Richard Gott Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt. New York: Verso, 2011, 568 pages.
In “Shooting an Elephant,” an autobiographical essay published in 1936, George Orwell speaks of time spent as a police officer in a Burmese town. At close quarters with the dirty work of imperialism the young Orwell had grown deeply disillusioned with the British Empire. At the same time he was possessed of a “rage against the evil-spirited beasts who tried to make my job impossible.” Torn between hatred of Empire and resentment of the local population Orwell is a solitary and conflicted figure who, in the end, acts not out of a sense of duty but a fear of looking ridiculous. As Orwell reflects on the existential quandaries of his younger days he is able to retroactively reconcile the incoherence of this earlier experience to a lack of education and an isolation that left him unable to gain perspective. “I did not even know,” he writes, “that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.”
Orwell chronicles the moral ambiguities of imperialism with keen insight and existential depth. Nearly a century later we are plagued with many of the same concerns Orwell faced. Systemic inequality and racism make us uncomfortable when we are aware of them, but our awareness often breeds guilt rather than action. Those of us who have inherited the legacy of the colonizing people are often bound in the strange admixture of pity and contempt towards indigenous people, unable or unwilling to radically identify with their concerns. And, at least in the Anglophone world, the British Empire hangs about in the background; the benign ghost of civilization`s yesteryear. If not an unambiguously good thing the sensibility that the British Empire was a lesser evil remains promised; a compromised yet legitimate authority.
Yet, if we are to move forward, this Orwellian nostalgia must be undone. Descendants of colonized and colonizing peoples, sharing the same geographical spaces, continue to live in a world shaped by history’s violent divisions. Even more disturbingly we continue to feel the effects of a history partial and biased in its telling that it continues to undermine the political will and dignity of peoples and nations across the globe.
British historian and journalist Richard Gott, in his magisterial history Britain`s Empire: Repression, Resistance and Revolt, makes the case that the partiality and one-sidedness of historical writings on the British Empire has long been in need of a corrective. Britain`s Empire, published last year by Verso, is just such a document. “A history of empire today,” says Gott in the book’s opening paragraphs, “must take account of two imperial traditions, that of the conquerors and that of the conquered. Traditionally that second tradition has been conspicuous by its absence.” Gott highlights this second tradition through a detailed and articulate account of the myriad movements of resistance and revolt that met Britain’s imperial efforts at every turn.
Contrary to what Gott calls the “benign, biscuit-tin view of the past” Britain’s imperial project was not an imaginative civilizing enterprise undertaken to bring the benefits of modernity to backward peoples. Indeed the history may not even support Orwell’s more mild contention that it was somewhat better than all those other empires. Gott contends, somewhat provocatively, that Britain provided a blueprint for the genocidal horrors of twentieth-century Europe and must be judged. Gott traces these historical parallels with clarity and precision; from the extensive use of prison labour camps, first in North America then Ceylon, Australia, and elsewhere to programs of “extermination – a word used frequently by both military officials and settlers in Australia and South Africa to describe their intentions towards the native populations.
Gott is, however, too wise a historian to draw out the evils of British imperialism as the product of a sinister meticulously planned conspiracy. The reality is much more complex, though no less horrifying. Mercantile interests, land-hungry settlers, and megalomaniac military commanders all play their part in the long tale of human destruction. Gulags and genocide, while chillingly present, do not always form the order of the day. Even in this account Britain, or elements within, show something of a civilized face. One of the major strengths of the book is the way in which the emerging social consciousness of the British people and politicians are shown to be connected to the work of local resistance and revolt. Without the slave rebellion of Tacky in Jamaica in 1760, and especially without Toussaint L’Ouverture’s successful revolution in Haiti, the abolitionist currents within Britain could not have begun when they did nor, lacking the necessary awareness, have sustained any momentum. The history of those experiencing the oppression and repression of imperial forces, as Gott repeatedly stresses, is not a story of hapless victims but often, though not always, a story of courage, cunning and resourcefulness. Perhaps most importantly they are stories of political will and human agency.
Political will and human agency are not the sole property of nations with imperialist intentions and highly developed military complexes. Pity and contempt are not the only options. There is also respect. Remembering the forgotten and ignored stories of Empire – the victories as well as the failures of the conquered peoples, the atrocities of the conquerors – is one important step in building respect and beginning the long hard work of making amends for centuries of injustice. In this important task Richard Gott’s latest book is a powerful resource.Joshua Paetkau is a father of two and a barista at The Neighbourhood Bookstore and Cafe in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a bachelor of arts in theology and social science, and is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.