Misremembering the British Empire


The records of Britain’s imperial past have been distorted or destroyed. ILLUSTRATION/Alexander Glandien

How did the British become so blinkered about their nation’s imperial history?

On a cloud-spackled Sunday last June, protesters in Bristol, England, gathered at a statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century slave trader on whose watch more than eighty thousand Africans were trafficked across the Atlantic. “Pull it down!” the crowd chanted, as people yanked on a rope around the statue’s neck. A few tugs, and the figure clanged off its pedestal. A panel of its coat skirt cracked off to expose a hollow buttock as the demonstrators rolled the statue toward the harbor, a few hundred yards away, and then tipped it headlong into the water.

The Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated a reckoning across Europe about the legacies of slavery and imperialism, nowhere more urgently than in Britain, which presided over the largest empire in world history. The Colston statue stood on Colston Avenue, in the shadow of Colston Tower, on Colston Street, around the corner from Colston Hall. Scratch almost any institution with roots in Britain’s era of global dominance and you’ll draw imperial blood—from the Rhodes Trust, established by the fervent expansionist and white supremacist Cecil Rhodes, to the British Museum, whose founding collection was funded by profits from Jamaican plantations worked by slaves, and the Booker Prize, launched by a food company once notorious for its exploitative practices in the cane fields of British Guiana. Every year, the Queen honors hundreds of citizens with the Order of the British Empire. (A 2004 parliamentary committee recommended changing the name to the Order of British Excellence, to no avail.)

Public discussion in Britain about the imperial past has pivoted on a reductive question: Was the empire good or bad? The Labour Party has pledged to “ensure the historical injustices of colonialism, and the role of the British Empire” are “properly integrated into the National Curriculum,” while Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, decries a “cringing embarrassment about our history.” A March, 2020, poll found that a third of Britons believed that their empire had done more good than harm for colonies—a higher percentage than in other former imperial powers, including France and Japan. More than a quarter of Britons want the empire back.

Asking, today, whether empire was good or bad is, as a historical matter, about as useful as asking whether the Atlantic Ocean is good or bad. When, what, where, for whom? Britons have been left ill-equipped to say. Unlike most other European countries, Britain stops requiring students to study history when they reach the age of fourteen, which leaves little room for nuance in a national curriculum designed to showcase “our island story.” The public narrative about Britain’s imperial past matters because it is keenly felt to license present injustice. “Our collective amnesia about the legacy of our colonial past is not getting any better,” the writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch observes in her podcast “We Need to Talk About the British Empire.” “We’re engulfed in a sense of denial.”

How did the British get to be so blinkered about their own history? In “Time’s Monster: How History Makes History” (Harvard), a probing new book, the Stanford professor Priya Satia argues that British views of empire remain “hostage to myth” partly because historians made them so. In 1817, the utilitarian philosopher James Mill provided a template when he published his three-volume “History of British India,” which became a textbook for colonial administrators. Civilization evolves in stages, the logic ran; Britain had reached a higher stage than its colonies; therefore Britain had a moral duty to lift them up. Mill soon got a job drafting dispatches in the East India Company’s London headquarters. (Mill’s eldest son, John Stuart, who at the age of eleven had helped correct the book’s page proofs, joined him at India House as a junior clerk in 1823 and stayed until the East India Company was dismantled, in 1858.)

Satia, whose earlier books described British surveillance of the interwar Middle East and the eighteenth-century origins of a British military-industrial complex, is well attuned to the echoes of historical scripts. Mill’s basic premise that imperialism brings progress reverberated in a series of moral claims. The parliamentary act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade, in 1807, was held up as proof of the British Empire’s commitment to freedom, effacing its shameful past as the largest slave trader in the eighteenth-century world. Colonial independence, in the twentieth century, was depicted as the culmination of a selfless mission to spread democracy, something “given” or “granted” to colonies, rather than something long denied by force. The Second World War became the British Empire’s triumphant last stand as the bulwark of global liberty in the face of fascism, eliding Britain’s violent suppression of anticolonial resistance. “In the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs,” Niall Ferguson wrote in 2002. “Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins?”

On a showery Friday in August, 1947, citizens of the new nation of India crammed into the ceremonial avenues of New Delhi to celebrate their first day of independence. “Jai Hind! Jai Hind! ” they cheered as the new tricolor was run up the flagpole, and a rainbow broke over the clearing sky. But for days beforehand, it was said, a haze of smoke had blanketed the city: the British were burning government documents en masse, lest anything that might compromise His Majesty’s government get into the wrong hands.

At the empire’s late-Victorian apogee, Rudyard Kipling had enjoined his compatriots to contemplate the ruins of fallen powers with humility: “Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget!” In the event, an apter motto for Britain’s imperial retreat was “Best we forget.” In one colony after another, as the former Guardian journalist Ian Cobain details in his 2016 book, “The History Thieves,” the British went down in a blaze of documents. A reporter in Cairo during the Suez Crisis recalled standing on the lawn of the British Embassy “ankle deep in the ashes of burning files.” Twelve days before Malaya’s independence, in 1957, British soldiers in Kuala Lumpur loaded trucks with boxes of records to be driven down to Singapore and, a colonial official reported, “destroyed in the Navy’s splendid incinerator.” In 1961, recognizing that “it would perhaps be a little unfortunate to celebrate Independence Day with smoke,” the Colonial Office advised the governor of Trinidad and Tobago to get an early start, and told him that he could also pack files into weighted crates and drop them into the sea. In British Guiana, in 1965, two women hovered over a forty-four-gallon drum on the Government House grounds carrying out what their boss described as “the hot and wearing work” of cremating files. What colonial officials didn’t destroy, they hid. In Nairobi, nine days before Kenya became independent, four packing crates of sensitive papers were hustled into a plane and flown to London Gatwick, where a government official supervised their transfer into storage. These, along with thousands of other colonial files, ended up stashed behind the razor wire of Hanslope Park, in Buckinghamshire, an intelligence facility dedicated to communications security—that is, to keeping secrets.

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