When we think of the days of the British Empire, we may tend to focus on a proud, noble heritage of Britons spreading wealth and prosperity across the globe; “the Empire on which the sun never sets”, both literally and figuratively. There can be no doubt that Britain’s territorial claims in India, America, Africa and Australia entitled it to swathes of power and influence no other single nation had achieved ever before. And yet it is no more.
Like every other historical European empire, war, internal conflict and economic depression demolished the centuries-old choke-hold the country had on the rest of the world, as Europe limped away from two world wars, and into fifty years of ideological and economic division. That is not to say, however, that the spoils of our colonialist past are not still enjoyed – the European Union still ranks as the second largest economy in GDP, well before China, according to the World Bank.
Unfortunately, our relative success on the global scale has come at the expense of our former colonies. Perhaps it would not be too far-fetched to argue, that the economic and political influence of the West is derived in some ways from the historical exploitation and pillaging of these lands.
The most primary example of the brutality deployed by European rulers during the new wave of colonialism post-1492 is shown in their attempts to maintain imperial strength. Whenever it seemed as though a colony was slipping through their tight grip of control, harsh reprisals were inevitable. In the British Empire’s case, there is no clearer example of this than the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which itself was a response to the oppressive policies of the East India Company on the 300,000 sepoy soldiers and wider civilian population. The rebellion resulted in atrocities being committed by both sides; more than 100,000 Indian soldiers and civilians were killed during and after the uprisings, while the Bibigar Massacre at Cawnpore of 120 women and children at the hands of rebels inspired the British war cry “Remember Cawnpore”. Once the rebels were defeated militarily, the British Government passed the Government of India 1858 Act to bring India under direct imperial rule through the British Raj, which would lead to further oppression and British dominance in the region.
It is therefore important to note that colonialism only survived for as long as it did due to the immensity of control and dominance empires like Britain delivered onto their colonies. This would explain why through the Colonial Era, the weakening of the home state inevitably led to the destabilisation of the rest of the empire, as seen in the decline of the Spanish Empire after the Napoleonic Wars, and the British and French Empires after WWII and their failure during the Suez Crisis.
British indifference to Indian tradition and custom was key in establishing the dissent which led to 1857, but that was not the only crime of ignorance Britain and other empires were guilty of during the Colonial Era. One only has to look at a map of the borders within Africa to see the cause of the continuous state of war engulfing the region. During the Scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century, and the subsequent reorganisation of colonies that followed, straight and neat lines were favoured instead of borders which realistically represented the area spread and distribution of ethno-religious groups. This gross negligence may have served to make administration of these colonies easier for the ruling party, but ultimately resulted in decades of strife and division in the continent. The Rwandan Genocide, itself a result of Tutsi – Hutu tensions after the Belgian led monarchy ended in the late 50s, was the trigger of the First and Second Congo Wars between 1996 and 2003, the latter of which is often dubbed “Africa’s World War”. These events were a direct result of the sectarian tensions caused by colonial divisions and borders, as ethnic groups were cut along arbitrary, convenient lines.
The Partition of India in 1947 similarly demonstrated the irresponsible lack of caution that preceded decisions of governing; the Radcliffe Line, named after Cyril Radcliffe (who admitted rushing through the deliberation process in order to leave India sooner due to the heat), displaced up to 14 million people on the wrong side of the border, and led to a mass exodus which resulted in up to one million deaths. According to William Dalrymple of the New Yorker, “Britain simply no longer had the resources with which to control its greatest imperial asset, and its exit from India was messy, hasty, and clumsily improvised”. Perhaps therefore it was an inevitability that with foreign rule came a degree of ignorance and misunderstanding for the delicate and sensitive issues of the regions they controlled, which subsequently led to antagonism and internal conflicts that still rage to the present day.
The huge debilitating consequences of colonial rule still show their colours in the economic and political make-up of these nations. From Apartheid in South Africa, to the Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, all have their roots in the deep grounded tensions caused by decades of European domination and influence in the region.
However, the crimes of colonialism are at best glossed over in favour of focussing on the atrocities of the 20th Century and issues outside the realm of imperialism, and at worst thoroughly ignored by the peoples of these former empires. Perhaps it is due to our continued belief in the propagated (and at the time widely believed) justifications for empire: the need to spread Western civilisation, in an aim to improve the lives of natives by teaching them Christian sophistication while achieving economic prosperity. As John Monbiot puts it in the Guardian, “the myths of empire are so well-established that we appear to blot out countervailing stories even as they are told”.
Nevertheless, we must not exempt Britain or any other former empire from the judgements we have passed and consequently limited to other nations. Britain after all operated concentration camps during the Second Boer War in South Africa, more than 30 years before the Nazis started their rule of terror. 26,370 women and children died within these camps from starvation and disease, a fact that was justified as necessary for “eliminating the decay and deterioration of the national character” and keeping the civilian population in check. While the death toll may have been due to negligence and the incompetence of the organisation in these camps rather than genocidal intent, the fact remains that colonialism, and the belief in the exceptional dominance of Europe, was and still is responsible for some of the most horrific and violent tragedies of human history, and must not be regarded or justified as otherwise.
by Nicholas Pirabaharan