Posts Tagged ‘British Empire and Commonwealth Museum’

FT Review from 2000 of Three History Books on the British Empire

July 19, 2020

Another clipping I’ve kept is a review by the Financial Time’s David Gilmour, ‘World in the Pink’, of three history books on the British Empire. The books reviewed were The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteenth Century, edited by Andrew Porter, The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Twentieth Century, edited by Judith M. Brown and Wm Roger Louis; and the Oxford History of the British Empire: Historiography, edited by Robin W. Winks. The review was in the FT’s weekend edition for February 19/20 2000. I’m putting it up here as some readers might find it useful, as after the Black Lives Matter protests the history of the British empire is going to come under debate once again. The review runs

Once upon a time the British Empire was an easy subject to teach. Pupils stood in front of the schoolroom map, identified two red dots in the middle, and were encouraged to gaze with wonder at the vast expanse of similarly coloured spaces stretching from Canada at the top left to New Zealand at the bottom right. If suitably awestruck, they could then learn about these places (and how they came to be red) in the novels of Henty and Rider Haggard and in the poems of Tennyson, Kipling and Newbold.

Stout histories were also available for serious pupils to study the process of conquest and dominion, the spread of civilisation and prosperity, and, in some cases, the splendid bestowal of certain freedoms. From them students would learn that “the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world”, a belief held by many but expressed in these particularly terms by Gandhi. Guided by Providence and Queen Victoria, Britain had assumed a grandmaternal role, the mother of Dominion daughters, the “mother of parliaments” and, even more stirringly, “mother of the Free”.

The uniformity of the vision – red is red whether in Canada or Ceylon – may have been useful for the schoolteacher and the recruiting officer. But the men sent out to administer different systems all over the globe understood its limitations. The appearance of theses impressive books, the last in the five volume Oxford History of the British Empire, demonstrates that historians, after a long time-lag in the first half of the 20th century, have caught up with them.

The previous attempt at a comprehensive survey, the Cambridge History of the British Empire (published in nine volumes between 1929 and 1959), retained the anglocentric approach of earlier works, as well as their assumptions of a noble imperial purpose. Without entirely demolishing those assumptions (indeed the editor-in-chief, Roger Louis, specifically endorses some of them), the Oxford History offers more cautious and rataher more sophisticated assessments of the imperial experience. As Louis points out, these volumes do not depict it as “one of purposeful progress” nor concentrate narrowly on “metropolitan authority and rule”; nor do they see its demise as “steady decline and fall”. Their emphasis is on diversity, on a “constantly changing territorial empire and ever-shifting patterns of social and economic relations”.

The chief inspiration behind this approach is the work of the late historian Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, who compared the empire to an iceberg, the visible section being the red-painted colonies and the submerged bulk representing the “imperialism of free trade”, a vast “informal empire” based on naval supremacy and economic power which extended into places such as China, Latin America and the Middle East.

Many of the contributors to the Oxford volumes apply this view to their own areas. In south-east Asia, stresses A.J. Stockwell, the demarcation between Britain’s formal empire and its neighbours was indistinct: “‘British pink’ seeped over the whole region: nearly indelible in some areas, it merely tinged other parts and elsewhere faded fast.”

The scope of these books is so large that there were bound to be gaps: Malta and Gibraltar are barely mentioned, sport and the “games ethic” are ignored, and almost nothing is said about training administrators to do their job. Yet the overall achievement is undeniably impressive. Under the magisterial guidance of Louis (a distinguished American academic whose appointment as editor raised predictable insular howls in the UK), a vast array of of historians has produced a solid monument of contemporary scholarship. Some of the contributions, such as those by E.H.H. Green on political economy and David Fitzpatrick on Ireland’s ambivalence towards the empire are brilliants – subjects that would justify individual volumes distilled into concise and lucid essays.

Naturally there can be neither a common view nor a uniformity of tone among the hundred contributors to these volumes. The assembled historians are certainly not apologists for imperialism but nor, in general, are they too apologetic about it. Several remind us of its humanitarian dimension, and Louis may have confounded his fogeyish detractors with his view that Kipling was “perhaps the greatest poet of the age”. In addition, while appropriate genuflections are made to all those contemporary “studies” (area, gender, cultural and so on), the faddish preoccupation with “discourse” (in its postmodernist and post-colonial contexts) is restricted.

Yet the work has some of the defects as well as most of the merits of current historical writing: too much drab prose, too heavy a reliance on tables and statistics, a sense (especially in Historiography) of colleagues complimenting each other while disparaging their predecessors. Few contributions show real historical imagination: several leave an aroma of seminars and obscure historical quarterlies.

The great historian Richard Cobb used to say that a good deal of French history could be walked, seen and above all heard in cafes or buses or on park benches in Paris and Lyon. But most of the academics in these volumes do not seem to share his view that history is a cultural and creative subject as well as an academic one. However diligent their research may have been, they do not write as if they have ever sat in a Delhi rickshaw or a cafe in Calcutta. Robin J. Moore directs readers to all his own books, but neither he nor any of his colleagues cite a work published in an Indian language.

Yet if these volumes have little feel for the imperial setting and its personal impact, they manage to convey the sheer scope of the enterprise, the scale of the endeavour, the means by which those little dots reddened a quarter of the map. More importantly, they demonstrate the need to study the empire’s history, not in order to glorify or denigrate, but in order to understand the centuries of interaction between the dots and their formal and informal empires.

Perhaps this history, the first to be written since the territorial dismantlement, will mark a new stage not just of reassessment but of acceptance of the empire’s importance, for good and for bad, in the history of our planet. The topic is unfashionable in Britain today – Bristol’s excellent British Empire and Commonwealth Museum has not received a penny of public money – but it might now, thanks to Louis and his collaborators, emerge as something more than a sterile debate between those who regard it as a cause for sniggering and those who see it as a reason to swagger.

Bristol’s Empire and Commonwealth Museum is no more, unfortunately. It packed up and left Bristol for new premises at the Commonwealth Institute in London, where it died the death. I believe its former collection is now housed in the Bristol’s M Shed museum. The Empire is going to be acutely relevant now with the debate over racism, social justice and what history should be taught in schools. There are parts of British imperial history that are indefensible – the conquest of the Caribbean, slavery, the extermination of indigenous Australians, the concentration camps of the Boer War, the Bengal Famine and the massacres in Kenya. Niall Ferguson in a discussion about the British empire on a programme on Radio 4 a few years ago admitted its dark side, but said that it was a benevolent institution, although he qualified this. I think he said something to the effect of ‘just about’. For a short history of the negative side of the British empire – its domination, exploitation and massacre, see John Newsinger’s The Blood Never Dried. But it was also responsible for bring modern, western science, education and medicine to distant parts of the globe.

And it did try to stamp out slavery worldwide, not only where it had established and exploited it, but also indigenous slavery and forms of servitude around the world. That shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Video Debunking Rees-Mogg’s Poisonous Revisionist Lies about British Concentration Camps in Boer War

February 18, 2019

Yet more evidence to add to the growing mound of it that Jacob Rees-Mogg is a monster, who should not be let anywhere near high office, and that Question Time is horrendously biased. After John McDonnell made his remarks in an interview with Politico during the week, in which he said that Churchill was a villain because he sent in the British army to shoot down striking miners during the Tonypandy riots, Churchill’s legacy was apparently taken up and debated on Question Time. One of the guests on the panel was the Young Master, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who declared that the concentration camps in which Afrikaner women and children were imprisoned during the Boer War, also called by historians the Anglo-South African War, were beneficial to their residents, ‘humanitarian’ and that the death rate in them was no higher than in the Glasgow at the time.

This is, quite simply, a pack of utterly odious, reprehensible lies. The death toll in them was horrifically high, and generations of historians have condemned them as an atrocity. Rees-Mogg’s comparison of their death rate with that of Scotland’s great industrial toon provoked articles in The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. I also found this video below on YouTube on the A Different Bias channel very effectively demolishing it and denouncing Mogg for what he is.

The presenter, Phil, begins by saying that there are two types of people on the subject of the British Empire. There is one set, who believe it is over and done with, while for another the Empire has not gone away. It has merely declined, and that is a good thing. He makes the point that there are misapprehensions of history on both sides, and that these need correcting. Because those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

He describes the background to the debate, and says that John McDonnell was na├»ve. Politico had set a trap for him, and instead of walking into it, declaring Churchill was a villain, he should have said, ‘Second World War – Hero’ and left it at that. He then moves on to talk about the concentration camps. He states that he believes the term ‘concentration camp’ first appeared during the Boer War. This erupted when the British tried to take over the gold fields in the free Afrikaner republics. The Afrikaner government granted concession after concession to the British, but this was not enough for Lord Milner, who wanted everything. And so War broke out.

However, despite the British forces outnumbering those of the Afrikaners, we were losing. We didn’t know the terrain; the Afrikaners did, and resorted to guerrilla warfare to defeat us. Lord Kitchener, the chief of the British forces, responded with a scorched earth policy. Boer farms were raised, their crops destroyed and livestock slaughtered. As a result, Afrikaner civilians displaced by the war fled to the camps, which were initially refugee camps. This became official military policy, with the British forcibly moving Afrikaner civilians into them. It was a deliberate attempt to defeat the Afrikaners through the detention of their women and children.

Inside the camps, conditions were atrocious. Hunger and disease were rampant. 50,000 died, 80 per cent of whom were children. This is illustrated very clearly by the photo Phil uses as the background for his talk, which shows a skeletally emaciated Afrikaner child. And the death rate at the time was nowhere near that of contemporary Glasgow. The death rate in the camps was 50 per cent. In Glasgow it was about 2 per cent. He gives the exact figures in the video. Furthermore, the suffering in the concentration camps was deliberately inflicted, while no-one was trying to kill the Glaswegians, except possibly other Glaswegians on a Friday night. The camps’ horrors were widely reported in the British press, creating a storm of public outrage. The government commissioned a committee of inquiry hoping to whitewash it all. Instead of finding that the reports were mistaken and the suffering exaggerated, the committee found that in fact conditions were actually far worse. As a result, the British government was forced to hand over management of the camps to the committee, who managed to reduce the death rate to 2 per cent.

At the beginning of his video, Phil asks rhetorically if there’s anyone who believes that concentration camps are beneficial to those interned in them, or that they do anything but bring shame upon their masters. He concludes, ‘No’, and so goes on to discuss them. He states that when Rees-Mogg came out with this vile nonsense, he was clapped by the audience and the presenter did not interrupt him.

Phil also recognizes that there are many shameful incidents in the past, which are only seen as atrocities in hindsight today, through the lens of our modern values. But the concentration camps aren’t one of them. They were seen as abnormal and barbaric at the time. He ends by describing Mogg as a monster, and he is ashamed and concerned that he has such a grip over the British people.

Absolutely. One of the people I worked with at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum was a White anti-racism activist, who had lived for a time in the former Rhodesia and had friends in South Africa. I gathered from him that while the Afrikaners liked us, referring to us as ‘nefe Brit’ – ‘nephew Brit’, the concentration camps and the atrocities of the Boer War were still bitterly resented. There was a museum to them, and one of the items on display was supposedly the bits of glass and nails that were put into the prisoners’ food.

There is absolutely no doubt that the concentration camps were an atrocity and are very definitely a deep stain on the history of the British Empire. Rees-Mogg’s attempts to justify them on Question Time really can’t be seen as anything less than an act of historical revisionism, as noxious as any other attempt to erase atrocities from historical memory. Mogg is polite, and studied history at Oxford, though no-one seems to know precisely what period or subjects he studied. He’s either thus deeply ignorant or a liar. I think he’s probably the latter. He should have been stopped, and someone with better knowledge of this period allowed to speak. Now the video does show Mogg making these terrible statements, and a female panelist looking incredulous at him and trying to rebut him. But he goes on with them nonetheless.

It’s the responsibility of historians to look at past events critically and try to strive for accuracy and objectivity, not matter how uncomfortable, distressing or shameful the subject. Mogg has not done so. He has shown himself indifferent to human suffering, both of past generations and of the present, where people are being reduced to starvation through the Tories’ wretched austerity programme and Brexit. As for those, who clapped him, well, what can you say? They have shown themselves to be the ‘gammon’ of fervent Brexiteers that get outraged whenever anyone dares to challenge their conception of Britishness or right-wing British values. And they can’t bear to acknowledge that we were also responsible for committing atrocities in our imperial heyday.

Mogg indeed is a monster. He is unsuited to be an MP, and, like Boris Johnson, his patriotic, Tory views of the past and the Empire are a threat to British people at home, and our standing and friendship with other nations in the wider world. And the ignorance and bigoted nationalism of his followers are also a threat and a disgrace. Just as it is also disgraceful that they are the audience the Beeb’s Question Time now seems determined to play up to.

Video of Fascist North West Patriots Being Driven Out Of Liverpool

November 6, 2018

This is a short video from RT UK showing the reception the North West Frontline Patriots got when they tried to march in Liverpool. They were met by crowds of people waving anti-Fascist placards from a variety of organization, chanting ‘No Pasaran’. The groups shown demonstrating against them include Merseyside Anti-Fascist Action, Stand Up To Racism, and Unite Against Racism.
I don’t think they got out of the station before they were forced back and had to take the next train home.

The video features Liverpool councilor Anna Rothery, the mayoral lead for equality, who says,

Well today we’ve had the North West Patriots trying to come to the city to spread their hate, they have come in through Moorfields Street station or attempted to, but because we’re such a strong city and we are so against these people coming here they didn’t make it out once again.

Paul Sillet of Unite Against Racism says

The likes of Steve Bannon and many others of his ilk are directly influencing and helping to channel large funds into people like Tommy Robinson’s pockets, and now you have internationally, they are building – Greece, Italy and elsewhere as I mentioned Germany and so on, these people are building. It is going to be a challenge for us, but I have every confidence because of things like today we can stop them.

All of this is true. The Fascists are growing across Europe, and they are being encouraged and supported by Steve Bannon and other members of America’s extreme right. But it’s great that the Left is able to mount successful counterdemonstrations and drive them away, humiliated.

As for the ‘Patriots’ themselves, this is a new organization I really don’t know anything about. But I heartily and strongly dispute their right to call themselves patriots. A few weeks ago the anti-Fascist, feminist blogger Kevin Logan put up a video which, amongst other things, attacked the Far Right for appropriating the Remembrance Day poppy.

Britain was aided in both World Wars by troops from around the British Empire, including Black and Asian countries. These men and women gave their lives for Britain, and it was only a few years ago that a monument was put up commemorating the contributions of these brave men and women. Way back at the beginning of this century, when I was still doing voluntary work at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, it ran an exhibition on the Great War and the contribution of non-White Commonwealth troops. One of the photos was a magnificent picture of a Black trooper, chest festooned with medals, proudly hoisting the Union Jack. The people I was working with at the time commented that it was a great picture, and a very powerful refutation of the Far Right’s attitude that Blacks and Asians aren’t British, and only White racists themselves are patriotic. As well as ordinary infantry troopers, there was even a Black RAF pilot in World War II. Quite apart from the Chinese, who served in the First World War as labourers for the army.

Many of the Black and Asian squaddies were so impressed by the warm greeting they had experienced from us during World War II, that they came back here as immigrants. Only to be faced with hostility and racism. Attitudes like those of Fascists like the North West Patriots.

Surveys have shown that typically immigrants are more optimistic about Britain than the traditional White community. Fascists like the North West Patriots have absolutely no right to call themselves such, and deserve to be driven out. Very definitely ‘No Pasaran!’.