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jittery UK government reveals itself before potential claims of former v
May 6, 2013 10:42 AM   Subscribe

Mau Mau to Midnapore: Confronting the brutality of empire There are certainly some Britons, including academics, journalists and human rights lawyers, who are aware of the realities of colonialism. However, in the society as a whole and in the media in the UK there are still far too many who seem strangely reluctant, even after so many decades after the end of the British empire, to come to terms with the true nature of colonialism or learn from the perspective of former subjects who had rebelled against it.
posted by infini (17 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
The title should (probably) read: jittery UK government reveals itself before potential claims of former victims of the empire's brutality, if anyone was wondering.

Interesting piece, thanks!
posted by filthy light thief at 11:14 AM on May 6, 2013


"A jittery UK government reveals itself before potential claims of former victims of the empire's brutality." The title cutoff claims another!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:14 AM on May 6, 2013


Jinx
posted by filthy light thief at 11:15 AM on May 6, 2013


You would be surprised at the level of ignorance about British Empire atrocities, or even just its history. It simply hasn't been thoroughly and properly taught in most schools, and few enough educate themselves on it later. I didn't even know Malaysia had been part of the British Empire, for example, until only a few years ago. Folk cling onto the Second World War because everything else is too horrible to bear thought.
posted by Jehan at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jehan: The second world war, as the exemplar of the "good war" that coincided with the swan song of empire (because Roosevelt bled the empire bankrupt in payment for US support) has become the origin myth of the modern British state. From before the war we are taught about Kings And Dates of Battles; then comes the holy Just War, and then everything else. In-between, there is an embarrassing grey blur that is fit only to be buried, along with its victims.
posted by cstross at 11:51 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think what is particularly repellent about the brutality in Kenya was it came so late in the whole game, when surely most of those administering the Empire knew it was all over bar the shouting. We mentioned police brute Ian Henderson in that recent thread about the DPRK spy, as having first cut his teeth (and pulled other people's) in Kenya he got a nice sinecure as butcher of Bahrain. Frank Kitson who was to be a leading theorist of state collusion with paramilitaries in the north of Ireland earned his spurs against the Mau Mau too. There was I think a public sense that "bad things" had been done to "win" the Empire but always by previous generations, not atrocities being committed in your name there and then.
posted by Abiezer at 11:58 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


What, I say what, is so wrong with these people that simply refuse to beat themselves up about what their dead ancestors did to some other peoples' dead ancestors? Don't they know they should feel bad and guilty for things they didn't do and had no say or input upon?
posted by codswallop at 12:18 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's that simple codswallop. I don't feel guilty about the empire, not just because it so happens my own family were colonial subjects themselves on one side and hicks in the sticks on the other, so saw little benefit from it, let alone actively participating (though colonial servants came from a wider cross-section of society than a Merchant Ivory flick might lead you to believe). But the history and consequences didn't all just suddenly go away when they lowered the flags in the governor's offices. Take those two policemen [edit: Kitson was a soldier, of course] I mentioned - one goes on to put his theory of pseudo-gangs (paramilitaries committing atrocities pretending to be the other side) in the north of Ireland, itself a post-colonial artefact. The other ends up as the thuggish servant of a repressive monarchy whose strategic ties to the UK also have their roots in the colonial legacy. That was all going on in my lifetime, and it would be harder to get a real sense of what it was all about if you took some arbitrary date as being the end of that phase of the UK state's existence. I'm sure there's a way to have the history be widely known and reflected on that informs current debate rather than ends up as a mere hand-wringing exercise.
posted by Abiezer at 12:29 PM on May 6, 2013


codswallop: I for one am old enough that my parents were able to vote for the governments under whose aegis these atrocities were committed. And they're still alive. If it's still in living memory, it's a living issue.
posted by cstross at 12:29 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Jehan: The second world war, as the exemplar of the "good war" that coincided with the swan song of empire (because Roosevelt bled the empire bankrupt in payment for US support) has become the origin myth of the modern British state. From before the war we are taught about Kings And Dates of Battles; then comes the holy Just War, and then everything else. In-between, there is an embarrassing grey blur that is fit only to be buried, along with its victims.
That's an interesting way of putting it. I suppose whoever chose the new English £5 note* sees it the same way. Maybe it's Churchill, spitfires, and poppies from here on in. No apology for Amritsar then, because that's BC (before Churchill) and so doesn't count. Only events in AD (after Dunkirk) have any meaning.

*Doesn't he look just like an angry baby?
posted by Jehan at 12:59 PM on May 6, 2013


You would be surprised at the level of ignorance about British Empire atrocities, or even just its history

I had a brief debate on Facebook with some grad from Imperial College in London (it's remarkable how self-assured and arrogant these high-fliers are) that Britain wasn't responsible for atrocities - the Colonial Office was managing all these colonies at an arms-length around the world, how could they be expected to know what was happening on the ground? Besides, it was the colonized populations themselves that collaborated with the occupiers who organized things.

That sort of nonsense. He ended up lecturing me from whatever university he was teaching English at in butthole-nowhere in Japan about events that happened two blocks down the road in Victoria, BC, from where I was banging on my keyboard.

There really is no point sometimes.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:15 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


What, I say what, is so wrong with these people that simply refuse to beat themselves up about what their dead ancestors did to some other peoples' dead ancestors? Don't they know they should feel bad and guilty for things they didn't do and had no say or input upon?

That's fine. I personally do not blame the modern day British people, and do not expect them to feel guilty/sorry in any way whatsoever.

But I hope you would at least understand the positions of countries like India better when they refuse to march in step with UK etc. on human rights issues in other parts of the world. The least we can expect is that modern day British would appreciate why we may not be so eager to fall in line with your Human Rights Outrage of the Week, no?

And I wouldn't be so quick about dead ancestors doing things to other dead ancestors. The colonial policies and actions are still affecting people. The partition of India, the ridiculous position of Kashmir, the status of Tibet and the subsequent India-China war.. these things can be directly traced to British colonial policies. And that's just the offhand stuff I can think of about India alone. There were other colonies, other conflicts.
posted by vidur at 1:16 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


An important point that folks need to keep in mind is that the UK is maybe a century ahead of the USA on the retreat-from-empire curve. That is: the USA was pretty much the global hegemonic power, circa 1945-2001, that the UK was circa 1815-1872.

This sort of hangover is an object lesson for the future denizens of North America (Canada excluded). Willful ignorance and bilious consequences and craniorectal insertion and all. Unless y'all try to learn from someone else's experience, and history teaches us that that's a pretty unusual event.
posted by cstross at 1:39 PM on May 6, 2013


Interesting to think what India would be like today if the British had never been there.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:31 PM on May 6, 2013



An important point that folks need to keep in mind is that the UK is maybe a century ahead of the USA on the retreat-from-empire curve. That is: the USA was pretty much the global hegemonic power, circa 1945-2001, that the UK was circa 1815-1872.


except the US really wasn't. perhaps it was due to the dialectic between the US and the USSR, but the US very deliberately positioned itself as the champion of self-determination and the central power of a (Delian) League of Nations, rather than directly administering territories ala the UK and even moved away from East India Co. style corporate colonies in Central America. Eisenhower's intervention to stop the Sinai War didn't mean the US started administering Egypt and India.

which isn't to say that it wasn't a sort of hegemony, but it was rather different from the British Empire.

One of the many ironies of Iraq/Afghanistan was that it was pushed by people who thought the US needed to renew the "American Century" but seemed to have no understanding of how US power worked. (that so many of the neocons were steeped in the "classics" but appeared to have learned little from the fall of Athens just furthered the ironies...)
posted by ennui.bz at 4:55 PM on May 6, 2013


cstross: Canada excluded.

I don't know - Canada seems to be trying to get under the US blanket by offering mini-colonial specials to the highest, or in some cases any, bidder. If it's not the US, it's China, or weirdly, Brazil. Is this some kind of reverse colonization, or is it just that our governments are really, consistently, painfully bad negotiators?

There was an interesting comment here a couple of years back about how Canada looked to Britain and Europe for inspiration up until WWII, but since then has turned increasingly to the US as a model for, well, pretty much everything. Recently we seem to have abandoned any pretext of having learned anything from being a former colony, and are busy getting while the getting is good.
posted by sneebler at 8:52 PM on May 6, 2013


these things can be directly traced to British colonial policies.

More than atrocities in the moment, my ire rises for the way they attempted to wipe out and rewrite centuries of science, philosophy and a culture of intellectual discourse, only to replace it with Macauleyism (in India) or worse*, where there was no formal education at all, with carefully crafted curricula meant to churn out hundreds of proper little middle managers i.e. native colonial administrators and babus.

This completely rewritten educational legacy still impacts us, wherever in the Empire we may be from. Witness this lovely snippet online:

In order to understand Indian recruiters, is important to understand India. I have been to India and to Pakistan, and have done reading on the history of the region. Essentially, India and Pakistan were bronze age societies prior to colonialization** by the British. Colonialization was begun by the East India Trading Company (without authorization from the British Government), and was eventually taken over by the British Government. India has an enormous population (either soon to or already larger than China’s), and while the British brought some infrastructure, such as a rail system and postal system, most of the country remained undeveloped long after India won independence from the British. While India’s independence is a source of national pride for Indians,the country actually regressed. While the British were in India for their own advantages, the British were better administrators than the Indians that took over from them (since independence and up to the current day) and were less corrupt. India sits at 95 out of 180 countries on the Worldwide Corruption scale. (the US sits at 24, dropping roughly ten spots during the Bush Administration and not recovering our position a single space during the Obama Administration)


Though the irony is that they themselves beat their chests over "Oh why did we ever teach them English?"


*Note "Date of Royal Assent"

** Ashoka's rust free iron pillar rose a couple of millenia before this grand arrival of our mighty overlords


tl;dr - I feel as though I walk around with a millstone of shame and humiliation for daring to be a dirty nasty paki or indian (the distinction itself created by the British) and that's the real legacy of the English language driven media, worldview, internet and discourse , even today.
posted by infini at 12:30 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


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