Quoted from Robert Tombs’ “The English and their history

Set in this stormy sea
Queen of these restless fields of tide,
England! what shall men say of thee,
Before whose feet the worlds divide?
Oscar Wilde, “Ave Imperatrix” (1887)

As with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.
David Cameron in Pakistan, 5 April 2011


Thus a Tory Prime Minister gave an answer to Wilde’s question: a negative one. Many countries in the world think of Britain—perhaps especially of England—in terms of the empire, the aspect that figures in their own national histories. It also affects ways we think of ourselves. David Cameron’s comment contrasts with the view expressed by Tony Blair to the French National Assembly in 1998: as former empires “our two nations understand power. They are not afraid of it; they are not ashamed of it either.” But should we, on the contrary, be more afraid of using our power? Should we be ashamed, and try to root out what many critics think has been ingrained into our culture by imperialism: arrogance, insularity, racism? The empire, one distinguished historian has even said, is “our Holocaust.”

English justifications of the empire from the early nineteenth century until the mid twentieth drew on Enlightenment ideas of civilization and the Whig idea of progress. Imperial apologists, from celebrated writers such as Macaulay and Seeley to junior district officers, were predominantly “culturalist,” believing that Europe embodied a more advanced stage of civilization whose values were universal and could and should be introduced into less developed societies. There was certainly racism too, in the sense of believing that certain races were not merely “backward,” but inherently inferior. This was a minority view, however, at least among the educated, and was usually considered un-Christian. Authoritarian rule over India and other dependent colonies justified itself by the claim that backward peoples—“half devil and half child,” in Kipling’s notorious phrase—were being protected, including from themselves, and advanced. This claim involved some hypocrisy, notably a deep ambivalence about advancement in practice. Those among the subjects of the empire who accepted its claims and cooperated, whether by clinging to approved traditional cultures (for example, Indian princes or Sikh soldiers) or by embracing certain English values (most obviously Christianity), were to varying degrees privileged and respected: there was no objection to the sons of native potentates going to Eton, and the Gurkhas still command wide public affection. Those who were most disliked and despised by colonial authority were those who in fact genuinely embraced British values and used them against the empire, of whom the greatest example was Gandhi, meaningfully dismissed by Churchill as “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer.”

Law and order, honest government, free trade, and the suppression of slavery, internal warfare and barbarous practices—these were the justifications, and pretexts, for colonial rule. The logic was that in due course the whole empire would follow the white settler colonies towards self-government, though this was seen as remote. When hasty decolonization did come in the 1950s and 1960s, it was presented as a successful change from empire to Commonwealth. A generally positive view of the empire and its history—that it included crimes and flaws but was well-meaning and on the whole politically and economically beneficial both to colonizers and to colonized—remained the orthodoxy in England until at least the 1960s.

The historical boot is now on the other foot: recent opinion emphasizes the violence of conquest, the universality of racial disdain, the destructiveness of settlement, the harshness of imperial government, the arrogance of its practitioners and the sterility of its legacy. There have always been many critics of imperial rule, from Edmund Burke onwards. William Pitt apologized for England’s involvement in slavery two centuries before Tony Blair did so, and in far more heartfelt terms, calling for “an atonement for our long and cruel injustice.” Recent historians emphasize the injustice and uncover the cruelty, as in the case of the Mau-Mau. When many former colonies shed Westminster-style government, the idea of a progressive legacy seemed hollow. More fundamentally, critics rejected the “progressive” history of empire root and branch: the means could never be justified, and the ends were never achieved. Hence, Niall Ferguson’s argument that the British Empire created the modern world provoked an outcry.

This transformation in attitudes has several sources. One is a desire to focus on the history of the poor and oppressed. Another is nationalism, the main impulse for anti-imperialism in all colonies and former colonies, democratic or dictatorial, non-white or white: rejection of empire is the core of many national foundation myths. Another source is anti-capitalism, one of the oldest and newest forms of anti-imperialism. Another still is moral revulsion against all pretentions to racial or cultural superiority. The influential work of Edward Said, powerful in argument and brilliant in presentation, accused European imperialism, unlike earlier empires, of imposing intellectual and cultural domination, and spattered European culture in general with the mire of imperialism.

The empire and its rulers have thus come under withering scrutiny by highly motivated historians from every continent; perhaps only Nazi Germany has been subject to comparable investigation. Moreover, “fabulously detailed” colonial archives leave every blemish exposed: “You would be hard pushed to get similar evidence of fierce internal debates, admissions of failure or even hard statistics from, say, United Nations organisations’ records today.”

The British Empire is too recent to be regarded by most commentators with the detachment that can be applied to older empires such as the Ottoman or the Mughal. When the latter used violence against their subject peoples, they can be said to have carried out “stabilizing operations”; but when the British did so, they committed “war crimes,” even “genocide.” This may be poetic justice for people who prided themselves on spreading civilization, but it makes their record difficult, if not impossible, to assess. Perhaps no one really wants to assess it, because comparison with preceding or succeeding regimes is taboo, especially when independent states are more oppressive and incompetent than the British were. Few today are interested in assessing “good quiet work” in forestry, or in combating locust swarms or the tsetse fly. By what criteria could one judge the effects, for example, of missionary education on headhunters in Borneo? If the empire is regarded as “wholly without any redeeming features,” only denunciation is required. It is therefore possible to denounce both imperial strength and imperial weakness, both what it did and what it failed to do. Some established practices that the British tried to stop—the slave trade, female infanticide, genital mutilation, widow-burning, cannibalism, headhunting, tribal warfare, witchcraft, human sacrifice, systematic sexual abuse—cannot easily be defended today. They can, however, be played down, their existence minimized or dismissed as colonialist fantasy. Alternatively, the sincerity and effectiveness of British policy can be criticized: they had ulterior motives, failed to make much difference, and anyway had no right to interfere. The question of whether outsiders have the right to intervene by force in the name of “universal” humanitarian principles is no less controversial today.

It is true that humanitarian aims were only one part of the complex motivations for empire, that they often camouflaged political ambition and financial greed, and that they often went hand in hand with cultural and racial arrogance and hypocritical double standards. And yet there was slavery; there were human sacrifices; there was endemic warfare; and to ignore this is to belittle the humanity of those who suffered in pre-colonial societies, which were not idyllic Gardens of Eden spoiled only by the imperial serpent. It is common to stress the humiliations imposed by colonial rule, and the damage it did to indigenous cultures. But the rule of conquering Mughals, Asante or Zulus was violent and humiliating for their subordinates too. Should we sympathize, for example, with the humiliation of those Zulu elders who lamented in 1900 that under British rule they had “practically lost control over their girls and women”? The weakening of traditional elites and cultures was for many a liberation. The adoption of Christianity brought by missionaries often meant self-emancipation, especially for the young, poor and female. What did freed slaves, women escaping forced marriage, or people spared from human sacrifice feel about their colonial masters?

Imperial rule was not—it simply could not be—all powerful. It was “a global mosaic of almost ungraspable complexity and staggering contrasts” made up of literally hundreds of units, including self-governing Dominions, internally autonomous protectorates, dependent territories linked by treaty and directly administered Crown Colonies. Its total military manpower was usually less than the United States recently found insufficient to control merely Iraq. As George Orwell (an anti-imperialist former colonial policeman) put it, over “nearly a quarter of the earth, there were fewer armed men than would be found necessary by a minor Balkan state.” So the acquiescence of most and the cooperation of many was essential for it to work at all. This too can be criticized, because the empire often ruled by confirming the power of existing elites or creating new ones, and hence was often a force not for progress but for conservatism. Even then, there were gainers. Sometimes the experience of empire was “essentially one of sympathy and congruence.” There emerged dynamic processes of economic, cultural and social change, which the British sometimes facilitated, sometimes failed to stop, and often simply acquiesced in. In such new metropolises as Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Toronto, Shanghai (much of it run by British officials), Cape Town, Singapore, Sydney and Hong Kong, people took what advantages they could from the empire—travel, trade, education, employment, law and order.

The empire was thus a bargain, or a series of bargains and accommodations, sometimes unspoken, sometimes formal (as with treaties of protection), and always changing. One party to the bargain was to provide protection, security, honest government, arbitration between conflicting groups and access to global trade. The other parties were to give obedience, taxes, labour, even loyalty, and many exercised subordinate authority as princes, chiefs, officials, soldiers and policemen—many of their descendants today govern the independent successor states. Neither side ever really fulfilled the bargain, and it worked out better in some places than others: better in Malta than Jamaica; better in New Zealand than Australia; better in Malaya than India. Not all colonial subjects were included in the bargain, or not to the same extent. For some people it offered more: to princes more than to peasants; to settlers more than to aboriginals; to slaves more than to slave-owners. Some lost more than they gained. Some lost everything.

But this could be said about many systems of rule. What can we say specifically about the British Empire, and the English part in it? To draw up a balance sheet, weighing the destruction of aboriginal lives and cultures against the creation of wealthy modern states, would be morally repulsive, above all for an English writer. To try to compare its performance with other empires or with non-colonial states is interesting but not necessarily meaningful. For example, taxes were lower in colonial India than in independent Siam; British rule in India was more authoritarian but less corrupt than Russian rule in central Asia. Indian nationalists are convinced that India would have been richer and happier without the British, and would have developed modern political institutions; British imperialists used to argue that India would have been prey to war and disorder between its post-Mughal states. Both arguments are speculative. Even if we tried to guess alternative histories, it would not take us far. Corsica, for example, had it remained British would surely today be an independent EU state like Malta: who is to decide whether that would have been a better outcome than as part of France?

Comparing the empire with its successor states is particularly sensitive and uncertain. Where there have been improvements after independence, does this show that colonial rule was holding back progress? Or do such improvements owe something to the infrastructure created under colonialism? The answer to both questions may be yes—or indeed no. When things have deteriorated after independence, does this prove the merits of colonial rule or simply demonstrate its toxic legacy? That legacy can be used to excuse or justify later oppression, as in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. It is also a means for shrugging off responsibilities: it is not unknown for Australians today to blame the plight of Aboriginal people on “the British.” Finally, ascribing cynical and selfish motives to imperial politicians makes it easier for present-day politicians to present their own (neo-imperialist?) actions in a favourable light: “We don’t do empire.” If we accepted that nineteenth-century imperialists also had good intentions, we might today be more alert to the dangers—which they too experienced—of unintended consequences, “collateral damage” and political failure.

What then should we think about our imperial past? Inevitably it leaves a mixed and ambivalent memory, for it had contradictory consequences that include the bad, the good and the indifferent. The early empire was entwined with slavery. It facilitated mass migration, which had devastating human and ecological effects, as well as good ones. It vandalized and often despised other cultures. It could be ruthless and sometimes savage. It dictated to other peoples how they should deal with the challenges of an integrating world, and, to add injury to insult, the solutions it dictated were sometimes disastrous. It also combated slavery worldwide and did more than any other power to try to stop it. It tried to palliate the effects of migration—inadequately and ambivalently, but the consequences of a free-for-all would surely have been worse. It preserved and strengthened aspects of indigenous cultures: for example, by creating written forms of languages and preserving monuments which are now regarded as part of world heritage. The devotion of its often lonely and exposed officials and missionaries is undeniable, even if that devotion was sometimes unwelcome and misplaced. It attempted to found viable successor states. And finally, towards the end of its life, the empire and its peoples did much to save the world from Fascist and hyper-nationalist domination.

Even this last consideration would not excuse the English, many Scots and Irish, and some Welsh “in all their multifarious guises: fresh-faced district officers, hymn-singing missionaries, eccentric engineers, elegant diplomats, drunken sailors” from having rampaged round the world gratuitously seizing control of other peoples’ countries—if that were the whole story. Britain’s rulers in the eighteenth century believed that their safety required them to struggle against French power, including commercial power beyond the seas. They succeeded in preventing a quite likely outcome: French world hegemony, in many ways a natural development, given France’s greater territory, population and cultural prestige. When Britain emerged victorious in 1815, its intention was not further expansion, but stability. Indeed, British world policy after 1815—perhaps from much earlier—was a long defensive action marked by repeated “mission creep.” The nineteenth-century world was far more unstable than the label Pax Britannica suggests: the great empires of the Mughals, the Ottomans and the Manchus were all in crisis, as were smaller polities. British governments were reluctant to take on ever more commitments. But it was scarcely possible for the only global power to keep out of global affairs, and if it had, it is not clear that the world would have been less vulnerable, unstable and violent. The real alternatives to British hegemony would probably have been conquests by others, or perhaps global anarchy.

There have been many suggestions, some fanciful, about what it did to the English to have been possessors of power and empire, among them “economic enfeeblement” and “tortured” relations with Europe. Historians argue about whether the country was deeply affected by both the possession and the loss of empire, or whether in fact most English people were indifferent to empire and little touched by it. In either case, few English problems and foibles today can seriously be explained as consequences of empire or post-imperial nostalgia. In the past, empire sporadically diverted English resources, energies and attention far outside its borders, forcing its affairs to be run in a way that was certainly very different from that required by a medium-sized offshore nation. Empire had many superficial effects on England’s culture: for example, in diet and sport. It encouraged individual and national arrogance, expressed with fulsome self-satisfaction that today makes us laugh or squirm. It sometimes demonstrated the force of Lord Acton’s dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is often said that part of this corruption was racism and xenophobia: it certainly produced plenty of crass and vulgar racists and xenophobes. But it also had the opposite effect, simply by making more of the English accustomed to a variety of peoples and cultures. Even slight experience of Europe and the world today suggests that the English have become one of the least racist and least xenophobic of peoples. One obvious sign is the absence, fairly rare in Europe, of a significant racist political party. Another may be the globe-trotting propensities of people of all ages. More than ever we have become what Defoe called “a mongrel half-bred race,” and are generally quite happy to be so. Some aspects of post-imperial immigration into England have caused political and social problems. But those problems do not arise from the imperial legacy, which makes integration easier, as the successes of people from East Africa or Hong Kong demonstrate. England (like France) has inherited from imperial days a relatively high degree of engagement with the outside world, in giving aid and in trying to play a forceful role in world affairs. This could be seen as “a continuing, in some respects remarkably unchanging, imperial story.” It sometimes has good and sometimes has dire results. But it is hard to see indifference to the outside world, as practised by some European countries, as a moral virtue.

Perhaps our general judgement on the whole period of British and English world power from the 1750s to the 1950s should be that it was an improvised set of responses to an unprecedented global situation, marked by political upheaval, technological revolution, and huge movements of peoples. British governments and their agents made some terrible mistakes and committed some shocking crimes. They were often arrogant and hugely over-confident, though much of this was bluff by people ruling through prestige rather than force—as Orwell saw it, by being a “hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib” obliged to “spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives.’ ” Was there always something a little absurd in the spectacle? As Noël Coward put it in “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1931):

It seems such a shame
When the English claim
The Earth
That they give rise
To such hilarity
And mirth.

But they did bring substantial periods of relative peace and order to large tracts of the globe—in the view of the same Orwell, “the Empire was peaceful as no area of comparable size has ever been.” Free trade was intended to benefit all, and arguably on balance it did: “By abandoning protection Britain magnanimously chose not to exploit its unique position of mid-century market power.”

Most English people were little interested in imperial matters most of the time—less so than their Scottish and Irish neighbours, who played a disproportionate part in running the empire. Nevertheless, English influence over global developments was immense, and some of the consequences were permanent and valuable. They tried to implant their own traditions of parliamentary government and the rule of law; and, even in those countries where these traditions faltered after independence, they still remain a widely held aspiration. Perhaps most important of all has been the emergence of English as the first global language. In important ways still unfolding, the British Empire “made the world one.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s