Britain can no longer hide behind the myth that its empire was benign

IImperial history wars, long simmering in Britain, exploded as Black Lives Matter crossed the Atlantic following the murder of George Floyd. Protesters clad in black face masks marched to London’s Parliament Square in June 2020 chanting “Churchill was a racist”. They stopped at the Prime Minister’s statue, scratched his name with spray paint and replaced it with the scathing words that were chanted. Other Imperial structures collapsed, including that of former Royal African Company director Edward Colston, which an angry mob unceremoniously dumped into the River Colton in Bristol.

The stillness of Colston’s resting place stands in stark contrast to the debates about Britain’s imperial past that haunt and divide the nation. For some, that past is fraught with unspeakable violence, leaving legacies that continue to disfigure populations around the world.

In the eyes of others, Britain was the purveyor of liberal imperialism, or a “civilizing mission” that was the standard-bearer for all other empires. Of course there were blots, like trading with enslaved peoples, but on history’s balance sheet any ill-gotten wealth had been more than atoned for by Britain’s generosity.

According to Empire supporters, after leading the abolitionist movement, Britain embarked on its civilizing mission that transformed humanity. The British Empire of the 19th and 20th centuries spanned a quarter of the world and was the largest in history. His developmental policies, which adhered to racial hierarchies, allegedly brought 700 million colonized subjects who were considered “backward” and “childlike” into the modern world.

As its colonies moved toward independence in the 20th century, Britain declared its civilizational mission a triumph. His subjects had “grown up” and took their place at the table of the Commonwealth of Nations. Today, the Commonwealth of 54 countries, most of which were former British colonies, is still led by Queen Elizabeth II.

How we remember the past in the present and how that past is used has profound implications. In June 2016, for example, Britain voted to leave the European Union, and memories of empire played no small part in that. The Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign promoted a “Global Britain” vision, an Empire 2.0. “Churchill was right when he said that the empires of the future will be empires of spirit and in expressing our values ​​I believe that Global Britain is a soft power superpower and that we can be immensely proud of what we are achieving,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said recently.

how did we get here In the present, how do we understand the past and the way it shapes the world we live in? Such questions were relieved when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge embarked on an eight-day trip to the Caribbean. It was intended to commemorate the Queen’s platinum jubilee and affirm her authority as the symbolic head of state presiding over 15 countries of the Commonwealth Realm.

Ahead of their departure, the young royals received a history lesson and a warning from academics and activists in the form of a letter. It chronicled Britain’s role in exploiting Jamaica through the use of slave labor and brutal colonial rule, and called for accountability. Ignoring it, the duke and duchess charged ahead. Posters reading “#SehYuhSorry and make REPARATIONS” welcomed them to Jamaica, and the duke’s expression of “deep sorrow” at the “appalling atrocity of slavery” did little to quell calls for a colonial reckoning.

His carefully choreographed presence was part of the problem. Dressed in full white military garb, with the Duchess, also dressed in white, at his side, the Duke stood in an open-top Land Rover once used by the Queen during her 1952 royal tour to inspect the Jamaica Defense Forces parade. The look, reminiscent of Lord Louis Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, and his wife Edwina in the last days of the Raj drew a quick backlash for its dazzling colonial symbolism.

At the conclusion of his ill-fated journey, the chastised duke turned to the monarchy’s age-old imperial playbook, which has long been an extension of British government, for answers. He chose his words carefully, reaffirming his belief in Britain’s civilizing mission by dedicating himself to the ‘Commonwealth family’, a cornerstone of the Conservative Party’s Empire 2.0. But the monarchy’s ability to sustain its fictions, and Britain’s, are clearly at stake. “This tour has brought questions of the past and the future even more into focus,” admitted the Duke.

Questions about Britain’s imperial past have arguably never been more prominent, playing out on the nation’s streets, in Parliament and in the media. Historians, myself included, have much to say about it. I contend the question is not whether or not the British Empire was violent, because it was. The issues that require sharper focus are how and why extraordinary coercion endemic to the structures and systems of British rule was used, and the methods Britain used to cover it up.

During the Empire’s heyday, British officials became obsessed with the “rule of law,” claiming that it was the foundation of good government. But good government in the empire was liberalism’s fevered dream. Its rule of law codified differences, curtailed liberties, expropriated land and property, and secured a steady flow of labor for the mines and plantations whose proceeds helped boost the British economy.

After Britain fought some 250 wars to “pacify” colonial subjects in the 19th century, violent conflicts large and small erupted as colonial officials enforced and maintained British sovereignty over populations they said they never had. As the colonized demanded basic rights over their own bodies and liberties, British officials often criminalized them, portrayed their actions – including vandalism, labor strikes, rioting and full-blown riots – as political threats, and used law enforcement and military devolved powers of repression. To justify these measures, Britain deployed its development-oriented framework, citing the ‘moral impact’ of violence, a necessary element in reforming recalcitrant ‘natives’.

In the 20th century, the British Empire was awash with martial law declarations and states of emergency needed to maintain order. A well-oiled bureaucratic and legal machine of oppression emerged, which was moved from one part of the empire to another by colonial and military officials.

But in the post-World War II era, with updated humanitarian laws and new human rights conventions, British repression – which included the widespread use of torture – was legally and politically problematic. British governments have repeatedly denied their repressive measures in the Empire while ordering the large-scale destruction of incriminating evidence. Fragments remained, however, and historians have reassembled them, riddled with the myths of paternalism and progress, and demonstrated the perfidiousness of liberalism across the empire and at home. Our role now is to ensure that the general public is aware of our findings – findings that often corroborate the lived experiences and memories of formerly colonized populations.

Ultimately, Britain’s civilizing mission has always been fraught with conflict. Even if it took centuries, the subject populations would “mature” and Britain would have to relinquish her sovereign claims to the Empire when her keen eye judged the once “uncivilized” to be fully evolved. this when was always elusive. That Jamaica, Belize and the Bahamas remain in the Commonwealth Realm, with the Queen as the symbolic head of state, and the monarchy still peddles the idea of ​​a “Commonwealth family” raises the question of whether this is the case when is still elusive, at least in the minds of some. It is indeed a question for the heir-to-be and others preserving Britain’s uniquely ‘civilised’ past and present to ponder.

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Justin Scacco

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