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.
Professor of Historical Geography, University of Sussex and Adjunct Professor of History, La Trobe University