In 1929, two years after he resigned from his job as a policeman in Burma, George Orwell settled, in his mind at least, the question that still troubles many people in Britain and the US: whether the British empire was good or bad. Burma’s “relationship with the British empire”, Orwell wrote, “is that of slave and master. Is the master good or bad? That is not the question; let us simply say that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.” Writing in 1942 about Rudyard Kipling’s legend of British soldiers, administrators and engineers in the colonies carrying heroically the white man’s burden, Orwell was blunter. “He does not seem to realise,” Orwell wrote, “any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern.”
This, broadly speaking, was a consensus about the British empire that Orwell shared with some unlikely people: India’s governor-general Lord Bentinck, who in 1834 reported that the “bones of the cotton weavers” driven into destitution by British free traders “are bleaching the plains of India”; Adolf Hitler, who greatly admired and sought to emulate in eastern Europe what he called “the capitalist exploitation of the 350m Indian slaves”; as well as anti-colonial leaders and thinkers from Egypt to China who developed a systematic critique of the empire of “free trade”.
But, as Hannah Arendt once put it (also speaking of Kipling), even “the best sons of England” couldn’t avoid becoming the “tragic and quixotic fools of imperialism” – people who mistook the conqueror’s self-justifying rhetoric about civilising the conquered for actuality. And with historical memory getting shorter all the time, it is not surprising that a mania for empire overwhelmed many respectable members of the Anglo-American intelligentsia in the years leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
According to the historian Niall Ferguson, the British empire brought the benefits of democracy and free trade to Asia and Africa – it was the maker of the modern world, no less. The US neo-conservative Max Boot dreamed of a new American empire with “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets”. The vision of an essentially benevolent empire even dazzled liberal intellectuals such as Michael Ignatieff.
This enthusiasm for a new western empire seems a strange hallucination today as Anglo-America lurches from one crisis to another. But, mostly ignored by academic historians, it came to inform popular opinion in both Britain and the US. The authors of three new books, written from different positions on the ideological spectrum, seem determined to overturn what they see as the somnolently received wisdom of the past decade. In Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, Jeremy Paxman, presenter of the BBC’s Newsnight, retells, with his characteristic tone of exasperated scepticism, some grim episodes from imperial history – the massacre in Amritsar, the opium war, the “genocide” in Tasmania. In Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, Richard Gott, a former Latin American correspondent for the Guardian, faults the conventional history of empire, which, while celebrating the victories of the conquerors, “omits the accounts of the conquered”.
Gott aims to fill the gap with brisk accounts of the often fierce resistance that native people put up to imperial conquerors from Native Americans through the little-known rebellions in central and north-east India, Malacca and New Zealand to the well-documented Indian mutiny and Taiping rebellion. Kwasi Kwarteng, a Conservative MP and historian, also explicitly sets his book, Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, against the notion that the empire was “the champion of ‘free-market liberalism’ and democracy”. “Such a judgment,” he writes, “pays too little attention to what the empire was really like, or to the ideas that motivated the people who actually administered it,” whose “heads were filled with the ideas of class, loosely defined, of intellectual superiority and of paternalism.” The British empire, Kwarteng argues, “openly repudiated ideas of human equality and put power and responsibility into the hands of a chosen elite”.
Born to post-colonial Ghanaians, and educated at Eton and Cambridge, Kwarteng may seem to be, as the hoary cliché goes, writing back to the empire. It is nevertheless true that the British, far from introducing modern administration, empowered archaic potentates – maharajahs, nawabs, marabouts, sultans, tribal chiefs – all across Asia and Africa. In India, for instance, the British restricted Indian access to higher education, industry and the civil service while enthroning a multitude of petty oriental despots – there were 565 of these feudatories in 1947, running states as large as Belgium and as small as Central Park.
Kwarteng doesn’t describe what Asian and African leaders, brought up on Locke and Mill, thought of these cynical arrangements. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, knew why progressive Indians such as himself “irritated” the British by talking of “democracy and liberty”. “These words,” Nehru remarked sardonically, “were not coined for our use.” Still, Kwarteng has judiciously chosen his examples – Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong – from a potentially endless record of imperial malfeasance and post-imperial disaster. Few Kipling-lite myths about jodhpur-clad do-gooders will survive Kwarteng’s scathing analysis of the class backgrounds and worldviews of imperial administrators, and the ineptitude and corruption of those they propped up.
A fragile country such as Iraq, famously created by drawing a few lines in the sand, was further damaged by the despotism of King Faisal II, who (though a Harrovian himself) belonged to the tradition of “Eton Maharajahs”: one “that had produced urbane sportsmen and gentlemen, rich, smooth, genial young men who were perfectly at ease in the clubs of St James’s and Pall Mall, but who couldn’t relate, even remotely, to the people they were meant to be ruling”. As Kwarteng describes it, these jolly good fellows left a great mess wherever they were unleashed on hapless natives.
This was the system of indirect rule that “set Nigeria up for the crisis of civil war and which, in the form of tribalism and corruption, continues to exercise a malign influence on modern Nigeria”. Unwilling to govern Kashmir, the British sold the Muslim-majority state to a dissolute Hindu despot for a pittance in 1846 – the bargain-basement humiliation is still remembered by Kashmiri Muslims. Mismanaging the partition of India, the British also helped turn Kashmir into the subcontinent’s central dispute, committing the overwhelmingly poor nation-states of India and Pakistan to several destructive wars and a dangerous nuclear arms race.
Last year, David Cameron, facing calls to mediate in the Kashmir dispute, said: “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.” For Paxman, “this is the authentic voice of postwar education, proud self-chastisement, a weird blend of Mr Pooter and Uriah Heep.” Knee-jerk remorse and shallow unease about empire in general has long been a substitute for useful knowledge of the past and the present. Paxman seeks to dispel them with some harsh facts and analysis, all offered with a sense of discovery and outrage that may seem naive to historians but salutary to many young readers. “Indigenous people,” Paxman writes, “were hunted down from horseback, caught in steel traps, shot, speared, bludgeoned, poisoned and mutilated. Not a single European was ever punished for the murder of Tasmanian Aborigines.” Detailing the splendid new civilisation – country houses, the British Museum, the National Gallery – underwritten by the slave trade in Britain, he points out how “exquisite sensibilities were nourished by barbarism”.
Deceitfulness, sadism and delusion characterise the heroes of empire (Gordon, Rhodes, Churchill) as well as the villains (Clive, General Dyer, Eden) in Paxman’s account. Politicians, including “more recent moralists in Downing Street”, come in for particular scorn. Writing about the terrible legacy of imperial skullduggery and cynicism in Palestine, he confesses that “it is very hard indeed to look at the public and private agreements made by the British and not to feel embarrassment, disappointment and anger”.
But Paxman has trouble resolving the contradiction between the noble proclamations of the British and squalid reality – unlike Orwell (or, for that matter, Hitler), who clearly recognised the political economy of empire. Both Paxman and Kwarteng focus on garish instances of brutality, callousness and ineptitude. A deeper exploration of the economic raison d’être of imperialism would have uncovered the fact that what British imperialists, and their latter-day defenders, presented as a boon to humanity was actually a curse to many weak countries: tens of millions were exposed, for instance, to famine and early death in India and Ireland when the British turned them into laboratories for experiments in unfettered free trade.
These were not “genocides” or “holocausts”, as some leftwing critics of empire allege. But, perpetrated by British free traders, they were certainly the first of the modern era’s uniquely ideological crimes, for which the central planners of communist regimes are more commonly blamed. Recounting a relentlessly gory tale of slavery, starvation and mass extermination, Gott claims that “the rulers of the British empire will one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the 20th century as the authors of crimes against humanity on an infamous scale”. This sounds a bit over-the-top. But then most of the Asian victims of the British empire, whose perspective on history will inevitably dominate as economic power shifts back from the west to the east, judged it much more severely.
Nehru’s inveterate Anglophilia did not water down his analysis in 1936 that British imperialism was the “twin brother” of Nazism, with the “variation” that the former “functioned abroad in colonies and dependencies” while the latter presumed to function the same way in Europe. In the global history authored by the Chinese, the opium war may look more like how China’s foremost liberal thinker Yan Fu described it in 1895: “A group of island barbarians wearing wild clothes, with a birdlike language and animal-like faces, sailed to our shores from thousands of miles away and knocked on our gates, requesting access. When they failed to attain their aims, they breached our coastal defenses, imprisoned the officials of our land, and even burned the palaces of our emperor.”
But would a many-sided imperial history be enough to foil another recrudescence of empire mania in the west? Paxman is convinced that the idea of imperial rule cannot now survive “the scrutiny of the mass-media age”. It was, he argues, echoing Kwarteng, “essentially a project which belonged to the ruling class, and the central ideological pretence of the electronic media is their claim to empower the masses”. Here, Paxman may be overestimating the political sophistication of the media. The past decade revealed the mainstream press and television in both Britain and the US to be lazily, if not actively, complicit in stoking a fantasy of empire.
In any case, clear-headed reckonings with the imperial past won’t by themselves prevent such disasters as Iraq and Afghanistan. The massive geopolitical and economic shifts of our time are more important in this regard. Recalling a century of humiliations inflicted on China by western “barbarians”, Yan Fu concluded that “the only reason we did not devour their flesh and sleep upon their hides was that our power was insufficient”. With that power now more than sufficient, China insatiably and often uncouthly corrals Asia, Africa and Latin American countries into its expanding economy. There is much reason to be wary of this new informal empire of “free trade”. But, for now at least, it may be the most effective deterrent to our own tragic and quixotic fools of imperialism.
Pankaj Mishra is author of ‘Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet and Beyond’ (Picador)
Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, by Jeremy Paxman, Viking, RRP£25, 368 pages
Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, by Richard Gott, Verso, RRP£25, 576 pages
Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, by Kwasi Kwarteng, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 480 pages