Matthew Parris writes about Empire in The Times today. It is in part an unconvincing apologia. But in my view there is, or should be, no Good/Bad confusion about Empire. No paradox. No attempt to find balance. The very acquisitive premise which led to colonial ambition was indisputably amoral and from start to finish the whole adventure remains a stain on many European countries’ history. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the British Empire may have been the biggest but that we were far from being the only nation that sent people across the seas to sequester land that we had not an iota of right to – and to subjugate peoples that were nothing to do with us.
European Colonialism doesn’t happen any more though whether this is a temporary hiatus who knows? And to some extent political and military domination has been replaced by economic – China in Africa for example. The twentieth century saw the expansion of European imperialism before it saw its decline. What else was Hitler’s search for lebensraum if it wasn’t Empire building?
The apologists for Empire, and there’s a fair bit of that still around, focus on what Britain brought to its occupied territories rather than what it took away. The Indian railway system and the English language for example. Yes as we plundered we needed infrastructure to get the loot away. And elsewhere we needed manpower – it took a lot of slaves or indentured labour to pick the cotton or grow the sugar cane. Hooray for Wilberforce and co. of course. But a sudden dose of principle didn’t expunge a couple of hundred years of evil. And a key element of that evil was the imperialists confident assumption that there was a hierarchy of culture and that Britain sat firmly at the top of it. Rule Brittania.
Yes if you visit old colonial outposts there are plenty of graveyards with English names on the headstones. But the white mans’ burden they symbolise was a self-imposed and unnecessary one. And supremely arrogant. The missionaries sought to civilise the natives by bringing them their God not to mention the arbitrary pseudo morality that went with it. That some allegedly ended up in a cooking pot serves them right.
Modern day Germany atones for its first half of the twentieth century history. Read Susan Neiman’s “Learning from the Germans” and visit the Historical Museum in Berlin to see how to do this. But we have no equivalent of the many Holocaust museums which tell the full story of the British Empire anywhere, and there is little atonement. Instead we still bizarrely sing “Land of Hope and Glory” and admire the fact that once we ruled the waves. Like the Third Reich the Empire was supposed to last a thousand years. Thankfully it didn’t and the people we once exploited are now free, those that survived the disease and subjugation that Empire once brought that is.