ETHICS AND THE BRITISH EMPIRE
Let’s start with racism. After an English woman was assaulted in Amritsar in 1919, the British military authorities decreed that henceforth any Indian wanting access to the street of the crime would have to crawl down it. Racial contempt and humiliation is a very ugly thing indeed.
But the British empire wasn’t all about contempt; it was also about love. In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, the chieftain of the Iroquois nation came to London to press the claims of his people upon his former British allies. While he was here, Henry Percy, later Duke of Northumberland, took the opportunity to have the portrait of his native American comrade painted. It now hangs in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery.
The Empire wasn’t only about racial contempt; it was also about inter-racial admiration, affection, and love.
Next, cultural superiority. When we 21st century Britons look back at our own medieval past, we usually feel superior—and often with good reason. And when contemporary Ottomans viewed medieval Christendom, they usually felt superior—and often with good reason. So when, in the 1890s, Cecil Rhodes looked upon the peoples of southern Africa as ‘uncivilised’, he wasn’t all wrong. Whether in terms of science, technology, military power, political liberty, and to some extent morality, British civilisation was manifestly superior to Bantu culture of that period. (And Mahatma Gandhi, who was in South Africa during the same period, felt equally strongly that Indian civilisation was also superior.)
Third, violence. The British Empire was often violent, but so are all nation-states. Political order can only survive if it’s willing to use physical force to suppress threats; and without political order, nothing human can flourish. We in early 21st century Britain enjoy an unprecedented degree of political peace and stability, and so it’s easy for us to imagine that force is unnecessary. But if we imagine ourselves into times and places where political stability is fragile and threatened, then the need for force becomes clearer.
That said, the Empire sometimes used force disproportionately—most infamously in the massacre of civilians at Amritsar in 1919.
On the other hand, the occasion when the Empire was most massively violent was in the war against Hitler. Britain’s war in 1939-45 was an imperial war. I am aware of that partly because my own father fought in Italy alongside comrades from the 8th Indian Division.
And sometimes the Empire’s problem wasn’t that it was too strong, but rather that it was too weak. At the end of the French and Indian Wars in 1763, the British promised their native American allies that they would stop white colonists from invading their lands, and to that end they stationed 10,000 redcoats along the Appalachian mountains. But the colonists weren’t having it and, partly for that reason, launched their War of Independence—which the British lost.
Fourth, economic exploitation. Take India. If you believe the charismatic Shashi Tharoor, then the history of the British in India was one long litany of pillage. But then, Tharoor is a politician with a nationalist axe to grind, and he’s not an economic historian. By contrast, Tirthankar Roy, born in Bengal, now at the LSE, is an economic historian, and his view is the opposite of Tharoor’s. He observes that the British imperial commitment to free trade enabled Indian entrepreneurs to import technology and know-how from Britain, set up indigenous businesses, and then out-compete Manchester.
How about democracy? The British Empire wasn’t democratic. But, then, universal suffrage didn’t reach Britain before 1918—and on equal terms between men and women not until 1928 (just over 35 years before I was born.)
Nevertheless, Cape Colony did grant black Africans the vote on the same terms as whites as early as 1853. And more generally, the Empire did involve indigenous peoples in their own government, because it couldn’t possibly have functioned otherwise. Because white Britons were often so thin on the ground, the Empire depended crucially on widespread cooperation from natives. Indeed, earlier this year I heard a 90-year-old former colonial officer in the Sudan report that in the 1950s there were only about 150 officers in the whole of the country, and they often slept out in the bush at night. So if the natives had been sufficiently aggrieved, they could have disposed of the problem quite easily.
Sixth, cultural interference. Christian missionaries could no doubt be tactless and irritating in challenging indigenous customs—which is why imperial officials tended to regard them as a nuisance, threatening the peace. So when we hear of the killing of an elderly female missionary in Kenya by a group of enraged Kikuyu in January 1930, our sympathies might incline toward the Kikuyu. But then when we learn that this missionary’s cultural interference was public opposition to female genital mutilation, our moral sympathies might shift.
Finally, the British Empire was sometimes humanitarian. Without doubt, the Empire’s involvement in slavery for over two centuries is the blackest stain on its record. But the British decision to repent and abolish slavery in the early 1800s and then to spend over 100 years shutting down the slave trade worldwide, was, according to one historian, the first state-sponsored policy of global suppression in the history of the world.