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Britain’s Not-So-Evil Empire
This review appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
The British Empire Around the World
By Jeremy Black
(Encounter Books, 2019)
In early 2018, a group of students from London’s School of African and Oriental Studies picketed an unassuming café near Finsbury Park for honoring Winston Churchill with some décor and a breakfast special named after him. The students chanted “Churchill was a racist” and demanded that all traces of him be erased from the establishment. The café’s proprietor defied the mob and later declared, “If you cannot celebrate Churchill, you cannot celebrate anyone.”
Jeremy Black seeks to defend the British Empire as a whole from this kind of historical erasure in his newest effort, Imperial Legacies. Black, Established Professor of History at the University of Exeter, has written over ninety books on topics including naval warfare, the art of fortification, Shakespeare, and James Bond. His latest is timely, personal, and richly detailed, applying his scholarly faculties to popular historiography in a manner that many professors avoid.
Black does not undertake a comprehensive apologetic for the British Empire. Instead, he offers a more limited defense against the revisionist and condemnatory interpretations that have become standard in both academic and popular discussion. In its early chapters, Imperial Legacies promises to show how disapproval of America today replicates the postcolonial condemnation of Britain. The book does not quite fulfill this line of argument, which vanishes as Black’s focus on the British Empire becomes much more acute. Instead of refining the comparison to America, however, Black accomplishes something much more ambitious: he systematically debunks the ideologies of “decolonization” and postcolonial resentment and shows the harm of dismissing British history as a story of monolithic oppression.
What Black shows is that the British Empire was no worse than most other empires—and better than many. Even if it was a colonial master, Britain was a far preferable master to the Nazis and the Soviets. Nothing is gained by using modern standards to condemn the British Empire as one of the world’s great villains. Instead, as Black argues, this anti-historical damnation comes at a real cost to the integrity of historians, the defense of Western civilization, and the collective understanding of current events.
One problem with moralistic critiques of the British Empire is that they ignore basic variables of great power politics, such as the distinction between the aggressor and the defender. As Black points out, “British imperialism was in large part imperialism directed against other empires.” Who was oppressing whom when Britain and France invaded Russian Crimea to defend the Ottomans?
Another problem results from the conflation of history and political theory. Definitions for terms such as empire, imperialism, and colonialism come in and out of favor and vary across historical schools and time periods. Marxist historiographers, in particular, have long been wont to keep all such classifications within the realm of economics. In their account, imperialism is a part of the cycle of exploitation between rulers and workers. Conveniently, this narrative long enabled communist ideologues to tar American actions in Central America as imperialistic while excusing Soviet incursions into Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan.
Finally, the broader application of postcolonial ideology—the artificial distinction between a European colonial empire and its indigenous successors—gives rise to a ludicrous double standard. The use of force by successor states like Zimbabwe and Pakistan is only acknowledged inasmuch as it can be attributed to the “legacy of the end of empire,” as former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw said in 2002. Large, multicultural empires take the blame for postcolonial ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, the ethno-nationalists who caused their collapse get off without criticism.
Black argues that constantly changing criteria make analysis impossible. “Once imperialism includes economic factors, informal empire, and soft power . . . ” he asserts, “there cannot be any close, let alone precise definition.” And without a precise definition of imperialism, it is impossible to understand the history of empire—let alone provide a moral evaluation. Critics and defenders alike must ensure that they are talking about the same phenomena.
Consider the Indian subcontinent, where wars of empire raged long before the British East India Company arrived and took control in 1757. Before the British, the Mughals were the only power to dominate the entire region, having done so by ruthless force and for only a brief period of time. Any political power would have struggled to maintain order over such a vast area and all its enduring ethno-religious divides. Britain managed to do so, developing infrastructure and a robust civil service, though not without a number of atrocities.
These atrocities, in turn, have become a crucial part of an independent India’s national mythmaking. Much has been made of incidental British brutality, exemplified by the Amritsar massacre (depicted in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film, Gandhi). Much less has been said about the ways in which India’s Hindu nationalists, like the ruling BJP, have used anti-British sentiment to build their political support while oppressing ethno-religious minorities of Muslims and Sikhs. Though they do not neglect the Amritsar victims, Hindu leaders rarely memorialize the thousands of Sikhs killed by Hindus in the riots of 1984.
Similar patterns of anti-British ideology fostering contrived nationalistic sentiment have occurred in other former possessions of the Crown. Ireland’s affected Gaelic identity came at a real cost to its Protestant minority and inspired a reckless foreign policy that, under Éamon de Valera, aligned Ireland so closely to Nazi Germany that Churchill considered invasion. Historically, the British Empire could serve as the villain upon which all a nation’s ills could be blamed. One can easily recall other examples of such expedient criticism from the revolutionary, postcolonial states of British Africa and Asia.
In the United States, the alleged tyranny of King George III and the British is still a political motivator for factions like the modern Tea Party movement. The Nationalist and Communist Chinese have used the Opium Wars, perpetrated by the British against a decaying Qing dynasty, to explain the necessity for revolution. Amusingly, Black notes how Chinese and American films both tend to depict villains, especially in period pieces, as British or speaking British-accented English.
Using the revisionist double standard, critics revile the erstwhile settler colonies of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, which are now among the world’s most prosperous nations. Tariana Turia, New Zealand’s associate minister of Maori Affairs, spoke in 2000 of a (fictive) “Maori holocaust” perpetrated by the British colonists. Turia, it seems, was willfully ignorant of the Maori’s own history as a violent, expansionist empire throughout Oceania since their own arrival circa the thirteenth century. In Australia, the stance on the treatment of the Aboriginals is one of official guilt. Even the country’s World War I veterans must be shunned for their complicity in empire, despite the role of that conflict in promoting Australia’s independent national identity.
The British Empire thus seems a curse not soon to be lifted from popular historical and political imagination. Black dismisses the general concept of “Imperial amnesia”—the idea that the crimes of the British Empire are often overlooked. Instead, he shows that there is only amnesia about the benefits and virtues of empire, however significant or paltry they may have been. Almost without fail, Britain’s erstwhile colonies denounce it as the perpetrator of global evil in terms lacking any depth or nuance. This global abdication of historical accuracy has long distorted public opinion within the UK itself. Anti-Imperial sentiment demoralized generations of British leaders and culminated in the “bolt from Empire” that started under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s.
As William Faulkner said of the American South, Black seems to say of the British Empire: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The toxic remembrance of only the worst of empire has poisoned the British state, mired at the time of writing in a crisis concerning its exit from the European Union. Britain appears to lack the will even to establish its sovereignty, instead compartmentalizing its existence either within a European community or a “Special Relationship” with America. That little island nation that once projected order unto the world looks about to be submerged beneath the waves.
Imperial Legacies is a spirited polemic that exposes the misunderstandings, cynical disregard, and hypocrisy surrounding the history of the British Empire. Black’s work is a clinic for scholars in all fields, reminding us to set aside ideology, focus on the facts, and recognize nuances. Having disappeared from the map, the British Empire should survive in memory—not only for its flaws but also for its virtues. ♦
Daniel M. Bring studies history and economics at Dartmouth College.
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