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This article is an edited transcript of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India with Shashi Tharoor on Dan Snow’s Our Site, first broadcast 22 June 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
In recent years we’ve seen some very successful books by the likes of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, which have taken the British Empire in India as some sort of advertisement for benign British nobility.
Ferguson talks about it laying the foundations for today’s globalisation, while Lawrence James says it was the single most altruistic act one country has done for another.
There’s been so much of this around that it became necessary to offer a corrective. My book, unlike many of its predecessors, not only makes the argument against imperialism, it specifically takes up the claims made for imperialism and demolishes them, one by one. Which I think gives it a particularly useful place in the historiography of the Raj in India.
In this episode, Dan talks to David Gilmour about the British in India. David Gilmour's new book is a vast exploration of the social history of India. David Gilmour is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.Listen Now
Is Britain guilty of historical amnesia?
In the days when India was struggling there was a discreet veil drawn over all of this. I would even accuse Britain of historical amnesia. If it’s true that you can pass your History A levels in this country without learning a line of colonial history then surely there’s something wrong. There’s an unwillingness, I think, to face up to the realities of what happened over 200 years.
Some of the most damning voices in my book are those of British people who were clearly outraged by their country’s actions in India.
In the 1840s an East India Company official called John Sullivan wrote about the impact of British rule in India:
“The little court disappears, trade languishes, the capital decays, the people are impoverished. The Englishman flourishes and acts like a sponge drawing up riches from the banks of the Ganges and squeezing them down upon the banks of the Thames.”
In the early decades of British rule in India the East India Company, that’s exactly what happened.
A Faizabad style drawing of the Battle of Panipat in 1761. Credit: British Library.
The East India Company was there to trade, why did they end up breaking weaving looms and seeking to impoverish people?
If you are trading, but not at the point of a gun, you have to compete with others who want to trade for the same goods.
As part of its charter, the East India Company had the right to use force, so they decided that where they couldn’t compete with others they would force the matter.
There was a thriving international trade in textiles. India was the world’s leading exporter of fine textiles for 2,000 years. Pliny the Elder is quoted commenting on how much Roman gold was being wasted in India because Roman women had a taste for Indian muslins, linens and cottons.
There was a long-established set of free trade networks which would not have made it easy for the East India Company to make profits. It was far more advantageous to interrupt the trade, bar access to the competition – including other foreign traders – smash the looms, impose restrictions and duties on what could be exported.
2017 was the 70th anniversary of the Partition of the Indian Raj which caused such an epidemic of bloodshed. Yasmin Khan, Associate Professor of History at Oxford University, and author of 'The Great Partition' draws on her research and family recollections to deliver the powerful story of partition.Watch Now
The East India Company then brought in British cloth, inferior though it was, with practically no duties imposed on it. So the British had a captive market, held by force of arms, that would buy its goods. Ultimately profit was what it was all about. The East India Company was in it for the money from start to finish.
The British arrived in India 100 years before they started conquering it. The first British person to arrive was a sea captain called William Hawkins. In 1588 then the first British ambassador to India, Sir Thomas Roe, presented his credentials to the Emperor Jahangir, the Mughal Emperor, in 1614.
But, after a century of trading with permissions from the Mughal Emperor, the British witnessed the beginning of the collapse of Mughal authority in India.
The biggest blow was the invasion of Delhi by Nader Shah, the Persian invader, in 1739. The Mahrattas were also very much on the rise at that time.
Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey. Painting by Francis Hayman.
Then, in 1761, the Afghans came. Led by Ahmad Shah Abdali , the Afghans’ victory at the Third Battle of Panipat effectively knocked out a countervailing force that might have stopped the British.
By that time when once the Mughals had pretty much collapsed and the Mahrattas had been stopped dead in their tracks (they got us far as Calcutta and were kept out by the so called Mahratta Ditch, dug by the British), the British were the only significant rising power on the subcontinent and therefor the only game in town.
1757, when Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah at the Battle of Plassey, is another significant date. Clive took over a vast, rich province and thus began a creeping annexation of the rest of the subcontinent.
At the end of the 18th century, Horace Walpole, son of the famous Prime Minister Robert Walpole, said of the British presence in India:
“They starved millions in India by monopolies and plunder, and almost raised a famine at home by the luxury occasioned by their opulence, and by that opulence raising the price of everything, till the poor could not purchase bread!”
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.
Indian Mutiny, also called Sepoy Mutiny or First War of Independence, widespread but unsuccessful rebellion against British rule in India in 1857–59. Begun in Meerut by Indian troops ( sepoys) in the service of the British East India Company, it spread to Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, and Lucknow. In India it is often called the First War of Independence and other similar names.
How Britain Denies its Holocausts
Why do so few people know about the atrocities of empire?
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 27th December 2005
In reading the reports of the trial of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, you are struck by two things. The first of course is the anachronistic brutality of the country’s laws. Mr Pamuk, like scores of other writers and journalists, is being prosecuted for “denigrating Turkishness”, which means that he dared to mention the Armenian genocide in the first world war and the killing of the Kurds in the past decade. The second is its staggering, blithering stupidity. If there is one course of action which could be calculated to turn these massacres into live issues, it is the trial of the country’s foremost novelist for mentioning them.
As it prepares for accession, the Turkish government will discover that the other members of the European Union have found a more effective means of suppression. Without legal coercion, without the use of baying mobs to drive writers from their homes, we have developed an almost infinite capacity to forget our own atrocities.
Atrocities? Which atrocities? When a Turkish writer uses that word, everyone in Turkey knows what he is talking about, even if they deny it vehemently. But most British people will stare at you blankly. So let me give you two examples, both of which are as well documented as the Armenian genocide.
In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, published in 2001, Mike Davis tells the story of the famines which killed between 12 and 29 million Indians(1). These people were, he demonstrates, murdered by British state policy.
When an El Nino drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, government officials were ordered “to discourage relief works in every possible way”(2). The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. Within the labour camps, the workers were given less food than the inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.
As millions died, the imperial government launched “a militarized campaign to collect the tax arrears accumulated during the drought.” The money, which ruined those who might otherwise have survived the famine, was used by Lytton to fund his war in Afghanistan. Even in places which had produced a crop surplus, the government’s export policies, like Stalin’s in the Ukraine, manufactured hunger. In the North-western provinces, Oud and the Punjab, which had brought in record harvests in the preceding three years, at least 1.25m died.
Three recent books – Britain’s Gulag by Caroline Elkins, Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson and Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis – show how white settlers and British troops suppressed the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s. Thrown off their best land and deprived of political rights, the Kikuyu started to organise – some of them violently – against colonial rule. The British responded by driving up to 320,000 of them into concentration camps(3). Most of the remainder – over a million – were held in “enclosed villages”. Prisoners were questioned with the help of “slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes.”(4) British soldiers used a “metal castrating instrument” to cut off testicles and fingers. “By the time I cut his balls off,” one settler boasted, “he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket”(5). The soldiers were told they could shoot anyone they liked “provided they were black”(6). Elkins’s evidence suggests that over 100,000 Kikuyu were either killed by the British or died of disease and starvation in the camps. David Anderson documents the hanging of 1090 suspected rebels: far more than the French executed in Algeria(7). Thousands more were summarily executed by soldiers, who claimed they had “failed to halt” when challenged.
These are just two examples of at least twenty such atrocities overseen and organised by the British government or British colonial settlers: they include, for example, the Tasmanian genocide, the use of collective punishment in Malaya, the bombing of villages in Oman, the dirty war in North Yemen, the evacuation of Diego Garcia. Some of them might trigger a vague, brainstem memory in a few thousand readers, but most people would have no idea what I’m talking about. Max Hastings, in the Guardian today, laments our “relative lack of interest in Stalin and Mao’s crimes.”(8) But at least we are aware that they happened.
In the Express we can read the historian Andrew Roberts arguing that for “the vast majority of its half millennium-long history, the British Empire was an exemplary force for good. … the British gave up their Empire largely without bloodshed, after having tried to educate their successor governments in the ways of democracy and representative institutions”(9)(presumably by locking up their future leaders). In the Sunday Telegraph, he insists that “the British empire delivered astonishing growth rates, at least in those places fortunate enough to be coloured pink on the globe.”(10) (Compare this to Mike Davis’s central finding, that “there was no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947”, or to Prasannan Parthasarathi’s demonstration that “South Indian labourers had higher earnings than their British counterparts in the 18th century and lived lives of greater financial security.”(11)) In the Daily Telegraph, John Keegan asserts that “the empire became in its last years highly benevolent and moralistic.” The Victorians “set out to bring civilisation and good government to their colonies and to leave when they were no longer welcome. In almost every country, once coloured red on the map, they stuck to their resolve.”(12)
There is one, rightly sacred Holocaust in European history. All the others can be ignored, denied or belittled. As Mark Curtis points out, the dominant system of thought in Britain “promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. … Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show “exceptions” to, or “mistakes” in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.”(13) This idea, I fear, is the true “sense of British cultural identity” whose alleged loss Max laments today. No judge or censor is required to enforce it. The men who own the papers simply commission the stories they want to read.
Turkey’s accession to the European Union, now jeopardised by the trial of Orhan Pamuk, requires not that it comes to terms with its atrocities only that it permits its writers to rage impotently against them. If the government wants the genocide of the Armenians to be forgotten, it should drop its censorship laws and let people say what they want. It needs only allow Richard Desmond and the Barclay brothers to buy up its newspapers, and the past will never trouble it again.
1. Mike Davis, 2001. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso, London.
2. An order from the lieutenant-governor Sir George Couper to his district officers. Quoted in Mike Davis, ibid.
3. Caroline Elkins, 2005. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Jonathan Cape, London.
4. Mark Curtis, 2003. Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World. Vintage, London.
7. David Anderson, 2005. Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. Weidenfeld, London.
8. Max Hastings, 27th December 2005. This is the country of Drake and Pepys, not Shaka Zulu. The Guardian
9. Andrew Roberts, 13th July 2004. We Should Take Pride in Britain’s Empire Past. The Express.
10. Andrew Roberts, 16th January 2005. Why we need empires. The Sunday Telegraph.
11. Prasannan Parthasarathi, 1998. Rethinking wages and competitiveness in Eighteenth-Century Britain and South India. Past and Present 158. Quoted by Mike Davis, ibid.
12. John Keegan, 14th July 2004. The Empire is Worthy of Honour. The Daily Telegraph.
Remembering the Shame of the Slave Trade
Valerie Amos may be Britain's most powerful black woman, according to the U.K.'s top-selling black newspaper, New Nation, but she hasn't forgotten her roots. As the descendant of slaves, she feels a personal connection to this year's 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of the shameful trade. Born in Guyana, in South America, she moved to the United Kingdom at age 9 and went on to have an outstanding political career: she's worked as a Labour Party researcher, on local political councils, as a consult to South Africa's post-apartheid government and as Prime Minister Tony Blair's minister to Africa. In 1993 she was named Secretary of State for International Trade and Development, becoming the first black woman to enter the British cabinet. Since 2003, she has been leader of the House of Lords. Two weeks ago, she visited Ghana to celebrate the 50th-anniversary of its independence and to commemorate the end of a trafficking in humans that still impacts the world today. She talked with NEWSWEEK's Esther Bintliff in her stately office at the House of Lords. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why does a vote to abolish the slave trade, made by British politicians 200 years ago, still matter today?
Valerie Amos: Commemorating the anniversary matters for three reasons. In the context of Britain, it's really important that we acknowledge a very shameful part of our history. The second thing that matters is the legacy of slavery, which we see in the racism, the prejudice and the discrimination that still exist, not just in Britain but across the world. I visited Brazil last year, which was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. It was legal there until 1888, and I would say the impact on modern-day Brazil is still being felt. In Guyana, where I'm from, the slave trade was followed by the indenture of laborers from India. Guyana now has a population that is predominantly Indo-Guyanese and African-Guyanese, and slavery's legacy is visible in the modern-day competition between those two communities. The third reason the anniversary matters is to remind us of the reality of modern-day slavery: in the trafficking of women and children, in bonded labor, in the worst forms of child labor, in forced domestic slavery.
What does the bicentenary of abolition mean for you personally?
I feel a very strong personal connection because I'm a descendant of slaves. Last week, in Ghana, I saw the places where slaves were kept before being shackled onto slave ships. Many were marched hundreds of miles across the African continent in chains. They'd arrive at the "slave castles" on the Ghanaian coast, where they were kept in filthy, disgusting, inhumane conditions. I was shown one cell where the excrement would have come up to between your ankle and your knee. They couldn't lie down. The slaves were kept there for up to three months, then chained on slave ships. If they died on the passage, they were simply thrown into the sea. We don't like to talk about these things. We're embarrassed. We don't like to admit that people could treat each other in such an inhuman way. Every time I visit those slave castles, I feel the weight of that history, and I'm not a fanciful person, but I do feel the weight of those millions of people, in a way, pressing in on me. I think a lot of people feel that. Even if you're not a descendant, you can't help but feel it when you're standing in those deep dark dungeons.
There are an estimated 27 million people enslaved worldwide, more than double the number at the height of the slave trade. Isn't rejoicing somewhat premature?
At least now we have something called crimes against humanity we have United Nations resolutions which say we have a responsibility to protect people, that if citizens of one country are facing genocide then the global community has a responsibility to step in. Slavery was a legal trade. Let's not forget that.
Human trafficking and bonded labor are now illegal, but they still thrive. What, if anything, can we learn from the abolitionists?
The grass-roots movement against slavery was incredible&mdasha lot of people focus on [abolitionist William] Wilberforce, but you also had ex-slaves, you had churches. Most amazingly, and I think most importantly, you had thousands of ordinary people who campaigned. Sugar was a product of slavery, so people boycotted sugar. They signed petitions. In the British Parliament's archives you can see those petitions, and they run into foot after foot after foot, reams of ordinary people's signatures. We sometimes forget there's a whole tradition of ordinary people campaigning and lobbying for change, and that should inspire us today.
The other thing is that modern media gives us a lot more access to information. Small localized campaigns can make a huge difference. I'm thinking of some of the campaigning that goes on in India with respect to the "Dalit" caste, the so-called "untouchables" I'm thinking of women campaigning against forced labor. Yes, a lot of the slavery today is hidden what we have to do is try and turn the stone over, make sure these injustices are brought out into the open.
But it has to be an international effort. It's certainly not something that any one country can do alone. I recognize the challenge is huge. But part of the reason I'm optimistic is because I think people won't stand for this. And I think the more people are sensitized, the more they will press the United Nations and other international organizations to act.
The abolition of the slave trade was achieved through the workings of the democratic system. But today few "ordinary people" have faith in democracy or in their governments' willingness to listen.
I don't think that's true. You only need to look at what happened with the "Make Poverty History" campaign, with the cancellation of third-world debt, or at what's happening with climate change. Look at the United States and the way people are mobilizing around Iraq. I believe people are politically engaged, just in a much more specific way than in the past. It's true there's a lack of faith in formal politics, and we need to do something about that, but it's not everywhere. When I go to the Caribbean or Ghana, where you have democracies that are younger, the attitudes are so different. Or in South Africa, where people had to really fight for the right to vote. These people are so glad that their society is more open, that they can be critical of government, that they can read opposing views in the papers. They talk about these issues, and not in the cynical way you find in the developed world.
I see in your office you have a picture of Lord Nelson, the British admiral who died at the battle of Trafalgar. Why?
Well there's a huge mural in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords, showing the death of Nelson on his ship. We had an event in the gallery last year, and I stood in front of the mural and, of course, on Nelson's ship there would have been slaves. And I just stood there thinking, how would the slaves on British ships have felt if they'd known that a couple of hundred years later a black woman would be leader of the House of Lords in Britain. Another picture I have on the wall is [Queen] Elizabeth I. I like to have her there because she's a strong woman.
1848 : the ruling Dynasties of Europechallenged by Socio-political aspirations
We have prepared some fairly detailed, but hopefully "truth-full and informative", pages about a most deeply revealing episode in European History in the spirit of attempting to learn worthwhile lessons of history.
The events of 1848 display the existence and latent power of many societal pressures which have subsequently fully contributed to the "Emergence of Modernity" in the Western world.
Prior to 1848 the existence of these societal pressures was often unsuspected or ignored, - their latent power was certainly vastly unappreciated.
In February 1948, the British historian Lewis Namier delivered a lecture commemorating the centennial of the European Revolutions of 1848.
In this lecture Namier presented facts about the historical developments, themes, and events evident in 1848 and reached the conclusion that:-
including such competition as came to exist between them for "a Place in the Sun" (in situations where, although shaken, down-but-not-out dynastic authority was usually trying to suppress them, fairly successfully in 1848 and with diminishing effectiveness over ensuing decades) then surely we will have succeeded to some degree in actually learning lessons of history.
Learning lessons of history can surely be seen as a pressing necessity in the hope of yielding up some guidlines for the adoption of practical policies intended to enhance the possibility for the lessening of injustices and for the avoidance of conflict.
We would hope that our coverage of this "dramatic historical watershed" will provide something of a persuasive outline as to how it came about that the Dynastic Europe of 1815 came to undergo those sweeping changes which have tended to produce the populist Europe of Modern Times!
The European political map above, agreed at the Congress of Vienna of 1815, saw some changes, (principally due to the emergence of Belgium and Greece), before the widespread Revolutions of 1848-1849.
The above map was placed on this page in 2013 and was even then a little out-of-date due to The Crimea
a southern peninsula of Ukraine since 1954
seceding, early in 2014, to become closely linked with the Russian Federation).
another tempestuous historical watershed
(as influenced by Woodrow Wilson].
Links to Particularly Popular Topics & Pages
Related Link Pages
Felling of slave trader statue prompts fresh look at British history
LONDON (Reuters) - The toppling by anti-racism protesters of a statue of a slave trader in the English port city of Bristol has given new urgency to a debate about how Britain should confront some of the darkest chapters of its history.
The statue of Edward Colston, who made a fortune in the 17th century from trading in West African slaves, was torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour on Sunday by a group of demonstrators taking part in a worldwide wave of protests.
Statues of figures from Britain’s imperialist past have in recent years become the subject of controversies between those who argue that such monuments merely reflect history and those who say they glorify racism.
By taking matters into their own hands, the protesters raised the temperature of a debate that had previously remained confined to the realms of marches, petitions and newspaper columns.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the removal of the statue was a criminal act.
“The PM fully understands the strength of feeling on this issue. But in this country where there is strong feeling, we have democratic processes which can resolve these matters,” the spokesman said.
But others countered that such processes had failed to recognise the pain caused by the legacy of slavery.
“People who say - authorities should take statues down after discussion. Yes. But it isn’t happening. Bristol’s been debating Edward Colston for years and wasn’t getting anywhere,” said historian and broadcaster Kate Williams on Twitter.
A street and several buildings in the city are still named after Colston, and the plinth where the statue stood bears the original inscription from 1895, which praises Colston as “virtuous and wise”.
The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, said he did not support social disorder, but the community was navigating complex issues that had no binary solutions.
“I would never pretend that the statue of a slaver in the middle of Bristol, the city in which I grew up, and someone who may well have owned one of my ancestors, was anything other than a personal affront to me,” said Rees, who has Jamaican roots.
Bristol police said they made a tactical decision not to intervene because that could have caused worse disorder.
“Whilst I am disappointed that people would damage one of our statues, I do understand why it’s happened, it’s very symbolic,” said police chief Andy Bennett.
Even Britain’s wartime hero, Winston Churchill, was under renewed scrutiny: a statue of him on Parliament Square in London was sprayed on Sunday with graffiti that read “Churchill was a racist”.
Churchill expressed racist and anti-Semitic views and critics blame him for denying food to India during the 1943 famine which killed more than two million people. Some Britons have long felt that the darker sides of his legacy should be given greater prominence.
These debates in Britain echo controversies in the United States, often focused on statues of confederate generals from the Civil War, and in South Africa, where Cape Town University removed a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes in 2015.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Nick Macfie
Lasting Legacies of British Imperialism
British/Hong Kong Passport prior to 1997
The following website is a part of the Hoover Archives that covers 19th century European Imperialism in Asia. Since it is a “.gov” page, it somewhat represents the political memory of that period. This source represents a politically American point of view on events such as the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. This website is worth investigating because it deals with the political memory of imperialism from the angle of a nation that participated but mostly remained on the sidelines. It depicts this period of imperialism in retrospect and could be contrasted with the various primary sources to gain a more stronger understanding of the era.
The following source covers the history of Hong Kong from its colonization in 1839 to its return to China in 1997. This book explains the strategic economic position of Hong Kong in relation to imperial global commerce. It also focuses on the social adaptations of ethnic Hong Kong citizens. This source serve as a comprehensive analysis on the political, economic and social development of this island with respect to global changes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Tsang, Steve. A Modern History of Hong Kong. London. I. B. Tauris. 2007
Because the island of Hong Kong have been under British political and cultural influence for over a century, its return to China faces a dilemma of culture. This book explains the complexities of such conflicts. First, the most obvious cultural conflict was communication. For the last century, Hong Kong have been using a bilingual system. The citizens mostly spoke Cantonese, but the official written language was English. This creates an internal language barrier because the official language of Chinese is mandarin. Another cultural conflict is the nature of the justice system. Hong Kong have adopted the Western system of trial by jury, but the Communist government tries criminals without a jury. This book discusses the negotiations of these dilemmas between Hong Kong and China. Due the such issues, the Communist government is currently implementing a policy for Hong Kong to politically function as it did under British control for 50 more years.
Abbas, Ackbar. Hong Kong: Culture and Politics of Disappearance. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 1998
70 years later
As the preeminent biographer of all the major political actors of British India’s last days, Wolpert acknowledges that many – and, most importantly, Indian political leaders themselves – contributed to the chaos that was 1947.
But there is no room for doubt in Wolpert’s mind that “none of them played as tragic or central a role as did Mountbatten.”
By botching the administration of partition in 1947 and leaving critical elements unfinished – including, most disastrously, the still unfinished resolution to Jammu and Kashmir – Mountbatten’s partition plan left the fate of Kashmir undecided.
Mountbatten, thus, bestowed a legacy of acrimony on India and Pakistan.
It was not just rivers and gold and silver that needed to be divided between the two dominions it was books in libraries, and even paper pins in offices. As Saadat Hasan Manto’s fictional account conveys, the madness was such that even patients in mental hospitals had to be divided.
Yet, Mountbatten, the man who would fret incessantly about what to wear at official ceremonies, made little effort to devise arrangements for how resources would be divided, or shared.
Flag-lowering ceremonies at the Wagah post between India and Pakistan border. Mohsin Raza/Reuters
Britain's Record On Racism Is No Less Bloody Than America's
It has become as familiar as school shootings&mdashnews from across the Atlantic of a Black person pulled over by police, sometimes by white vigilantes, and swiftly killed, no questions asked, few answers given.
As protests unfold, extending into occasional violence, outrage is expressed in the global media until the news cycle inevitably moves on. Until the next such event. Of course, it is the case that more such incidents are now filmed where they once remained undocumented, making it harder to turn our faces away. So it was with the horrifying nine minutes that led to the seeming daylight murder of George Floyd as he begged to be allowed to breathe.
Shortly before this clip went viral, so had another one of a white woman in New York&rsquos Central Park calling the police to falsely report an &ldquoAfrican-American man&rdquo threatening her.
Here in Britain, it is customary to treat these occurrences as horrifying but bizarre features of life in the United States of America, along with a president who posts incendiary tweets. It&rsquos just not the kind of thing we associate with Keep Calm and Carry On Britain. As Black Lives Matter protests took place yesterday in Manchester and London&rsquos Trafalgar Square, some didn&rsquot understand why these should take place in Britain, while others insisted: &rdquo It&rsquos showing there are people in the UK who care passionately about the situation in the US.&rdquo
One Asian DJ now tweeting his anguish at the &ldquoterrible events in America&rdquo, had asked, after riots broke out in Britain in 2011 pursuant to Mark Duggan&rsquos death in police custody: &ldquoIs it time for the army to be called in?&rdquo
It is not at all unusual in Britain, particularly in relatively progressive, white milieus, to believe that there is something uniquely malign about racism in the United States, that, for instance, it &ldquoobviously has a much deeper and darker history of black discrimination compared to the UK&rdquo.
Now, it is true that the long history of anti-Black racism in the United States, which allows us to draw tragically straight lines from tree lynchings to the countless horrific moments when men like Eric Garner and George Floyd were killed by state agents, is a specific one. America is a country that was founded on the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans. It has not only failed to undertake a serious reckoning with the lethal afterlife of these events but continues to keep the metaphorical boot on Black lives, incarcerating and executing Black men disproportionately, while large swathes of the African-American community live in a state of continued economic and social disenfranchisement. In the riots we now witness, the justifiable anger of a racialized underclass is writ large. This is a community who, along with Indigenous Americans, are owed massive historical reparations and structural change. Instead, they have a president who routinely downplays white supremacist violence.
A failure to engage honestly with history is, unfortunately, something that Britain shares with the United States. Yes, the politics of race in Britain has a different back story to that in America but it is no less lethal and corrosive. Britain too has signally failed to engage with the history of its empire and the racism, both deep and extensive, which it propagated and which continues to shape British society and race relations today.
Britain has no less bloodied a record when it comes to race than the USA: its own colonial centuries were shaped by enslavement and indenture, which contributed to the wealth and infrastructure of this country, the huge impoverishment of Asian and African colonies which plagues them to this day, and the dispossession of indigenous people from communal lands, as well as ferocious racial hierarchies that manifested themselves both within and outside of Britain.
When met with resistance, as British colonialism inevitably was, there was violent policing and punitive action as well as massacres, extra-judicial executions, hard labour, and internment camps. Indeed, it was in the crucible of empire and resistance to it that some of Britain&rsquos harshest policing, surveillance, and disciplining techniques were finessed. The blood from Britain&rsquos imperial misdeeds, as historian John Newsinger&rsquos important book puts it, has never dried.
And that is why both state violence and civic racism are endemic in contemporary Britain too. Britain has its own shameful list of Black and Minority Ethnic people who have died in police custody. Mark Duggan, Rashan Charles, Sean Rigg, Sarah Reed, Faruk Ali and Anthony Grainger are but a few of the more recent names on that very long list.
Who can forget Jimmy Mubenga&rsquos pleading for his breath too as G4S security guards put him on a deportation flight? Remember Jean Charles de Menezes being gunned down in broad daylight? Grenfell and the Windrush deportation scandals alone are recent instances of huge state discrimination against Britain&rsquos non-white and immigrant communities. In recent months, Black and Minority Ethnic people have been disproportionately stopped and searched during the lockdown, as well as fined more often than others who broke the rules.
Following Floyd&rsquos death, the National Black Police Association UK has issued a robust statement which draws attention to similar &ldquosimmering&rdquo racial tensions here, and notes baldly that Black Britons are &ldquograppling with the harsh reality that decades of structural and institutional racism has made us fodder not only to the disproportionate use of force in policing but also to Covid-19.&rdquo Racism, it notes, is itself the public health crisis today. In order to change this, however, at the very moment that we express horror at events in the United States, Britain must turn the lens of historical reckoning and racial honesty upon itself.
Priyamvada Gopal teaches at the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge and her latest book is Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso, 2019), now out in paperback.
An undemocratic elite is waging war on Britain&rsquos past
H istorical judgment as usually understood is about context, but that is clearly lacking in the ahistorical way in which Britain&rsquos past is currently being buffeted. It is worth considering how the present moment may be assessed in the future.
Great fun can be had with that approach if we imagine future commentators as focused on their own sensitivities as are so many of the present group. Presumably all will be damned by the standards of the future, and icons of the present who were praiseworthy in some respects may be brought low, and literally so if statues, for what are held to be social crimes, as in surely King cannot be honoured as he committed adultery or Mandela as he ate meat. And so on. No-one will be left in this waste of shame.
Probably there will be interest among future historians in why a minority was able to impose its agenda
More interesting might be the suggestions of historians who have found, in some closed library, shuttered in 2020, for the works it contained, works that offer insights different to the modish orthodoxies of present (or even future). Would an historical sociologist analyse a struggle by one group of the middle-class, mostly in the public sector, to gain power, profit and kudos at the expense of others? Might, indeed, the entire furore be presented as an anti-democratic attempt by a would-be élite to strengthen and cement its position? A Policy Exchange poll published on 28 June, revealed that 69 per cent of British people are &lsquoproud&rsquo of their history, with only 17 per cent saying it was something of which to be ashamed. When asked if Churchill&rsquos statue should remain in Parliament Square, four-fifths said yes, including a substantial majority among 18 to 24 year-olds. 65% of those polled believe it is wrong &lsquoto make judgments about people in the past based on today&rsquos values&rsquo and agree that &lsquostatues of people who were once celebrated should be allowed to stand,&rsquo the position taken by the Macron government in France. 77 per cent agreed &lsquowe should learn from history not rewrite it&rsquo and 75 per cent that the police should have acted more robustly. Only 20 per cent agreed that &lsquowe should question how we look at British history and no longer recognise success if it caused misery or suffering to some victims.&rsquo Similarly, a Newcastle University student poll found 78 per cent rejecting renaming Armstrong Building, his &lsquocrime&rsquo to have sold arms to Cecil Rhodes.
Probably there will be interest among future historians in why a minority was able to impose its agenda. After all, whenever voters have been asked to comment on what John Gray terms &lsquohyper-liberalism,&rsquo they have been unsympathetic, most notably so when Labour under Jeremy Corbyn failed to win power in 2017 and 2019. Yet, in the aftermath of those elections, aspects of this agenda have been imposed, with a highly oppressive public culture, extending from the law to entertainment, everyday conversation to political analysis. Those who do not concur risk obloquy, unemployment or even criminal sanction. I know many are genuinely fearful for their university positions as the requirements to conform to newly-asserted norms are increasingly incompatible with free-expression.
To understand the situation, it is best to consider who possesses the power to decide. Clearly not the electorate. Instead, it is those who run public institutions, of various kinds, with the power to act located in those institutions, and the decision being simply what they choose to do. Thus, we have individuals such as Mark Damazer, ex-BBC, ex-Head of an Oxbridge College (one of very many of such who has never published a work of scholarship), who, as Chair of the Booker Price Foundation, has driven out Baroness Nicholson because she is allegedly transphobic. Elections cannot apparently curtail the power of these cliques and their ability to limit the practice of liberal values, such as freedom of opinion and speech, and, having classified those whom do not approve, to thwart their careers. To describe this as Orwellian might strike some as disproportionate, but I find worrying historical parallels to their illiberal and anti-democratic ethos and practice.
Let us simply turn back in British history. The merits of the 2016 referendum will continue to be widely-discussed, but the impression subsequently was of a wish to block its implementation. It appears as if we now see a similar iteration of this division, one that throws into prominence the character of democracy in modern Britain. Views among readers will vary I know about the merits of particular issues. Yet, the idea that all of us, disagreeing as we do, should accept the legitimacy of others expressing their views is a central aspect of democracy and indeed the freedom to live in a community of difference. It is that which has been compromised. No, that is my being overly bland. These values have been deliberately discarded in all too much of the university life of this country, and the rot of unreasoning cant is spreading rapidly.