The Unhappy Legacy Of Britain’s Empire
- Book Review
By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan
‘Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt’ Verso Books, London, 2011.
Author: Richard Gott
Richard Gott concentrates on about a century of imperial rule: 1750 – 1860. Often, it’s the narrative (the version) of the victors that enters history books, finds its way into stories and films, and comes to be accepted as ‘the’ (single) truth. Cuiusregioeius lingua: whose the reign (power), his the language. This hegemonic history tends to be a ‘top down’ story, one of rulers and military commanders. As a corrective, there are studies not of those who made history but of those on whom history was thrust. Gott comes within this group and, though British himself, focuses on the victims of Empire and those who resisted it. Nor does Gott lose sight of empire-building at the doorstep: the large Irish diapora ‘never forgot where they had come from’; ‘rage at the treatment of previous generations’ has not diminished but grown.
The pretense of those engaged in the empire-building project was the bringing of civilization: I conquer, dispossess and exploit you – all for your sake. Hypocritically, like ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ in Lewis Carroll’s poem, with sighs and tears, they chose the best lobsters to swallow. The conquered are ‘sullen’, ‘Half devil and half child’ (Rudyard Kipling, ‘The White Man’s Burden’), and must be forcibly dragged into progress and civilizsation. As ever, it was a case of lofty words and sordid practice. Some ‘natives’ swallowed the story, and came to think of imperial rule as one that brought great blessings, forgetting that ‘civilization’ (so called) could have been introduced without brutal conquest and callous exploitation. As Orwell commented (‘The Road to Wigan Pier’), the high standard of life enjoyed in England depended ‘upon our keeping a tight hold on the Empire’. The most fertile land in Bengal was chosen to grow poppy, and China was forced to open its doors to opium (J. Y. Wong, ‘Deadly Dreams’).
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton). Those wielding (and habituated to) power are in danger of losing the sense of our common, shared, humanity. Michael Foucault pointed out that the contamination of power goes beyond those who possess it: some collaborate with the powerful, while most others are ‘corrupted’ by acquiescence or indifference, and their resulting passivity. The term ‘empire’, derived from the Latin ‘imperium’, denotes power and authority: the products of violence. One can argue that all empires, since they are based on violence, are evil.
Gott states that the British Empire was established and maintained through bloodshed, violence and brutality (1). Promises and agreements with Native Americans were repeatedly broken; men, women and children massacred; blankets infected with smallpox given as gifts (28). In Australia, flour mixed with strychnine was given to the aborigines. A component of sheep-dip, strychnine was readily available and became a favoured weapon of mass murder (page 356). “Some forty years after the white settlers had first arrived” (page 270), the Aborigines of Tasmania were extinct.
Captain Cook recorded that, ‘apparently’ (from ‘appearance’, that is, superficially’) wretched, the Aborigines were far happier than Europeans. They lived without the ‘superfluous’ that Europe craves, in a tranquility not disturbed by inequality. The land and sea provide them with all things necessary for life. They ‘covet not magnificent houses’, living in a warm and fine climate, and enjoying wholesome air (page 84). The condition of the Aborigine today is testimony to cruelty, and its resulting collective tragedy.
The Great Indian rebellion of 1857- 58 was crushed with a violent eruption of ‘white racist hatred’ (448). Soldiers, by the nature of their profession, must be desensitized; take pride in maiming and killing. After the military victory at Waterloo, many officers and soldiers were given land overseas, and power over native peoples: they killed and tortured, detained and extorted, without compunction, without anyone to question or challenge (205). The numerically small imperial army was buttressed by thousands of local recruits and by the collaboration of native rulers and some members of the local elite.
The Uva Rebellion (1817-1818) was put down by the British with support by ‘Low country’ soldiers. Solomon Dias Bandaranaike received extensive tracts of land from Governor Brownrigg as a ‘reward for eminent service during the Kandian (sic) Rebellion.’ Indian resistance and uprisings were crushed with the help of ‘loyal Indian troops.
Courage and military skill proved inadequate against superior technology and fire-power, but imperial propaganda succeeded in convincing both the imperialists, and many of the conquered, that the British were superior also as human beings. As in most wars, the courage of the enemy was denigrated as fanaticism, and dismissed. I recall as a child seeing ‘Red Indian’ (Native American) films: ‘hordes’ of savages attacking a small group of brave and decent whites. The films hid the fact that the ‘natives’, initially friendly and helpful, were fighting a doomed and desperate battle against encroachment and extinction.
I was a schoolboy when the Mau Mau uprising began (1952) and remember the lurid accounts of white women and children mercilessly slaughtered. Now we know that the British “incarcerated approximately 1.5 million Kikuyu in a brutal camp system and killed tens of thousands […] How many whites did the bestial Mau Mau kill? Thirty-two”: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, ‘Worse Than War’, 2009, page 136. The Battle of Plassey (1757) is presented as the brave and brilliant triumph of Clive and his 3,000 soldiers against the ‘hordes’ of Siraj-ud-Daulah. But the British had conspired with Mir Jaffar (army chief) who deserted, together with his men. Some of Siraj’s own men either refused to fight or turned against him: the battle was more bought and betrayed than fought and won.
The Black Hole of Calcutta caught the imagination, provoked anger and disgust, and was used to justify retaliatory cruelty. Jan Dalley, in her ‘The Black Hole: Money, Myth and Empire’ (2006), establishes that the hole was ‘an ordinary military cell of the sort that is common in any barracks anywhere’ (12). Perhaps, only nine people had been locked up, of whom three died during the night of wounds sustained in battle. Mary Carey, the only woman to survive the ‘nightmare’, is not mentioned in the early accounts, and is a later embellishment.
Similarly, there is the story of the wife of Ehelepola who was ordered by the last King of Kandy to pound the severed heads of her children in a rice-mortar ‘Tri Sinhala: The Last Phase, 1796-1815’ by P. E. Pieris “sets out the true history of that period, stripped of the various cloaks which an active political propaganda, an apathy towards elucidation of fact, and an all too human weakness to accept without reserve anything that savours of sensationalism, have cast over it” (Introduction. Second edition, 2001). The King was ‘steadfastly loyal’ to Kandyan law: punishment of the whole family was part of it. Early reports mention no extra-legal barbarity or anything particularly revolting. But such a hideous act was always present in the mind of the people as representing the utmost cruelty imaginable (Pieris).
One Siman Kure Rala, a supporter of the Portuguese, is said to have forced women to pound their own children in mortars, but he was merely imitating the Captain-General, Jeronymo de Azavedo. The Dutch too had recourse to similar conduct: see, Pieris., Appendix H: ‘The Tragedy of Ehelepola’s Family’. The diabolical act is traced back not to a Tamil king but to the self-proclaimed bringers of decency, light and civilization. The aim of the British in disseminating their version was (a) to estrange the people from the king and (b) to make out that British rule was more benign and, therefore, preferable. Whoever started the story, once concocted, it took root, captured the horrified imagination, spread and has come to be accepted as fact. The evidence of Pieris and others has little impact: the political mind has its purposes; the popular mind, its prejudice and preference.
The unhappy legacy of Empire is ever-present (475): unrest, conflict and violence mark and mar life in former imperial lands. However, we can choose to identify with Lakshmi Bai, rather than with Queen Victoria; with pacific Gandhi, rather than with imperialist Churchill. We can choose to pay attention, not to the winners who bask in the light of attention and guzzle at the trough, but to those who suffer silently in the shadows: neglected and ignored; forgotten by humanity and history.