Friday, February 19, 2016

The sun never sets on the empire

At its peak in 1922, the British Empire governed one-fifth of the world’s population and one-quarter of the world’s land area. 44 percent of British people are “proud” of the British Empire, while only 21 percent of respondents “regretted” that it existed. The YouGov poll found 43 percent of respondents felt the empire had been a “good” thing while 19 percent said it was “bad”.

British-Nigerian historian and writer David Olusoga put it: “The empire has become reduced to the abolition of slavery, the building of the Indian railways and some vague talk about the rule of law, British values and the spread of the English language.”

Ashley Jackson, Professor of Imperial and Military History at King's College London, told the Independent that, understandably, “a lot of British people would like to think that the imperial past was generally okay, but unfortunately if you look at the record of empire it’s very difficult to say that overall it was a good thing.”

Countries deal with traumatic histories and legacies in much the same way. Let’s call it the “Look over there!” approach. The bad is downplayed to near irrelevance, while the good is magnified. This is a kind of natural default displayed by great powers. At the same time, the crimes committed by others take on a disproportionate level of importance. A barely audible mumble of ‘yes we made some mistakes’ is quickly followed up with ‘but look at how awful [insert other country] is!’

When bombs dropped by the US or UK kill civilians, it is denied or passed off as a terrible mistake. No one bats much of an eyelid at the BBC or CNN. But when Russian bombs kill civilians, they suddenly change their tunes and it becomes must-read news. Look over there! Look what they did!

Andrea Major, an associate professor in British colonial history at the University of Leeds said there was a “collective amnesia about the levels of violence, exploitation and racism involved in many aspects of imperialism”.  

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