The true legacy of the British Empire

By Khaled Moyeed

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement across the world, it is high time for us in the UK to learn about the true legacy of the British Empire and how it contributes to structural racism in our society to this day.

At its peak, the British Empire was the largest empire in history. By the early 1900s, Britain had conquered nearly a quarter of the earth’s total land area holding sway over approximately half a billion people, which was nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

The ideology that underpinned this imperialist project was white supremacy. In other words, natives in Africa, Asia, Australia and elsewhere were viewed as depraved, barbarians and backward. They needed to be civilised by the superior white British saviour. They needed to be taught table manners, how to play cricket and speak English. The Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic supremacy was the driving force behind the British Empire.

The true legacy of the empire is not taught in our schools in the UK. I had a look at the BBC website under the section ‘Class Clips’. There is a section on KS3/GCSE History entitled, “What legacy has the British Empire left behind?”

There is a clip from the series Empire by Jeremy Paxman, in which he says, “The Empire brought blood and suffering to millions, but it also brought railways, roads and education.

“For good or ill, much of the world is the way it is today because of the Empire, from the way it looks, to the sports people play, from the religion we practise, to the language we speak.”

Conversations about the British Empire in the UK become a balancing exercise between whether it was a force for good or bad with the majority view that it was good.

George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist, talks about the devastating legacy of the British Empire. He mocks the British attitude to the empire which he likens to an omelette – he says that we broke a few eggs (killed a few millions of people), but “look at this wonderful omelette!” Look at the Indian railways, the abolition of slavery and the spread of the English language!

In reality, the railways were built to aid the British extraction of wealth from India; the abolition of slavery was instigated by the slaves themselves (Britain simply nationalised it by paying off all slave owners) and the English language was often imposed on locals – those with English language skills were given preferential treatment while native speakers were discriminated against.

In Britain, people feel proud about the empire. In an episode of the reality TV show, Apprentice, contestants had to choose a name for their team with the theme ‘best of British’ and they chose ‘Empire’.

I will now touch on what the British Empire did in the Indian sub-continent and Kenya.

The British Raj

Britain completed its invasion of the Indian subcontinent with the conquest of the Bengal at the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757. Robert Clive of the East India Company bribed the commander in chief of the Bengal army. Divide and rule was the tactic that was used from the outset and the Indian sub-continent continues to suffer its consequences to this day.

When the British arrived in India, it was an advanced civilisation. Its GDP accounted for nearly a quarter of the world’s economy. By the time the British left, its share of the world economy went down to around 4%.

Famines were manufactured killing tens of millions of people. The great Bengal famine of the 1770s, between 1769 and 1773, killed around 10 million people. At least one third of the population of the Bengal was wiped out.

Historian William Dalrymple wrote that the de-industrialisation of Bengal and the British policies were the reasons for the mass famine and widespread atrocities.

There were man-made famines throughout the 19th century in British-controlled India. The last of these famines was in 1943 in which three million people were killed.

Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of Britain whose policies led to the devastation that the famine wreaked on the people of Bengal. Medical and food supplies were diverted away from the Bengal to the well-supplied soldiers in Europe.

When the Delhi Government sought assistance, Churchill blamed the famine on the people of India. He said, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

Robert Clive who established the British rule in India committed suicide in 1774. William Dalrymple recently wrote in The Guardian that Clive “was widely reviled as one of the most hated men in England. His body was buried in a secret night-time ceremony, in an unmarked grave, without a plaque.”

Robert Clive was lampooned in a satire as Lord Vulture. After his death, whistleblowers wrote about the widespread murders, looting and plundering under Robert Clive’s rule.

However, in the early 20th century, a revisionist history was drawn up to deal with the resistance that threatened the British Raj. Lord Vulture went through a bit of a metamorphosis and became the heroic Clive of India. A statue of Robert Clive was erected outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.

After the fall of Ed Coulston’s statue in Bristol, a petition has been set up to remove the statue of Lord Vulture from Whitehall:

The Kikuyu uprising in Kenya

The British arrived in Kenya in the 1880s with the help of the East India Company which took over India in the mid-1700s. The British troops stole more than 60,000 acres of land from the Kikuyu tribe, and renamed the area “the White Highlands.”

The people of Kenya objected and tried to resist the invaders. They demanded freedom and a return of their land. Their peaceful protests were met with violence by the British troops. This gave birth to the Kikuyu uprising supported by the majority of the 1.5 million Kikuyu. It was dubbed pejoratively as the ‘Mau Mau’ uprising. The London press referred to the Kikuyu as “evil savages” and “terrorists” who disliked Christianity and civilisation. The British declared war on them, putting them into concentration camps. One of the men held for months was Barack Obama’s grandfather.

Professor Caroline Elkins wrote Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, describing the torture tactics adopted by the British.  She wrote that “Bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin and hot eggs were thrust up men’s rectums and women’s vaginas.”

A Kikuyu survivor described the torture tactics that he had witnessed where a British guard would hold the Kikuyu upside down in a bucket full of water while another guard would start cramming sand in the anus with a stick. A guard would insert more water into the anus and stuff it with a stick.

Another favoured torment was to roll a man in barbed wire and kick him around until he bled to death.

British officers who wrote memoirs described murdering Kikuyu “baboons” and another officer proudly called their tactics as “Gestapo stuff”. Up to 300,000 Kenyans were killed in this way between 1952 and 1960.

Facing up to our past

In Germany today, children are taught about the horrors of the Nazi regime. I visited the Topography of Terror museum on the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo in Berlin, which details the Nazi regime’s torture techniques in gas chambers, concentration camps and so forth. This helps to expunge the evil ideology from the German DNA as they face up to the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis.

The history and the true legacy of the British Empire are not taught in our schools. Its crimes do not weigh down on our national conscience. There is no museum that people can visit to learn about the brutality of the British colonialist project. The ideology that underpinned it is still present today in institutionalised racism across British society. Facing up to our past will be a small step in righting this wrong.