The History of the British Empire’s Violence

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Howard W. French in The Nation: In 2005, Britain’s then–Labor chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, chose the backdrop of Tanzania to make a dramatic statement about his nation’s unmatched record of imperial conquest and rule. “The time is long gone,” he said, “when Britain needs to apologize for its colonial history.” The choice of locale for such a proclamation was, to be charitable, curious. A braver stage would have been Kenya, to pick an African nation that had experienced horrific violence during its independence struggle from British colonial rule, or India or Malaya, where extreme and brutal measures to sustain imperial control had been carried out on an even greater scale. But here we were, nonetheless.

Brown’s speech reflected the slow and creaky rotation of the wheel not so much of history but of historiography. Mirroring 19th-century historians’ and politicians’ polished encomiums to a beneficent British Empire, the speech brought elite assessments of Britain’s unparalleled dominion over one quarter of the globe, and over a similar fraction of the human population, almost full circle. Back in the 19th century, the task of ruling over myriad darker-skinned peoples around the world had been depicted less as a matter of self-interest than of moral obligation. It was Britain’s unique vocation to spread progressive constitutional freedoms and the rule of law, along with free trade and free labor, among the less fortunate barbarians. As the Whig politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote of Britain’s empire: “It is to her peculiar glory, not that she has ruled so widely—not that she has conquered so splendidly—but that she has ruled only to bless, and conquered only to spare.”

New accounts stripped the traditional emphasis of “high moral purpose” from the British narrative, replacing it with a franker acknowledgment of self-interest and realpolitik. “Colonial Sea Supremacy” Digital Illustration by Irshad Salim

To reach even this point required 19th-century Britons to erase much of the past as well as to ignore the present. When Macaulay’s History of England was published in 1848, the British had violently taken over nearly two-thirds of India and controlled recently acquired settler colonies in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. There was little that appeared blessed about British rule. Absent in Macaulay and his peers’ accounts was also most of the history of the transatlantic slave trade and, in particular, the British role in it. Beginning in the mid-17th century, Britain had become a leader in the brutal commerce of Africans, first in places like tiny Barbados in the 1640s and then on a far larger scale in Jamaica and throughout the West Indies. Only in 1833 did the British abolish slavery in most of the empire, a belated follow-up to the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which outlawed the commerce in slaves. But instead of attesting to this horror, Macaulay and his peers embraced what became the touch points of the so-called Whiggish school of history, which associated British liberalism and empire with progress and passed over their violence and dispossession. The famous quote by Sir John Seeley, about Britain’s having acquired its empire in a fit of absentmindedness, doesn’t even begin to capture the full scope and spirit of the denialism that persisted among famous scholars at Oxford and Cambridge well into the 20th century. In 1914, for example, the historian H.E. Egerton, the first occupant of the Beit Chair of Colonial History at Oxford, wrote that British power in Asia and Africa had come about due to the passively worded “downfall of the Moghul empire” and “the breaking up of the native tribal system and the resulting anarchy,” respectively. Much later, the distinguished historian Christopher Bayly would write that the unstated purpose of the Cambridge History of the British Empire, first published in 1929, “was to demonstrate how the English values of ‘justice,’ ‘benevolence,’ and ‘humanity’ were transformed into a universal ethos of free nations through the operation of ‘the rule of law and democratic government’” under British rule.

Such views remained fairly unchallenged until the 1960s, when space for more critical, revisionist accounts of the British Empire began to open up. Most famous among these were the histories by Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, whose co-authored essay “The Imperialism of Free Trade” helped launch the so-called Cambridge School of historiography, which argued that Britain had profited from empire through trade while avoiding extensive formal control over its colonies. According to the historian Richard Drayton, these new accounts stripped the traditional emphasis of “high moral purpose” from the British narrative, replacing it with a franker acknowledgment of self-interest and realpolitik. Yet by the 1990s and 2000s, conservative British academics, followed by Tory politicians, had begun to revise the revisionists, reprising the old claims that empire, at least in its British form, had been good for the world, and they succeeded to such an extent that even Labor politicians like Gordon Brown felt confident enough in these claims of British-led progress to reiterate them before an audience of Africans.

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