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The accidental Empire


THE Sunday Times recently published an extract from Sathnam Sanghera’s new book under the headline ‘Empire’s legacy is all around us – we should be teaching it. History lessons barely mention Britain’s colonial past. It’s time for an unvarnished update.’ I suspect not enough history is taught. When I mentioned Magna Carta during a recent discussion with a 2:1 social science graduate, the serious reply was ‘never heard of him’.

History was my favourite subject at grammar school, starting in the first year with the Stone Age, ancient Egyptian and Greek civilisations, the Roman Empire through to Normans, Plantagenets and so on, culminating in the fifth form O-level syllabus ‘1870 to the present day’. (This was 1969 and the exam even included a question on the causes of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.) The focus was on Britain’s history and our role in world events, including slavery, the British empire and colonialism. The teaching was matter-of-fact yet interesting, balanced without jingoism and like Cromwell’s portrait, with warts and all. If this is what Sanghera means by unvarnished, I’m all for it. 

He proposes the reinstatement of Empire Day in schools (we never had it) in a non-jingoistic, non-paternalistic format to educate kids about Empire but rejects the idea because imperial history should not be separated from ‘standard’ history. Up to this point I was with him as he advocated ‘balanced and compulsory study of the British Empire in British schools’. But given the article’s headline, I was waiting for the sting in the tail and it came in the form of a quote from William Dalrymple, historian and author of The Anarchy, a history of the East India Company serialised on BBC Radio 4 in 2019.

According to Dalrymple (my emphases) the ‘fact’ that ‘in Britain, study of the empire is still largely absent from the history curriculum’ is a ‘real problem’. Is it a fact, why is it a real problem and for whom? I think Dalrymple’s problem is that his version of it is not taught, for he goes on to say: ‘Now, more than ever, we badly need to understand what is common knowledge elsewhere: that for much of history we were an aggressively racist and expansionist force responsible for violence, injustice and war crimes on every continent.’ This needs to be unpicked before the BBC, awash with wokeful self-righteousness and our money, indulges Dalrymple with a new series to harangue us with this incendiary guff.

There’s not much of the balance Sanghera wants there. No mention of the curiosity, enterprise, invention, courage and skill of the men and women who sailed to unknown lands with no idea what they would find if, not when, they got there. Or of the poverty and persecution that drove many to leave the British Isles in search of a better life.

Who are the ‘we’ that so badly need to understand Dalrymple’s calumny now? I suspect this is another pearl-clutching academic’s reaction to the referendum result. Does he think Brexiteers are seething racist bullies straining to embark upon conquest, sharpening sabres, priming muskets and oiling Maxim guns to restore the Empire? To what end do we need to be browbeaten and pilloried into guilt for the sins of our forebears? Does he think the British are singularly vicious, venal and cruel? (Being a Scot and a Remainer, Dalrymple probably thinks it applies mainly to the English.)

Will this finger-pointing improve race relations or improve integration? Of course not. If Dalrymple wants to wallow in the bigotry of his post-imperial guilt in his Delhi home he can, but don’t try to inflict it on British kids.

Context is everything in history and to provide it I recommend Harry Bingham’s This Little Britain – How One Small Country Built the Modern World. The title will horrify Dalrymple and his ilk but if they can hold their noses long enough they will find that it is a light-hearted read and suitable primer for Britons of every heritage to learn how and why this country is the way it is. It seeks to explain the reasons for the undeniably disproportionate influence, good or bad, that the people of the British archipelago have had. Not due to any innate superiority of its people (we are a mongrel bunch, especially the English) but mainly because of coincidences and circumstances of geography, climate and history.

Our colonialism and imperialism weren’t concocted and prescribed to be implemented, like communism, Marxism, fascism and other -isms, according to a manual. There was no masterplan or imperialist handbook such as the Manifesto, Das Kapital or Mein Kampf. English, later British, influence and power spread via enterprising merchant adventurers, migrants and missionaries. The Empire was largely acquired by accident and, when by design, it was often to thwart ambitions of perennial enemies and erstwhile Vatican proxies, Spain and France. (The Reformation was the first Brexit as England broke the tyrannical, corrupt, cruel, parasitic hold of the Catholic church’s omnipotence, thereby incurring the wrath of successive Popes who encouraged Catholic Spain, France, Scotland et al to recover England for the Papacy. Did this foster English exceptionalism and xenophobia? Almost certainly. Was it justified then? Definitely.)

There was no coherent ‘expansionist force’ though force was often used, ruthlessly and brutally. Nobody today is applauding the industrialised slaughter inflicted by modern weapons on rebellious subject peoples armed with spears by the likes of Clive, Brooke, Rhodes and others. Or the bombing of Arabs in Iraq authorised by Churchill just 100 years ago. I’m all for teaching more history that includes such atrocities but not if it starts with Dalrymple’s premise.

So for further study I recommend The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1995) by Lawrence James. In his introduction he writes: ‘I have been as careful as possible to sidestep the quagmire of post-imperial guilt, that peculiar angst which has troubled the British and American intelligentsia for the past thirty or so years . . . the wholesale application of late twentieth-century values distorts the past and makes it less comprehensible’. Quite, and 21st century values distort even more.

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David Owen
David Owen
David Owen has over 30 years’ experience of international trade and contracting, mainly with UK and German companies, managing oil, gas and mining projects in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

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