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News

Monday 8th July 2019

Categories:
All faiths, Integration, Mutuality, Pluralism, Respect, United

Britain’s story of empire is based on myth. We need to know the truth

Priyamvada Gopal

If we were taught just how much the UK was shaped by its colonies, the shared history would unite rather than divide us

Sat 6 Jul 2019 06.00 BST

The Indian Rebellion of 1857: ‘In reality, resistance, often violent resistance alongside famous non–violent movements, was a central part of the story.’ 

These days we’ve become wearily accustomed to depictions of Brexit Britain as oppressed by a villainously imperial Europe. Annexed “without permission”, Nigel Farage claimed melodramatically, defending Brexit party MEPs against charges of “disrespecting” the European Parliament. In a particularly far–fetched comparison, Ann Widdecombe MEP has compared Brexit with the resistance of “slaves against their owners” and “colonies against empires”. Prime ministerial frontrunner Boris Johnson too has spoken of Britain’s supposed “colony status” in the EU though, with a familiar double standard, he also believes that it would be good if Britain was still “in charge” of Africa.

These bizarre comparisons can be made and go unchallenged because the stark fact remains that most Britons know very little about the history of the empire itself, still less the way in which its long afterlife profoundly shapes both Britain and the wider world today.

This great amnesia or “shocking lack of understanding” has led a respected race equality thinktank, the Runnymede Trust, to call this week for the teaching of the intertwined histories of empire and migration to be made compulsory in secondary schools. Migration and empire are “not marginal events”, its report rightly notes, but “central to our national story”.

Most students would welcome this move. Mine often tell me, regretfully, how little they were taught about the empire at school or, when it was addressed at all, how selectively. They want to know more and to know the truth. While some Conservative politicians, such as former schools secretary Michael Gove, have also stressed the need to teach the British empire, their preference is for mythology over history, a drums–and–trumpet “island story” in which Britannia munificently scattered “British values” across the globe like so much imperial confetti. The enormous scale of resistance to empire and the terrifying bloodshed it took to quell that resistance are either hidden or deliberately played down.

My new book, Insurgent Empire, shows how this resistance and repression influenced another strand of British history few Britons know anything about – criticism of empire and colonialism within Britain itself over centuries. There is much to be proud of here, especially those clear–sighted Britons who refused mythmaking and insisted on solidarity with those at the receiving end of exploitation and dispossession, whatever their skin colour.

Brexiter ideology is contradictory. It simultaneously insists on pride in the British empire (accompanied by the delusion that former colonies are eager for a close bond with their erstwhile masters) and stokes harsh anti–immigrant sentiment. The Runnymede Trust’s report, however, points to the simple fact that the history of migration cannot be separated from that of empire.

 The presence of African, Caribbean and Asian communities in this country is tied to the great and lasting upheavals of British colonialism including economic hardship, land dispossession, ethnic and social cleansing, labour exploitation and wealth loss, often caused by the migration of large numbers of Britons to colonial possessions where they sought to escape poverty in Britain or to enrich themselves further. As late as the 1950s, advertisements were encouraging Britons to move to Kenya for cheap land and farm labour. The British Nationality Act of 1948 was intended mainly to facilitate immigration from the “white” dominions of New Zealand and Australia but also enabled the arrival of black and Asian migrants such as the “Windrush generation” who came here from the Caribbean as British subjects and filled a desperate labour shortage. Some understanding of this backstory would help when black and Asian Britons are asked to account for their presence in Britain as they all too frequently are.

Here’s the irony. While discussions of the British empire invariably generate toxic divides, it is in fact this very history that can provide sought–after “common ground” on which to examine the necessarily complex question of what it means to be British today. All Britons, white and ethnic minority, are touched every day by imperial legacies, from what we eat and drink – coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea – to the multinational corporations and banks we work for or buy from, to our basic assumptions and categories of thought including concepts such as race, development, free trade and globalisation which were forged in the crucible of empire. Colonial history also provides context for many contemporary British concerns from identity, multiculturalism and humanitarianism to foreign aid, hard borders and sovereignty.

Moreover, the history of the empire shows us not only that there is nothing especially “British” about values such as tolerance, freedom, human rights or democracy but that often what we call “British values” were influenced by both empire and resistance to empire. The oft–told story of a benevolent Britain “bestowing” freedom on her colonies when they were deemed ready for it is largely myth. In reality, resistance, often violent resistance alongside famous non–violent movements, was a central part of the story. Colonial subjects often had their own ideas about the meaning of “freedom” – like the Jamaican rebels of 1865, who rejected the notion that they were “free” to sell their labour to plantation owners after being released from bondage, and demanded small plots of land in which they could be truly independent. “Freedom”, it became clear, has many meanings and today we are often presented with a rather narrow version mainly to do with consumer choice.

An honest and informed understanding of the British empire and its afterlife is also vital because it can help us go beyond the questionable model where ethnic and cultural minorities in Britain are required to “integrate” into a static model of “Britishness” owned by white Britons.

The enslaved and the colonised were not merely either victims or beneficiaries of empire but agents who actively contributed to Britain. Their labour, often extracted for nothing or little, underlies the wealth that was created in this country, while their resistance to oppression underscored the universality of values such as equality, human dignity, tolerance, justice and freedom. In many ways, they made Britain.

• Priyamvada Gopal’s latest book is Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, published last week.