Posts Tagged ‘Malta’

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.

Czech President Threatens Journalists with Fake Kalashnikov

October 25, 2017

More from Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks on the rising threat to freedom of the press around the world. In this clip they report on and discuss the behaviour of the Czech President, Milos Zeman, who turned up at a press conference waving around a replica gun which had ‘For Journalists’ written on it. Zeman himself hates the press, and in the past has described them as ‘manure’ and ‘hyenas’. At a meeting with Putin in May, he joked about how some of them deserved to be ‘liquidated’. As Uygur points out, there is very strong evidence that Putin has had journalists murdered, so that joke really isn’t funny. Zeman, you will not be surprised to know, is also a colossal Islamophobe. He has said that Czechs need to arm themselves against a coming ‘superholocaust’ against them, which will be carried out by Muslims. Uygur comments drily, ‘Who knew there were so many Muslims in the Czech Republic, and they were so powerful?’

Zeman’s gun-waving comes after the death of a female journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in Malta. Galizia was dubbed a ‘one-woman WikiLeaks’ for her dogged pursuit of uncovering stories of corruption. She was killed a week after revealing that Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister of the island nation, had been involved in offshore companies and the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the Azerbaijani government.

Clearly, Malta isn’t anywhere near the Czech Republic, but her death was reported there. And the president, Zeman, thinks so little of the murder of journalists that he ‘jokes’ about it by waving replica firearms around at the press. Uygur also states that the Czechs have just elected a new prime minister, who is the millionaire head of a populist party. He predicts that this won’t end well.

This is clearly a story from a small nation in the EU, but it shows the way journalistic freedoms are being eroded all over the world. The Young Turks point out that democracy isn’t just about voting – it’s also about the freedom of the press and conscience – and this is what has makes Western democracy so great. The Young Turks have also covered the prosecution of journalists and political opponents of President Erdogan in Turkey, and the persecution of another crusading journo in Azerbaijan itself. As well as the attempted assassination of another Russian journo, who was suspiciously stabbed a madman two weeks after the Putin media declared her and her radio station an agent of America.

About ten years ago, John Kampfner wrote a book, Freedom for Hire, in which he described how countries around the world, from France, Italy, Russia, Singapore and China, were becoming increasingly dictatorial. And we in Britain had no cause for complacency, as he described how Blair had also tried to muzzle the press, especially when it came to the Gulf War. The web of corruption Galizia uncovered was so widespread, and went right to the top, so that Malta was described by the Groaniad yesterday as ‘Mafia Island’.

As for the Czech Republic, after Vaclav Havel its post-Communist presidents have been extremely shady individuals. I can remember reading one travel book on eastern Europe, which discussed how his critics had disappeared or been murdered. And following the Fall of Communism, there has come a series of reports and scandals about rising racial intolerance there. The target of much of this is the Roma. It has been reported that the Czech medical service routinely forcibly sterilised Gypsy women in order to stop them having children, and members of various political parties have called for either their expulsion or their extermination. I am not surprised by the Islamophobia, as a little while ago Counterpunch carried a story about one of their contributor’s meeting with a Czech politician, who had very extreme, right-wing views, including a deep hatred of Muslims. There also appears to be an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the country as well. A few years ago, the BBC’s programme, Who Do You Think You Are, explored Stephen Fry’s ancestry. As Fry himself has said many times on QI, his grandfather was a Jewish Hungarian, who worked for a sugar merchants. It was through his work that he met Fry’s grandmother, who was a member of Fry’s, the Quaker chocolate manufacturer, and settled with her in England. Thus he fortunately survived the Holocaust. Fry travelled to Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, tracing the movements of his ancestors in the course of their work through the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fry was, understandably, visibly upset and shaken when he found out just how many of his grandfather’s kith and kind had been murdered at Auschwitz.

He was also very unimpressed by the attitude of some of the Czechs he spoke to in his quest. He quoted them as saying that ‘it is very curious. They knew the Holocaust was coming, but they stayed here anyway.’ He was justifiably outraged at the implication that somehow the millions of innocents butchered by the Nazis wanted to be killed.

It’s possible to suggest a number of causes for the rise in Islamophobia. You could probably trace it back to historic fears about the Ottoman Empire and the conquest of the Balkans by the Muslim Turks in the 15th century. The Ottoman Empire still sought to expand in the 17th century, when its army was just outside the gates of Vienna. It was defeated by Jan Sobieski, the king of Poland, and his troops. The Ottoman Empire persisted until it finally collapsed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amidst a series of bloody massacres. The majority of these were blamed on the Turks, and specifically the irregular troops, the Bashi-Bazouks. It was their massacres that led to Gladstone calling for Turkey to be thrown ‘bag and baggage out of the Balkans’. But other journalists in the Balkans at the time also noted that the Christian nations, like the Serbs, were also guilty of horrific mass slaughter, but that this went unreported due prevailing Western prejudice.

Part of it might be due to the Czechs being a small nation – there are about four million of them – who have had to struggle to survive against domination by larger neighbours. Their medieval kings had invited ethnic Germans into the country to settle and develop their economy. This led to the creation of what became the Sudetenland, the areas occupied by ethnic Germans, and there was friction between them and the native Czechs. This friction eventually exploded into open conflict in the 15th century in the wars following the attempt of Jan Hus to reform the Roman Catholic church. Czech nationalism was suppressed, and Moravia and Bohemia, the two kingdoms, which became Czechoslovakia, were absorbed into the Austrian Empire. The Czechs and Slovaks achieved their independence after the First world War, but the country was conquered by the Nazis during World War II, and then ‘liberated’ by Stalin. It was then incorporated into the Communist bloc. When Anton Dubcek, the president, attempted to create ‘Communism with a human face’, introducing free elections and a form of market socialism, the-then Soviet president, Anton Dubcek, sent in the tanks to quell the ‘Prague Spring’.

Other factors also include the wave of immigrants from Syria and North Africa, that forced their way through the various international borders to come up through Greece and Serbia in their hope of finding sanctuary and jobs in the West. The Counterpunch article stated that there was a real fear that they would turn east, and swamp the small, former eastern bloc nations like the Czech Republic.

And these racial fears are being stoked throughout the former eastern bloc by the poverty and misery that has come with capitalism. The peoples of the former Communist nations were led to believe that the introduction of capitalism would create employment and prosperity. This has not occurred, and the result has been widespread disillusionment. Counterpunch also ran another article, which quoted the statistic that 51 per cent of the population of the former East Germany had responded positively to the statement that ‘things were better under Communism’ in a poll, and wanted Communism to come back. Similar statistics could be found right across the former Communist nations of eastern Europe.

Now, faced with rising poverty, unemployment and inequality, made worse by neoliberalism, the old fears of racial domination and extermination are rising again, and being exploited by ruthless, right-wing populists. So there are a series of extremely nationalistic, Fascistic governments and parties in Hungary and the Czech Republic. Just like in western Europe there’s Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Germany’s Alternative fuer Deutschland, and Donald Trump and the Alt Right in America.

And across the globe, ruthless, corrupt politicians are trying to curtail freedom of speech and the press, in order to preserve their power. Hence the rising racism, Fascism and violence towards ethnic minorities and the press. These freedoms are at the core of democracy, and have to be defended for democracy to work at all, and governments held accountable by their citizens.