Britain Can No Longer Hide Behind the Myth That Its Empire Was Benign
Itmperial history wars, long-simmering in Britain, exploded when Black Lives Matter crossed the Atlantic in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Protestors, 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, striking out his name with spray paint and replacing it with the damning words being chanted. Others empire-buildings were also destroyed, such as the former director of Royal African Company, Edward Colston. An angry crowd hurled him into Bristol’s River Colton.
The silence of Colston’s resting place stands in stark contrast to the debates over Britain’s imperial past that haunt and divide the nation. This past has been wrought with unimaginable violence that leaves legacies that have continued to affect people all over the world.
In the eyes of others, Britain was the purveyor of a liberal imperialism, or “civilizing mission,” that was the standard-bearer for all other empires. For sure, there were blots, like the trade in enslaved peoples, but on history’s balance sheet, any ill-begotten wealth had been more than atoned for through Britain’s largesse.
According to empire’s supporters, after spearheading the abolition movement, Britain launched its civilizing mission, transforming humanity. It spanned nearly a quarter of the planet and was the most extensive empire in human history. Its developmentalist policies, which cleaved to racial hierarchies, allegedly brought 700 million colonized subjects, considered “backward” and “childlike,” into the modern world.
Britain declared that its civilizing mission was a success when the colonies took to independence during the 20th century. Its subjects had “grown up,” taking their seat at the Commonwealth of Nations table. Queen Elizabeth II is the current head of the Commonwealth. It is comprised 54 countries.
It has deep implications for how we remember and use the past in our present. As an example, Britain voted to exit the European Union in June 2016. Memories of empire also played a significant role. The Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign touted a “Global Britain” vision, an Empire 2.0. “Churchill was right when he said that the empires of the future will be empires of the mind 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 recently declared.
What brought us here? How do we in the present understand the past and the ways in which it shapes the world in which we’re living? These questions came to light when the Duke of Cambridge and Duchess were embarked upon an eight-day Caribbean trip. It was intended to commemorate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and to affirm her authority as the symbolic head of state presiding over 15 countries comprising the Commonwealth Realm.
A letter was sent to the royals by activists and academics, which served as a reminder and lesson in history. Chronicling Britain’s role in exploiting Jamaica through its use of enslaved labor and brutal colonial rule, it demanded accountability. Duke and duchess didn’t heed this warning, they forged on. Posters declaring “#SehYuhSorry and make REPARATIONS” greeted them in Jamaica, and the duke’s expression of “profound sorrow” for the “appalling atrocity of slavery” did little to quell demands for a colonial reckoning.
The problem was his carefully planned presence. The duke was dressed in a white uniform and had the duchess beside him. He was examining the parade of the Jamaican Defense Force in an open-air Land Rover that the Queen used during her 1952 royal visit. The optics, reminiscent of Lord Louis Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, and his wife Edwina, during the final days of the Raj, drew swift backlash for their jaw-dropping colonial symbolism.
Wrapping up his ill-fated trip, the chastened duke turned to the monarchy’s age-old imperial play book, long an extension of the British government’s, for answers. Choosing his words carefully, he reaffirmed his belief in Britain’s civilizing mission, dedicating himself to the “Commonwealth family,” a cornerstone of the Conservative Party’s Empire 2.0. Yet, the monarchy’s ability to maintain its fictions, and Britain’s, clearly hang in the balance. “This tour has brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future,” the duke conceded.
Questions about Britain’s imperial past have, arguably, never been more salient, playing out in the nation’s streets, the floor of Parliament, and in the media. I am not the only historian who has much to add. I maintain that the question isn’t whether or not Britain’s empire was violent, because it was. It is important to focus on the reasons and methods by which extraordinary coercion was used in British systems and structures.
During the empire’s heyday, British officials were obsessed with the “rule of law,” claiming this was the basis of good government. But good government in empire was liberalism’s fever dream. Its rule of law codified difference, curtailed freedoms, expropriated land and property, and ensured a steady stream of labor for the mines and plantations, the proceeds from which helped fuel Britain’s economy.
After Britain waged some 250 wars in the nineteenth century to “pacify” colonial subjects, violent conflicts—big and small— were recurring as colonial officials imposed and maintained British sovereignty over populations who ostensibly never had it. When the colonized demanded basic rights over their own bodies and freedoms, British officials often criminalized them, cast their actions—including vandalism, labor strikes, riots, and full-blown insurgencies—as political threats, and invested police forces and the military with legally conferred powers for repression. To justify these measures, Britain deployed its developmentalist framework, pointing to the “moral effect” of violence, a necessary element for reforming unruly “natives.”
By the twentieth century, Britain’s empire was replete with declarations of martial law and states of emergency needed to maintain order. The legal and bureaucratic machinery of repression was well-established, and it was transferred by military and colonial officials from one empire to the next.
But in the post-World War II era of updated humanitarian laws, and new human rights conventions, British repression—which included widespread use of torture—was legally and politically problematic. While denying their oppressive measures throughout the empire, the British governments ordered the mass destruction of evidence. Fragments remained, however, and historians have reassembled them, puncturing the myths of paternalism and progress, and demonstrating liberalism’s perfidiousness across the empire and at home. Our role now is to ensure that the broader public is aware of our findings—findings that often confirm the lived experiences and memories of formerly colonized populations.
Ultimately, Britain’s civilizing mission was always pregnant with conflict. Even if it took centuries, subject populations would “grow up,” and Britain would have to concede its sovereign claims to empire when its discerning eye judged the once “uncivilized” to be fully evolved. This WhenHowever, it was never easy to find the answer. That Jamaica, Belize, and the Bahamas remain in the Commonwealth Realm, with the Queen as its symbolic head of state, and the monarchy still peddling the idea of a “Commonwealth family,” begs the question of whether this WhenAt least for some, it remains elusive. It is, indeed, a question the future heir to the throne, and others who maintain Britain’s uniquely “civilizing” past and present, should ponder.
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