Was the British Empire a shameful enterprise? One founded on trade and the imposition of the Christian faith which became an imperial land, wealth, and people grab: enslaving peoples and wrecking native cultures. Did British involvement make their existence and future prospects worse?
A sign of our times is the negative view we are beginning to take about ourselves. We are becoming like medieval monks, practising the art of self flagellation, or a maddened dog that starts chewing at its own flesh. No target from our past stinks as highly as that of the imperial colonising that in the old days coloured so much of the globe in pink. When I was a child we were encouraged to take pride in our history. Pink was the chosen colour seen on globes and maps indicating the huge dominating presence of the British Empire. From the Alaskan borders of Canada in the northwest to New Zealand and the Solomon Islands in the southeast. By 1920 it covered a land mass comprising quarter of the earth’s surface. That is a lot to apologise for, and how we feel the need to squirm in embarrassment. The strange thing is that those who feel the greatest need to demonstrate their apologetic credentials are those who have the flimsiest grasp of our history: proved by the following. A statue became the object of a university outcry. Racism and empire was at its root but it centred on the hatred of an individual. A hatred not lessened by the fact that both the offence and the statue were set in our imperial past. The offending statue bore the image of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes, born a century and a half ago. Left wing activists at an Oxford University found fault with this British imperialist and wanted his statue in Oriel College removed. If these students had learned the art of looking at a subject from all sides rather than just one they might have thought twice about the matter. Maybe compare Cecil Rhodes, whom they despise, with one of the same mindset: Charles Darwin, a man who is almost universally admired. Both of these men had luxuriated in the power and prestige of Empire. One is made into a villain the other remains an untainted national hero. Darwin is the secular saint who reinforced the cause of agnosticism. Teaching us that we were not children of God but children of nature, having ascended by degrees from the apes. He is loved by students, but he should not be, not if they applied to same standards to Darwin as the do to Cecil Rhodes. His views and influence have done more harm than any of those born into the world of Empire. But that is a story related in other articles, for now let’s have a brief look at what he wrote. If Rhodes be a racist then what was Darwin who wrote the following in his book The Descent of Man. Its object was to trace an evolutionary link between apes and mankind.
He wrote. ‘At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the Negro or Australian (aborigine) and the gorilla.’
Darwin was not a racist in modern terms, he was like Cecil Rhodes a man of his time; but he nevertheless thought, perhaps theoretically upon the lines of exterminating Aborigines and Negroes: (his description of native Africans). His expectations were that races existed which filled the evolutionary gaps between mankind at its highest manifestation and those who bore a closer likeness to the apes. This was and is the high point of arrogance and error, and it belonged to a class of English “gentlemen” who had removed themselves from the influence of Holy Scripture. The book of Genesis makes a totally clear distinction between human and animal life. According to scripture there is an unbridgeable separation. Darwin however required a blurring of that distinction. There were others very close to him who thought the same, Ernst Haeckel the German zoologist and evolutionist being one of the most influential. A man whose views would give rise to a veritable storm of offence under hate legislation. Darwin admired him so much he said he would not have bothered publishing his own books had he first seen Haeckel’s work.
It was in fact Christian gentlemen, men of the Empire who led the fight for the emancipation of slavery, not Darwin who saw it and admittedly hated what he saw. But fight against it he did not. So if the students of Oxford need another target, having lost their campaign to have the statue of Rhodes removed, then why not encamp outside Darwin College in Cambridge and call for its name to be changed. The idiocy of these protest movements can be parodied, but they have had their successes, sometimes without even raising a finger. The mere threat they pose is felt by authorities fearful of what protest can achieve. Once it had been identified as an evil that could not be tolerated the British Empire fought the good fight against slavery. And it was done against fierce European opposition and at great cost in terms of economic self interest and British lives lost, the Royal Navy over decades was responsible for saving up to 150,000 Africans and captured 1,600 slave ships. Slavery was a crime against humanity alright and Britain has much to be ashamed of, but this trade was not the prerogative of whites. Blacks made a good living by selling their own people into slavery. Class divisions are not reserved to white races. There is a false impression that before whites began colonising other countries the native peoples they conquered lived in harmony with one another. This was not true. Read the histories and you will find how British colonisers often brought peace, law and good governance to factions engaged in cannibalism and brutal conquests of their own.
Ignorance of our history promotes a largely undeserved hatred. And it is falling largely on the whites. We who are white must apologise and manifest shame for our past. However Racism is no longer just a white crime, it is becoming democratic. It has become problematic to be white, or straight or Christian. These groups are still identified as the oppressors and expected to feel shame by association with that position. But these groups, and I belong to all three, are feeling marginalised, despised and even frightened by the threats coming against us. Our rights are being lessened and those of other groups and religions are being raised up. The oppressors are no longer who they once were. At a recent Question Time TV programme a white man in the audience dared have a very politely expressed opinion on a subject I cannot remember; but it engendered a furious riposte from a Muslim woman. She turned and shouted again and again, saying he had no right to such an opinion. Why? Because he was white! Sadly he did not defend himself. He should have said that her words and aggressive manner were not merely unjustified, but Racist.
If you are an Oxford student revved up and ready to accuse previous generations of crimes against humanity, then at least do them the honour of trying to understand their motives. For many these will have been self serving, for others the motives may well have been good, even saintly and self sacrificing, and their actions far less inhumane than supposed. The current generation, following what they believe to be a progressive agenda may well be doing so in good conscience, and for the best of reasons; but they may also in the future be recognised as having caused social chaos and terrible injustices. History will prove the matter, not current perceptions of right and wrong.
There was certainly a Protestant impulse that underpinned the Empire building of Britain. Covering much of the world with its paternalist agenda morally upheld by missionary zeal. In the process we dominated nations and peoples thinking we were serving God in the process. In many ways I still believe we were, but to ignore the injustices, cruelties, pride and arrogance sometimes associated with it is plainly wrong. There are of course many notable exceptions and a general condemnation of what may well have seemed well intentioned at the time can never be just. Of all the empires the world has seen I believe the British to be by far the most noble. I recommend a book by John Hawkins: The Most Successful Nation in the History of the World. Wherever you find stability and good governance and a just legal system you may well find that it is owed to the past presence of the British Empire. Cecil Rhodes founded Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia is now known as Zimbabwe. In 1965, the conservative white minority government unilaterally declared independence as Rhodesia. That state became increasingly hated and internationally isolated. Its government fought a 15 year guerrilla war with black nationalist forces. This culminated in a peace agreement and national sovereignty as Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe in 1980.
If the Oxford students cared to look up the history of Robert Mugabe they may decide that a bring back Cecil Rhodes campaign would have served this African nation a good deal better over the succeeding decades. Mugabe became the viciously corrupt leader of that nation, a tyrant who lavished wealth upon himself while wrecking the economy, corrupting the entire system of government and impoverishing everyone other than those who kept him in power. Of all Africa’s many despots he may well crown himself as lord of all of them.
Here is a testimony about the British Empire from an unlikely source. A family at one on this issue and interviewed by Jeremy Paxman for his TV series on the British Empire. The family spokeswoman was Ramilla Shah. Her family are Indian who were immigrants from Kenya, descendants of the railway workers transported by the British from India to Kenya in order to build the railway line from Mombasa to Nairobi. A daunting task which they accomplished, eventually taking the railway right up to the shores of Lake Victoria. Under pressure from the African population they were compelled to emigrate. Their family chose Britain rather than India as their destination. They arrived in 1968. What did they find? Cold weather, squalid conditions, a house with an outside toilet and having to go to the public baths once a week for a good bathe. At their family home in Leicester Paxman, rather cautiously I thought, asked a question. He began by admitting that most people think the Empire was a bad thing; imposing our rule on other people. Ramilla and her mother both replied: we thank the British Empire. The mother saying there were jobs, and you could study and go to college. Ramilla was very positive, stating that wherever the British went it was ruled well, better than before they came, with no corruption. She ended by saying as soon as the British left a country they just went downhill. And with that the interview ended with smiles all round.
I think I know what the Cecil Rhodes hating Oxford University students would say. Paxman found a well off right wing Indian family to interview. Sorry to disappoint them; this family may be well off, no doubt because they have worked hard and thoroughly deserve their pleasant home. Ramilla Shah is not a Conservative voter, she is in fact a Labour Councillor. Not therefore a witness from your natural British Empire fan base.
India was far from a non violent part of the Empire prior to the British imposing their rule. Its population was plagued by a murderous a group of savages not dissimilar to ISIS, called the Thugs.
‘Estimates of the total number of their victims vary widely, since no reliable source confirms the length of the Thugs’ existence. According to the Guinness Book of Records the Thuggee cult was responsible for approximately two million deaths; British historian Mike Dash said that they killed a total of 50,000 people over an estimated 150 years. Political scientist David C. Rapport estimated that 500,000 people were killed by the Thugs. According to other estimates, they murdered one million people.
The method, associated with Thuggee, led to the Thugs being called phansigars (“noose-operators”) or “stranglers” by British troops. Usually two or three Thugs would accost one traveller: one Thug strangling the victims, while the others held the victim’s limbs or torso to prevent their resistance. They then needed to dispose of the bodies, either burying them or throwing them into a well. The victims joints were often broken, and/or the major tendons severed, to allow greater flexibility in hiding the corpses in confined areas. Additionally, the victim was often stabbed in the eyes following the strangulation—a practice that Thugs believed was introduced after some victims survived being strangled and buried in shallow graves.
The campaign relied heavily on captured Thugs who became informants. These informants were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. According to historian Mike Dash……suspects were subject to bench trials before English judges. Though the trials were lacking by later standards (e.g., suspects were not allowed legal representation), they were conducted with care to protocols of the time. While most suspects were convicted, Dash notes that the courts genuinely seemed interested in finding the truth and rejected a minority of allegations due to mistaken identity or insufficient evidence. Even by later standards, Dash argues, the evidence of guilt for many Thugs was often overwhelming.’
Please note that the British used the Law much as practised today to deal with people most would have disposed of without such moderation and insistence on due process. The need to feel shame for our past should be reconsidered and balanced by evidence drawn from both sides of the argument. In the British Empire this would have been called, fair play. The following video will shock and appal many because it is a stout defence of all things British Empire from an American academic. It does not touch on its faults and failings but it does demonstrate that it can take credit for many things. So enjoy it, if like me you do not feel the need to apologise for everything covered by the Union Jack.