Why should we study
the British Empire?
For too long as a nation we have failed to take the British Empire seriously as a historical topic. Serious debate has been confined to academia and those schools that teach one of the few courses on the British Empire. The mainstream media seems happy just to discuss whether statues should stand or fall and to debate the Empire in terms of how evil it was. We have failed to look at the real themes of empire eg why, how and by whom it developed, the nature of empires, and their legacy. Real debate about the British Empire has been stifled by self-righteous activists who believe that it should be judged on moral terms using contemporary values as if we hold the moral high ground. To base history on attempts to try and come to some moral truth, would mean the subject loses all objectivity. We must accept the past was different and that our job as historians is to explain why and how it was different. This website attempts to look at some of the key questions about the British Empire and consider answers to these and other questions that we need as a nation to be considering rather than for reasons of our own sensibilities, not confront the realities of empires, then and now.
Without an understanding of the British Empire we cannot understand the world in which we live. The British Empire at its height ruled over a quarter of the world's population with territories in every part of the world. There wasn't a part of the world that it did not touch and the areas marked red on classroom maps were just the tip of the iceberg, with Britain's informal empire arguably more important than the official empire. The British Empire affected the course of western civilisation and influenced the development of every territory it came into contact with.
The world has been shaped by the British Empire
The world today would look very different had there not been a British Empire. A large proportion of the world's boundaries reflect the way Britain divided up and administered her colonies, and the legacy of those boundaries still causes tension in part of the world, particularly the division of India by the British in 1947. British parliamentary and judicial institutions still exist in many parts of the world as does the British education system. In many former colonies you will still see today children going to school in uniforms introduced by the British.
The British did not just have an impact on those living in the territories of the Empire. It also affected the lives of those living in Britain, both during the time of Empire and in subsequent decades as we have seen during the recent Brexit debate when there was a call in some quarters for a return to the days of Empire.
The Empire made Britain the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. A glance around out streetscape will result in all kinds of reminders of the part once played by empire -from statues of imperial soldiers and administrators to streets named after them. Our food and architecture would be very different today without the influence of empire. The contribution of soldiers from the empire in two world wars certainly affected the outcome of those wars and our sport would look very different without the participation of Australia, the West Indies, India, South Africa and New Zealand. British people have numerous links with people from former colonies of the empire and although those territories now have more diversified populations the links are still strong. British churches maintain strong links with former territories of the empire and much of Britain's foreign aid is targeted at former colonies.
We hear much talk today about the impact of globalisation on people's lives but to understand globalisation we need to study the British Empire of the c19th for it was during Britain's Imperial century that trade became truly global with Britain abandoning mercantilism and embracing free trade. Having repealed the Corn Laws and Navigation Laws, Britain adopted free trade and encouraged its trading partners to do so as well. Britain became a nation dependant on trade importing over 30% of her foodstuffs and over 60% of her raw materials whilst of her exports 85% was made up of finished goods. The relationship was very much a mutually dependant one. Britain became not just dependant on the Empire but on many other countries for her raw materials and foodstuffs.
The British Empire destroyed many local cultures requiring native peoples to live according to British laws and institutions. The British often deliberately destroyed local customs which they found incompatible with western civilisation which often they were trying to instil. The Empire caused bloodshed as the British enforced their laws and it was expected that resistance would be strongly put down. For all that, the British did build railways, reform agriculture, improve roads and bridges, and build schools. However many of these reforms were to benefit British trade and had little impact on the lives of native peoples. Although these changes were self-serving, many remain in place today.
The British Empire is unpalatable
Today we find such aspects of the British Empire unpalatable when viewed using the values of the 21st Century and the tendency has been not to discuss or teach those parts of our history which offend our sensibilities. In an Ofsted Report of 2004 inspectors found that the empire "is a significant subject that currently receives insufficient time in schools". The report went on to say that "pupils should know about the empire and that it has been interpreted by historians and others in different ways". If schools did teach aspects of empire it was the injustice of it all. Ofsted said that the teaching of empire had been neglected and there was a reluctance by teachers to deal with the subject.
The purpose of history
The purpose of history is to understand how we have arrived at where we are and its significance and legacy. Any study which chooses to leave out those parts of Britain's history which some find incompatible with their view of Britain will only be a partial history. History will always be a contested subject with different generations of historians giving different interpretations of the big questions about the past. In any country's past there will be difficult periods but it serves no purpose to present a rosy picture of the past. It is therefore incumbent of us to teach students to have a sense of inquiry and be able to use source materials and to ask challenging questions about interpretations and evidence presented. Students need to know that there are different interpretations of the past and that different nations may well have different interpretations of imperial history. Given the influence of the British Empire on the world we live in, both in Britain and around the world, it is absolutely essential that if we are to fully understand the world in which we live, we should study the British Empire.
Statues, slavery and evil
Given the importance of the imperial legacy it is somewhat surprising that there is so much ignorance today about the nature of the British Empire. Any discussion in the media today about the British Empire often very quickly descends into a discussion about slavery, knocking down statues and how evil the British Empire was.
We need a grown up debate
We are in danger of interpreting history as a moral narrative and selecting evidence to fit in with political objectives. Such an approach is unhistorical and flawed. To attempt to analyse history on our ever changing contemporary values is wrong and does little to answer the basic questions any historian needs to answer. In an article in History Today published in October 2007, Piers Brendon asks how we can arrive at a moral audit of the British Empire. He comes to the conclusion that Britain is in grave moral deficit, mainly because of the Empire’s recurrent use of violence, but that The history of empires is the history of human misery. What is needed is a grown-up debate about how, when and by whom the British Empire was developed, and what was the nature of the interaction between soldiers, settlers, officials and native peoples. We also need to look at the nature of empires and to what extent all empires are violent but more importantly why do we treat empires differently. Why is the British Empire considered evil yet we cannot get enough of documentaries about the Roman Empire? How should we analyse African kings like Shaka and Cetewayo who caused widespread destruction? Why is the destruction of statues of Cecil Rhodes demanded by student activists yet Queens Victoria and Elizabeth are revered despite both helping to enlarge the Empire and being advocates of imperialism?
Decisions were taken by men on the spot
We talk of empire as if it were monolithic. The British Empire at its height consisted of over a hundred territories all ruled in different ways – some were dominions with democratic parliaments, others ruled by autocratic governors and other territories had governors and legislative assemblies. For much of its history the empire was very decentralised with decisions being taken by the men on the spot. The small Colonial Office did not have a large budget and its main focus was in ensuring that there be as few costly enterprises as possible.
The Colonial Office acted as an umpire
The Colonial Office often acted as an umpire between the competing interests of the missionaries, settlers, soldiers and native people. One way by which the Colonial Office sought to minimise its expenditure was to grant private companies the powers of the state. The East India Company had for a long time been the model for this, having been given its charter by Queen Elizabeth in 1601, and although it was disbanded in 1858, at the end of the c19th there existed private companies in South, West and East Africa. This empire, like all empires was expansionist, but it was only in the last quarter of the c19th that the Empire became overtly expansionist. Ronald Hyam has described the British Empire as being a fluid, changing and complex phenomenon. It certainly changed over time and its story will vary enormously depending on who is telling the story and from what perspective and experiences. Any understanding of the British Empire must recognise these complexities and deal with them. What we must not do is to settle for the simplistic approach of basing our history on a moral approach otherwise we end up using violence as a barometer of empires and fail to look at other key questions.
Violence is an essential part of empires
Empires are created and sustained with the use of violence and the British Empire was quite typical. In 1902 a War Office report showed between 1857 and 1899, there were fifteen wars in various parts of the British Empire, and these were wars which involved more than 3,000 British troops. Not included were the many conflicts, often ongoing for years, where less than 3,000 troops were used, and also the Boer War which involved the use of 450,000 British and imperial troops.
Gott shows how violence was ever present
These figures related to the conquering of territories and the suppression of uprisings by native peoples. The threat of the use of violence was an ever-present threat in colonial society as the British tried to transform native societies. How much violence was a part of imperial rule can be seen by recent books such as ‘Britain’s Empire’ by Richard Gott. What Gott shows is that violence was not unique, it was ever present throughout the empire. Gott documents the numerous wars and local conflicts the British were involved in and the sheer brutality of the British occupation in many territories. What it does not show though is the extent of violence in all empires, and in fact in society in general. Such questions need to be asked.
Britain’s Empire is an excellent book being accessible and dealing well with the myth that the British Empire was a civilising one. It is one recent book which re-assesses the nature of traditional narratives and the myths that surround them. The teaching of the British Empire was for the first sixty years of the c20th used as a way of sustaining a triumphalist view of our past and creating a view of ourselves and the world that was anachronistic. In recent times Michael Gove has wanted to introduce a revised version of this approach which in essence was the story of the expansion of Britain. That this re-evaluation demanded by the Conservatives happened against the backdrop of Brexit was no coincidence. Old myths about the British Empire need to be examined. Is there a better topic in which to consider how and why interpretations of the past change over time?
Why so much controversy about the British Empire?
We are sensitive about discussing the realities of Empire because the British Empire still evokes so much passion and controversy. Why is this? Possibly because it was only recently decolonised, between 1947 and 1997, and there are survivors alive today who suffered from British injustice and the brutality of its empire.
There are survivors in Kenya and the UK of the Mau Mau Rebellion and atrocities like the Hola Camp massacre. Yet an analysis of the statistics shows that the Mau Mau killed 1,880 civilians, nearly a third of them being loyalist Kikuyu Guard. The rebellion was a complex one and it was not just a colonial war but a civil war as well. Survivors of this conflict have recently been able to get compensation for what they suffered. The British Empire was the largest empire the world had seen and in an era in which empires are anachronistic, it is inevitable that the British Empire will come in for severe criticism. The British portrayed their empire as a civilising one, yet the role that violence played shows the contradiction of such claims.
In addition to Gott’s book mentioned above, there have been others that have begun to deal with issues of legacy and violence such as Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Kwarteng. Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997 is also a very welcome book that gives an excellent overview of the British Empire as does John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire.
We need to face up to our past
Now is the time when we should as a nation begin to look at the important issues surrounding the British Empire in order to better understand not just ourselves but the world. We need to come to terms with the reality of Empires and understand their importance in world history. This objective is not just for scholars but for the general public. We need to do this without fear of dealing with sensitive issues, and where alternative views are put forward that some find unpalatable, they should be dealt with headlong.