No End of Empire

Great Britain

Britain’s empire legacy has left behind a complex tangle of traces, and you can still be wrong-footed as a guilty liberal.

I was recently reprimanded by an Indian festival organiser after I carefully used ‘Kolkata’ instead of ‘Calcutta’. I’d assumed the anglicised version was simply outdated, as India has been free from colonial rule for more than half a century. In some indignation she requested I retain ‘Calcutta’ – some institutions, such as The Calcutta High Court, continue with their colonial era names.

In ‘Empireland’ by Sathnam Sanghera we see how the stained legacy of empire still affects the way the English think, no matter how hard we trying to expunge it. We’re only now realising just how deeply ingrained the concept of empire is in the UK. I grew up in Greenwich, itself largely founded upon the wealth of the slave trade. From the sugar profits of Tate & Lyle to the collections of the Tate Gallery is a small jump that nobody wanted to make.

For each supposed good triumphed by our school’s history books – the British-built Indian railway system, for example – we uncover an inverse side, that the railways were built to expedite looting from the provinces. We glide over the rewritten histories and blatant violence, the mindset that equated uneducated locals with animals, the Christians happy to enforce their views with an iron hand because it was God’s right. When families from the East India Company arrived in India they planted flowers from Surrey that would never grow and passed out in crinolines unsuited to the harsh sun.

While one can’t spend one’s entire life guilt-riddled over the events of four centuries, they need to be fully acknowledged and properly understood. As late as 1903 the invasion of Tibet caused wholesale looting that enriched the British Museum no end, just fifty years before I was born. The looted stuff still turns up on the Antiques Roadshow, its owners happy to admit that the stolen items were ‘stumbled across’ by grandparents.

White Britons colonised nations all over the world – followed by the Dutch, French, Belgians and Spanish – and the attitude that you could simply take what you wanted because the people who owned it were ‘civilised’ to a different standard has remained prevalent until very recently. 

Sathnam Sanghera’s book is a part-memoir; his childhood experiences inform his understanding and bring the story into the present. Thanks to the legacy of colonialism our fantasies of finding a new place in the global power structure appear grotesque in the light of Brexit, a humiliating squabble run by dim, venal entrepreneurs seeking to line their own pockets in the same way as the colonialists.

There’s plenty here to outrage imperialists, yet Sanghera works hard to maintain a fair balance lest the overwhelming evidence of casual cruelty leaves the reader furious and helpless. He remains a reasonable voice by simply learning the facts for himself. Criticism of the estimable Jan Morris, whose ‘Heaven’s Command’ trilogy makes colonialism into a breathless adventure, is understandable but the criticism does not take away from Morris’s achievement, which stands to one side of the argument.

Complicating matters is that imperial control was made possible by the open approval of local leaders. To this day we remain awkward apologists, unwilling or unable to face up to our own history because colonialism made our lives more comfortable and we could tell ourselves we were civilising the world.

The benefits were often barely noticed; by 1810 London had its first curry house (in Marylebone naturally). The thousands of products and services that poured into the nation were taken to be British by osmosis, an entitlement deserved by the world’s civilisers. The effects were everywhere; peppered through my family’s language, present in our culture at every level.

Sanghera’s book is non-academic, and this approach stands him in good stead. It’s a corrective for the times, asking the right questions and striking a balance that no reasonable reader could dispute (but probably will). When the casual slaughter of people from another nation is described as ‘making as big a bag as possible’ for the generals, it’s time to restate the obvious.

32 comments on “No End of Empire”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    It will take another generation before the cultures can be comfortable with each other. I was yelled at as a racist when I tried, awkwardly I admit, to find out what government practice was with regard to education grants to First Nations. Awareness of wrongful treatment makes us awkward and triggers strong reaction from the mistreated.
    “furious and helpless” is definitely how we’re left, those of us from the advantaged race. There are all sorts of cultural slurs used against all the segments of British nationals but it doesn’t affect our daily life. Slurs which do affect public perceptions are the ones which must be abandoned. Would that young man have murdered mostly Asian women if he hadn’t seen them as sexual objects?

  2. John Griffin says:

    You have to grasp this nettle and Matthew Arnold’s characterisation of the British population as Barbarians, Philistines and Populace to grasp the infantile mindset of our government and their parasites.

  3. SteveB says:

    The book sounds interesting
    Nevertheless one has to beware of easy assumptions, for instance Britain exported capital to India not the other way around.
    At the moment today 1/3 of British capital is foreign owned and its foreign owners repatriate the profits through complex capital structures. It will soon be more than half if nothing changes. Will that make Britain a colony?

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Steve B, no, just a partially/wholly owned subsidiary (depending on the percentages.

    Chris, the British Library uses two forms of that city’s name: Calcutta and in parentheses something like what you used, not exactly but similar, so it’s going to be like First Nations references here. If they’re in a bad mood or relate badly to something you say they’ll snap back and leave you numb and hesitant about trying to be sensitive another time.

  5. Brian says:

    A similar but more broadly themed book is “From The Ruins Of Empire: The Revolt Against The West and The Remaking Of Asia” by Pankaj Mishra. An excellent read, it is from the viewpoint that the Victorian era was regarded by the West as a time of great progress it but was experienced by Asians as a catastrophe from which the stronger Asia of today emerged and is still developing.

    Helen, the West Bengal government changed the Capital’s name to Kolkata (as used by Admin above) in 2001. Prior to British occupation it had been named Kalikata, however, the government went with Kolkata. Some readings I made some time ago about the reasons for this indicated that there had been some rather nuanced debate leading up to the decision about the final version of the name but Kolkata won the debate.

  6. Roger says:

    A Burmese friend of mine always speaks of “Burma”, not “Myanmar”, as the change of name was imposed by a military dictatorship He also makes a point of distinguishing between Burman (referring to the ethnic group) and Burmese (referring to people who come from the country).

  7. Paul C says:

    Another balanced history is ‘The Rise and Fall of the British Empire’ by Laurence James who fully acknowledges the crimes and exploitation of our colonial past. A very long book but a great read.

    The fact that the Commonwealth – consisting of our former colonies – is still going strong suggests that the British Empire did some lasting good too but imperialism is obviously just plain wrong.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    I was speaking to an Indian bloke who runs a local shop, not long ago talking about the snack ‘Bombay Mix’, and said, in jest:
    “How long before it becomes ‘Mumbai Mix’ ?”
    He looked at me a bit ‘old fashioned’, and said:
    “My friend, I know it as Bombay. YOU know it as Bombay. Everyone at home knows it as Bombay. The only people who don’t call it Bombay, are the Politicians who decided to change the signs.”
    How true that is, I don’t know, not being up on Asian subcontinental politics, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.

  9. Brooke says:

    “Culture” is a word that carries too much freight. It tries and fails to encompass heritages of religious biases, racial prejudices and xenophobia. Press any of these buttons to unleash violence.

  10. Brooke says:

    …”Britain exported capital…ummm. (source, please?) Britain is said to have controlled 50% of world capital from mid 19th to 1930s. So British capital was doing what capital does–looking for extractive opportunities, i.e. investments. What better opportunity for a high return than a country with cheap/slave labor and underpriced resources. But how would that have benefited the Indian population? Further, given Britain’s closed systems, could India invest in Britain? (Maybe individual wealthy Indian client families that had to be cultivated). The doctrine of “free trade” arose during this time…and we know where that went.

    Foreign ownership of capital resources does indeed imply colonization, especially if such ownership becomes a major factor in government actions/policies and uses its resources to manipulate public opinion. Britain may well be a colony.

  11. Roger says:

    “When I say the word culture I reach for my revolver” perhaps, Brooke?

  12. Jan says:

    A couple of years back I visited Australia. During the visit it became obvious that the main form of Christianity or at least the bulk of Christian churches in the country were RC. I couldn’t quite understand how this chimed in with a British empire past. That was until I met up with a guy who had researched this subject at some depth. We were all taught at school that the convicts sent out to Austraila in the early days were in the main petty criminals forcibly exported to make up the numbers in this new colony. That it turns out is only half the story. Many of the convicts taken to Australia especially in the latter years of convict transport turn out to have been involved in the struggle for a United Ireland and the fight to shake off British rule. These men in the main being obviously Roman Catholic.

    A considerable part of the long established European (nominally British ) population being originally Irish sympathisers. These guys were in some cases able to make their way back to Ireland by way of the whaling ships which operated out of America and other parts of the world

    Empire and the remnants of Empire well for my money there are a thousand hidden complex stories hidden there …. makes you think.

  13. Brooke says:

    Greetings, Roger. Given the origins and implications of the statement, the Atlanta shooter might agree with its sentiment.. But I’m grieving.. no revolvers please. Hope all is well where you are.

  14. Peter Dixon says:

    As is constantly repeated ‘the past is another country’.

    Mankind came from the Rift Valley area of Africa – should we ask Africa to apologise for 10,000 years of wars, slavery, violence, religious bigotry and the atomic bomb?

    The British Empire was a consequence of its times and a product of its mercantile abilities. The Spanish removed an entire civilisation in South America and converted a whole populace to Catholicism – have they or the Pope apologised?

    The fact that we are being blamed and requested to make reparations for our great-great-grandfather’s generation’s actions is ludicrous. Up to the mid 18th century the majority of slaves were white europeans – the Romans (remember that the term Angles comes from a Pope describing child slaves from Britain) and the Vikings (who we all love in TV series) were looters and slavers. In the 16 and 1700’s massive slavery occurred on the Barbary Coast and the Mediterranean coast of Africa – largely european sailor’s captured by pirates and sold to Arabs. Do we see Moroccans, Algerians, Libyans and Mauretanians apologising for a 250 year slave trade? I think not.

    The problems we should be addressing now are inequality, poverty, modern-day slavery and the appalling legacy of Old White Men being in a position of power, not wasting our anger on something long past. Knocking a statue over is easy but having the ability to remove a noxious leader or a dodgy government is difficult and takes a word we hardly use these days; patience.

  15. Terenzio says:

    Textiles produced in northern England factories were exported to India. The British were able to produce the product cheaply. Fascinating bit because today it’s the reverse. British colonies provided a market for British manufactured goods that the domestic market couldn’t absorb. By the end of the 19th the Indians were becoming more and more upset with the situation because it threatened their own domestic textile industry. Another interesting fact is 80% of the cotton used in British factories came from the American south, which explains why Britain elites supported the Confederacy.

    As to Robert Long, the shooter in Atlanta. He was brought up in a conservative Baptist Church where sex outside of marriage was strictly prohibited. Now for most people this isn’t realistic. We have needs including sexual. Long was racked with needless guilt. It manifested itself in a very sick and destructive way. More than likely he simply had a natural attraction towards Asian women. This is a good example of how religion can be harmful. It’s a shame that he never sought psychiatric treatment for his guilt. And found a secular therapist who would have explained there’s nothing wrong with having sex inside or outside of marriage with consenting adults. Had he done so those innocent people would be alive. He destroyed the lives of 8 individuals and their families. My sympathy lies with them.

    I’m also reminded about how harmful ex-gay therapy is. You can’t change who you’re attracted to or your desire to have sex. Yet organized religion whether it be Christian or Muslim or any other, continues to inflict great harm on individuals with these outdated views on human sexuality.

    …the one in the gorgeous dressing gown and lovely brocade slippers.

  16. Roger says:

    My apologies, Brooke – I thought you were making a general point about “culture” rather than thinking of specific instances.

  17. John Griffin says:

    Never forget the millions of bodies that colonialists, capitalists, and nowadays Johnson, step on to swell the wallets….

  18. Brooke says:

    Roger, no apologies needed. I take your point about culture, in general. Cheers.

  19. Peter T says:

    History is to learn from or to consume ourselves in someone else’s guilt? Why not try to fix today and construct a better future for everyone?

  20. Brian says:

    Excellent to see Terenzio has made a return to the blog after such a long time. I had feared somthing nasty had happened…such as losing broadband access.

  21. SteveB says:

    I dont have time or energy for long discussion.
    But I want to briefly respond because it‘s interesting. What you say is completely correct as far as it goes. The British did destroy the domestic Indian cotton industry. The reason they imported the cotton from the US is that the indian cotton had fibres that were too short for the new automated manufacturing process, this needed the long fibre american cotton.
    But this doesn‘t change that Britain exported capital to India and as the British working class became slowly enfranchised, this became a significant political discussion (that‘s almost forgotten today)

  22. Helen Martin says:

    Adverts for fabric stressed “long staple Egyptian cotton” in my memory. So did they import American cotton seeds or is it a matter of soil and climate?
    The more you examine history the more you find changing foci of blame, ranging from the Rift Valley emigrants down through history to today’s blame of American economic colonialism. I do know that I would have difficulty choosing a place to “go home” to if demanded. I also remember being told at least thirty years ago that doing things rightly now does not make up for past wrongs and restoration must be made before moving forward.

  23. Jo W says:

    So good to read your comments again. I thought perhaps your brocade slippers had turned up their toes? Welcome back to insanity land.

  24. admin says:

    Can we have a welcome back to @Terenzio in the lovely brocade slippers? I’ve been wondering where he was. That’s the beauty of being a ‘cult’ (ie limited audience) writer – you get to know your most loyal readers personally.

  25. Brooke says:

    Helen, about “Egyptian” cotton. The “American” long fibre cotton Terenzio mentioned was a hybrid derived from cotton stock illicitly taken from Mexico in early ~1800s and a tropical fragile variety. The hybrid was stronger, thrived in temperate as well as tropical conditions and yielded more cotton/acre. “Egyptian” cotton is also a long fibre hybrid resulting from cross breeding New World stock with north African stock which had been cultivated for over 1000 years. The Egyptian cross breeding seems to have occurred in early 1800s and the market grew during the US civil war when cotton supplies from the Confederate States were cut off. Of course, the two varieties have different genetics. I think the weaving/production process is different, too. “Egyptian” is a branding/marketing tool–like French wine–sold as a finer, softer cloth.

  26. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Brooke. I always wondered about that “Egyptian” bit.

  27. Nigel says:

    I’d just like to set the record straight te your comments about Tate & Lyle; the business was founded decades after the abolition of slavery, and neither founding member had any history or involvement with the insidious trade or indeed the plantation system that survived it.
    It is a common accusation bandied about and lord knows there are plenty of businesses and institutions that did benefit directly or indirectly from slavery but not Tate & Lyle. Henry Tate especially was that all too rare and everso unfashionable thing; a good man.

  28. admin says:

    Good to have this, Nigel. I grew up near the factory and we had its villainy drummed into us. Thinking about it, I realise I’ve actually differentiated the origins before but it’s easy how old habits return.

  29. Jan says:

    I must admit I was trying to hunt around for some notes I had made about their own “Thames barrier” that I had made years ago for info on this same point.

  30. Renzo says:

    Dear Admin.

    With apologies for posting this on entirely the wrong thread (I am useless and couldn’t find your original post) but I have heard that the Carlton Tavern which was illegally demolished a few years ago to make way for a block of flats has been rebuilt in its original image and will open for business again on April 12th (Covid permitting)!

    Probably the best news story of the year so far.


  31. joel says:

    living in california, i find that my family, and most of the people in my town, simply refuse to acknowledge that racism exists…My 87 year old father who is from texas, said that he was a delivery boy, and would be out, sometimes until 10 pm…he said “i would go through the rich white section, the black section, the mexican section, and the poor white sections all day long and no one would bother me, i never saw any racism”…and in my head i’m thinking, no one in there right mind, especially anyone of colour, would have looked at you cross eyed for fear of being strung up on the nearest tree…it seems that the “conservatives, straight white men and women, and the legalistically religious” are all so afraid of losing something (i doubt they even really know what) that they allow that fear to make them act in horrific ways…robert long strikes me as being an incel…the fetishizing asian women is nothing new…to white men, they are exotic, sensual, and most importantly, submissive…who wants a bossy woman?…being a christian and an incel is a dangerous mix, as he showed…lordy what a mess

  32. Helen Martin says:

    Renzo, you have no idea how thrilling it is that at least one rotten developer (there are good ones, you know) will not get away with wanton destruction.

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