Imperial amnesia

The messy afterlife of colonialism

THERE IS A statute of limitations on colonial wrongdoings, but none on human memory, especially living memory. There are still millions of Indians alive today who remember the iniquities of the British Empire in India. History belongs in the past; but understanding it is the duty of the present. It is, thankfully, no longer fashionable in most of the developing world to decry the evils of colonialism in assigning blame for every national misfortune.

Internationally, the subject of colonialism is even more passé, since the need for decolonisation is no longer much debated and colonialism itself no longer generates much conflict. Still, it is striking how quickly amnesia has set in among citizens of the great imperial power itself. A 1997 Gallup poll in the UK revealed 65 per cent did not know which country Robert Clive was associated with, 77 per cent did not know who Cecil Rhodes was, 79 per cent could not identify a famous poem Rudyard Kipling had written, and 47 per cent thought Australia was still a colony.

Yet those who follow world affairs would not be entirely wise to consign colonialism to the proverbial dustbin of history. Curiously enough, it remains a relevant factor in understanding the problems and the danger of the world in which we live. The British Empire, and its European counterparts, were ‘wholly unprecedented in creating a global hierarchy of economic, physical and cultural power’; that is why their impact endures to a great extent. After all, as one commentator argues, ‘the memory of European imperialism remains a live political factor everywhere from Casablanca to Jakarta, and whether one is talking nuclear power with Tehran or the future of the renminbi with the Chinese, contemporary diplomacy will fail if it does not take this into account.’

This, of course, is what Niall Ferguson does in Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (Allen Lane, 2003). He sees cause for much that is good in the world, in particular the free movement of goods, capital and labour and the imposition of Western norms of law, order and governance. Without the spread of British rule around the planet, he argues, the success of liberal capitalism in so many economies today would not have been possible.

Even if this were arguably a defensible proposition, however, it is not necessarily, as Ferguson would put it, a ‘good thing’. The continuity of today’s world with the world of the British Empire, which he so celebrates, is most strikingly evident in the economic dependence of much of the postcolonial world on the former imperial states, a contemporary reality that hardly redounds to the credit of the colonisers.


EMPIRE MIGHT HAVE gone, but it endures in the imitative elites it left behind in the developing world – the ‘mimic men’, in VS Naipaul’s phrase – trying hard to be what the imperial power had not allowed them to be, while subjecting themselves and their societies to the persistent domination of corporations based mainly in the metropole. The East India Company has collapsed, but globalisation has ensured that its modern-day successors in the former imperial states remain the predominant instruments of capitalism.

India is, to some degree, an exception, thanks to its decades of economic autarky; but, as Pankaj Mishra, the author of the bestselling Age of Anger (Penguin, 2017), suggests, the liberal-capitalist ‘rise of Asia’ of which India is a contemporary epitome is also ‘the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous’. To Mishra and other left-leaning critics, it marks the triumph of materialist capitalism rather than Asian spiritualism; the Indian devil wears Prada too.

The left-wing British journalist Richard Gott was unsparing in The Guardian in 2001 in his denunciation of his country’s imperialism: ‘[T]he British Empire was essentially a Hitlerian project on a grand scale, involving military conquest and dictatorship, extermination and genocide, martial law and “special courts”, slavery and forced labour, and, of course, concentration camps and the transoceanic migration of peoples.’

Though he was not wrong, perhaps a more complicated assessment is due. To look at the legacy of the Raj is also to examine the impact of the imperial enterprise on the societies it fractured and transformed, and the human beings it changed, exiled, made, destroyed and made anew; the rich intercourse of commerce and miscegenation, as British capitalists sought profit where they might; the interpenetration of peoples, with the shattering of age-old barriers and the erection of new ones within India and, through the migration of Indians, elsewhere; the resultant mongrelisation of language and culture; the tug of conflicting loyalties to family, caste, religion, country and Empire; and, above all, the irresistible lure of lucre, the most profound animating spirit of the colonial project.

The colonial project primarily benefited the European imperialists in material, moral and intellectual terms. Imperialism elevated European notions of humanity to predominance in the world, posited the white male as the apotheosis of the ideal of the Enlightenment, and so did military power. In the process imperial historians wrote the ‘history’ of their subject peoples in tendentious terms to explain and justify their own imperium.


SO WHAT DO we do about colonialism, other than understand it? The issue of reparations has been overblown: no accurate figure is payable and no payable figure is credible. My own suggestion of a symbolic pound a year may not be a practicable one to the finance ministries that would have to process it. An apology – an act of genuine contrition at Jallianwala Bagh, like Justin Trudeau’s over Komagata Maru – might work best as a significant gesture of atonement. And a determination, in the metropolitan country, to learn the lessons of Empire – to teach British schoolchildren what built their homeland, just as German children are shepherded to concentration camps to see the awful reality of what their forefathers did.

Another, of course, is the return of some of the treasures looted in the course of colonialism. The money exacted in taxes and exploitation has already been spent, and cannot realistically be reclaimed. But individual pieces of statuary sitting in British museums could be, if for nothing else than their symbolic value. After all, if looted Nazi-era art can be (and now is being) returned to their rightful owners in various Western countries, why is the principle any different for looted colonial treasures?

Reparations are in fact what many former colonies feel Britain owes them for centuries of rapacity in their lands. Returning priceless artefacts purloined at the height of imperial rule might be a good place to start. But the Kohinoor diamond, which is part of the crown jewels displayed in the Tower of London, does pose special problems. While Indians consider their claim self-evident – the diamond, after all, has spent most of its existence on or under Indian soil – others have also asserted their claims. The Iranians say Nadir Shah stole it fair and square; the Afghans that they held it until being forced to surrender it to the Sikhs. The latest entrant into the Kohinoor sweepstakes is Pakistan, on the somewhat flimsy grounds that the capital of the Sikh Empire, the undisputed last pre-British owners, was Lahore, now in Pakistan.

The existence of contending claims comes as a major relief to Britain as it seeks to fend off a blizzard of demands to undo the manifold injustices of two centuries or more of colonial exploitation of far-flung lands. From the Elgin marbles to the Kohinoor, the British expropriation of the jewels of other countries’ heritage is a particular point of contention. Giving in on any one item could, the British fear, open Pandora’s box. As former Prime Minister David Cameron conceded on a visit to India in July 2010, ‘If you say yes to one, you would suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I’m afraid to say it, [the Kohinoor] is going to have to stay put.’

Still, flaunting the Kohinoor on the Queen Mother’s crown in the Tower of London is a powerful reminder of the injustices perpetrated by the former imperial power. Until it is returned – at least as a symbolic gesture of expiation – it will remain evidence of the loot, plunder and misappropriation that colonialism was really all about. Perhaps that is the best argument for leaving the Kohinoor where it emphatically does not belong – in British hands.


THE COLONIAL ERA is over. And yet, residual problems from the end of the earlier era of colonisation, usually the result of untidy departures by the colonial power, still remain dangerously stalemated. The prolonged state of chronic hostility between India and Pakistan, punctuated by four bloody wars and the repeated infliction of cross-border terrorism as a Pakistani tactic against India, is the most obvious example. But there are others. Boundaries drawn in colonial times, even if unchanged after independence, still create enormous problems of national unity. We have been reminded of this in Iraq, where its creation from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire welded various incompatibilities into a single state. But the issue is much more evident in Africa, where civil conflict along ethnic or regional lines can arise when the challenge of nation building within colonially drawn boundaries becomes insurmountable. Where colonial constructions force disparate peoples together by the arbitrariness of a colonial map-maker’s pen, nationhood becomes an elusive notion. Older ethnic and clan loyalties in Africa were mangled by the boundaries drawn, in such distant cities as Berlin, for colonially created states whose post-independence leaders had to invent new traditions and national identities out of whole cloth.

The result was the manufacture of unconvincing political myths, as artificial as the countries they mythologise, which all too often cannot command genuine patriotic allegiance from the citizenry they aim to unite. Civil war is made that much easier for local leaders challenging a ‘national’ leader whose nationalism fails to resonate across his country. Rebellion against such a leader is, after all, merely the reassertion of history over ‘his’ story. State failure in the wake of colonialism is another evident source of conflict, as the by-product of an unprepared newly independent state’s inability to govern. The crisis of governance in many African countries is a real and abiding cause for concern in world affairs today.

Underdevelopment in postcolonial societies is itself a cause of conflict. The uneven development of infrastructure in a poor country, as a result of priorities skewed for the benefit of the colonialists, can lead to resources being distributed unevenly, which in turn leads to increasing fissures in a society between those from ‘neglected regions’ and those who are better served by roads, railways, power stations, telecommunications, bridges and canals. Advancing underdevelopment in many countries of the South, which are faring poorly in their desperate struggle to remain players in the game of global capitalism, has created conditions of desperate poverty, ecological collapse and rootless, unemployed populations beyond the control of atrophying state systems – a portrait vividly painted by Robert D Kaplan in his book The Coming Anarchy (Vintage, 2002), which suggests the real danger of perpetual violence on the peripheries of our global village.

As we embark upon the twenty-first century, it seems ironically clear that tomorrow’s anarchy might still be due, in no small part, to yesterday’s colonial attempts at order. I have no wish to give those politicians in postcolonial countries whose leadership has been found wanting in the present, any reason to find excuses for their failures in the past. But in looking to understand the forces that have made us and nearly unmade us, and in hoping to recognise possible future sources of conflict in the new millennium, we have to realise that sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror.

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