In 1899 Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist and co-discoverer of the theory of evolution through natural selection, wrote The Wonderful Century – which, as its title suggests, was a broadly upbeat summary of what Britain had achieved during the preceding 100 years.
In his conclusion, however, Wallace reflected on how the British empire had behaved in its dealings with the “subject races”. They, he admitted, had been treated with “a strange mixture of good and evil” – a word that perhaps no modern commentator outside the former colonies would dare use to describe any aspect of British imperialism.
In the century since then, the empire has crumbled and Britain’s power has largely evaporated. But in our national memory of Britain’s centuries in the sun, the balance between the good and evil that Wallace recognised has been tipped decidedly towards the former. So it is perhaps unsurprising that a recent YouGov poll revealed that 44% of respondents, when asked, claimed to feel pride rather than regret in the long-lost empire.
Kenyan Mau Mau War Veterans and their supporters.
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Kenyan Mau Mau War Veterans celebrating the high court judgment. ‘Let us not forget that, within living memory, tens of thousands of Africans were murdered, tortured and mutilated in British concentration camps in Kenya. This is not a revisionist theory; it is an historical fact, Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP
The problem today is not that our national feelings about the British empire are too positive or too negative, but that we know too little of the actual history to make a sound judgment. How can we ask people to take pride in, or feel regret about, a history that is hardly taught in schools and little explored elsewhere? The empire has become reduced to the abolition of slavery, the building of the Indian railways and some vague talk about the rule of law, British values and the spread of the English language.
Most debates sooner or later degenerate into the banal “Did it do more good than bad?” formula. And once it has been agreed, as it usually is, that the empire was on the whole a good thing, the bad aspects of imperial history are banished from further discussion.
The cumulative effect of this has been that the manmade famines, slave trading, ethnic cleansing and day-to-day violence of empire have been rendered almost invisible. The long list of what the Victorians liked to call “small wars” has likewise been forgotten, reduced to minor details as we focus almost exclusively on the “achievements” of empire and the “gifts” it gave to the world.
We’re insulted when the Chinese bring up Britain’s century of state-sponsored, military-backed drug pushing
British politicians of all parties have spent the last half-century travelling the world asking nations that were invaded by British armies to celebrate our shared history, culture and language as if they were the consolation prizes in some great historical raffle. We then collectively recoil in hurt outrage when the Indians point out that their share of the global economy slipped from 23% to a mere 4% under British rule. We’re similarly insulted when the Chinese bring up Britain’s century of state-sponsored, military-backed drug pushing.
This image of the empire, as a list of nations to whom we bequeathed various precious gifts, ignores the fact that imperial conquest and centuries of economic and military domination are not the only mechanisms through which nations can acquire railways, education systems, the rule of law or world languages. If that were true, Japan, Thailand and the handful of other nations that avoided being absorbed into one or other of Europe’s empires would be trapped in a Hobbesian mire of lawless feudalism, their dirt roads clogged-up with oxcarts driven by illiterate farmers.
Alfred Russel Wallace
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Alfred Russel Wallace ‘reflected on how the British empire had behaved in its dealings with the ‘subject races’. They, he admitted, had been treated with ‘a strange mixture of good and evil’’. Photograph: Alamy
Yet somehow, without being colonised, the Japanese managed to construct a national railway that carries some of the fastest, most punctual and comfortable trains in the world. My guess is that India would have managed something similar without us. The Chinese too have managed to become the second largest economy in the world without our assistance.
To attempt to attach any simple label – good or bad – to an imperial project that was launched by Elizabeth I, and of which the final fragments were decommissioned under Elizabeth II, is an impossible task.
The empire was not a singular phenomenon, and indigenous people on the ground did not encounter “the empire”: they encountered individuals. There were the brutal soldiers and traders, motivated by personal greed, careerism or racial theory – many more of them than we like to acknowledge; but there were also thousands of men and women who were unquestionably decent. The empire found places and uses for both.
Many of the “good” were missionaries and abolitionists – the 18th- and 19th-century equivalents of aid workers. They travelled to distant lands and risked their lives with good intentions, though their humanitarianism was almost always fused with racial paternalism and the urge to spread their faith.
And the empire did bring economic developments and peace to some parts of the world, though many of those developments were fleeting and arranged primarily to suit British interests. And it delivered war and devastation to other regions.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
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‘To attempt to attach any simple label to an imperial project that was launched by Elizabeth I and of which the final fragments were decommissioned under Elizabeth II is an impossible task.’ Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London/PA
British missionaries and colonial administrators did confront or end terrible practices, such as the ritual burning of widows in India and the superstitious killing of newborn twins in my native Nigeria. But the same empire, whenever it encountered indigenous resistance, acted with incredible brutality.
Let us not forget that, within living memory, tens of thousands of Africans were murdered, tortured and mutilated in British concentration camps in Kenya. This is not a revisionist theory or a leftwing interpretation of the past. It is an historical fact, an acknowledged crime for which the British government has paid compensation to surviving victims.
The British empire, like every empire in history, was created to enrich the imperial mother country, not to realise some vague civilising mission. It would have been the greatest aberration in world history had it been otherwise.
Yet we still, somehow, convince ourselves and expect others to believe that this nation set aside its own financial interests, ignored the desperate plight of the British poor and dispatched great fleets of ships and vast armies of soldiers and administrators across the oceans to attend to the material welfare, educational aspirations and future mass transport requirements of the indigenous peoples of Asia and Africa.
Our future relationships with the former colonies – which are now critical trading partners – demand that we wake up from this fantasy.