"A necessary corrective" to the apologists of the Empire—three reviews of Britain's Empire


Whatever one thinks about the British imperial past and its legacy, the circumstantial evidence of the crimes committed by British troops and officers overseas collected by Richard Gott in his Britain's Empire: Resistance, Rebellion and Repression can no longer be ignored. As Gavin Bowd points out in a review for the Scotland on Sunday, Britain's Empire is "a pungent and provocative book ... a rich compendium of revolt." Gott sheds light on how the British Empire was "the fruit of military conquest and brutal wars involving physical and cultural extermination of subject people." Reminding us of horrific episodes (e.g. the fact that white settlers in Australia "put strychnine in flour for Aborigines"), Britain's Empire powerfully debunks "the kind of glorious ‘narrative history' that Michael Gove has been calling for in British schools."

The distance between Gott's account and the official narrative on the British Empire is also stressed by Stephen Howe in a review for the Independent. In Howe's view, Britain's Empire is "much at odds with what remains of the mainstream view" about the British Empire—that is to say, the apologetic narrative that claims that the Empire was a civilizing enterprise. Writing from the perspective of the academic historian, Howe, a Professor in the History and Cultures of Colonialism at Bristol University, finds some shortcomings in Gott's book: for example, he points to the allegedly patchy nature of the bibliographic references. Nonetheless, Britain's Empire stands out as a passionate counter-history of the British imperial past, especially compared with other recent books geared to the general public such as Jeremy Paxman's Empire: What the World Did to the British and Kwasi Kwarteng's Ghosts of Empire. In his review, Howe points out how

Paxman seems more concerned to recall horrors committed on ‘us' by the ‘natives', and to reassure that most of those who ran the empire were not really such bad chaps after all.

As against this approach, Britain's Empire is "a welcome, even necessary, corrective," Howe writes.

The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra also offers a parallel reading of Gott's, Kwarteng's and Paxman's books for the Financial Times. Mishra underlines how both Paxman's and Kwarteng's books fail to investigate "the economic raison d'être of imperialism." Instead, Mishra stresses how

tens of millions were exposed ... to famine and early death in India and Ireland when the British turned them into laboratories for experiments in unfettered free trad.

In his words, these callous mass exterminations

were certainly the first of the modern era's uniquely ideological crimes, for which the central planners of communist regimes are more commonly blamed.

Mishra does not entirely agree with the parallel that Richard Gott draws between the rulers of the British Empire and the dictators of twentieth-century. But at the same time, he admits that Gott's judgment can be considered even mild, compared with the genuine outrage that the memory of British imperial crimes still awakens in today's China and India.

Gavin Bowd's review appeared in the Scotland on Sunday print edition dated Sunday 23 October.

Visit the Independent to read Stephen Howe's review in full.

Visit the Financial Times to read Pankaj Mishra's review in full.

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