Why do we debate Empire?
Updated: Jun 12, 2022
Why do we debate whether the empire was good or bad and apply a different standard to the actions of other countries?
Arguments for empire are varied and even contradictory. They point to development of colonies, British education, collaboration of local leaders, and cultural contribution amongst other things as reasons to be proud of Britain’s imperial past. When those against Empire point out the acts of slavery and genocide defenders will often compare Britain to its more violent European neighbours and will argue the above ‘benefits’ outweigh and even excuse these crimes against humanity. That human life can be given such lack of consideration and empathy is in itself an issue and begs the question of how much the lives of Black and Brown people are valued by those who use this argument. Let us examine some of these arguments more carefully.
Some argue that with the fall of other Empires Britain simply stepped into the power vacuum that the Ottomans and others left behind. Some have used the same argument about slavery saying that if Britain hadn’t done it, others would have done it instead. I don’t doubt that both of these are true, however, to ignore the moral implications of this argument is to excuse inhumane acts. We do not accept the argument, ‘if I didn’t steal from you, someone else would have’ or ‘if we didn’t kidnap you another gang would have’, so why should this argument be applicable to Britain’s Empire? There may be some people who do not attach moral condemnation to prior empires before the modern era, but I am not one of them. If liberty and self-governance are denied, then these ancient empires must also be held to account for their actions.
Some point to the haphazard growth of colonies which eventually became the British Empire and its costly endeavours as an argument against it being exploitative. This is like saying a person who stole from your car out of opportunism who then couldn’t make a big profit from the stolen items, didn’t exploit you. You the colonised have still been broken into and ransacked for your belongings regardless of whether the thief planned it or made a profit from it. Yes, the British Empire did grow in a haphazard way, was very costly and lacked administrative cohesion, but the costs to the ordinary people within the colonies is immeasurable. Can we really say that forced labour, discrimination, poverty, loss of liberty and life are not exploitation?
Some also point to the collaboration and profits made by leaders in the colonies as an indication that the populous approved of their loss of liberty and undue hardships. This ignores class dynamics which in most societies favours those who have power, wealth and privilege. Some colonies like India did indeed maintain itself through local princes and influential leaders tasked with keeping local people in line. Indian bureaucrats, and others like money lenders helped enforce colonial systems in exchange for money, power and privilege at the cost of the masses. However, this does not mean that the majority of ordinary people accepted British rule, despite the attempts to convince the masses that they were part of one big benevolent imperial family. Quite often the children of those with wealth and privilege later became the leaders of nationalist movements by virtue of their education, position and influence, campaigning for independence of their countries. It is also argued that leaders ‘acquiesced at the prospect of order, peace and trade’. This ignores the often, aggressive tactics used by Britain when annexing indigenous lands and when forcing other nations to trade. African leaders at the end of the 19th C often had no choice but to agree to Britain’s territorial land claims, in order to avoid further bloodshed. Some indigenous leaders were tricked into land or trade agreements with Britain and other Europeans, thinking that they would indeed benefit. Britain often used ‘gunboat’ diplomacy to force nations to trade with it as in China and the Opium wars.
With regards to slavery there is an acceptance that individuals made their fortunes through the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, however the links to the Industrial Revolution are denied with coal cited as the primary driver of its growth. No doubt this black gold was a key factor, but where did the money come from to invest in mills and innovations like the steam engine? James Watt’s work with the steam engines was partly financed by money from the West India trade. Anthony Bacon a slave trader invested money into iron foundries and coal mines in South Wales. Thomas Harris, a Bristol slave trader, invested into the iron works in Dowlais in South Wales. There are countless examples of Industrialists investing their fortunes into companies that built railways, canals and other infrastructure. Britain’s woollen production was insufficient to support the growth in Britain’s mills but factories grew exponentially with the imports of cotton and other raw materials from the West Indies, North America, India and other colonies. The more Britain imported the more it produced, and the more industries grew. Industries connected with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade such as the ship building trade, refineries, ironworking, insurance and banking to name a few, expanded and provided job opportunities for ordinary people whilst providing profits for companies and merchants.
Rather than talk about the centuries of horrendous torture inflicted on generations of Black and Brown people, defenders of Empire deflect and gloss over these inconvenient crimes by pointing to Slavery in Africa, Abolition and Britain’s attempts to end it elsewhere. Rarely are the floggings and forced labour of Indians for example ever mentioned.
It is true that all three of these arguments have some truths but need closer inspection. Chattel slavery has indeed existed in all civilisations before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, however this generational chattel slavery, on such an international scale with this level of brutality is unparalleled in modern History. Measuring levels of suffering and types of slavery is not something I am in favour of as all slavery is to be condemned and African traders and leaders who sold their prisoners of war to the Europeans and Arabs must also face up to this side of their history. However, to compare chattel slavery of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to the domestic servitude of prisoners captured from other nations, that was practiced by some nations like the Ashanti and Benin is to be disingenuous. This approach fails to acknowledge the nuances involved in slavery practiced by some of these nations, which often involved a timescale akin to a prison sentence. Enslaving other nations (enslaving their own people was usually outlawed in most of these societies – this neither justifies their actions but simply corrects the misconception of Africans ‘enslaving their own people’) is not any better than enslaving their own people and raids and wars became ever more frequent with the imports of guns and demand for labour by Europeans.
Let’s talk about abolition. ‘Where the British Empire’s relationship with slavery was unique was in combatting it. Britain abolished its own slave trade in 1807. In 1834 it abolished slavery throughout the Empire. British subjects were forbidden to own slaves anywhere in the world’. These innocent sentences infer that Britain is beyond moral reproach and that abolition expunges centuries of suffering, exploitation and the legacy of enslavement. This simplistic view paints Britain as having the moral high ground who alone wanted to abolish slavery. Without doubt key players in the abolition movement from MPs to lawyers, Christians to the working class campaigners, deserve celebration for their efforts. However, it should also be acknowledged that Black abolitionists were also involved in campaigning as were the enslaved people themselves who resisted. Haiti was the only Black nation to free itself from slavery from the French and the history books fail to mention that over 50,000 enslaved people in Jamaica went on strike in 1831. The other factors like competition from Cuba and Brazil making owning slaves less profitable should also be considered. As the resources of the African continent and Britain’s Jewel in the crown of India increasingly offered raw materials for Britain’ factories with little import costs and with cheap labour, slavery increasingly began to make less economical sense. Putting down rebellions was costly and freeing people created another consumer for British goods. Finally there was compensation, many MPs had investments that depended on the trade and were in the end won over by the £20 million (£17 billion today) of compensation, half of which went to 6% of slaver owners, paid out by the government. Not only was that money invested by many back into Industries in Britain, but this generational wealth was passed on through the generations to those of today’s elite whilst the tax payer continued to pay back this loan until only 5 years ago. It is also worth noting that slavery was only abolished in its Caribbean colonies in 1834 and only became illegal in India in 1848, on the Gold Coast in 1874, and in Nigeria in 1901. Even after it was officially prohibited, slavery continued under other names as indentured service or forced labour. As late as 1948, colonial officials privately acknowledged that domestic slavery existed in northern Ghana.
The movement to end the inhumane traffic was for most a noble and genuine cause. However we must not ignore the other motivations that Britain’s government would have had, such as disrupting other countries from importing enslaved people as it gave nations like Brazil an unfair advantage in its sugar production. It is safe to say that Britain continued after abolition to import large amounts of cotton from the USA which was picked by enslaved people. Traders continued to operate under Spanish and Portuguese flags which hadn’t outlawed slavery. British consuls, or their families, even owned slaves when they lived in places like Cuba. Similarly, Brazilian mines and plantations that relied on slave labour were financed by British capital. By 1860, British imports from Brazil were worth £4.5 million every year (£99 million in 2005). Historians are still uncovering what happened after abolition as so much of it was covert, but the laws had undeniable loopholes that parliament was very slow to close.
There is some acknowledgement that India lost many of its markets to Britain’s textile industry, however the intentional legal mechanisms behind this are often glossed over and reference to the creation of factories is spoken about instead. These arguments again ignore deindustrialisation and deskilling of at least a quarter of the workforce. It also ignores Britain’s mechanisms for limiting industrialisation. India’s own engineers and designers had come up with their own trains for example, but Britain’s trains had to be used with India paying for the privilege, and not being allowed to use them. Arguments that India’s growth was comparable to places like Germany ignore the workforce and ignore their interrupted trajectory and position as a leading global trader in the 17th century.
All these arguments by supporters of the British Empire fail to acknowledge the human costs, the misery of slavery, policy induced poverty, murders, rapes, torture and generational trauma that has afflicted the colonised around the world. These arguments also fail to speak to the legacy left on the former colonies like Australia which started with the Tasmanian genocide and continued with the stolen generation being taken from their families, even after independence. It fails to recognise the structural racism built into British society that disadvantages the Black and Brown people living in Britain today. Arguments that point to more violent and invasive practices of other European Empires may be true, but are dangerous as they detract away from Britain’s own actions and responsibilities.
It is seldom acknowledged that the those who were colonised already had their own civilisations, economical structures, societies and histories that had they been allowed to develop without interference, may have seen them develop in a way comparable or even further than Europe. However, the inference is that they did not have the ability and that only through European intervention are they adopting ‘values of modernity and progression’. No one is doubting that some nations colonised were more advanced than others, no one is saying that there were not some practices that were abhorrent and that Britain shouldn’t have intervened. But to ignore the plight of many ordinary people and to justify loss of liberty and self-governance is to contradict British values of fairness, freedom and democracy.
By balancing atrocities with so called advantages of Empire – are we really saying that they are of equal value? This is like saying that the suffering of Black and Brown people is an ok price to pay for so called advantages of Empire. Why are levels of outrage and/ or compassion for Black and Brown people generally less in the public arena? Is there a numbness because disasters or terrorist attack in LIC countries are more frequent? Or is it because they are not near and so we in Europe cannot relate? Is it because the value of a non-White person simply isn’t seen as the same as a White person? One French activist a few years back passionately stated on a TV debate in France about migrants crossing the Mediterranean and drowning in their hundreds. ‘If this was happening to White Europeans this would shake the world’. I suspect there is an element of all these factors influencing the low levels of compassion for Black and Brown people. How much of this argument is based around racist ideas of superiority, whether the person is consciously thinking it or not?
To those who support empire they also fall back on arguments of ‘you are trying to rewrite history or erase history’. Some will also say that anti-imperialists are trying to judge people then by the values of now and will also add that speaking about the atrocities is simply trying to shame people. To the first point I would say that if you are only looking for evidence to support the good of empire then that is what you are likely to find. If you only want to see the good in empire, that is how you will interpret what you have found. All history is a process of rediscovery as new evidence is found, technology like carbon dating is created and history is interpreted not only through the eyes of the victor, but by those who had less power. To the second point I would pose this question. Why then do we judge the historical actions of other nations using today’s ethics but not Britain? I would also add that there are ample examples of contemporaries of time periods who found some actions of colonialism and imperialism morally reprehensible. For example more working class people signed petitions against slavery than for the Chartist movements. Churchill’s actions to divert grain from famine ravaged regions of India was also criticised by MPs and newspapers at the time and the torture of the Mau Mau happened with the full knowledge of two successive governments. ‘The colony's attorney general, Eric Griffith-Jones, said the mistreatment of detainees was "distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or communist Russia", but agreed to draft new legislation sanctioning beatings as long as it was kept secret. "If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly," he wrote’. Do white British people feel ashamed about this? Some people might and others may not. That I would argue is a matter for the individual. The objective of finding out about Britain’s crimes about humanity is not to make white British people feel ashamed or guilty. On the contrary these serve no purpose. The objective is truth, reconciliation and redress as some other countries have done with their own indigenous populations. Should we stop talking about it so that people won’t feel ashamed? Do the people who have suffered not deserve to have their stories told as it upsets some people? This is again weighing the feelings of guilt now, up against crimes against humanity then, and saying their suffering is less significant. Some may argue that Britain’s minority population is small and the countries it conquered are far away. Could it be that because the majority of these acts happened abroad the distance provides a disassociation? ‘Out of sight, out of mind’. There are so many other possibilities to explore as to why some White British people are so hostile towards acknowledging the truth about Britain’s colonial and imperial past, however I will leave that up to you to explore and discuss.
What do you believe are the reasons why we continue to debate whether Empire is something to be proud of? Why do you think we spend so much time teaching students about the atrocities or misdeeds of other nations but not our own? Why do you think so many people lack empathy for those who were under British imperial rule?
This blog has been adapted from a section of the Colonialism and Imperialism unit on my course 'Introduction to Black British Studies and reducing racial bias' which is now open for enrolment with a limited offer of 25% discount.
For discount link, full course content, aims and outcomes click here: https://global-learning-education-consultants.teachable.com/p/understanding-black-history-and-challenging-racial-bias/?product_id=2374198&coupon_code=BBH25OFF&preview=logged_out