Brits need to learn more about the old empire, but they also need to know who ran it

A recent survey found that almost half of Britons were “proud” of the British empire, prompting some commentators to remark that it’s difficult to be proud of something they know so little about.

The national curriculum was only amended in 2013 to include the ‘struggle for independence’ as an optional subject matter, and even today the few TV and radio documentaries are likely to gloss over the most bloody and inhumane aspects of colonialism.

How is it possible to be proud of the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya when Britain’s colonial government detained nearly the entire Kikuyu population of one-and-a half-million in concentration camps where many were tortured and killed?

Mau Mau round-up, Kenya 1954

Perhaps the scant media attention given to the victims’ successful battle for compensation is partly to blame for widespread ignorance about what occurred. Runnymede’s director Dr Omar Khan wrote eloquently on this blog (here and here) about the #RhodesMustFall campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford university college. This did attract significant media coverage and, whether people agreed or disagreed, it helped to stimulate some debate about the impact of colonialism, if not the legacy.

Like most people with roots in the old empire my family were impacted by white rule. My grandmother died far too young in what was then Rhodesia because ambulances often did not attend to the majority-black population, a cousin is still encased in the Kariba dam after falling into the setting concrete in slave-like working conditions, and other cousins fought in a brutal decade-long struggle for independence.

The central issue with colonialism is being a second or third class citizen in your own homeland, denied education, relegated to segregated spaces and all but the most menial and low-paid jobs. It is the ultimate expression of white supremacy. Of course if a polling company asked ‘are you proud of being a white supremacist?’ most would take issue with the very premise of the question. Yet in being proud of the empire this is precisely what they are unwittingly signing up to.

Failure to tell the whole story of the empire, including the romanticisation of the era in Hollywood, is a concealment of historical truths of colonial conquests, massacres and plunder in the name of their ‘civilising mission’, and gives breath to the notion of ‘British values’ as being more humane, indeed more civilised and superior, than those of the nations Britain ruled so brutally.

British Empire 3

It also separates the transatlantic enslavement ‘trade’ of Africans, which most accept was an abomination even if they disagree with the call for compensation and reparations, from the empire when, in reality, the two were intricately related.

British Empire 4

The chap in the above picture is ‘Africa’s first dictator’, Sir Percy Anderson, who as head of the British government’s Slave Trade department, wielded breathtaking power. This mandarin masterminded Britain’s shift from slavery to empire while stripping Africa of its’ wealth. Sir Percy has been described as a shadowy figure who used his anonymity as a faceless civil servant to quietly turn the Slave Trade department into an agent for imperial expansion.

Explorer Sir John Kirk, writing in 1894, described Sir Percy thus: “The truth, I believe, is [that] he has begun to think of himself an African dictator, but a dictator concealed, who uses his power in secret, free of all responsibility.” At this point it was more than a decade after Sir Percy had turned a department  that was supposed to enforce anti-slave trade laws into a tool to carve up Africa. With his stroke of the pen, large slices of the continent were declared the white man’s, and so began Africa’s under-development.

In 2007 the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Grand Locarno Room launched a Slavery in Diplomacy historical report at a seminar called Whitehall and the Slave Trade: An Enduring Commitment to Human Rights. Buried within it is the hidden story of how the great apparatus of state was first to support slavery, then to try to stop British and European slave traders from operating, and finally to spearhead the scramble for Africa, often using many of the same civil servants who had earlier tried to enforce abolition.

It was Sir Percy’s aim, working under the guidance of Lord Salisbury, prime minister at the time, to prevent the French from getting too large a foothold on Africa. Slavery, which had massively enriched Britain’s elite at the cost of millions of African lives lost in the Middle Passage and beyond, was now giving way to the age of colonialism. The land Africans had been stolen from was now going to be ruled by the thieves, its’ mineral riches exploited to fuel Britain’s industrial expansion.

“They were replacing one system of domination and control with another”, Dr Sulemana Abudulai, a visiting fellow at Cambridge University’s Centre for African Studies, told the New Nation newspaper in 2007.

The trading systems that were first imposed to serve British business interests more than 100 years ago are still in evidence today. Africa’s reliance on cash crops is vulnerable to price drops, and its’ raw materials worth just a fraction of the value they attain once processed and packaged in the West.

“I don’t think there was an altruistic motive”, Dr Adudulai says. “This was not for the good of Africa at all. They imposed systems and structures that were alien to people used to tribal and religious groupings. The strength of a people is in its’ identity, and they had a false identity imposed on them along with foreign rulers.”

Just seven years after the 1807 slavery abolition law Britain had already begun laying the foundations of their empire by seizing the Cape Colony, in present-day South Africa, from the Dutch East India Company.

Sir Percy took control if the Foreign Office’s largest section, the Slave Trade department, in 1883 and renamed it the Africa Department. This marked a crucial turning point. The British had only just completed a bloody suppression of the Asante people to establish the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) in 1874. England was keen to arm themselves with as much land as possible ahead of the Berlin conference of 1885, where European nations haggled over trade routes.

British Empire 5

Baroness Lola Young, one of the leading lights behind the highly-praised exhibitionParliament and the Slave Trade, told me in 2007: “The empire in Africa did not happen through Britain’s goodwill. There were economic interests, and the details of Britain’s move into Africa would have been worked out at every level.”

The British parliament gave a whopping £20million in compensation to slave owners as they passed a law outlawing slavery in 1833. That’s a bank-busting £1.8 billion in today’s money. When you add to that the estimated £1 billion profit made by British slavers (£89 billion today), and the untold riches made by English plantation owners on the bleeding backs of enslaved Africans, it becomes clear that the African holocaust was big business. Factor in the money made from slavery in North and South America, and the sheer scale of this ‘economy’ because clearer still.

The Bishop of Exeter, for example, was paid £12,729 (£2.4m in today’s money) as compensation for the loss of 665 slaves in 1833. Meanwhile, courts and institutions today continue to ignore calls for reparations. One bid in the US to sue large insurance companies for $1 billion fell flat, while other moves to seek compensation for the descendants of slaves have also come to nothing.

When the former foreign secretary William Hague said that Britain should stop feeling guilty over the empire, I would say that Britain never really started to feel guilty. If anyone should be labouring under a cloud of guilt it is rich families likeDavid Cameron’s, who profited from human misery, rather than the general British population. The public need not guilt but information on what the powerful elite and remote institutions did in Britain’s name, so they can make up their own minds about whether or not to feel proud of the empire. Or more specifically, whether they feel proud of the actions of the wealthy who enriched themselves.

Being proud of the empire is not being ignorant of history out of choice, it is a consequence of information being withheld from the general population. Such general ignorance is in the interests of those know most about the empire, because their wealth originated from it, to keep it that way.

By Lester Holloway

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