The British Empire and Race: A Debate with Robert Tombs

Alan Lester

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:

Debating the British Empire
The image chosen to represent the debate by Robert Tombs/History Reclaimed. I would have selected a different image if given the choice

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

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’.[9] 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.[10]

Across the Empire, rebellions were a regular occurrence.[11] 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’.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14] Labour shortages on plantations were met through the indenture and transport of 1.5 million British Indian subjects.[15]

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.’[16] 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’.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] However, the records of British colonists themselves are characterised by an everyday, condescending sense of racial superiority.[20]

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’.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24] Most Britons agreed with Enoch Powell that inter-communal conflict would result from further immigration.[25] Labour and Conservative governments have responded with increasingly restrictive and racially discriminatory immigration legislation, enabling the Windrush scandal.[26]

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’.[27] 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%).[28] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Thomas Packenham, The Scramble for Africa, Abacus, 1992; Jane Samson, Imperial Benevolence: Making British Authority in the Pacific Islands, University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

[4] Alan Lester, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

[5] Stephen M. Miller (ed) Queen Victoria’s Wars: British Military Campaigns, 1857-1902, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] Roy, The Economic History of India, 1857-2010, 67, 94, 335.

[10] Tirthankar Roy, Were Indian Famines ‘Natural’ Or ‘Manmade’? LSE Economic History Working Papers No: 243/2016

[11][11] Richard Brown, Resistance and Rebellion in the British Empire 1600-1980, Clio Publishing, 2013

[12] Lester et al, Ruling the World.

[13] Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy, Liberated Africans and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807-1896, Rochester University Press, 2020.

[14] 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.

[15] 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.

[16] C. W. Dilke, Greater Britain A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries During 1866-7, J. B. Lippincott and Macmillan, 1869, preface.

[17] 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.

[18] Philippa Levine, Eugenics: A Very Short introduction, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2017.

[19] Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867, Verso, 2002.

[20] 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.

[21] 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

[22] 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.

[23] 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.

[24] 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.

[25] 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.

[26] Ian Sanjkay Patel, We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire, Verso 2021.

[27] Quote from Patel, We’re Here, vii. Observation from personal experience of conversations among White people.

[28]; Jonathan Portes, ‘Race Report: Sewell Commission Couldn’t Find Something It Wasn’t Looking For’9 April 2021:

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[1]; 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[2]; 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?[3]  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’.[4]  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’[5] — 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[6]); 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.[7]  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.

[1]           Judy Campbell, Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780-1880 (Melbourne University Press, 2002)

[2]           Helen Toye and John O’Neill, eds, A World Without Famine? New Approaches to Aid and Development (London: Macmillan, 1998)

[3]           David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country: Revisited  (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

[4]           Sir Christopher Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) pp 91-2

[5]           Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968 (Cambridge University Press, 2006) p 3

[6]           See C. R. Hallpike, ‘In defence of colonialism: the case of Papua New Guinea’

[7]           Being Black in the EU/Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (2018)

Rejoinder by Alan Lester

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.

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History Reclaimed – But From What?

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”.

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.”

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Culture Warriors’ Attacks on the National Trust

Charles Moore uses the Spectator 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.

Autumn foliage at Sheffield Park Gardens - Sussex Bloggers
Sheffield Park, East Sussex

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.

The British Empire in 1879, from Alan Lester et al, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021

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.

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The Common Sense Group’s Culture War, the “Woke” and British History

Alan Lester

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.

Half of Brexit supporters were not 'left behind' red wall voters | Brexit |  The Guardian

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”.

White Britons’ Empire

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.

First Opium War - Wikipedia
HMS Nemesis destroys Chinese junks during the First Opium War

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.

Illustration from book of a group of Aboriginal people being rounded up by white men on horseback.
‘Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts’ [Illustration of the Myall Creek Massacre, 1838] Wikimedia Commons

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.

History that Cannot be Told

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, of course, is exactly the narrative supplied for the government by the Commissioners on Race and Ethnic Disparities in the Sewell Report. Widely discredited, including by those it cites, this report has not gone away. Quietly, the government is continuing to make policy based on its denial of enduring structural racism.

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).

Copyright: PSE: UK 2012

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”.

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London’s Imperial Statues, Black Lives Matter and the Culture War

Alan Lester

I’ve been spending more time than I’d like in St Thomas’ Hospital lately. St Thomas’ is at the centre of Britain’s memorial landscape, just across Westminster Bridge from the Houses of Parliament. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve become more aware of London’s imperial statuary on my walks to escape the ward.[1] The Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust has recently removed the statue of Sir Robert Clayton, President and renovator of St Thomas’, and a major shareholder in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company.[2] However, I’ve encountered many other men on pedestals who made their reputations, careers and fortunes exploiting people of colour in the British Empire.

The first thing that struck me as an historian of the British Empire was the dates of these statues’ erection. Victorian Britons professed an aversion to the “tawdry glitter” of other European empires. In the 1870s Disraeli acceded only reluctantly to Queen Victoria’s request for the title “Empress”, fearing accusations of being un-British. Statues tend not to have been erected during the period when Britons were most complacent about their global power. Most of the ones in Westminster date from the end of the Victorian and the Edwardian periods, when the Empire was facing new challenges from American and European rivals and anticolonial resistance. Britons sculpted their imperial figures not in triumphal self-congratulation, but in a desperate gesture of reclamation. Now that I’ve opened my eyes to them, I can’t stop seeing petrified imperial men around Westminster. 

Challenge and Amelioration

When protestors finally pulled down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol last June, they drew attention to the distancing and disavowal of violence against people of colour that is generally inscribed in this late imperial British memorial-scape. Colston, like many other slave traders and absentee slave owners, was cast in bronze because he was a generous philanthropist within his community. In 1895, when his statue was erected, the source of his largesse – the savage exploitation of enslaved Africans – was overlooked. Colston and others ‘traded’ people marked by a difference of phenotype as if they were commodities. As apologists like to point out, Africans too were extensively involved in the capture and trading of other Africans, but they tend not to stand on pedestals in British towns and cities.[4]

The slave-owning system that Colston and other Britons scaled up during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries relied upon markers of physical difference – on Blackness as a proxy for inferiority. But it wasn’t just the trans-Atlantic trade in people that was facilitated by this difference.

Once relocated on colonial plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, colonial authorities could police the mobility and behaviour of the unfree so much more efficiently if they were generally distinguished in appearance from the free. This was why slavery was such a powerful contribution to a systemic imperial racism that long outlived emancipation, and which spread far beyond the Caribbean during the 19th century. The markers of difference between free and unfree became those between planter and labourer, master and servant, citizen and subject, colonist and colonised around the British Empire as it expanded and reoriented to the east and south, conquering, subduing and colonizing people of colour in the aftermath of abolition.[5]

Fig. 1 Mary Seacole

Upon leaving St Thomas’ main entrance, the first statue I encounter bucks the trend. In 2016, the memorial of Mary Seacole was erected in a small garden in the hospital grounds.[6] Despite the addition of the woman voted Greatest Black Briton to the National Curriculum, most Britons’ schooling has left them in profound ignorance of the realities of Britain’s imperial rule and its implications for Black subjects.

A cynical interpretation would see Seacole as a relatively comforting Black figure for inclusion in what imperial apologists like to think of as “the national story”. She determinedly surmounted the racism of the Victorian Establishment in order to aid British troops fighting an imperial war against Russia in the Crimea. 

The addition of Secole’s statue, like those of Mandela (2007) and Gandhi (2015) in Parliament Square, is a good thing, even if it is ameliorative rather than transformative of conventional views of Empire. Better to have a Black British woman than another statue of a white man whose fame relied upon imperial conquest. However there are still many figures of the latter sort littering the streets around the hospital.

India and Lesser Known Imperial Conquests

Once across Westminster Bridge and around St James’ Park, the most imposing statue is of Robert Clive, the East India Company officer who helped British shareholders reap dividends from Indians, first through outright plunder and, in the longer term, through the extortion of rent. I could not agree more with William Dalrymple when he says “it is not just that this statue stands as a daily challenge to every British person whose grandparents came from the former colonies. Perhaps more damagingly still, its presence outside the Foreign Office encourages dangerous neo-imperial fantasies among the descendants of the colonisers”.[7]

Fig. 2 Robert Clive

Despite imperial apologists’ refrain, “what about the railways?”, which they seem to believe were gifted by Britons to Indians, the Company regime that Clive conceived and which first built those railways, gave very little thought to the welfare of its subjects. Governor General Dalhousie, who first promoted an Indian rail network in the 1840s, was quite explicit that the tracks would be for the benefit of British investors and producers, and that rapid rail movement of troops would enable the more effective conquest of India’s remaining independent states.

When, in 1833, the East India Company was finally prevented from pursuing further commerce, Parliament guaranteed its shareholders continued dividends of 10.5%. From then on, their income was drawn from the rent charged to Indians for the privilege of being governed by them. This ruthless rent extraction continued even throughout the famine of 1837-8 which killed 800,000 British Indian subjects – the same number, incidentally that were simultaneously freed from the apprenticeships succeeding slavery in the Caribbean. It went on under the guise of the Raj which succeeded the Company during the 1878-9 famine, which killed another 5 million.

Fig. 3 Garnet Wolseley

The next statue came into view as I wandered into Horse Guards Parade, and it led my thoughts from India to other parts of the Empire that have been relatively neglected in the culture wars. Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley was Gilbert and Sullivan’s “very model of a modern Major-General”. Mounted in 1920, the plaque underneath his horse indicates the diverse sites of his military exploits: “Burmah 1852–3 / Crimea 1854–5 / Indian Mutiny 1857–9 / China 1860–1 / Red River 1870 / Ashanti 1873–4 / South Africa 1879 / Egypt 1882 / Soudan 1884–5.”

Wolseley’s first campaign experience was the result of provocation by Dalhousie’s expansionist Company government and resulted in the annexation of Lower Burma. After the Crimean campaign, Wolseley joined the army led by Sir Colin Campbell, which relieved the siege of Lucknow and brutally suppressed the Indian Uprising of 1857. Very much in accord with Charles Dickens’ call “to blot [the Indian race] out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth,” thousands of Indian civilians were peremptorily hanged, and rebels blown to pieces by cannons in reprisal.

Three years later Wolseley was in China, helping to enforce legalisation of imported, Indian-grown, British opium. Having helped secure this lucrative imperial narcotics trade on behalf of the Treasury, he participated in the looting of Beijing’s Imperial Summer Palace. Charles Gordon, whom Wolseley would later try to save from a famously stoic death in Khartoum, complained that “These palaces were so large & we were so pressed for time that we could not plunder carefully”.

The British imperial policy which did most to shape Wolseley’s subsequent impact on the world was Confederation. It was pursued by Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, after the shock of the Indian Uprising had prompted the more integrated governance of the empire from a new building – the current Foreign Office, outside of which Clive now stands. The rationale for the policy was outlined in Charles Dilke’s popular book Greater Britain which spoke of “the grandeur of our race, already girding the earth, which it is destined, perhaps, eventually to overspread”. Dilke was quite frank that the “defeat of the cheaper by the dearer peoples” was an essential precondition for this spread of British civilization.

Carnarvon’s first step was the confederation of the separate colonies in Canada, so that they could form a better administered and more prosperous whole within this Greater Britain. In 1869, however, Métis people of mixed First Nations and French colonial descent, recognised as aboriginal to Canada, established an independent government of their own at the Red River Colony, in today’s Manitoba. They did so rather than be absorbed into the Canadian federation as Carnarvon wished. The Red River Métis declared their intention of joining the federation, but on their own terms: representation in Parliament, a bilingual legislature and chief justice, and recognition of their land claims.

Wolseley was charged with leading an expedition to put down the Red River “rebellion”. He arrived in Manitoba too late to capture any rebels, but succeeded in suppressing the most viable attempt by aboriginal people to have their interests represented in a united Canada.

Wolseley’s reputation soared in Britain. He became trouble-shooter in chief for the Empire. If independent-minded people of colour blocked British aspirations, Wolseley was the man to lead a punitive expedition against them.

His next campaign was against the Asante kingdom. In 1872, the Colonial Office was seeking to consolidate Britain’s fragmentary governmental entities on the West African coast, in accord with the larger objective of confederation in the settler colonies. This included the purchase of the Dutch Gold Coast with its port of Elmina, and its incorporation within the British Gold Coast colony. However, Elmina was also the powerful Asante kingdom’s sole remaining coastal trade outlet, and a key source of its revenue. In early 1873 Kofi Karikari, the Asante king, ordered his army to attack the British in an attempt to reclaim the port.

Wolseley’s expedition, including Black West Indian troops and Fante allies, destroyed the Asante capital Kumasi, burning down villages as it went. The expedition was justified in Britain as an attempt to end Asante practices of slavery, but used enslaved women among its 17,000 porters. The official haul of plunder from Kumasi included King Kofi’s state umbrella and a golden stool, which Wolseley gave to Queen Victoria and which are still in the royal collection.

Since the prize money from the Asante loot was considered too little to distribute among all the soldiers who participated, as Wolseley’s army field guide advocated, Disraeli’s cabinet decided to award them an extra thirty days pay in lieu. Asante gold is now in the British Museum, the Wallace Collection; the Royal Artillery mess at Woolwich; the National Army Museum and the Green Jackets Regimental Museum.[8]

Having helped bring the Asante kingdom under British “protection”, Wolseley next joined the long running campaign to bring Southern Africa’s diverse colonies, Boer republics and independent African kingdoms under confederated British rule, following the Canadian precedent. Here, his trajectory converged with that of the very next imperial man that I encountered, standing on a plinth on the Victoria Embankment, just along from the Houses of Parliament.

Antislavery and the Conquest of Africa

Sir Henry Bartle Frere had come to southern Africa as High Commissioner, also determined to effect Confederation. His reputation was that of an antislavery man of action.

After 1833 and the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in the Caribbean, the Cape and Mauritius (but not yet in India), Britons patted themselves on the back as the most benign exponents of imperial rule in history. But being antislavery did not mean that they were anticolonial or antiracist.

Fig. 4 Henry Bartle Frere

Far from discouraging further aggression against Africans, Britain’s mantle as an antislavery nation actually encouraged it. It was not just Wolseley’s assault on Kumasi that was justified as an anti-slavery intervention. As the historian Richard Huzzey explains, “Anti-slavery traditions helped to translate private interest and personal ambitions into national interest and patriotic duty ”.[9]

Bartle Frere was in the forefront of this new, moral crusade. Under Dalhousie, he had been the East India Company’s Resident in Satara, one of the first states to be annexed by the freshly aggressive Governor General. From there, Frere moved to Sind, where he installed a postal system based on Britain’s, which was subsequently adopted across India. It is often proclaimed as one of the enduring, positive, legacies of British rule. As Governor of Bombay he again sponsored modernizing, liberal projects, including the Deccan College at Pune, and a specialist college to instruct Indians in civil engineering.

Both a high churchman and a member of the Antislavery Society, Frere had long condemned what he called 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. In March 1872, Frere invoked the original struggle of Thomas Fowell Buxton and his generation against slavery in the Caribbean, exhorting “the present supporters of the anti-slavery movement to imitate their predecessors and to be up and doing”.[10]

Fig. 5 Buxton Antislavery Memorial

(Thomas Fowell Buxton’s son Charles had also sought to revive waning British antislavery commitment, with a monument to his father’s campaign first erected in Parliament Square in the 1850s. However, in a development that Robert Jenrick would presumably oppose, it was removed in 1949 because its gothic style did not fit with a classical re-design of the Square. In 1957, on 150th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, it was rebuilt, without its piped water and drinking cups, on Victoria Embankment, where it now sits next to Frere.)

Imperial apologists’ second most popular refrain (after “what about the railways”) is “what about the Arab slave trade”. It was this that Frere sought to draw to the attention of the British public in the early 1870s.

Although much of this continuing Indian Ocean slave trade was financed by British Indian subjects in Bombay, British outrage was becoming focused on Zanzibar’s sultan, Barghash bin Said. In 1872 the Foreign Office asked Frere if he would put his campaigning to practical use as the new British envoy to the sultan. Exceeding his instructions, Frere ordered the Royal Navy to seize any slave ships sailing between Zanzibar and the African coast. He then threatened Barghash with a total blockade. Against fierce local opposition, the sultan was forced to close the slave market in Zanzibar, 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”.

By the late-1870s Frere had become a kind of civilian management consultant for the British Empire, just as Wolseley was its military trouble-shooter. Carnarvon now sent Frere to pursue confederation in southern Africa and the two men whose statues stand within a half mile of each other both ended up in South Africa.

By the time Wolseley arrived in 1879, the antislavery Frere had already attacked and defeated the Griqua, the Gcaleka Xhosa and the Zulu in a series of wars of aggression. Wolseley was despatched when it looked like things were going badly after the British defeat by Zulu at Isandhlwana, but he arrived too late to take command before Lord Chelmsford atoned for the defeat with a crushing victory, aided by Gatling guns, at the Battle of Ulundi. Wolseley would have to content himself with finishing another war that Frere had launched and paused before the Zulu campaign, against the Pedi.

Not only were tens of thousands of African people killed in Frere’s and Wolseley’s wars of South African confederation, but viable, independent societies were broken apart and families separated as the template for apartheid was laid. After the fragmentation of their kingdoms, Black South African men were obliged to engage in migrant labour, working at low wages for white employers in segregated towns and cities, their mobility policed by pass laws. Black women were left to scrape a subsistence for themselves and children in environmentally degraded reserves or take domestic service for whites. During the ensuing decades and especially after the South African War, this system was refined by British mining investors and governments. It was inherited and turned to specifically Afrikaner purposes in the guise of apartheid after the 1948 election of the Afrikaner-led National Party.[11]

Wolseley’s next war was waged to preserve control of the Empire’s main strategic lifeline. Egypt was nominally an Ottoman territory, but governed by a pasha who had become indebted to British and French financiers and governments. Its Suez Canal played a vital role connecting Britain with India and the colonies of the southern hemisphere, so when Orabi (sometimes spelt Urabi) Pasha, a soldier in the Pasha’s army, led a rebellion against indirect Anglo-French control in 1882, the British government intervened. One of Orabi’s demands was for an Egyptian parliament like the ones that liberal Britons demanded for themselves, but which they consistently denied colonised people of colour. His was a proto-nationalist rebellion which predated that of Nasser by some seventy years.

After British ships had shelled Alexandria, Wolseley’s troops suppressed Orabi’s revolt at the Battle of Tel el Kebir, killing some 2,000 Egyptians. In 1883, Wolseley returned to the region to put down the revolt led by the ‘Mahdi’, a religious leader of Sudanese groups resisting control by the British-backed Egyptians and objecting to the Ottomans’ lax version of Islam. General Gordon had been sent to Khartoum to oversee the withdrawal of Egyptian troops but had chosen to remain there. At the Battle of El Teb, en route to try to save him, 2,000 of the Mahdi’s followers, whom the British called “Fuzzy Wuzzies”, were killed, and 2,500 more killed thereafter at the Battle of Tamai.

What to do with all the Statues

Statues have become central to today’s culture wars not so much because Colston’s was pulled down by protestors last summer, but because the government chose to fuel a backlash against Black Lives Matter with scare stories of “woke militants” tearing down more statues and accusations that organisations like the National Trust are indoctrinating visitors with self-flagellating rants about slavery.

It should not be necessary to point out to the highly educated Prime Minister and his ministers the distinction between “the past” and “history”, but since they have so often conflated the two, with claims that the past is being “edited”, “censored” or “attacked” by protestors, and that “history” is being lied about, a basic lesson seems requisite. In raising awareness of the racialized and brutal nature of British imperial rule, historians and activists are not seeking to, and nor could anyone ever, change “the past”. “The past” is the sum total of everything that has already happened to anyone anywhere to date. It is done. It has gone and it cannot be changed. “History” is the necessarily far more selective stories about the past that we choose to tell, and the better grounded in diverse evidence that survives from the past, the better it tends to be.

In raising awareness of uncomfortable aspects of the past that have been overlooked or buried by previous generations of historians, today’s historians and community activists are doing history, adding to it, not undermining it. In seeking to decolonise our teaching we are not reducing it; we are expanding it.

For all Frere’s antislavery credentials, it is indisputable that both he and Wolseley behaved as if Black lives mattered little compared to white lives. The main purpose of the latter’s career was the subjugation of independent Black societies to serve British interests. The argument that these were men of their times rings true, even though these particular men were directly responsible for much more killing than most of their contemporaries. However, it is precisely a clear eyed awareness of what those times were and how we might wish to commemorate those who contributed most to them that is needed today.

Across Britain, and much to the chagrin of the government, communities and local authorities are engaged in a re-evaluation of our memorial landscape, but in the current government’s defence of statues there is an echo of the era of imperial decline when those statues were put up. Symbols like the Union Jack and statues of imperial men are being more aggressively valued as Britain’s real geopolitical power subsides yet further in the wake of Brexit. Comfort, and perhaps votes too, are to be found in national pride.[12]

Defending a nostalgic, romanticised, self-congratulatory and often patently false image of the past, however, is no way to ensure the wealth and well-being of a diverse British society in the future.

Now that the government has made it all but impossible for controversial statues to be removed to museums where they can be properly contextualised, perhaps we can do the next best thing: wherever site constraints allow, use statues as focal points for educating Britons about their connections with peoples and places that are distanced and disavowed in a narrow, white-centric “national story”.

We should see, and many are now seeing, the intensification of controversy over statues as an opportunity to educate Britons more, and not less, about the diverse and complex history of the British Empire and the depth of scarring that its racist constitution has imprinted on our society.

Wolseley’s and Frere’s statues, for instance, could enable us to consider Britain’s role in the Indian Uprising and Opium Wars; the plunder of Asante treasures and the debate over repatriation from British museums; Confederation’s role in creating the geographical template for apartheid in South Africa, and the story of early Egyptian nationalist resistance.

At the same time, we could follow the advice of the imperial historian Philippa Levine. Her suggestion for resolving the dispute about Cecil Rhodes’ statue in front of Oriel College, Oxford is to “invite a black British artist, perhaps a Zimbabwean or South African, to shape a memorial to those whose sufferings made Rhodes wealthy enough to endow Oriel, or a piece that spells out a critique of the colonial mindset”.

The statues of Gandhi, Mandela and Seacole in Westminster are all well and good. We need more such memorials of Black figures. But one effect of colonialism itself has been the suppression of our knowledge and understanding of the lives of millions more British subjects of colour who cannot be represented in such an individualist form. Here, as Levine notes, we need public “art that is more innovative and passionate than the dull formalism of statuary and plaques can ever be”.[13]





[5] Alan Lester, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021



[8] Thanks to Mary-Ann Middlekoop for information here.

[9] Richard Huzzey, Freedom Burning: Anti-slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain, Cornell University Press, 2012, p. 133.

[10] The Anti-Slavery Reporter, 30 March 1872.

[11] Alan Lester, Etienne Nel and Tony Binns, South Africa Past, Present and Future, Prentice Hall, 2000.

[12] Compulsory worship of national symbols is the sure sign of a culture in decline | Politics | The Guardian


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Comments on the Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

Alan Lester

Deny and Disavow

Last summer Black Lives Matter activists invited Britons, whatever our ethnicity, to reflect on the pernicious role of racism in our society. Their toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston made it clear that a reckoning with the history of British colonialism and empire should be a key part of this reflection.[1] Instead of accepting that invitation Boris Johnson’s government’s strategy has been to deny and disavow.

First, Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick declared “We will save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past”.[2] Then Culture and Media Secretary Oliver Dowden instructed Britain’s leading heritage organisations, including the National Trust, that they “must defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.[3] Meanwhile academic apologists for empire like the theologian Nigel Biggar appear regularly in the mainstream media complaining about having their voices suppressed.[4]

The Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is the latest and perhaps most important component of the government’s strategy of denial and disavowal. It fleshes out, suspiciously neatly, the narrative that Boris Johnson first drafted as a direct riposte to the Black Lives Matter movement in June last year.[5] The Report’s authors are very clear on one point: “We have argued against bringing down statues”. It appears to be not just a response to the Black Lives Matter protests, but part of a well-orchestrated backlash.

The Report seeks to establish a clear break between past and present, and it blames certain Black people themselves for their experiences of marginalisation and exclusion. “For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present”, it declares. Those of Caribbean descent are particularly to blame for their failure to appreciate that “the system is [no longer] deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. By contrast, “it is counterproductive and divisive” to suggest that “White people’s attitudes and behaviours … primarily cause the disadvantage experienced by ethnic minorities”.

Understanding History

When it comes to teaching British history, the Report identifies very clearly what it is for and what it is against. It is for a “‘Making of Modern Britain’ teaching resource”, which shows how “Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced … modern Britain”. “One great example”, it continues, “would be a dictionary or lexicon of well known British words which are Indian in origin”. Such a resource would presumably enlighten British students about the origin of words such as “shampoo” and “bungalow”. It might be a bit more suspect about including the word “loot”, however, just in case a greater knowledge of colonial plunder generates further pressure on British museums to repatriate objects stolen in colonial campaigns.[6]

Presumably, this resource would also avoid any consideration of how the empire, which became the Commonwealth, was actually governed. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s explanation to Parliament for why India was to be governed until 1858 by the directors and shareholders of the British East India Company rather than, say, Indians, might not get a look in: “though few of” the Company’s shareholders”, he announced in 1833, “have ever seen or may ever see the people whom they rule – they will have a great stake in the happiness of their subjects.” “In Europe”, Macualay continued, “the people are … perfectly … competent to hold some share of political power”, but “In India, you cannot have representative institutions”. Forty years later, the British architect of the Indian Penal Code, James Fitzjames Stephen noted that “If the … delusion that [Govt] can be carried out by … the natives is admitted, nothing but anarchy and ruin can … result”.[7] This too, I suspect, might be omitted.

Promisingly, the Report is for a “teaching resource that looks at the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period”. However, the example of the content that might be provided is disappointing to say the least: “There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.” This would not be a new story at all. British slave traders and owners told a similar story when they sought to resist abolition and emancipation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Africans could only ever be culturally transformed and improved, they claimed, if they were extracted from the mire of savagery in which they were sunk in Africa, and exposed to the better example of British owners on Caribbean plantations.[8] If slavery is to be taught in this new resource, all the indications are that the arguments of apologists like Nigel Biggar would be propagated. In a briefing intended for politicians, Biggar claims that Britain absolved itself of the crime of slavery when it abolished the institution in some of its colonies in 1833 (the same year that Macaulay justified the governance of Indians by British shareholders). Thereafter, the British Empire was, according to Biggar, characterised mainly by antislavery activity.[9]

It is unsurprising that slavery dominates the current culture wars over the legacies of the British Empire. Slave trading and ownership has been shown, especially by University College London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership project, to have significantly benefitted absentee British slave owners within the UK.[10] But the actions of Britons abroad – both colonisers and those people of colour who were made British subjects against their will – are also part of British history. Antislavery is imperial apologists’ trump card because is always taken out of this context.

Here’s some of that missing context: the British antislavery campaign culminated in the 1830s, and it was part of a reorientation of a reforming Britain and its Empire towards free trade and the invasion of Indigenous peoples’ lands in the Southern Hemisphere.[11]  The Abolition of Slavery Act was passed after the Great Reform Act at exactly the same time as the East India Company was restructured along the lines justified by Macaulay, and as the British government subsidised a surge in the colonization of Australia. In both these spheres of empire Britons continued to exploit coerced labour.

Enslaved Indians were exempt from the Abolition Act and their indenture enabled post-abolition labour shortages to be met in the former slave holding colonies.[12] Whilst destroying and sometimes enslaving Aboriginal communities, Britons also kidnapped Pacific Islanders to transfer sugar production from the Caribbean to Australia.[13] Nevertheless, the supposition that Britain was an antislavery nation became its excuse for the aggressive expansion of its empire through the conquest and subjugation of African societies during the second half of the nineteenth century.[14]

Creating Britishness

The Report seems to be for teaching a grand pretence: that the British Empire was a way of encouraging people of colour around the world to feel included in Britishness. “We want all children to reclaim their British heritage”, the authors claim, making it seem as if that British heritage was something voluntarily acquired by Black Britons’ ancestors. In effect it says: let’s pretend that the British Empire peacefully extended the benefits of Britishness to people of colour. Never mind all that unpleasantness.

The rendering of black and brown people as British subjects involved great violence, however. Even the darling of Boris Johnson and the empire apologists, Winston Churchill, in a moment of candour, declared that “our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of our vast possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us”. It is a travesty on the scale of holocaust denial to gloss over Britain’s imperial violence.

For Ruling the World we examined three years of British imperial governance in detail: 1838, 1857 and 1879. In those years alone, we estimate that around 1 million people of colour were killed by British forces and nearly 2 million British subjects allowed to starve to death. The Victorian Empire’s “Small wars” may have been small for Britain, but the killing of hundreds or a few thousands of people in any one Indigenous community could be enough to shatter a relatively small society and deter further armed resistance. Furthermore these wars were almost continual. In 1879 alone British forces conquered AmaXhosa, Griqua, Bapedi and AmaZulu in South Africa as well as invading Afghanistan for the second time. British forces demonstrated a blatant disregard for the lives of people of colour. In 1856 for instance Henry Bowring, governor of Hong Kong, had Cantonese civilian districts shelled every 10 minutes until the Qing governor accepted his terms for entry to the walled city and legalisation of British opium imports. The use of scorched earth tactics against colonial foes was routine until it was deployed against white Boers, when it caused outrage in Britain.[15]

Yet systemic violent conquest never appears in imperial apologists’ absurd balance sheet of the British Empire’s “good” and “bad” points and, it seems, will not be featuring in this Report’s proposed teaching resource. Discrete acts of racialized violence such as the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 sometimes appear in the “bad” column, but apologists for empire consistently disavow the reality that even after initial conquest, the Empire’s everyday administration was conditioned by racist assumptions and the threat of violence.[16]

The Report’s refusal to acknowledge that the British Empire was not only founded on, but also governed according to such racial division fuels further division today rather than healing it. As Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said of Australia, “truth telling must be an integral part of unifying our country, not dividing it”.


The Report is decidedly against “calls for decolonising the curriculum”, however, because these are “negative”. They involve merely “the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement”. In fact most of those who call for a project of decolonisation are not advocating any such restrictive or tokenistic agenda. They wish, rather, to extend students’ knowledge beyond white authors (something that the Report itself does when it recommends “writers in the Commonwealth, such as Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and Andrea Levy”), and to reveal the truth about the ways that people of colour were made British subjects.

Let us hope that the Report’s envisaged “credible, high-quality, online national library … enhancing the content and quality of lessons taught” includes something of the truth of the British Empire, rather than the amnesiac and nostalgic vision propagated by this government. “Understanding different perspectives and contested events is”, the authors acknowledge, “central to the study of history and should help to equip pupils to navigate a world of ‘fake news’ and clashing opinions and truths.” Indeed. For as Sathnam Sanghera has noted, “Our collective amnesia about the fact that we were, as a nation, wilfully white supremacist and occasionally genocidal, and our failure to understand how this informs modern day racism, are catastrophic”.[17]

The undoubted gains that there have been in combatting racism in Britain, “the progress won by the struggles of the past 50 years”, needs to be continued. But the effect of this report might be entirely counter-productive. It seems intended to stall the further momentum that Black Lives Matter protestors urged. Rather than seizing the opportunity to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and provide a more reconciliatory history, it seems intent on reassuring resistant white Britons that they need not take the trouble to understand Black Britons’ experiences of racism. Racial discrimination, just as they long suspected, is all in the minds of Black people, especially those of Caribbean descent. Even worse, it is just a cynical strategy of self-advancement – “playing the race card”. 

The catastrophic effect of this Report may be that its avowed intention – “to build trust between different communities and the institutions that serve them” – is belied by its own disavowal of historically entrenched and persistent racism. To achieve its further aim of “genuine inclusivity to ensure all groups feel a part of UK society” necessitates precisely the reckoning with the past that the Black Lives Matter movement has called for.

[1] On the long campaign to have the statue removed before it was torn down, see and

[2] The Telegraph, 16 January 2021




[6] Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, Pluto Press, 2020.

[7] As for Britain’s record on democracy elsewhere in the empire: The franchise was extended to poorer men in Britain in 1832, 1867 and 1884. By then two thirds of men, 18% of population, could vote. Race, rather than class was the dominant form of exclusion in the Empire overseas. Lionel Smith, governor of Jamaica wrote after emancipation of the enslaved that he feared more “Coloured” members being elected unless the property qualification was raised or voting taxed. Free black people and former slaves, he wrote, “are not yet qualified by education and property to command the respect of the country”. Even by the 1930s only 5% of Jamaicans could vote. As British settlers overseas were enfranchised on more generous terms than those in Britain, armed rebellion in the Cape Colony led to a “nonracial franchise” which allowed some Khoisan and Mfengu military allies to influence six constituencies. Such was the need to prevent more Africans voting, that the property bar was set to exclude the poorest whites too. When more Africans qualified in the 1890s, it was lifted again. In the Australian colonies Aboriginal people were not necessarily explicitly barred from voting, but it was widely assumed that they would not. When “Yellow Jimmy”, a so-called “half-caste”, tried to vote in 1859, he was prosecuted for impersonating a white man. In New Zealand, Māori men could vote for four “special” seats in 1867. In proportion to their population share, they should have had fifteen. In Canada, First Nations men had to apply for exemption from their “Indian” status, which meant giving up traditional ways, disassociating from kin and acquiring private property. Far from dispensing democracy, the British Empire withheld it on the grounds of race. Democracy was something for which independence movements had to fight against British rule.

[8] Paula E. Dumas, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, Palgrave, 2016; J. R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion Against the Slave Trade, 1787-1807, Routledge, 1995.



[11] Alan Lester, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021:

[12] Alan Lester, ‘The Men Who Made the Empire Run’, BBC History Magazine, April 2021

[13];; Emma Christopher, ‘An Illegitimate Offspring: South Sea Islanders, Queensland Sugar, and the Heirs of the British Atlantic Slave Complex’, History Workshop Journal, 90, 2020, 233–252,

[14] Richard Huzzey, Freedom Burning: Anti-slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain, Cornell University Press, 2012; Padraic X. Scanlan, Slave Empire: How Slavery Built Modern Britain, Robinson, 2020.

[15] Such British violence was, and is, consistently disavowed in the iconography of colonial warfare. Think of the most famous paintings of Rorke’s Drift, Isandhlwana and the sole (white) survivor of the first British invasion of Afghanistan reaching Jalalabad. All show redcoats under siege, defending barricades, forming squares, or escaping with their lives, after being assaulted by savage hordes. Wars of imperial conquest overseas became the thin red line defending itself in the public imagination at home.

[16] Kim Wagner, Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre, Yale University Press, 2019; Sathnam Sanghera,; Alan Lester,

[17] Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland: How Imperialism has Shaped Modern Britain, Viking, 2021.

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Compensation and Dividends: Protecting British Property during the Transformation of Empire

by Alan Lester

1833 was a critical year for Britons who had invested in the Empire. Thanks to the work of the Legacies of British Slave Ownership team at UCL, we have got to know more about the thousands of British people from nearly all classes, regions, towns and cities, who owned slaves and were paid compensation for their emancipation after the act abolishing slavery was passed in that year. We know that some 40% of GDP was handed over to slave owners while formerly enslaved people received nothing, and that much of the payout was invested in projects like the building of railways and the establishment of banking and insurance firms at home, and in projects like the colonization of South Australia overseas. But many of those who now know about slave owners don’t necessarily recognise that the simultaneous transformation of the East India Company also safeguarded the interests of Britons invested in empire.

In 1833, the East India Company’s charter came up for renewal. Its directors had to renegotiate its role in trade and the governance of India with the British government. Its monopoly on trade with India had already been opened up by the last charter renewal act in 1813. In 1833, with the doctrine of free trade gaining ground in Britain, it was also stripped of its remaining monopoly, on the trade between India and China. In fact even this monopoly was more nominal than real, since the Company had long been encouraging private merchants to smuggle the opium that it grew in Bengal into China so that it could earn currency with which to buy tea. The element of the 1833 charter renewal that was perhaps more significant was the deal struck with the Company’s shareholders in Britain.

Rather than winding up the East India Company altogether now that it was no longer a viable commercial concern, the British government decided to turn it exclusively into Britain’s proxy government of India. Its trading functions were closed down and, just as British slave owners were being compensated through the Abolition of Slavery Act, the creditors, warehouse labourers and managers of its trading arm were also paid out. What remained, though, was the question of what to do with its shareholders.

Compensation for slave owners was conceded in 1833 because even the most ardent antislavery campaigners recognised that they needed compliance from the powerful West India lobby at home and from planter dominated legislative assemblies in the Caribbean if enslaved people were ever actually to be set free. Compensation (along with an intended four or six year period of continued ‘apprenticeship’ for slaves) was the compromise necessary to get the legislation approved. Remarkably, the East India Company’s shareholders were given the guarantee of continued dividends for their stock at pretty much the same time, and for similar reasons. The returns were generous to say the least: annual dividends of 10 ½ per cent.As Thomas Babington Macaulay, at that time Secretary of the Board of Control which oversaw the Company on behalf of the British government, explained to parliament, this was “precisely the same dividend which they have been receiving for forty years, and which they have expected to receive permanently”.[1] Rather than being derived from the profits of trade, from now on these dividends would be extracted exclusively from the rent paid by the Company’s Indian subjects in return for the privilege of being governed by it.

The early 1830s was a time of great transformation. In Britain itself, both the 1832 Reform Act and the increasingly powerful doctrine of free trade were magnifying the political force of commercial and industrial interests. As ever, imperial transformations were closely connected. The abolition of slavery, mainly in the western half of the empire, and the restructuring of the East India Company in the eastern half, were part of the same broad transformation. Both threatened vested interests among a cross section of British society. Both were handled simultaneously so as to protect those interests at the expense of colonial subjects.

[1] Hansard HC Deb 10 July 1833 vol 19 cc479-550.

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Filing Empire: a one-day workshop at Columbia University

Last Friday, I represented the Snapshots team at the ‘Filing Empire’ workshop at Columbia University. The questions the workshop was designed to address are ones we’ve often tried to approach in our own work: how was empire constructed by and through technologies, protocols and systems of paperwork? How did these bureaucratic apparatuses change over time? How did they understand, codify and produce colonial realities? And how do the entailments of these systems – structural, epistemic, ideological – persist into the postcolonial present? At the core of the day’s discussion was the big question on the relationship between documentation and empire: how systems of recording, communicating, storing and retrieving information helped shape and sustain imperial power.

The papers and book chapters contributed by participants approached this question from varying angles. Asheesh Siddique’s work focused on John Bruce (1744-1826), the Company historiographer, to illustrate how networks of patronage, manuscript circulation and influence persisted into the early nineteenth century, as the historical and administrative functions of the archive began to occupy different spaces and develop different protocols. The paper I brought from the Snapshots project studied later historiographers and antiquarians in the India Office’s archive, to ask questions about the functions of memorialization, the authorization of history and the archive as a site for divergent fantasies of bureaucratic/historiographical power. Zoe Laidlaw’s contribution looked to James Stephen’s reorganisation of the Colonial Office in the mid nineteenth century, and the ‘Blue Books’ which from 1819 onwards were assembled, supposedly, as reliable statistical digests of Britain’s colonial empire. Devyani Gupta’s work on the postal system in nineteenth century India showed how colonial infrastructures worked to efface homogeneous social and cultural realities through standardizing things like forms of address, postal routes and epistolary practice – in effect, binding South Asian territory, people and societies closer into a ‘British India’. Somewhat similarly, Brian Larkin’s paper followed the progress of a 1923 attempt to standardize the spelling of ‘Mohammed’ and ‘Mohammedan’ across the British Empire. Finally, Matthew Hull’s work on present-day Pakistani bureaucracy undertook an anthropological investigation of the entailments of the ‘Kaghazi Raj’ or paperwork empire, exploring how the practice of paperwork becomes the terrain on which politics are conducted, personal credit built, influence peddled, and careers (and occasionally fortunes) made.

The question which came up perhaps most often and forcefully, in trying to make these rather various pieces of scholarship speak to each other, was that of failure. In all of the cases studied, there’s some kind of gap between what the archive or the system claims to be able to do and what it actually does.

In the first instance, this is often about procedure. Files often fail to circulate as they’re supposed to: they get lost in offices, kept on the wrong desk, redirected by accident or by design to the wrong person. The function of any given file or protocol can be subverted, repurposed or nullified: Matt Hull’s work on the complex unofficial codes of mark-up, circulation and file construction engaged in by modern-day bureaucrats is a dizzying example of how any system of government-by-writing can be made the vehicle of very different types of business than those it was designed for. Bureaucracy leaks and spreads, generates friction and grinds its gears. The given system is always, of course, a relic of an earlier time; inasmuch as it has helped to create the world it must now engage with, that world is also escaping it, and the matter of catching up is often one of improvisation and quiet adaptation. It has other systems with which to contend and intermesh; its systems of meaning have to somehow articulate to systems of meaning with which it may have little in common. In Larkin’s study, almost all these things occurred: the file generated stacks of replies, notes and additions on a global scale, became a forum in which administrators showed off their considerable classical learning while arguing about the possibility of standardizing something that, while it reflected a global Muslim ecumene, fiercely resisted standardization. In the end, the whole affair was short-circuited by a conversation which happened outwith the bounds of the file, most likely orally, at the very top level: an emerging consensus (that ‘Mohammedan’ and ‘Mohammedanism’ would be better, both for scholarly reasons and as a “global courtesy”, rendered as ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’), quashed by abrupt executive fiat.

The more serious and encompassing failure, however, is that of representation – and, behind the claim to representation, the claim to power. Both the Blue Books that Laidlaw studies, and the fantastic archive of Clements Markham in our work, advert to a fantasy of statistical mastery, a fantasy that the empire can be fully known. Likewise, Gupta’s work on the Post Office shows us a system with the clear aspiration to structure reality by properly codifying it. This is the kind of enabling colonial knowledge studied by CA Bayly, Bernard Kohn, Matthew Edney and Thomas Richards; it leads into the kind of fantasy of the omnipotent archive, complete library or 1:1 scale map that haunts the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Ismail Kadare.

But there’s always a difference between the map and the territory. At Columbia, perhaps unkindly, we settled on describing these kinds of claims to mastery ‘Trumpian’: they betray a conviction that if you imagine something to be the case, it becomes the case. Markham’s all-encompassing registry barely got off the ground; the data on which the Blue Books were based was often faulty, returned by colonial officers who filled in their questionnaires carelessly and as a matter of bureaucratic box-ticking, and was barely consulted within the Colonial Office. Later statistical digests for public consumption, like RM Martin’s Statistics of the Colonies of the British Empire, bore little relation to the colonial realities they were supposed to represent, but became increasingly central to the work of representing and imagining the empire; whatever their failures in terms of accuracy, they became the materials of the imperial imaginary and its politics. The bells and whistles, the impressive visual rhetoric of statistics – tables, columns, sheer weight of numbers – conveyed the impression of authoritative knowledge where there was none. The fantasy here became a kind of reality, and there is a strange momentum in the process by which actuarial happenstance, laziness, prejudice or misprision becomes reified as cultural force.

And this brings us, inevitably, to the question of ritual and performance, not just as things which occur within bureaucracy but constitutive elements of it. In some ways, maintaining a sense of bureaucratic administration’s performativity can help us to trouble some of the more simplistic narratives of its technological and cultural histories. It can be a bit too easy, perhaps, to identify a ‘bureaucratic turn’ (say, for our purposes, about the beginning of the nineteenth century) before which all administration was carried out through discursive, personalised and situated means, and after which everything became Weberianly mobile and routinized, all subjectivity cleared out by process, and all content submitted to form. Almost all the work we shared showed how ‘modern’ bureaucracy is stuffed with all kinds of performance, affect, desire, sociability and animosity; if bureaucracy, as Matt Hull pointed out, is ‘the terrain on which we do politics’, it’s also often the terrain on which we do various kinds of selfhood. Brian Larkin’s colonial officers, asked to agree on the best transliteration of ‘Mohammed’ and its cognates, took the opportunity to show off their classical and Orientalist education with some fairly dizzying displays of linguistic knowledge – none of it, however, of much use to the question at hand. The Pakistani bureaucrats of Matt Hull’s work make a performance, in some senses, of the bureaucratic form itself, in which mastery of the all the system’s official, semi-official and distinctly non-official protocols becomes a form of social peacockery, a platform for a kind of sprezzatura. The speaking human subject always returns to fill the spaces of the forms from which it has supposedly been banished.

But, too often, only a certain type of subject gets to speak. If there’s a danger to the focus on a kind of archival bathos – the distance between Trumpian claims and, well, Trumpian failure – it is that it is  perhaps too easily parlayed into a denial of the power of the systems we’re studying here. If every case study we read for this conference involved a kind of failure, that failure always occurred within the context of a resounding success: the job got done, more or less, and the power of the British empire (or the modern postcolonial state and its apparatchiks) endured. (Again, ‘Trumpian’ is more instructive than we may’ve at first anticipated: Donald Trump’s uniquely vexed relationship with reality hasn’t yet seen him ejected from the Oval Office.) Our last discussions of the day played around the edges of archival absences: we discussed ways and means of recovering subaltern subjects from an archive with little apparent room for them, and the various ways in which archives can be dispersed, destroyed, and misread. In an age of nationalist reaction, cultural nostalgia and anxious retreat to the national, racial or linguistic community, the matter of what’s in the archive of empire and what’s isn’t, and how we read and manage and interpret that archive, is uncomfortably urgent. The files of empire, their contents and dispositions, are still the terrain on which we do politics.

Many thanks to Professor Brian Larkin and Asheesh Siddique for organising the workshop, and to the Heyman Centre for the Humanities at Columbia University for hosting it; especial thanks to Brian, and to Gustav Kalm, for showing me the hospitality of New York.


— Peter Mitchell

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Worldlets: Pitcairn, Wrangel, and the ragged margins of Empire

A few months ago, the Snapshots team attended a one-day workshop on “islands in history”  at the University of Leicester. The range of viewpoints and methodologies on display was slightly dizzying, but we came away with some fairy niggling questions: how do islands function as spaces in global history? In what does their ‘islandness’ consist, within the wider webs of empire, colony, state, trade and culture? How can we pursue a history and historiography of the global through such tightly bounded, but often richly connected spaces? How do we parse that boundedness, and that connectedness, and to what extent are they related?

One of the challenges of an island historiography, we found, is that they’re strangely overdetermined places: we tend to want to make them bear freights of meaning and signification beyond what we might expect of other spaces, loading them down with narrative, resonance and symbolic importance. Recent pictures from the South China Sea, where China is converting semi-submerged reefs and atolls into military installations, make small islands’ importance in global history palpable. The jostling between regional powers over the Spratly Islands, involving both military installations and ambitious reinterpretations of the law of the sea and its bearing on zones of influence, underscores one of the most crudely instrumental uses to which islands tend to be put, as points from which to dominate space through the projection of brute force and legal convention. But it’s worth thinking about the other functions islands fulfil, not only in concrete terms but at the same time in what we might call the political imaginary. Islands figure as spaces of quarantine and incarceration (think of Napoleon on St Helena, Sakhalin, Solovetsky and the prison islands of Australia; think, more recently, of Nauru and Christmas Island); places of refuge, exile, isolation and visions (think Gauguin and Melville in the Pacific, The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe); places of religious incubation, monasticism and prayer (the history of Celtic Christianity, for example, is intimately bound up with island spaces); outposts of the military state, useful for defining spheres of influence, for surveillance and for the projection of force (those troublesome Spratlys again, Diego Garcia, Ascension); and as the poisoned, blasted testing-grounds of technological apocalypse (think Gruinard Island, Bikini, Enewetak and Moruroa Atolls, Novaya Zemlya and the Montebello Islands).

In the political imaginary, they figure as rather different spaces: as mirrors which reflect and critique ‘mainland’ societies, and as microcosms in which societies’ alternative dispensations or possible futures, bright or catastrophic, might be acted out. Hence More’s Utopia and the satires of Gulliver’s Travels, the Edens and dystopias of Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson and Lord of the Flies. Considering it has no place on any map, The Tempest’s enchanted isle must be some of the most contested real estate in the history of colony and postcolony. Islands serve as elegiac symbols for the erasure of localist specificity by modernity (St Kilda, the drowning atolls of Micronesia) and as monitory narratives of ecological catastrophe and societal collapse (the destruction of the Dodo on Mauritius, the deforestation of Easter Island). These fables, like all the rest, often don’t hold up to scrutiny: St Kilda seems to have been less fun to inhabit than the romantic imagination suggests, and the collapse of society on Easter Island may have owed as much to global climate as to local failures. But island tales are often written disproportionately large.

How we might integrate an awareness of this complex history into our work at Snapshots of Empire is an open-ended question. In a recent blog, Kate Boehme read the Colonial Office records of St Helena, situating the island within global networks of power and communication and exploring how its governance during the global crisis of 1857 owed to a complex series of policy calculations encompassing contexts both local and global. In Kate’s work on St Helena, it’s possible to approach an idea of islands as hybrid spaces, both remote and intimately networked; and as places where policy and infrastructure, however small a scale they’re played out on, interrelate with those of other colonies, and the empire at large, in interesting and complex ways.

That tension between islands’ remoteness and the efforts to bring them within the networks of imperial power – and the strategies and technologies by which that move might be effected, and indeed the question of whether it’s worth doing at all – is something which comes up quite dramatically in two island stories from the Colonial Office records surrounding our current ‘snapshot’ of 1879. Both involve islands whose extreme isolation renders them as marginal as it’s possible to be on the imperial map; both concern the question of possession and sovereignty; and both come back, essentially, to inter-imperial competition, and the ways in which, by this point in the late nineteenth century, the progressive parcelling-out of the world between rival empires was reaching its endgame.



The islands are Pitcairn and Wrangel. Pitcairn Island, smack bang in the middle of the South Pacific, is famous as the place where the surviving Bounty mutineers settled; Wrangel Island, a tract of tundra and mountain off Russia’s Arctic coast, is primarily known now as the last place where woolly mammoths are known to have survived, as recently as 4,000 years ago. In Pitcairn’s case, the primary question was how to integrate this staggeringly remote and tiny community with the empire at large, and how to control and manage its population. In Wrangel’s case, it was whether Britain should care at all. The outcomes were as different as the islands. But in following through how the encounter between place and governmentality played out in the bureaucratic world of the imperial centre, and situating the islands within the cultural life and the political and geographical imaginaries of the time, we might be able to look towards a fuller appreciation of how such places can be read as constituting the ragged boundaries of empire: places where political authority and geographical knowledge stretch and fray, where the usual policymaking process is of doubtful utility and the lines of communication fragile.



Pitcairn and Wrangel Islands. Pitcairn is, you will note, small.

Pitcairn and Wrangel Islands. Pitcairn is, you will note, small. (Images courtesy of Wikipedia)


Pitcairn Island: “Puerile Simplicity”

In December 1878, the Colonial Office received a despatch from the Admiralty, enclosing a letter from Rear-Admiral A.F.R. de Horsey, C-in-C of the Pacific Station of the Royal Navy.[1] Horsey’s letter, written aboard his ship Shah on September the 17th of the year before – meaning that it had taken over a year to get into the hands of the CO – reports that, en route from Esquimault (the naval station near modern-day Vancouver) to Valparaiso in Chile, he had called at Pitcairn Island. His account takes up 16 numbered paragraphs, and touches on the current population, the system of government and the social and economic arrangements of the island. He appends a census of the 91 inhabitants and a brief table of its laws.

The account is businesslike enough, but Horsey’s obvious fascination with Pitcairn exceeds the strictures of a bureaucratic communiqué. The island is, he points out, “the only spot of British territory lying in the vast triangle between Vancouver, Falkland, and Fiji Islands”, and its uniquely isolated society, in his account, subscribes happily to almost all the tropes of island as pastoral idyll and utopian micropolity:

The almost puerile simplicity of the laws is perhaps the best evidence of the good conduct of the people. The law is, in fact, merely preventive, no case of theft, fornication, or use of profane language (apparently the only three crimes contemplated as possible) having been known to occur since the laws were drawn up.

If this “puerile simplicity” obviates the need for a strict regime of law, the report is quick to note that the islanders’ innocence is guaranteed by a strict Protestant moral apparatus:

Divine service is held every Sunday at 10.30 a.m., and at 3 p.m., in the house built and used by John Adams for that purpose until he died in 1829. It is conducted strictly in accordance with the liturgy of the Church of England, by Mr Simon Young, their selected pastor, who is much respected. A Bible class is held every Wednesday, when all who conveniently can attend. There is also a general meeting for prayer on the first Friday in every month. Family prayers are said in every house the first thing in the morning and the last thing in the evening, and no food is partaken of without asking God’s blessing before and afterwards.  … The observance of Sunday is very strict; no work is done; but this is not in any pharisaical spirit… Of these islanders’ religious attributes no one can speak without deep respect. A people whose greatest pleasure and privilege is to commune in prayer with their God, and to join in hymns of praise, and who are, moreover, cheerful, diligent, and probably freer from vice than any other community, need no priest among them.

Pitcairn, then, is to be understood not as a savage paradise but as a self-regulating, if not highly policed, model of self-sufficient rural society. This tension between a strict ethical framework and the freedom of a people who are essentially innocent – who need, in their Edenic solitude, neither law nor priest – is taken further in the description of education:

The instruction [in the schoolhouse] comprises reading, writing, arithmetic, Scripture, history, and geography. The girls learn sewing and hat-making as well, and the whole are taught part-singing very effectively. Every child and unmarried woman at present has to attend school from nine to twelve and from one to three p.m.

…No alcoholic liquors, except for medical purposes, are used, and a drunkard is unknown. The houses are well ventilated, and furnished sufficiently for their simple wants. Scarcely any trees good for timber grow here. There is no money on the island, except such few coins as may be kept as curiosities.

These islanders might be innocent in spirit, but their bodies and intellects are disciplined according to the gendered practices of nineteenth-century elementary education. If they experience poverty – and it is clear that they do, in resources and in capital – it is a poverty that is construed as essentially benign. The silent point of reference here, perhaps, is the urban proletariat of the late Victorian imagination. Weakened and dehumanized by drink, unventilated dwellings, and a lack of correspondence between their material environments and bodily wants (dwellings without furniture, money without value, food that was not food), the industrial working class were conceived of as both an internal threat and a moral stain on British civilization. If anything represented the radical mobility of bodies, values, culture and ethics under industrial capitalism, it was them. Pitcairn, of course, presents a society in which rootedness and stability (albeit, in fact, fragile, and enforced by a vertiginous isolation) combine with virtue to stand outside of troubling historical processes. To advert to colonized or exotic cultures for a comforting antidote to the anxieties of modernity was as common a move in the late nineteenth century as it is now; in Horsey’s account, the sense of relief at having found this pre-lapsarian Little England is almost palpable.

Captain Beechey, writing fifty-three years ago, says ‘these excellent people appear to live together in perfect harmony and contentment, to be virtuous, religious, cheerful, and hospitable; to be patterns of conjugal and parental affection, and to have very few vices.’ I have ventured to quote these words as they hold true to this day, the children having followed in the footsteps of their parents.

In this account, even the continuity of generations appears guaranteed. As we’ll see, it wasn’t; Horsey’s portrayal of Pitcairn as a kind of extra-political space is at odds both with its reality and with his plans for it:

Finally, I submit to your lordships that when the service will admit it is desirable that a ship of war should visit Pitcairn annually, and I propose to cause this to be done during the remainder of my command. I submit also that this small colony is deserving such attention and encouragement as Her Majesty’s Government may think fit to hold out to it. Her Majesty does not, I believe, possess in any part of the world more loyal and affectionate subjects than this little knot of settlers. I may here observe that a notion appears to prevail among the Pitcairn Islanders that Her Majesty’s Government are displeased with them for having returned from Norfolk Island (which, as their lordships are aware, they did in two parties, the first in 1850, and the rest, I think, in 1864), although their return was, I believe, at their own expense, and they have since been no burden to the Grown. This notion, whence received I know not, I ventured to affirm was without foundation, feeling assured that Her Majesty’s Government would rather honor them for preferring the primitive simplicity of their native island to either the dissolute manners of Otaheite or even the more civilised but less pure and simple ways of Norfolk Island. No one acquainted with these islanders could fail to respect them. A religious, industrious, happy, and contented people, they will lose rather than gain by contact with other communities.

—I have, &c.,

B. De Horsey,

Rear-Admiral and Commander-in-Chief.”

What’s striking here is that Horsey prescribes a closer absorption into the remote constitutional and technological network of empire as a prophylactic against the pollutions of the informal, transimperial and unpoliced networks that are closer to hand. Pitcairn is to be preserved as a pious, endogenous, English-speaking micro-polity, in all its “puerile simplicity”, by yearly visits of a warship and the formal imposition of English sovereign law.

This is also, implicitly, an inter-imperial issue. Horsey notes tersely that “One stranger, an American, has settled on the island, a doubtful acquisition.” The man is listed in the census as Peter John Butler, 26 years old, born in Brooklyn. He arrived on the island as one of the crew of the British ship Khandish when she was wrecked on Oeno, an atoll about 100 miles away. The crew spent six weeks on Pitcairn awaiting pickup, and Butler afterwards returned to marry an island woman who had recently been widowed: the census records them living with newborn female twins and an older daughter from his wife’s first marriage.

The arrival of the American might have been unsettling, at least in part, because America was the current rival expansionist naval power in the Pacific. The CO may have been aware that the stay of the Khandish’s American sailors on Pitcairn had occasioned ongoing cultural links with San Francisco, and the prospect of a rival English-speaking power having more traffic with the islanders than Britain, however informal, must have left a sour taste.

They would also have been aware of what happened the last time an American citizen set up on Pitcairn. Joshua Hill, an adventurer and fantasist with US citizenship, had landed on Pitcairn in 1831 and spent the next seven years establishing an almost dictatorial power over the island, appointing himself President of a Pitcairn Commonwealth and giving long denunciatory sermons with a gun under his chair. Several prominent islanders fled before Hill was deposed by a visiting RN Captain and sent to London, where he continued to petition the CO and other government branches for compensation for his services.



Horsey’s dispatch: bureaucratic itinerary and cultural afterlife

All these anxieties – the foreign presence, the constitutional issue, the threat of America in the Pacific – are evident in the minutes that Horsey’s dispatch collects as it moves through the Colonial Office.

It’s worth outlining how this worked. On arrival at the CO, despatches would be provided with a printed cover-sheet, which performed several functions. First, it functioned as a form for the office to classify the despatch, assigning it a number, noting which despatches it related to, and summarising its origin and subject matter. Secondly, it recorded the despatch’s movement through the CO’s bureaucracy, as it passed over various employees’ desks. The string of minutes, usually a paragraph or two long, that accumulate on the minute sheer represent the input of the secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant undersecretaries and chief clerks who, sometimes in an orderly line of precedence and sometimes in something rather more like a back-and-forth colloquy, decided how to respond. Each intervention would be marked with the initials of the contributor; and while for many despatches it seems obvious that the real work of policymaking went on in exchanges now unrecapturable, or is recorded in more dispersed and complex paper-trails, it’s still possible in the minute-sheets of the CO records to see the distribution of roles, the sharing of expertise and the negotiation of authority between a small cast of officials. It’s possible, too, to see how these documents were read by their first recipients: what struck them as significant, what they thought inadequate, what was seen as requiring urgent attention and what wasn’t. The impression, often, is one of workaday intimacy.

The Pitcairn despatch is quickly combined with other relevant papers, accumulating a certain amount of ad hoc appendices, and a relatively long exchange extends the usual single-sheet minute paper to several leaves. The first response is from a staff member who signs himself WO (not immediately identifiable from the CO staff list for 1879 – if any well-informed readers can help us out here, do get in touch):

Mr Bramston –

See memorandum by Mr Bussell (February) and annexed respecting Pitcairn Island – it would I presume be held to belong to the British crown if any Foreign Govt attempted to take possession of it.

I was wondering yesterday when I passed 15553 how the magistrate managed to enforce the rules for the maintenance of order especially as an outsider in the shape of an American has managed to locate himself on the Island – You will best know whether the authorization sought can be given.

Norfolk Island where the majority of the descendants of the Mutineers of the Bounty are located is under the personal government of the Governor of NSW to whom the Magistrate who is annually elected looks for guidance and support. –WO

[…] It is stated in the accompanying Book on Pitcairn island – Page 252 – that the Island was taken possession of by Captain Elliott on behalf of the Brown of Great Britain on the 29th of November 1838 – WO

John Bramston was an assistant undersecretary who specialised in dealing with despatches from Canada, South Africa, Australian and Pacific colonies. By the time this one reaches him it has already accumulated a book (Pitcairn: The Island, the People, and the Pastor, by the Rev. Thomas Boyles Murray – an 1854 publication of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, of which Boyles Murray was then secretary), and an earlier memorandum from February 1878. Bramston replies by recirculating the despatch with the further addition of a set of minutes from a Cape Colony Despatch (No. 15253) relating to the constitutional arrangements of Tristan Da Cunha.

The next interlocutor is R.G.W. Herbert, the Permanent Undersecretary whose notes appear on almost every set of minutes from the period. Permanent Undersecretary was a position of enormous responsibility: while secretaries of state and parliamentary undersecretaries were political appointments, the Permanent Undersecretary a civil servant, and the running of the Office was in his hands. Herbert, who had been the first premier of Queensland from 1859 to 1866, held the post of Permanent Undersecretary from 1871 to 1892; his responsibilities in the Colonial Office List of 1879 are listed as “political and constitutional questions, general supervision, papers on all subjects before submission to Secretary of State”. It’s that last phrase that concerns us here: whatever happened to the despatch, it had to go through Herbert before it went back up to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Michael Hicks Beach. Herbert’s job at this point was to give a clear statement of the options available, and that’s what he does:

            Sir M Hicks Beach:

This paper raises the question which was much considered here in 1876 on whether an Island circumstanced as this Island & Tristan Da Cunha are should not have some recognized civil & executive power, vested by a simple & rudimentary form of commission in the person who without any authority now acts as chief magistrate in a British Territory.

Lord Carnarvon did not see his way to proceeding in the case of Tristan D’Acunha in the manner proposed: and although it is not altogether satisfactory to formally invest with executive & judicial powers an ignorant man selected by an ignorant community, it is of course also unsatisfactory to have an entire absence of legal authority on British soil.

If you think it would be well to take up this question the proposals made for Tristan d’Acunha in 1876 can be recast with the alterations then suggested by Law Officers.

RGWH, Dec 19

C Dec 21

Having been combined with the relevant documents – in this case a cross-reference with a similar constitutional puzzle from a far distant context – and endorsed (that “C Dec 21”) by George Cadogan, Earl Cadogan (1840-1915), the Parliamentary Undersecretary, the problem is now ready to be sent up the chain of command.

Hicks Beach’s reply comes down only three days later. He writes:

I think I should let this alone until we have clear proof of the necessity for our interference with a little community that has hitherto managed its own affairs. In such a place they do not want our complicated system of law – their own few simple rules can easily be enforced by themselves. It is, no doubt, an anomalous state of things: but I think less objectionable than one in which we should invest with authority a person not appointed by us; and over whom, as well as over the laws administered by him, we should have no control whatever.

We might reply to the Admiralty that we are glad to hear that they propose to make arrangements for an annual visit of a Ship of War to the Island: & thus to afford the facilities for that [recourse?] which the islanders desire to [have to?] the commanders of HM Ships in any case of difficulty – that the deference which the islanders voluntarily pay to their chief magistrate appears sufficient to enable him to deal with ordinary affairs: and that having considered Admiral de Horsey’s suggestion I do not think it advisable to comply with it but should of course be pressed to reconsider that decision if any circumstances should hereafter arise showing necessity for some action of the kind. – MWHB Dec 24

And there the matter lies. As so often in colonial administration, the question that reaches London turns out to be a question that London resolves simply to bear in mind. The matter demands no immediate response; there is no particular inclination to adopt an active policy, or no resources to hand with which to enforce it; things are best left to colonial governors on the spot, trusting to their judgment and closer understanding; any or all of these reasons might be in play.

So, for the time being, the issue of Pitcairn – whether it is to be visited yearly, what its legal and constitutional arrangements are to be, and indeed whether it is to be formally pronounced British territory except purely negatively, in the face of an immediate counter-claim – was left in abeyance. A pragmatic reluctance to tinker, and a sense of the problem’s relatively nugatory scale, won out. But the imaginative pull of islands, Pitcairn’s uniqueness and susceptibility to mythologization, and the vividness of Horsey’s narrative were to ensure that his despatch enjoyed a cultural afterlife outside the Colonial Office.

At some point in late 1878, Horsey’s account was diffused in the popular press. The Spectator’s piece on it, suggestively entitled ‘A Worldlet Within a World’, reproduced much of Horsey’s report verbatim and emphasized the island’s legibility as a microcosm or ideal micropolity, noting that previous news from there had been “like reports of the Happy Valley”.[2] The utopian character of the island community – a space where radical political experiments might be made – was seized upon by the pioneering feminist periodical The Englishwomen’s Review, which noted that “[i]f free libraries, compulsory schooling, and temperance be the concomitants of women’s suffrage, its worst opponents might wish there were more such arcadias.”[3] (Looking at some of the response, I wonder if the tension remarked on above – between Horsey’s enchanted language, and the official form of an Admiralty report – is quite on the mark. Horsey may have been well aware that his report was likely to be circulated and picked up on in the popular press.)

Horsey’s report also came to the attention of Mark Twain (yes, the Mark Twain), who was travelling in Europe at the time. Twain quickly turned it into a short story, The Great Revolution in Pitcairn, which draws on the Joshua Hill story while quoting large chunks of the report, picking up in particular on the “puerile simplicity” and the emphasis on piety. In Twain’s piece, John Butler becomes Butterworth Stavely, essentially an amplified version of Hill. Stavely, an adventurer whose arrival on Pitcairn is as abrupt and inexplicable as Hill’s was in reality, uses a dispute about a chicken – and the islanders’ mistake of keeping all their laws in a poorly-guarded strongbox – to manufacture a constitutional crisis. Whipping up anti-imperial fervour against Britain, he inveigles his way to being crowned Emperor of the Pitcairn Commonwealth, embarking on a Napoleonic career of petty tyranny and comic self-aggrandizement that inevitably sinks under the weight of its own contradictions.

Marl Twain, 1907. (Photo by A.F. Bradley)

Marl Twain, 1907. (Photo by A.F. Bradley)

Twain’s story uses the time-honoured trope of the islands as political microcosm both to take aim at some fairly obvious satirical targets (the performativity of power, the fiction of the state, the credulity of citizens) and to generate an extended series of comic setpieces based on the spectacle of a village society as small as Pitcairn’s attempting to fulfil the functions of an imperial state. But the fable maintains a careful ambivalence about empire, and doesn’t essentially contradict Horsey’s view of Pitcairn as a society whose innocence and integrity is best guaranteed by benign, if distant, British rule. Where there is an anti-authoritarian sting in the tail of the story, it is directed at the islanders’ much-vaunted piety rather than any structure of state power. As a political parable, its commitments are queerly unpolitical.

“Such,” writes Twain, “is the history of Pitcairn’s ‘doubtful acquisition’.”



Wrangel Island: As If Such A Thing Were Worth Anyone’s While, Except a Polar Bear

The story of Wrangel Island is very different from that of Pitcairn. Essentially, nothing much happens: a claim has been made to the Island by the USA; the CO consider whether they might have any pre-existing claim to the island on behalf of the British Empire; they quite sensibly decide that they have little interest in who makes claims to islands which are uninhabitable, more or less inaccessible, and far from any area in which they have much interest in projecting naval power. But if nothing else, the bureaucratic encounter with Wrangel provides a counterpoint to that with Pitcairn. In both cases, the same cast of CO staff faced issues of territoriality, sovereignty, remoteness and geostrategy, and come up with very different answers; in both cases, the encounter takes place in a larger cultural context in which remoteness itself, and how it is construed, is central to how those issues are thought about.

Briefly, in August 1881, a party from the US Revenue Cutter Corwin arrived at Wrangel Island. Naming it ‘New Columbia’, they claimed it for the USA. Neither the name nor the territorial claim would stick. Nonetheless, the US government notified the British, and towards the end of November the Admiralty informed the Colonial Office of what had transpired.

The despatch they sent contained the Admiralty’s own briefing on Wrangel, and an updated chart of the island and its immediate neighbourhood. To briefing gives a strong impression of the piecemeal way that the topography and geopolitical dispensations of the Arctic came into focus.

The first intimation to geographers of the land now known as Wrangell Land, was on the authority of the Russian Explorer, Baron von Wrangell, who in 1823, while exploring the Arctic shores of Eastern Siberia, was told by a Native chief, that on a clear summer’s day, snow covered mountains were observed (to the north) from Cape Jakan, a head land in long: 177 E.

In August 1849 Captain Kellett in HMS Herald being then engaged – by way of Behring Strait – in the search for Sir John Franklin’s expedition discovered a lofty and almost inaccessible island in lat: 71.20 N – long 175.30 W. (the Herald island of the Charts). At the same time, beyond this Island to the West and North and extensive high land was seen. This new land, which was not very far distant from the mountainous region recorded by Wrangell, as seen from Cape Jaken, received the name of Kellett’s Land.

In August 1867 – the season being very favourable, some American whaling ships gained the neighbourhood of these lands – one of the Captains (Long, of the ship Nile), traced continuous land from 70.46 N and 178.30 E running Eastward to 178.51 W.

He considered it impossible to tell how far the land from the last position (Cape Hawaii) extended northwards, as ranges of mountains extended as far as the eye could see; but that he had learnt from another Whaling Captain (Blevin, of the ship Nautilus) that he (Blevin) saw land NW of Herald island, as far North as Latitude 72. Captain Long named the land he had traced (it appears he never got closer to it than 15 miles) ‘Wrangell Land’ as an appropriate tribute to the memory of the Russian Explorer.

The Charts thus show two names for what apparently is one continuous land, or group of large islands, Wrangell Land and Kellett Land.[4]

Kellett and Blevin’s original observations are largely accurate, although they tend to slightly overestimate Wrangel’s extent; this passage sets out rather elegantly both how the new land was boxed in – fixed within bounds of latitude and longitude – and how knowledge of what was within those bounds was kept carefully provisional until further evidence was given. It also gives a nice sense of how the business of Arctic exploration and mapping proceeded. Unlike the Antarctic, whose unique isolation and inaccessibility were met at the end of the century with a combination of technology, political will and ideological fervour which sparked the relatively short heroic age of exploration, geographical knowledge of the Arctic had a long pedigree which encompassed the geographical knowledges of indigenous peoples, the penetration of resource extraction industries – most notably whaling, sealing and fur trading – and a rather longer history of European exploration dating back to Davis, Frobisher and the Muscovy Company.


Sketch chart of Wrangel from Log Book of the USS Rodgers (1881); modern nature reserve map of Wrangel and Herald Islands.

(Above) Sketch chart of Wrangel from Log Book of the USS Rodgers (1881); (below)modern nature reserve map of Wrangel and Herald Islands.


The Corvin, in fact, was on a search – for the US ship Jeannette, apparently lost the year before, and for two missing whalers. As with many of the period’s arctic expeditions, this search mission seems to have essentially been a convenient rationale (and a source of funding and media attention) for what was essentially an explorational voyage: this particular one was attended by John Muir, the famous American naturalist and conservationist. A published narrative by one of the doctors on board recounts the sighting of Wrangel from Herald Island, and the first documented landing. It is an evocative document of how late nineteenth Europeans and North Americans viewed the Arctic – as a territory of chaos, scarcity and ruin, a rich field for scientific enquiry but in human terms a terra nullius. “The view revealed from the top of [Herald] island”, he writes, “was a veritable apocalypse”.  After Herald Island, the party makes landfall on Wrangel, and though much of the narrative is taken up with observations and cataloguing of wildlife species:

On the beach, composed of black slaty shingle, we found the skeleton of a whale from which the baleen was absent; also a quantity of driftwood, some of it twelve inches in diameter; a wooden wedge; a barrel-stave; a piece of a boat’s spar and a fragment of a biscuit-box.”[5]


Mammoth tusk on Wrangel (courtesy of Wikipedia).

Mammoth tusk on Wrangel (courtesy of Wikipedia).

In their minutes, the CO reveal themselves to be singularly unconcerned by America’s claim to Wrangel. “I should think,” writes Edmund Burke Pennell, Parliamentary Clerk, “the United States are welcome to Wrangel Island.” There is some discussion of charts, and it is moved to send Ottawa an updated copy: the issue is relegated to one purely of having up-to-date information on navigation and the disposition of a sovereignty which, one gets the impression, is conceived of anyway as purely notional. The final comment is from Hicks Beach, and reads, with impatience and an uncharacteristic levity:

We have obviously nothing to do with Wrangel Island. The only people that could complain of the annexation by the US are the Russians, if such a thing were worth anyone’s while except a Polar bear, to trouble himself about.”

In this case, there was no appetite for geostrategic competition: nothing was felt to be at stake; existing technologies and geostrategic dispositions placed Wrangel far from any immediate inter-imperial competition; the only local resources worth having were whale oil and navigational data, both of which were easily collectable in seas in which territorial sovereignty was effectively, at this point, understood to be a fiction. While Pitcairn, the argument goes, can only preserve its technologically and politically undeveloped society from unknown threats (internal and external) through the imposition of hard technology (warships) and the juridical techniques of statehood, neither are yet of any use in the Arctic. Claims to sovereignty could only really be made speculatively, against a future in which the means to back them up, or the circumstances in which they’d be worth asserting, might arise. The new data is to be disseminated to the relevant Colonial governments, where it will lie in wait until it becomes useful; otherwise, the island and its territorial status can be more or less forgotten.




The relative trajectories of Pitcairn and Wrangel, in terms of global history, constitute almost a reversal of the calculations behind the CO’s decisions in 1878 and 1881. Pitcairn, a potential front line of inter-imperial competition and a psychologically important cultural artefact, would perhaps never loom so largely in the administrative or cultural mind again; Wrangel, albeit quietly, has become deeply implicated in new geographies of geostrategy, ecology, and the Anthropocene.

Pitcairn continued much as it always had. There were a few experiments in modes of governance – a temporary parliament at the turn of the century saw an attempted separation of judicial and administrative powers, but the system of a unitary executive lodged in the Chief Magistrate was felt to work best. Laws were made to prevent the settling of foreigners, and then relaxed, although incomers were largely quite carefully vetted; the social fabric, always strained by Pitcairn society’s tiny size and extreme isolation, held together, more or less. The island became a formal British Colony in the 1930s. The sexual abuse trials that marred its reputation since 2004have been amply documented elsewhere; as ever, that island overdetermination has been made to work overtime in attempting to draw meaning from the trials, the cultural and ethical conflicts they represented, and how they might be read within the history of colonialism and postcolonialism. It is interesting to note, however, that the same anxieties about sovereignty and legal constitution that worried the CO in 1878 began to manifest during the upheaval. The initial defence argument took the line that, since the island did not fall under British criminal law, the court set up on the island held no jurisdiction; and throughout the trials the legitimacy of the court fell under various kinds of questioning (none of them successful).

Adamstown, capital of Pitcairn (photo courtesy of flickr)

Adamstown, capital of Pitcairn (photo courtesy of flickr)


Wrangel Island was formally claimed by the Russians in 1916, with no apparent protest from any other power. The heroic age of Arctic exploration left its usual residue of detritus and graves: a party of stranded explorers from the 1913-16 Canadian Arctic Expedition generated some exceptionally grim stories of starvation, madness and death, and a castaway incident in the 1920s generated considerable interest. But while Pitcairn’s geostrategic importance waned, Wrangel’s rose: as a far-north outpost of the Soviet Union it found itself on the front line of the Cold War balance of terror, and military installations made it important enough to 1950s war planners at the Pentagon to make it a nuclear target. At present it is a nature reserve, inhabited seasonally by Chukchi fishermen and year-round by a small team of conservationists. But as sea ice retreats, the opening up of the Arctic Ocean places Wrangel dead in the middle of what may soon become a major commercial seaway. As the Arctic becomes a space in which concepts of sovereignty and territory are being contested and redefined – with not only its land at stake but its undersea ridges and continental shelves, any stretch of seabed which might yield access to the hydrocarbon reserves beneath – Wrangel finds itself again on the front line between expansionist territorial powers facing off over space, resources, and influence. It is also, of course, on the front line of the Anthropocene: as a strategic outpost in the first oceanic region to have both its geopolitics and its ecosystems radically remade by climate change, and as a stretch of tundra whose underlying permafrost contains not only mammoth bones but millions of tonnes of methane, awaiting the thaw.

Peter Mitchell



[1] Colonial Office: New South Wales Despatches, National Archives CO 201/585-6.

[2] The Spectator (London), December 14, 1878; p. 9.

[3] The Englishwoman’s Review (London), December 14, 1878; p. 558; issue LXVIII.

[4] Colonial Office Canada Despatches, National Archive CO 42/758.

[5] Irving C. Rosse, ‘The First Landing on Wrangel Island, with some Remarks on the Northern Inhabitants’, Journal of the American Geographical Socety of New York, Vol. 15 (1883), pp. 163-214.

Posted in 1879, Colonial Office, Islands in History

Civilizing Empire?: Race, criminal justice, and how the Colonial Office reconciled the violence of colonial government

Previous blogs have touched upon the ways in which the Imperial government in London tied together geographically and governmentally disparate colonies into a relatively cohesive entity known as the British Empire. We have likewise discussed some of the activities of empire – communications technology, steam transport, conservation and geological surveys – that together, tied in very closely with the notion of the British Empire as a modern, ‘civilizing’ body. This self-image was projected from the centre no more profoundly than in the latter nineteenth century. The consolidation of Britain’s political presence overseas, the confederation of Canada, and the unification of South Africa were driven by a number of factors, including inter-Imperial rivalry, but were likewise fraught with a sense of the Empire’s righteousness, as though it were Britain’s moral imperative to conquer the globe.

Today’s blog, however, will touch upon the dissonance between the image of Empire projected from the metropole that drove imperial policy, and the realities of empire that brought those policies to fruition in the colonies. Here, I will explore a two documents that point toward this separation, governmentally and ideologically. The first, from Mauritius, encapsulates the ideological discrepancies between how the practice of empire was conceived from the colonies and from the centre, while the second, from the Cape Colony, indicates a similar distinction within the practice of government and the art of war. As the tone of racism and violence that underpinned imperial expansion for centuries became more pronounced, we see evidence of conflict between the Colonial Office and the colonies as they debate whether the ‘ends justify the means’ and officials in London repeatedly remark that, ‘this is not how things in the British Empire are done.’ Together, these documents portray an ideological dissonance: an Empire torn between its self-imagined moral authority and its violent reality.


Security, Criminality, and Race in Mauritius
Mauritius is an interesting case study. People of colour were the majority population, with many of them Indian indentured labourers. Colonial officials in such colonies often expressed anxiety at being outnumbered by people of colour, and Mauritius was no exception. In late-1857, during the height of the Indian Uprising, security was a clear concern. As revealed in an earlier blog, in that case the colonial government sought to control the Indian population through the implementation of a system of compulsory education. By 1879, however, it appears that the government had turned away from regulatory methods of social control and towards force. In 1879, it becomes readily apparent that, at its highest levels, the colonial government of Mauritius is imbued with a deeply embedded distrust of the island’s majority population.

The documents under consideration are a letter from the Acting Governor of Mauritius, F. Napier Broome, to the Port Louis Prison Committee, asking their opinion ‘whether the general practice of the more civilised countries, namely the private in lieu of the public execution of the sentence of death, might not with advantage be introduced into the Colony.’[1] While the subject under consideration is whether capital punishment practices ought to be amended to align with those undertaken in England, to offer a ‘more decent’ mode of execution, the Prison Committee instead offers a report on the various merits of reinstating execution by beheading (rather than the standard practice of hanging that was used in both the colonies and at home at this time).

The initial argument is presented that ‘the population of Mauritius is a very mixed one, unlike that of India or Ceylon’ with the Procureur General then elaborating that the crimes in Mauritius ‘are those of marked violence and they point to the peculiarities of Indian character.’[2]

The Procureur General then notes that ‘the Indian is certainly not afraid of death,’ explaining ‘I do not attribute this indifference to any exceptional courage or want of nervous power on the part of the Indian, but rather to the disbelief which he feels in the form of punishment. He is prepared to die, provided that his identity is not destroyed by any form of mutilation.’[3] This argument is presented to justify his conclusion that the issue of a public or private execution is irrelevant, and his concurrence in the Chief Medical Officer’s assessment that beheading is a punishment ‘more befitting’ the Indian population. It certainly indicates the kind of racism that permeated colonial governance, as well as the forms of violence against non-European populations deemed acceptable by colonial administrations. The opinions presented here by the Procureur General were echoed by the Chief Medical Officer, Head of the Police Department, and a Magistrate.

The Minutes of the Colonial Office, presented upon receiving this Report, present a very different opinion. They immediately dismiss the proposal to reinstate beheading as barbaric and merely a long-forgotten relic of French rule in Mauritius, not even taking the idea under serious consideration. Sir Robert George Wyndham Herbert, Permanent Under Secretary of State, in fact, suggests that all the colonial executions should be conducted on the English system, within the confines of the jail. Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Secretary of State for the Colonies, likewise agreed, expressing what was to him an obvious opinion that, as part of the wider British Empire, all the colonies ought to adhere to the ‘civilised’ example set by the Home Government in England.


Representative Autonomy and the Art of Colonial Warfare
The case from the Cape Colony may seem not to relate to that from Mauritius just discussed. However, it points to a similar disconnect between the Home and Colonial Governments, both with regard to the prerogatives held by the imperial representative, and to the attitudes regarding non-European communities. In his initial despatch, Governor Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of the Cape Colony, defends his issuing of an ultimatum, and the use of force against the Zulus, without previously receiving approval from the Home Government. The Colonial Office’s reply is revealing, showing that in fact the imperial government in London was not aware of the military initiative until it was already underway. This document not only calls into question any popular assumption that the Anglo-Zulu War was directed and approved from London; it also sheds light on the uncertainty that still prevailed as late as 1879, regarding the power wielded by colonial governments.

High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere

High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere

The questions at the core of this debate are whether the Governor had the power to authorise a significant military intervention without sanction from London, and whether there were any circumstances which made such action immediately necessary. The Governor argues that “it would have been useless to expect to wait the two months for a reply from Her Majesty’s Government, without some fresh manifestation of Zulu impatience or without an outbreak of discontent in the Transvaal or elsewhere.” He then constructs an argument, listing a series of justifications that are systematically dismantled in the reply from the Colonial Office.

It is firstly abundantly clear that the Governor absolutely did not have permission from London to engage the colony in war. One of the Undersecretaries of State comments upon the Governor’s despatch, “There does not appear to be anything in it to relieve Sir B. Frere from the crime administered to him on the 19th of March for committing the country to war without the sanction of Her Majesty’s Government.” In this statement it is made evident that not only was the Colonial Office unaware of Sir Bartle Frere’s machinations, but that they disapprove and that his assumption of this prerogative is tantamount to criminal.

What follows is an attempt to understand the true reasons behind the conflict, suggesting that those offered by the Governor may not be entirely truthful. The Minute proceeds thus, in reference to the aforementioned hypothetical “outbreak of discontent in the Transvaal”:

It is quite clear from what follows that the passage underlined refers to an outbreak of Boer discontent; and the passage will give strength to the allegation made by some that this war has been undertaken to please the Boers – a charge which would go far to discredit the policy of having an annexed Transvaal.

Frere then defends the urgency of the conflict, suggesting that the Zulus were on the brink of invasion, placing colonists settled along the banks of the Tugela River at great risk. However, in the course of this argument he also suggests that during the rainy months the Tugela “is in such a state as to make it dangerous for any Zulu force to cross it for raiding purposes between October and March.” This passage was taken by the Colonial Office, however, to prove the opposite of what Frere had intended, that there was no need to begin the military engagement so hurriedly. They suggest that if the Tugela was unpassable until March, then it would have served as a barrier to any kind of Zulu invasion; Frere could therefore have waited until March, which would have offered more than enough time for communication with the Home Government.

Moreover, the Colonial Office rebuts Frere’s claim that Cetshwayo and the Zulus were determined to invade Natal this year, pointing to the ultimatum issued against Cetshwayo as evidence. The Colonial Office determines that if such was the case, then the invasion of Zulu country would have been a “justifiable act of self-preservation” and there would have been no just reason to send an ultimatum. This can be related back to previous correspondence concerning the ultimatum, which held it and a preceding land award as directly responsible for the ensuing conflict. In reference to the land award, which gave “the Zulus nominal sovereignty of the country” and gave “the country itself to 80 or 90 Boers,” Edward Fairfield, a member of staff at the Colonial Office, likened it to “giving the shells to the Zulus and the oysters to the Boers.” Fairfield further proposes that by following the Award with the ultimatum – which required the disbandment of the Zulu army and fundamental changes to the Zulu marriage system – it ensured that the war was virtually inevitable.[4] Such comments elicit the impression that the Colonial Office did not believe the war to be the inevitable result of Zulu aggression, as indicated by Frere, and rather the deliberate consequence of colonial provocation.

The minute concludes that “Sir B. Frere might have put the matter before the Government in time to have obtained their assent to his advancing into Zululand in January, and yet have left it open to them to veto the measure in time.”


These two cases provide a glimpse into the culture of imperial governance in 1879, shedding light on the difficulties faced by the Colonial Office in maintaining an ideologically and governmentally cohesive empire.

The debate surrounding the Zulu ultimatum calls into question the fluidity of communications between the Cape and London. It suggests that the delay effected by use of the steam postal service was, if not a barrier to communication itself, at least a useful excuse for exercising executive power from the colony without the need of approval from London. It likewise sheds new light on the sense of urgency expressed by the Colonial Office regarding the construction on the Great Sea Telegraph, casting it into the context of a dispute regarding the extent of the Governor’s authority in the Cape Colony.

Meanwhile, the case presented by the Mauritius petition sheds light on the administrative culture in the colony. It likewise develops farther-reaching relevance as opinions such as those presented by the Prison Committee impacted upon the Major General’s willingness to send troops to reinforce those fighting the Zulus in the Cape Colony and Natal. Despite the overall peaceful state of the colony, he refers to the ‘criminal tendencies of the lower classes of the population’ and that ‘many…are committing murders and robberies in all directions.’[5] In such conditions, troops could not be spared for the imperial enterprise as a whole.

Such opinions had a clear and decided impact on the Colonial Office’s ability to mobilise its empire. In contrast to the example posed by the Indian Uprising in 1857, colonies such as Mauritius that had previously willingly supplied troops to other colonies as required, were hesitant to do so in 1879. Had a culture shift occurred, resulting in some colonies’ turn away from the Home Government and the British Empire as a whole, and toward preserving their own administrative autonomy and security?

Kate Boehme


[1] National Archives, Kew. Mauritius Despatches 1 Jan-31 Mar 1879, No. 170, F. Napier Broome to Sir Michael Hicks Beach, (31 March, 1879).
[2] National Archives. Mauritius Despatches 1 Jan-31 Mar 1879, Prison Committee, “Minute of the Public Execution of Criminals,” (March 1879).
[3] Ibid.
[4] National Archives. Cape Despatches 1 Jan – 30 April 1879, No. 3217, “Confidential,” (26 Jan, 1879).
[5] National Archives. Mauritius Despatches 1 Jan-31 Mar 1879, No. 129, F. Napier Broome to Sir Michael Hicks Beach, (9 March, 1879).

Posted in 1879, Colonial Office, Islands in History, Violence & Conflict