The brutal story of British empire continues to this day

All around the world, from Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka, the violent legacy of colonialism can still be witnessed

By Richard Gott, The Guardian UK

Many of the present conflicts in the world take place in the former colonial territories that Britain abandoned, exhausted and impoverished, in the years after the second world war. This disastrous imperial legacy is still highly visible, and it is one of the reasons why the British empire continues to provoke such harsh debate. If Britain made such a success of its colonies, why are so many in an unholy mess half a century later, major sources of violence and unrest?

Top of the list is Palestine, a settler colony that Britain abandoned in 1947 after barely 30 years, having imposed a population of mostly European settlers on the indigenous people – one of the typical characteristics of imperial rule. Unfortunately for the settlers, arriving during the imperial sunset, they had insufficient time to achieve the scale of defeat of the local people, amounting to extermination and genocide, that characterised the British conquest and settlement of Australia.

While the native peoples of Australia, drunk and demoralised, survive in shanty towns or reservations, those in Palestine have had some capacity to struggle against such a fate, organising a lasting resistance to the settlers, inspired by their own ancient religion and sustained by the support of a vast Arab hinterland. The Australian settlers suffer from little more than a guilty conscience – if that- while the Israelis face a permanent and ineradicable threat. Like the medieval crusaders, whose ruined castles dominate the landscape of the eastern Mediterranean, they will be lucky if their state lasts more than a century. Many will surely abandon ship in despair.

A similar imperial trouble spot is Sierra Leone, another settler colony where the British imposed an alien, largely Christian, black population from Britain and Canada on to a congeries of native peoples already in thrall to Islam. The original colony dates back to the 18th century, but much of the country was secured through military conquest at the end of the 19th, to which there was energetic resistance. The recurrence of civil war, though suffocated recently by a return of British troops, remains a permanent probability.

Other victims of settler colonialism where unresolved problems survive from the time of empire include South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, and of course the tragic statelet of Northern Ireland. In these countries the settlers are all now on the back foot, outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, yet the baneful legacy of the colonial regime – in social customs, and in the forms of government designed to protect settler society – lives on. Much unfinished business remains. Settler colonies of a marginally different kind were established in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Fiji, the victims of continuing trouble. In both islands workers from India were imported in the 19th century for the white-owned plantations, creating the basis for an endless civil war that can never be resolved. Here, as elsewhere, endemic violence and conflict have proved to be the lasting legacy of empire.

In India itself Britain’s speedy and disastrous scuttle in 1947 led to partition and the creation of the “moth-eaten” Muslim state of Pakistan (and eventually of Bangladesh), making nonsense of two centuries of British dominion designed to maintain the unity of the subcontinent. Abandoning India without a clear and agreed decision on the future of the princely state of Kashmir has created a scenario of disaster that has lasted from that day to this.

One troubled imperial outpost, often forgotten and now brought to life as a temporary haven for refugees from Lebanon, is Cyprus, miserably divided like India as a result of imperial misrule, and still under British military surveillance today from two “sovereign” bases.

Others are Nigeria and Somalia, the first unnaturally cobbled together in a unitary state for imperial convenience, the second occupied and abandoned for purely strategic reasons. Both are currently simmering on the stove.

Finally come Iraq and Afghanistan, two modern disasters that have their roots in the experience of empire. Iraq was last in and first out of the British empire, though British military bases were not finally removed until the 1950s. Fifty years later the British are back, British soldiers replacing the Indian sepoys who invaded the country on Britain’s behalf during the first world war. The British left in a hurry in the 1930s, and they will doubtless do so again.

Although nominally independent, Afghanistan was effectively within the imperial sphere for most of the 19th century, though successfully fighting three wars of resistance against the British. The fourth Anglo-Afghan war is now in progress, to be followed as before by an Afghan triumph.

It seems that the story of the empire is being re-enacted over much of the globe, bringing violence and destruction on a scale barely envisaged in the imperial era. How fortunate we would be to have a government in Britain that would help to bind up the wounds of the past, by at least recognising what really happened, rather than to have one that endlessly pours petrol on the flames.

· Richard Gott is author of Cuba: A New History, and is writing a book about imperial resistance Rwgott@aol.com

Reprinted from:
www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1826361,00.html

7 Responses to “The brutal story of British empire continues to this day”


  • This insightful commentary on the enduring legacy of British colonialism does not even begin to scratch the surface. Apart from sowing the seeds of racism, depleting natural resources and imposing systems of governance which were unsuited to the colonized peoples, the greatest tragedy of these historical experiences has been the toll it has taken on the minds of the former colonial subjects.

    The thoroughness of this indoctrination is evident in virtually every facet of life in the former colonial possessions. For example, there is reliance on the British system of laws and governance for guidance, when it ought to be clear that the institutions that served to maintain a colonial master’s dominance over his subjects cannot in turn become the vehicle by which democracy and freedom are expanded.

    In essence, the physical departure of the British from her former colonial possessions, which was accelerated after WWII, led in many instances to the installation of indiginous elites with the same goals and objectives as the colonizer. The ceremonial replacement of the union jack did not signal the end of all ties. British companies still maintained their control over the economies of the “independent” states. In most instances where aging infrastructure was turned over to the successor government, British shareholders reaped windfalls.

    Yet, there has neither been the desire nor the initiative to cast off the shackles that continue to bind us to colonialism.

  • Every country that is now considered “third world” have a history of colonization. I have always felt that the institutions that colonizers imposed were never intended to benefit natives and independence in not an indication that a people have become free. However, these institutions have remained in place without alteration, long after countries have declared their independence. They continue to function for the benefit of the local elite just like in colonial days. The management may have changed but the mentality remained constant. Indeed they have stolen our resources and abused people. but worst than that, they have distorted our history and have stolen our minds.

  • Ms. De Gale, you have so eloquently expressed the essence of neocolonialism. Our “leaders” are graduates of the colonizer’s schools. Their minds are incapable of original thought. They have been the victims of miseducation. They have adopted the manners, dress, speech, and “culture” of their colonial master. They are so beholden, that they are even afraid to create a Caribbean court of last resort, because they cannot even imagine that justice can be served by their own kind. Their confidence rests with the Privy Council—“the Law Lords”—to have the final word.

    Could you please tell me how a former slavemaster, who is guilty of the most heinous crimes against humanity, became endowed as an expert on justice, fairness, and human rights?

  • Please pardon my typographical error, Sir.

  • Philip I will need a Phd in psychology or better yet – a psychiatric degree to explain that malady. Everytime i hear that some matter is being referred to the Privy Council it makes me cringe. It says loudly and clearly that we do not believe that we are capable of making the legal decisions that affect us as a country. Despite 40+ years of independence and our republican status. Despite the experience and education of our highly trained legal minds, it is abundantly evident that we are burdened with an inferiority complex and therefore require the blessings of our former colonizers.

    I do not know if we are blinded by colour or fixated on custom, but it is embarrasing to have to continuously refer local matters to the “Lords” who probably know nothing about us as a country and quite possibly don’t give a damn. Dr. Woodson said that, “if you control a man’s mind, you do not have to worry about his actions …”. Have you ever witnessed those fools walking about town with white wigs on their heads? Israel Khan walked into court with a nero shirt some time ago. He was promptly turned away for dressing inappropiately. Need I say more?

  • The direct consequence of white supremacy- as an instituition-has nothing but direct corrrelation in consequence to the destructive results that colonialism continues to play on its victims. For example here in Canada the French and British decimated local population of indegenous peoples, whilst they fought games of ludicrous suppremacy, laws were neacted to cush the native spirit so much that no one in in leadership capacity is yet to admit the dismal failure to the natives. Even as the statistics show that diseases, social destruction and alchahol and took its toll. Every so often the cesspool of concerns raised its head but the naysayers of leadership on Ottawa and the provincse, even the Queen’s representative remains stoic in their intransigence to somply perpetuate the status quo.The British Raaaj was kicked out of India but they have compounded the Aryan myth and Brahmin interpretation of history. In Trinidad Brahmin interpretation of history, house slave specialization in in the AfroSaxaon mentality, find comensurable similitude in the global struggle against the forces whose effects alone cannot be blame for the torment, but certainly forms key to ongoing problems of victims to victimizers and complexities at play.

  • Michael and Joe, Trinidad and Tobago is in deep trouble, culturally, socially, politically, educationally, and economically. As to the latter, does anyone know what Vision 2020 proposes with regard to diversifying and lessening reliance on the petroleum and natural gas sector of the economy?

    The so-called advanced economies are in the closing phase of research and development for reducing oil consumption. Their hybrid cars, energy efficiency and conservation measures, gas produced from agricultural products, etc. would lead to less demand for oil. Then where would Trinidad and Tobago be?

    I keep being told that Trinidad has enormous wealth, yet I see the stark indicators of a failing economy—widespread poverty and unemployment, low wages, substandard housing, crumbling and neglected infrastructure, a health system that is inadequate, high crime (just today, 3 people were killed in the space of 7 hours), and all of the troubling social effects of a total collapse.

    But let me get back to the enduring reach of the colonizer and his hold on the mental faculties of his “former” subjects. I believe Carter G. Woodson’s work on ‘The Miseducation of the Negro’ was pioneering in explaining the role played by education—indoctrination—in co-opting and “integrating” the oppressed into the mainstream of society.

    Then I read in the 1970s, Frantz Fanon’s ‘Black Skin White Mask’ and began to appreciate more fully the depth to which the colonizer has penetrated the psyche of his captives. I think Malcolm X so eloquently summarized this when he discussed the “House Slave” and the “Field Negro.” In one of Malcolm’s anecdotes, the house slave’s master became ill and the house slave asked:”What’s the matter boss, WE sick?”

    This is an intricate and complex process by which they have come to internalize the oppressor and to identify with him to the point of self-hatred and denial. They are willing to make any sacrifices to defend and uphold him. They are unable to discern the reality that he is the problem and not the solution. After our brutal ordeal at the hands of slavery and then colonization, why are we not challenging the oppressor’s hypocritical claim of being the world’s guardian of human rights and democracy, even in light of the fact that he is still preaching and practising white supremacy? Why are we voting along with the oppressor in the UN in condemning and vilifying nations with whom we should be naturally allied based upon our common historical circumstances?

    In my mind, there are infinite examples of how we have become the oppressor. Just look at Trinidad and Tobago and this truth becomes self-evident.

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