28 March 2022
The United Kingdom touts itself for having abolished slavery and that is often used to conveniently ignore the country’s role prior to that abolishment. On the other hand, people in former colonies of the now defunct British Empire have been referred to as “our former friends with a shared history” and the colonial relationship between Britain and the former subjects has been described as something that has enabled “exchange of ideas”. The last bit is an improvement over notions of having “civilized” other people.
On the other hand, countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and others who ditched the Queen at independence shamelessly joined a club called the Commonwealth, an association of all the former colonies and headed by the British Monarch – not very self-respecting in my opinion. And members of the royal family have been visiting all corners of the former British Empire for what exactly? Did “Brand Britain” really need promoting in countries that are still picking up the pieces after the British left?
I have gotten used to the idea that the older generation of Britons like to bask in a glorious image of their country’s imperial history. And the young generation practically know nothing. It would come as a shock to most that the Indian Subcontinent was one of the world’s most prosperous regions before the British arrived as traders. After the traders turned colonialists left 200 years later, the region was one of the world’s poorest. This did not happen by accident. It was the result of that many years of stealing wealth by stealth, upon which Britain grew richer and richer.
Britain’s stately homes are the product of the profits of the slave trade which saw Africans captured, chained, beaten, tortured and shipped from the African continent to the Caribbean and eventually to America. I won’t even mention what adorns the British museum in London. These aspects of British history are conveniently not taught in British schools today.
Instead, Britain has focused on bringing in migrants from all of the former colonies to help build the country since World War II. Impoverished people from those places have lapped up the invitation of a better life in a richer country. This has resulted in Britain changing into a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country today and the country’s moto shifting from “Rule Britannia” to “Cool Britannia” despite all the early problems of racism and xenophobia from the native white British (note: Britain’s open door was shut after 1986 and the relationship between the British and the colonized far away, while that relationship was still in place, was also defined by racism and white superiority – yes, the colonized were all non-white) .
Young Britons today, particularly those from ethnic backgrounds are finally demanding that the British curriculum be enhanced to teach the aspect of history that had to do with their colonized ancestors. Their history is British history too by virtue of the fact that they too are British. It will be interesting to see, in a not too distant future, how far one can get by bragging about having built railroads in India or Universities here and there. Those beneficial aspects (including inherited legal systems) were byproducts, not the raison d’etre of British colonial adventures.
Oh yes, English becoming the world’s international language, thanks to the British colonialists, has helped international communication greatly too (rendering many native English speakers ignorant of other languages and the intellectual richness that come with them). One can argue that the colonialists laid the ground work for today’s globalization and all the bells and whistles that come with it. But one must place British colonial history in its right context. And that involves looking beyond the whitewashed PR that generations of natives have been fed. The Royal Family too needs to adapt to that reality.
I haven’t ascertained how Europeans justified the slave trade and to profit from it (other countries included Holland, Belgium etc.). But it has become clear how the the British justified the exploitation of India. Oxford educated Indian academic and politician Shashi Tharoor explained this eloquently in his recent book (Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India) and speeches. Once the British Crown came know about how the British East India Company held the place and people of the Indian Subcontinent under the barrel of a gun to exploit the natural resources (and established an administration/bureaucracy to support it), the Crown and its cronies went on a PR campaign to make native Britons think and believe that the British colonialists were spreading enlightenment to the Indians through British education, administration etc. i.e. they were civilizing them (as if civilization had eluded Indians during the time when the British were a bunch of pirates). This worked wonders to justify the colonization of Indians in the minds of the native Britons. The Crown at a certain later date took direct control of the vast Indian territories held by the Company.
On the issue of British education in India, educating the masses was never on the cards. The colonialists provided British education to a select few to act as the interlocutor between the rulers and the ruled. This created a new social class consisting of people who were called Babus. They were the bureaucrats whose vestiges still lurk around today. The civil service in the entire Indian Subcontinent is still very people unfriendly and the occupiers of those chairs consider themselves above the rest of the population.