacement of a trustee of the National Maritime Museum because he is too “woke” for the government’s liking. When Fowler responded to a question about how she felt about the attacks on her, one of the authors, Lord Peter Lilley declared “If she cannot take criticism she should not be in the university, let alone lecturing the nation. Arguably, it is she who has insulted her country by her book whose very title — Green Unpleasant Land — tells us what she thinks of her fellow citizens.” And yet, in just one example of their monstrous hypocrisy, the Common Sense group complain that they are being deprived of “the right and the ability to challenge those on the left”; that “any attempt to do so is viciously put down – disagreement is not now tolerated and any perceived deviation from the narrow ‘true path’ is ruthlessly crushed” through “’noplatforming’ and the rise of the ‘cancel culture’”.
The Attack on Black Lives Matter Since 7th June last year, diligent historical enquiry has been joined by something that the Common Sense group find even more unsettling: the assertiveness of Black Britons and the support that they have received from white allies. This really put the frighteners on hyper-nationalists who invest their identities in a white Britain.
When protestors ditched Colston’s statue in the harbour, they made it clear that they would not rest until white Britons addressed the racism and violence of Empire and its legacies. Britain must revise its national story to include Black people.
To the horror of the Common Sense bunch, before we know it, we might even have a National Curriculum recognising that a four hundred year-long project pursuing a white supremacist Empire and ending only in my parents’ lifetime has shaped modern Britain more than, say, a single century of Tudor rule over four hundred years ago. In a Radio 4 Moral Maze debate (although “debate” would suggest a more even sided encounter) that I took part in last summer, a panel almost exclusively comprised of imperial apologists (with the exception of the brilliant Nesrine Malik) concluded meekly that yes, we should all learn more about the Empire. But I do not think they realised how uncomfortable this “learning” will be.
The problem for those who prefer comforting narratives is that all the positive things one could say about the British Empire have already been cherry picked for public consumption over the last hundred years. All that’s left to teach is the buried and disavowed parts – the racism and the violence. We’ll have to teach it nonetheless, though, if we’re to include Black Britons’ heritage in our national history.
Another big problem for the Common Sense culture warriors is that, despite all the ground work laid by attacks on historians and heritage bodies, they still have more work to do if voters are going to blame the “woke” for their ills. A poll shows that most people in the UK still do not know what “woke” means, and “a majority have hardly heard of ‘cancel culture’ or ‘identity politics’. In fact there is “limited awareness of the culture war debate generally”. This is where BLM comes into play.
Given that the authors admit that “there is no official ‘woke’ political party and the left-wing parties espousing elements of the ‘woke’” are diverse, their invention needs a focal point. Climate change activists, also targeted here as “woke”, don’t quite fit the bill, perhaps because even the “extremists” of Extinction Rebellion tend to be too white and their cause now too mainstream. BLM is a much better material out of which to sculpt “the woke”.
The language surrounding the protests of last year is revealing. Tensions around race were not the result of pre-existing racism, according to Common Sense. No, they “came to fore during the summer of 2020, particularly after the death of George Floyd … who died following his arrest.” I think we all know now how he died, but according to this group of MPs, racial grievances are a matter of history, not of today.
They admit that “claims of perceived injustice stem, somewhere down the line, from real injustice. Slavery was, and is, inhumane, as were the Jim Crow laws and segregation”. However, “the ensuing Civil Rights movement was a tremendous achievement in righting those wrongs … once those very real laws were abolished, there was left a vacuum which needed to be filled with more things to fix. As a result, although racism certainly does still exist, the real racism expanded to encompass perceived racism too”.
This despite the following facts, taken from the ONS website: Black households are the most likely out of all ethnic groups to have a weekly income of less than £400; people in White British households are consistently the least likely to live in low income households; across the NHS workforce in 2018, Black men were paid 84p for every £1 received by White men, and Black women 93p; when comparing staff in similar roles, White staff had higher average pay than those in all other ethnic groups; among juveniles sentenced in 2017, the Black ethnic group had the highest percentage of offenders sent to a young offenders institution. In every year during the same period, White offenders were given the shortest custodial sentences on average, and Asian or Black offenders were given the longest; in every socio-economic group and age group, White British households were more likely to own their own homes than all ethnic minority households combined.
Despite supposed red wall grievances, in every region in England and in Scotland, unemployment rates are lower for White people than for all other ethnic groups combined, with the biggest differences in West Midlands, the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber. And provisional analysis for the period 2 March to 15 May 2020 shows that the mortality rate for deaths involving COVID-19 was highest among males of Black ethnic background at 255.7 deaths per 100,000 population and lowest among males of White ethnic background at 87.0 deaths per 100,000. For females, the pattern was similar with the highest rates among those of Black ethnic background (119.8) and lowest among those of White ethnic background (52.0).
Despite these quite legitimate grievances, the Common Sense group decries “the intolerant woke dogma of Black Lives Matter”, labeling it an “extreme cultural and political group … fuelled by ignorance and an arrogant determination to erase the past and dictate the future”. Rather than seeking to address injustice it is “motivated by darker emotions: hatred, jealously, malice, insecurity”. Behind the “universally accepted idea that racism is wrong”, BLM activists apparently “hide other more controversial ideas such the desirability of the destruction of the conventional family unit, smashing capitalism, defunding the police and an unpleasant strain of anti-Semitism.”
These MPs seem to have a particular fondness for images of cities ablaze. James Sunderland and David Maddox say that “we only have to look at the corporate sponsors of Black Lives Matter who poured in millions of US dollars even as America’s cities burned”, while the BBC apparently “describe[d] the BLM riots as ‘mostly peaceful’ and ignore[d] cities and businesses being torched”. But the thing is, they were largely peaceful. I don’t remember the skies above Britain glowing red as BLM protestors filled the streets of many of our towns and cities last year.
The reality of what BLM is, how it came about and what it seeks to achieve does not matter though. What matters is that white voters can be persuaded that “the ‘woke’ warriors of BLM, advocates of ‘decolonisation’ and ‘white privilege” are “destroying the fabric of British society”. The hypocrisy is stunning. The same contributor goes on to note that “A country divided into rigid identity groups which refuse to accept the validity of differing points of view would soon become ungovernable”.