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Pushing back against colonial whitewash

Generations of British Empire history revisionists have been working flat out to make the Empire look like a benign force in the national history of former colonies that have since been liberated.

The history of the British Empire has been whitewashed and cleansed of all malignant references by historians over the centuries, and the true impact has been kept away from any classroom or educational curriculum.

This was epitomised with Niall Ferguson’s Empire, the very epitome of revisionist history which was published in 2002.

The UK continues to have statues of people whose history is at best suspect. Consider the pride at having statues of Clive of India, Bernard ‘Viscount’ Montgomery, James Wolfe, the Duke of Wellington, and the many others in London alone.

But there is an increasing pushback to this whitewashing of the British Imperial past.

This rejection of what has been widely seen as the accepted narrative of British Imperial history came to public consciousness when the Mau Mau brought a case forward against the British Government for torture in 2010. They sought the help of an unknown American historian Caroline Elkins, who had published a book in 2005 called Britain’s Gulag. As Marc Parry wrote in the Guardian,

“Her study, Britain’s Gulag, chronicled how the British had battled this anticolonial uprising by confining some 1.5 million Kenyans to a network of detention camps and heavily patrolled villages. It was a tale of systematic violence and high-level cover-ups.”

In the course of this court case, huge amounts of hitherto unseen documents came to light chronicling the British atrocities against the Mau Mau in Kenya. This disclosure was referred to as the Hanslop Disclosure. Her ground-breaking work discovered that the British had detained up to 320,000 people in Gulag style camps,

“In camps, villages and other outposts, the Kikuyu suffered forced labour, disease, starvation, torture, rape and murder.”

It was, in Elkin’s words,

“a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead”.

Both Tory and Labour Governments from 1963 to 2010 had colluded in a campaign to suppress these documents, denying that they ever existed. They are all therefore as complicit as each other in these crimes.

As Elkins said to Marc Parry of the Guardian,

“The overarching takeaway is that the government itself was involved in a very highly choreographed, systematised process of destroying and removing documents so it could craft the official narrative that sits in these archives”.

Elkins’ work changed how people viewed the history of Empire. Not so much in the former and current colonies, but in the minds of those that continue to drive historical narrative – the colonialists and their successor pseudo-colonial States.

One of those that has picked up Elkins’ baton with vigour is Indian politician and author Shashi Tharoor.

He gave an impassioned contribution to an Oxford Union debate in 2015, when he called for Britain to pay reparations to India. His speech went viral, with over 4m having watched a section of the speech on YouTube to date.

This speech then formed the basis of his recently published polemic ‘An Era Of Darkness – The British Empire In India’.

But his most recent contribution to the debate about the British in India came on Australian discussion show QandA.

Mr Tharoor’s contribution was both exquisite and excruciating. Exquisite because of his sheer force or reason and argument. Excruciating because of the shocking information he referenced to back up his argument.

A member of the audience suggested that the British Empire had in fact been a benevolent force in India, and “propelled the country to its present position as one of the leading countries in the world”. He referenced Indian skills in engineering and manufacturing; administrative and democratic processes; and the rapid growth of education.

Tharoor’s opening statement made a mockery of the questioning,

“This is almost like the American saying to the widow of the American President, “Apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

He then goes onto explain how, when the British entered India, it was one the richest countries in the world, accounting for some 27% of global GDP in the 1700s and even 23% in the 1800s.

“200 years of exploitation, deprivation, looting and destruction, reduced it to a poster child for third world poverty, just over 3% of global GDP, 90% of the population living beneath the poverty line when the British left in 1947, a literacy rate below 17%, and a life expectancy of 27”.

Outrageously the growth rate of India between 1900 and 1947, he says, was only 0.001%.

He notes that when American historian Will Durant travelled through British India in 1930, he pointed out that the entire expenditure of the British on education in India from the nursery level to the highest University’s was less than half the High School budget of the State of New York.

Asked about specific information around the Indian textile industry, Mr Tharoor explains how India lead the way for two thousand years. The sudden decline in the textile industry was not due to the industrial revolution, contrary to what British historians have been claiming,

“That’s the excuse that apologists like to make, that it’s not our fault, you just missed the bus for industrial revolution. Well, we missed the bus because you threw us under its wheels, is what I tell the Brits.”

He then goes on to explain how the Brits smashed the looms; imposed punitive taxes and duties on the Indian textile exports, while lifting duties on the import of British cloth,

“…and they achieved a captive market at the point of a gun”.

Before finally launching a blistering attack on the arch Brit Winston Churchill.

Churchill’s decision lead to the deaths of 4.3million Bengalis, said Tharoor. Under Churchill, while millions of Bengalis were starving on the streets, the British purchased Bengali grain and shipped it to Europe to “buffer the stocks in the event of a future possible invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia”. They also ordered Australian ships not to unload their wheat in Calcutta, but instead to sail on to Europe to stockpile European wheat.

This was all done with Churchill’s knowledge. British civil servants were constantly sending memoranda to Churchill, says Tharoor, saying that people were dying literally on the streets,

“…and all Churchill could bring himself to do was write peevishly on the side of the file “why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?””

Tharoor concludes, saying,

“…this is the man the British want us to hail as an apostle of freedom and democracy, when he has as much blood on his hands as some of the worst genocidal dictators of the twentieth century”.

The sad part is that much of this could also be said of the colonial history of Wales. And while Tharoor argues that India’s current position of relative strength and increasing global stature is due to her independence, the same cannot be said of Wales.

Wales, under British rule, has seen over a trillion pounds worth of natural resources ripped out of her to enrich a very few wealthy families and prop up the British Empire.

The British Empire honed its ugly and bloody craft first in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall, before taking those gory lessons to all corners of the earth. While the plight of India under the British Raj might have happened relatively recently, the fact that Wales suffered an equally brutal subjugation three or four hundred years earlier does not make it any less wrong or forgettable.

The English writer and columnist Laurie Penny was asked on the same programme if the Brits had come to terms with its colonial past.

In response Ms Penny said,

“No we haven’t. Young Brits of every class have no idea about our colonial past, and that is being deliberately done. We are being deliberately denied or kept away from education about the graphic facts of what the British did around the world. The crimes of the British and the crimes that were done in our name over four hundred years of pillage and conquest is something that we don’t like to think about.”

It was probably refreshing for liberal hearted people in the western world to hear a Brit open up about the shamefulness of the Imperial past. But it was telling that her understanding, admission, or guilt only went as far back as four hundred years. What she demonstrably fails to realise is that while none of this gruesome history is taught in schools across the UK, neither are we taught the history of the nations and regions of the UK. Ms Penny clearly has no historical understanding of the gruesome history of Wales, Scotland, Ireland or Cornwall under so-called British rule.

But that’s a common weakness with the British left. They carry a collective guilt about the historical oppression and subjugation of nations across the world, but have no regard or care about Wales or Scotland.

But Welsh nationalists stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters in former colonies across the world, because we have a common history.

That’s one thing that makes the Welsh nationalist movement – the demanding of our sovereignty and independence – a truly internationalist cause. We are not alone.

You can see Shashi Tharoor’s contribution to the QandA programme here,

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3 Comments on Pushing back against colonial whitewash

  1. There has always been an irony in the use of the (originally Celtic word) ‘British’…a word used as an insult against the Welsh and Cornish until the creation of the UK…..when the term was loudly taken up by the English elites to make the Scots feel less alien after they were annex under London rule

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  2. It’s all well and good banging the celtish drum; yes Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall have been badly used by the London elites. However, Northern England has been looted of natural resources, had workers exploited and has pitiful amounts invested north of the Tyne. ” The north is provided for, you have Nissan in Sunderland” wears a bit thin north of the Wear or Tyne. We still await electric track on our rail, and the long promised dualling of the A1. Being on any periphery of Great Britain results in exploitation and resource pillaging. Our Houses of Lords and Commons boast large amounts of members who glory in their direct Norman descent. Woebetide any Celt, Saxon or Viking; we should know our place in society- right at the bottom!!

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  3. On BBC radio 4’s excruciating series on the English this morning, which, among other things seems to forget that the other nations of the DisUnited Queendom were involved in WW2, we had the question of the difference between the English and British answered directly with talk of Empire…says it all really.

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