Rewriting the history of the British Empire

by Keith Windschuttle  


In the new film of Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, the writer and director Patricia Rozema includes an early scene that is not in the book. As Fanny Price departs from her family in Portsmouth to live in the grand household of her aunt and uncle, she hears someone wailing on a ship off the coast. “Black cargo, Miss,” explains the coachman. The ship is a slave transport and it is meant to remind the audience that around 1800, when this scene takes place, England was still a slave-trading nation. It is also a portent of what the heroine will eventually discover is the dark side of her new home. Many among Jane Austen’s legions of readers will be upset at the film taking such license with the novel because it imposes a controversial political issue onto the quintessentially domestic concerns of their favorite author. Those with a little historical and geographical knowledge will also find the scene outlandishly incongruent. Portsmouth is a harbor on the English Channel and, at the time, the transportation of slaves went by the “Middle Passage,” that is, directly across the Atlantic Ocean from the Guinea Coast of Africa to the Americas. To be anywhere near the coast of England, a slave trader would have to be thousands of miles off course.


The scene is in the film because the literary critic Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism (1993) persuaded many readers that Mansfield Park and its author are deeply implicated in the question of both slavery and imperialism in the islands of the Caribbean, the location of the sugar plantations that funded some of England’s grand estates, including that of the novel’s title. Mansfield Park was published in 1814 and, according to Said, it was then the latest in a long line of literary products that had supported English imperial interests for the previous two-hundred years, that is, since the English Renaissance of the Elizabethan era. Said claims,

Even a quick inventory reveals poets, philosophers, historians, dramatists, statesmen, novelists, travel writers, chroniclers, soldiers, and fabulists who prized, cared for, and traced these interests with continuing concern.

The British Empire effectively ended more than fifty years ago with the independence of India in 1947, an event that soon triggered a run of imitators. One might have thought that, at this distance, there would be little point in continuing the long and acrimonious argument between left and right over an empire that no longer exists, and even less point in seeking the high moral ground about its early accompaniments, such as the slave trade to the British West Indies that was ended by act of parliament nearly two-hundred years ago. The target of Said and other “postcolonial” critics who want to continue this debate, however, has shifted from England and its empire to the wider focus of Western culture. Hence the interest in censuring and doctoring the work of Jane Austen and her peers who produced the canon of Western literature. The British Empire might be dead, but postcolonial critics claim its culture of exploitation persists in the minds of those who have inherited it, especially in the United States. The imperialist imperative purportedly lives on today in an expansionist American foreign and economic policy, where it is validated by Western culture.


This argument, however, will become increasingly difficult to sustain once the findings of the new Oxford History of the British Empire work their way into the consciousness of those who shape opinion on these matters. All five volumes of a project that actually deserves that overworked term “monumental” have now been published. [1] The first two appeared in 1998 and the final three were released earlier this year. The work contains separate chapters by 150 authors, most of whom have impressive scholarly credentials for the tasks they undertake. And, as you would expect of an academic assembly of this size, a great many shades of opinion are represented. As well as the more familiar, traditional history from above, written in the metropolis, there is now plenty of history from below, written from the peripheries, that tells the imperial story from the point of view of the colonized peoples. As could be predicted of any work in the humanities produced in the 1990s, the familiar political identity groups and their ideological triumvirate of gender, race, and class are well represented.


Nonetheless, most people who read several chapters of each volume will be impressed by the fact that, although there is some deference from the editors to the writings of postcolonial literary critics and the gurus from cultural studies, the project overall has attracted some very good historians who are disdainful of these fashions and remain committed to the traditional values of their discipline. Thanks to the efforts of this last group, the volumes demonstrate that a number of the old debating points about the politics and the morality of Britain’s imperial adventure have now been resolved, at least at the level of historical scholarship if not yet in the popular media.


One of the longest running of these debates has been over slavery, especially its abolition and its contribution to the wealth of England, which, as the film of Mansfield Park shows, is an issue on which many liberals still feel the need to declare themselves. In the eighteenth century, English merchant ships were the principal transporters of slaves from Africa to the New World, and slave labor on English sugar plantations in the West Indies made fortunes for their absentee owners at home. Yet parliament put an end to this business by banning the transportation of slaves in 1807 and outlawing the ownership of slaves in 1833. Until the 1940s, the consensus among historians was that slavery was ended because of the strength of religious feeling and humanitarianism, expressed through the abolitionist movement of William Wilberforce and his Evangelical Christian followers. However, in a widely celebrated counterthesis, Eric Williams attacked this moral explanation and substituted an economic rationale. In 1938, Williams had been the first student from the West Indies to earn a doctorate at Oxford University. However, instead of undergoing the civilizing process anticipated by those colonial officials who had arranged his tuition, Williams discovered Marxism at Oxford. Returning to Trinidad, he revised his D.Phil thesis and published it as Capitalism and Slavery (1944), arguing that slavery was only abolished because, after more than a century of cropping, the monoculture of sugar cane had exhausted the soil of the West Indian islands, and the estates had become unprofitable. Prohibiting the transport of slaves would prevent French expansion on other islands in the region while the British transferred their plantations to Asia. Moreover, while attacking the traditional explanation for abolition, Williams constructed an even more audacious moral case of his own about the place of slavery in the English economy. The profits from the transport and sale of slaves, he argued, made a substantial contribution to financing the industrial revolution in Britain. Hence, all those subsequent generations of Europeans who have enjoyed the standards of living provided by industrialism have done so from capital accumulated on the backs of black slave labor.


There are two chapters in the Oxford history that examine Williams’s still influential thesis and come to quite different conclusions. In volume II, J. R. Ward reviews the literature on abolition and concludes that Williams was mistaken about the economic decline of the West Indian plantations. In fact, they had only recently introduced higher yielding cane varieties, more efficient crushing and refining technologies, and, because of livestock expansion, a more abundant supply of manure for fertilizer. The Caribbean was still of considerable economic importance, employing half of England’s long-distance shipping and providing one-eighth of exchequer revenue, while its credit remained a vital element of the London financial market. “When abolition was finally enacted,” Ward writes, “British West Indian trade stood at record levels.”

In the same volume, David Richardson analyzes the contribution of the slave trade to the industrial revolution in Britain and finds Williams’s claims are exaggerated. Profits from slaving voyages contributed less than 1 percent of total domestic investment in Britain at the time. “Such calculations do not suggest,” Richardson observes, “that the slave trade was vital to the financing of early British industrial expansion.” Richardson also examines other claims that the slave trade caused widespread depopulation and economic dislocation in Africa, that it caused the “underdevelopment” of Africa. While he does not doubt the torment and pain inflicted on those enslaved, he notes that the lack of data on trends in output and population in pre-colonial Africa makes it impossible to calculate either the social or economic costs of the trade. But we do know that as well as those who suffered, there were many Africans who benefited. Control of the slave supply remained firmly in the hands of African brokers and merchants. European slave transporters waited at coastal ports to pick up their cargoes, which were captured in the hinterland by African dealers and tribal leaders. Richardson notes the terms of trade—the amount of goods given for each slave bought—moved heavily in favor of the Africans from 1750 onwards. This meant that indigenous commercial and political elites within West and Central Africa made large and growing profits from slavery, thus increasing their wealth and power.


There has also long been a dispute about the economic impact of British imperialism on India. This dates back to the late eighteenth century when Edmund Burke called in parliament for an end to corruption in the regions then controlled by the East India Company, claiming its officers had destroyed the fabric of the Indian economy and society. In volume II of the Oxford history, the Indian historian Rajat Kanta Ray continues this critique, describing the new economy introduced by the British in the eighteenth century as a form of “plunder” and a catastrophe for the traditional economy of Mughal India. He blames the British for the depletion of food and money stocks and the high level of taxation that caused the great famine of 1770, which carried off one-third of the population of Bengal. However, P. J. Marshall in the same volume reviews a number of recent works that have reinterpreted the received view that the prosperity of the formerly benign Mughal rule gave way to poverty and anarchy. Rather than representing a sudden disruption, Marshall writes, the British takeover did not make any sharp break with Indian patterns of rule. British control was delegated largely through regional Mughal rulers and was sustained by a buoyant Indian economy in certain regions and sectors for the rest of the eighteenth century. The British took Indian bankers into partnership and raised revenue through local tax administrators, maintaining existing Mughal rates of taxation. (Professor Ray agrees at least with this last point, observing that the East India Company inherited an onerous taxation system that took one-third of the produce of Indian cultivators.) Instead of the nationalist account of the British as alien aggressors, seizing power by brute force and impoverishing the areas under their control, Marshall offers a story, now backed by a number of scholars in both South Asia and the West, in which the British were actors in what was essentially an Indian play and in which their rise to power depended upon a high level of cooperation with Indian elites. But he also notes that much of this story is still rejected by many historians working in India today.


Unfortunately, in some other regions of the former empire, where the economic consequences are no less contentious, the Oxford history presents only one point of view, that of nationalist complaint. For example the major essay on Egypt in the nineteenth century is written by Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid-Marsot, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She tells us that British investment before 1880 had incorporated Egypt into the global economy, producing the modernization, diversification, and industrial growth that made the country a major international supplier of raw materials, especially cotton. However, after Khedive Ismail’s constant borrowing and waste on unproductive investments brought bankruptcy in 1875–76, followed by a British takeover in 1882, all this changed. Even though the British returned the economy to solvency by 1888–89, she claims that their “tide of commercial rapacity” denuded the country’s wealth, produced growing numbers of poor and landless peasants, and inhibited industrialization. Moreover, Professor Sayyid-Marsot claims that the position of Egyptian women declined dramatically under British rule. Under earlier Islamic law, she writes, women were free to own property, invest widely, and sue in the courts. However, in the 1880s and 1890s they were encouraged to adopt European fashions, consume European goods, and learn European languages. For some reason she neither explains nor supports with evidence, these shifts in taste were not liberating but, she claims, reduced women’s ability to manage their own economic affairs and made them even more dependent upon men.


Even though the editors of the five volumes have deferred to nationalist perspectives by commissioning separate articles on almost every country that was at some time part of the empire, and have employed mainly local historians to write up these area studies, the message that emerges clearly from the series is that the long-familiar nationalist grievances about economic exploitation, originally developed to support the various independence movements, no longer provide a credible platform for writing the history of the empire. They are about as useful as the stories told in the Victorian and Edwardian eras about how the main purpose of the empire was to spread civilization and liberty. Instead of continuing to impose the standpoint of twentieth-century nationalist movements, several authors in the Oxford history emphasize a broader perspective derived from world history and the economics of modernization.


The result is that the empire, while deriving largely from the internal dynamics of British society, can no longer be understood in the quasi-Marxist terms of exploitation and underdevelopment. As two of the contributors to these volumes, P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, argued in their persuasive work British Imperialism (1993), after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, England became the first country to develop a modern financial and banking system. The City of London then set out to become the financier to the world, providing short-term credit for trade and long-term credit for investment. Within a century, Britain also underwent the industrial revolution, which gave it a surplus of low-cost, factory-manufactured goods for which it sought world markets. As the leading force in finance and manufacturing, and as the dominant European naval and military power, Britain had every reason to expand across the globe and few to prevent it doing so. From the vantage point of hindsight we can now see that the principal artefact it exported to the world was not “civilization,” as many thought at the time, but modernization. In terms of economics, this meant the systems of finance, transportation, and manufacturing that Britain had developed at home. Rather than a form of plunder that depleted the economies that came under its influence, British imperialism injected many of the institutions of modernization into the territories it controlled.


In those countries where British culture and legal systems already held sway, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, modernization was a comparatively painless process. In others, like India and the Middle East, the political, cultural, and legal systems remained relatively impervious to British influence. As A. G. Hopkins points out in volume V, the latter countries had their own internal dynamics that governed the direction and the pace of their evolution. They were not susceptible to Western brands of social engineering. However, while imperialism might not have dramatically transformed their culture, it could and usually did lead to the modernization of their financial and technological infrastructure. And no matter how hard some historians of these latter regions try, they can no longer argue that these changes were essentially for the worst. For instance, in volume III, D. A. Washbrook, who writes about India between 1818 and 1860, does his best to portray the downside of the equation. Early in this period, he writes, British control led to short-term economic depression and long-term economic backwardness as the factory manufactures of England undermined India’s former export markets and as deficits in British-controlled Indian trade with China led to a contraction of the money supply. By the end of his period, however, Washbrook acknowledges the evidence for the many positive results of the investments made by British financiers in railways, ports, and factories, which gave Indian products world markets, which led to long-term economic growth and some short-term economic booms in the second-half of the century, and which also augmented the resources of the unmodernized agrarian sector of the economy.


Modernization is a process that, almost everywhere it has been tried, has disrupted the traditional economy and uprooted people, leading in some cases to successive generations of farmers becoming landless and impoverished, in Britain itself no less than in other countries. But once a modern takeoff has been accomplished, it not only increases the wealth of the population as a whole, but also contributes noticeably to such indicators of human well-being as decreased morbidity, increased longevity, and dramatic declines in infant mortality. One of the great tragedies of the second-half of the twentieth century is that in the struggle for independence from the empire, many nationalist leaders overplayed the disruption caused by imperial governance. They believed their own propaganda that the capitalist economics that accompanied it were nothing less than a sophisticated form of theft. Once they gained independence they chose to pursue the path of modernization through socialist policies. In several parts of Asia and Africa, they were counselled by economic advisors from the USSR. As a result, they condemned their populations to fifty years of economic stagnation and, for the lowliest members of their society, humiliating poverty and hunger.


While the USSR might now be a spent force, the theories that accompanied its international influence are still being promoted in the intellectual market place. As the Oxford history demonstrates, this is especially true in debates over the imperial economy. Apart from the nationalist grievances discussed above, the major debate is over what is called the “informal empire,” that is, the claim that the British Empire not only encompassed the countries it formally annexed but also those where it became the dominant foreign economic influence. This informal empire is claimed to have encompassed North and South America, China, and even parts of Southeast Asia that were nominally controlled by the Dutch and the French. From this perspective, Britain was not only the head of an empire but also controller of the world economy.


The Oxford history is especially useful for its treatment of the informal empire. Volume V is entirely devoted to historiography, that is, to the shifting interpretations and emphases made by historians of the empire over the span of its life. In introducing this volume, the editor-in-chief, Wm. Roger Louis, notes that the 1953 article “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” by the English historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, has become the most cited piece in the historiography of British imperialism. Robinson and Gallagher portrayed the empire as an iceberg, with the formal empire only the visible part. Below the waterline was a much vaster empire of informal trade and influence. Long before the 1880s and the scramble for Africa and the Middle East, British free trade had established a global empire of dependency and influence. At the time they wrote this piece, Louis observes, Robinson and Gallagher were committed British socialists who were wary of both the USSR and the USA. They were especially worried that the postwar American program for the economic revitalization of Europe, the Marshall Plan, would reduce Britain to an American satellite, just as they believed Britain had itself reduced others in the nineteenth century. For this analysis, plus their other influential work, Africa and the Victorians (1961), Robinson and Gallagher both eventually succeeded to the position of Beit Professor of the History of the British Commonwealth at Oxford, long the most prestigious chair in imperial history.


The influence of their work, however, spread much further than the portals of English academic institutions. They shifted the debate about the economic consequences of imperialism onto the stage of world history. They persuaded many people that a country did not have to be conquered militarily to lose its independence. The same could happen through trade and investment from a more powerful economy. They also breathed life into the notion that capitalism was a world system controlled by the dominant ruling class, a view that became popular in Western intellectual circles following its endorsement by the French Annalist historian Fernand Braudel in Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century (1979) and by the Marxist sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein in The Modern World-System (three volumes, 1974–89). The thesis they originated lives on today in leftist critiques of globalization, in European policies to restrict trade with the United States, and in recent events such as the riots in Seattle over the World Trade Organization’s attempt to increase free trade and reduce international tariff barriers.


However, despite the editor-in-chief of the Oxford history putting Robinson and Gallagher on something of a hero’s pedestal, there are other chapters in the series that provide enough evidence to seriously question their “informal empire” thesis. In volume II, P. J. Marshall argues that they underestimated the political and economic obstacles to effective domination. In South America, it was only in Brazil that the British found pliant political collaborators. In the United States after 1776, Britain could exert no political influence, although there was a population long habituated to British goods and able to pay for them through large exports of primary produce. Over much of Asia, Marshall argues, indigenous political systems were still largely beyond the reach of British diplomatic influence or even the threat of British warships and Indian troops, while intercontinental trade had little influence on most Asian economies. “Concepts of informal empire,” Marshall writes, “are even more difficult to apply to Asia, outside the Indian subcontinent, or to Africa, than they are to the Americas.” In volume III, Martin Lynn devotes a persuasively argued chapter to the same thesis. He says that the idea seriously exaggerates both the British government’s willingness to intervene overseas before the 1880s, and its success in establishing more than a superficial paramountcy over parts of the wider world. Lynn points out that there are conceptual limitations to the use of metaphors such as “informal empire” or “informal control” to understand Britain’s relations with these areas. The metaphors distort what was actually a more ambiguous and fluid form of influence and are unhelpful in implying that this influence was all one way, from Britain to the outside world, rather than a mutually permeable process. Lynn concludes:

That Britain established a commercial or financial presence in a region did not mean, necessarily, that she gained either economic or political paramountcy over it. Only at the highest level of abstraction can Latin America, China, Ottoman Turkey, and Africa in the mid-nineteenth century be described as parts of a British informal empire.

Some of the most fervent advocates of the “informal empire” thesis are those post-colonial social theorists and literary critics who have gained a major foothold in academic life in the United States and several countries of the old empire, especially India. Indeed, the postcolonial theorist network is one reason why there are now so many Indian academics employed in the humanities departments of American universities. These critics argue that, instead of Britain, it is now America that rules an informal world empire. Volume V has a particularly illuminating discussion of their ideas. It is by D. A. Washbrook who, as I noted above, is by no means inclined to portray the British in India in the nineteenth century in favorable terms. He begins his chapter on “Colonial Discourse Theory” by praising the “dazzling” analysis and “withering critique” of the guru of this movement, Edward Said, and quickly slips into the mind-numbing jargon, replete with innumerable scare quotes, that writers in this genre seem to find obligatory:

Critical discourse theory re-interrogates the past with a view, not to establishing “scientific” truths and narrating stories of progressive emancipation, but to exposing the particular conditions under which various “knowledges” were produced and authorized; the self-referential ways in which they “represented” the subjects of their study; and the relations of domination by which their own constructs were imposed on those subjects, at the expense of the latter’s “different” understandings.

And so on for half-a-dozen pages, paying the now-familiar obeisance to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, as well as drawing particular attention to Ranajit Guha and his “Subaltern group” of radical Indian historians. Without warning, Washbrook then turns his whole approach around and produces perhaps the best brief demolition job on this movement yet written.


Although they address historical topics, members of the Subaltern group offer a radical critique of the discipline of history, which they see as an intellectual product of imperialism itself. They want to destroy the distinction between fact and myth, to reconceptualize time, to insist that Indian history can only be written by and for Indians themselves, and to subvert the logic of history as a field that produces knowledge. In general, if a category or concept is used by Western historians, this identifies it as part of Western or Enlightenment discourse, and so the Subalterns insist on rejecting it. But as Washbrook points out, this makes it very difficult to write an Indian-oriented history because there are many elementary concepts about Indian society, such as “Hinduism” and “caste,” for example, which the British adopted because they found them being used first by Indians themselves. Moreover, the Subaltern group has recently drawn fire from the old left in India for its abandonment of Marxist terminology such as “class” and “capital” in favor of concepts such as “community,” “hierarchy,” and “authority.” Their critics have observed that colonial discourse theorists prefer such traditional concepts because most of them come from upper-status groups among the formerly colonized people who were privileged by colonialism. Washbrook points out that, over successive volumes, their journal Subaltern Studies has allowed topics such as the oppression of the peasantry to disappear from its pages, to be replaced by the angst of the Calcutta intelligentsia. Other critics have noted that the majority of colonial discourse theorists are now employed not in the former colonies but in Western, especially American, universities. Washbrook comments:

However little the ontological categories of such theory may make sense of the colonial past, they fit perfectly with the political categories of “multiculturalism” inside present-day Western societies themselves. The rhetoric of racial and ethnic “victimization” speaks to a political agenda most relevant to the contemporary West. Such theory also provides a means by which members of now multicultural bourgeoisies located in the West can reassert affinities with and claims to authority over the societies which they left behind. In a final irony, colonial discourse theory becomes a new mechanism of imperialism in an age of multicultural, globalized capitalism.

Another point that Washbrook might have made is that, beneath all its attempts at reconceptualizing historiography, the postcolonial movement is still operating with a very simplistic notion of imperial history. It has not moved beyond the old nationalist assumption that the process was one of conquistadors subjugating natives, of foreign devils vanquishing the traditional owners. A reading of the new Oxford history makes this dichotomy very difficult to sustain. In India and in the Near and Middle East, rather than a stable indigenous society being overturned by external aggressors, the process involved one imperialist replacing another. The Mughals were not the native rulers of India but Muslims from Persia who conquered much of the previously Hindu territory of the subcontinent early in the sixteenth century. Before their rule had lasted three-hundred years, the British displaced them. It was a similar situation in North Africa, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and the Persian Gulf. From the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, the Ottomans (a people originally from the steppes of Asia) ruled from Constantinople a vast territory that had been formerly controlled by Arabs, who had, in turn, captured it from the Roman Empire of the East. These lands subsequently came under British control, in some cases with the approval of the Ottomans themselves.


Moreover, the British were by no means fully in control of these events. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain was involved in a struggle for supremacy with its Great Power rival, France. Each operated on the assumption that a gain for the other would be a setback for itself, and so a kind of territorial arms race eventuated. The British takeover of India actually began with a series of small trade wars with the French, which soon escalated into a struggle for dominance on the subcontinent. In Asia, Britain was also attempting to stem the expansion of its other rival, Russia, which had recently extended its domain eastward all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The British knew that without their military presence in India, the Russians would attempt to take their place.

At this distance, it should make more sense to look on these events dispassionately, to try to understand, rather than evaluate, the interests and pressures on the various players. However, no matter how anachronistic it might be to impose our own values onto those of two and three centuries ago, the fact that the consequences of imperialism are still with us seems to compel moral judgments about the process. Historians have long been bound up with this, no less than politicians, churchmen, and other opinion makers. In the long term, the most difficult moral issue has been the sharp division between the political rights accorded to people of British descent and to those of other races.


In his foreword to volume II, Wm. Roger Louis points out that by the late eighteenth century, two very different aspects of British political rule had emerged. On one side were the areas of European settlement that were evolving representative government. On the other were areas where rule was, at best, a form of “enlightened” despotism.

The language of liberty informed the ideology of the American Revolution, yet plantation owners in the West Indies found no difficulty in using the same vocabulary in a slave society. In India the British ruled over vast populations and made no attempt to introduce representative institutions.

This political legacy prevailed for the life of the empire and the double standards involved were to provoke an equally long resentment among those non-Europeans whose countries were denied the status of the white dominions. Without having to agitate for it, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand each gained a large measure of self-government by the mid-nineteenth century. But for the next century, British governments resisted transferring the same authority to India, South East Asia, Africa, the West Indies, and the Middle East, until forced either by the pressure of opinion at home or by open revolt within the colonies themselves.


Despite this discrepancy, the criteria which Professor Louis chooses in volume IV to measure the ethical status of the empire in the twentieth century are these same political issues:

the desirability of orderly and efficient government as well as rule under law, the establishment of the courts, and the development of constitutions, which need to be mentioned if only to emphasize their later demise in Africa and elsewhere.

In toting up the scorecard, he includes the nationalist anti-imperialist movements in the non-white colonies as one of the positive achievements of the empire, not the least because of the English political values on which these movements were based. “Indians, as well as French Canadians and Afrikaners quoted John Locke, Lord Durham and John Stuart Mill,” he observes. Whatever the fate of British political institutions in the post-independence era, Louis argues, the nation-state system was part of the European colonial legacy, and standards of British law and democracy continued to provide the measure by which governments would be judged.


In some parts of the old empire, this is no doubt true. Despite the Subaltern historians and their kind, it is hard to disagree with Louis when he nominates democracy in India as one conspicuous example of what he means in calling the British imperial legacy “lasting and substantial.” There are, however, other territories where not only nation states based on constitutions, rule of law, and democratic government failed to eventuate after independence but also where the lives of the former imperial subjects have constituted a long stretch of misery and violence ever since. The most useful discussion of this is the chapter by Francis Robertson in volume IV entitled “The British Empire and the Muslim World.” By the 1920s, Robinson points out, the British Empire embraced more than half the Muslim peoples of the world and it was the context in which many Muslims experienced the transition to modernity. In the diplomatic settlements at the end of the First World War, Britain had to resolve the conflicting understandings it had reached with Arabs, Zionists, and the French over the position of the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The result was the formation of three new, highly artificial states: Iraq, composed of Shia and Sunni Muslims, a large number of discontented Kurds, and a host of tribal groupings; Palestine, carved out of three separate Ottoman districts and which for nearly 2000 years had been little more than a geographic expression; and Transjordan, a state with no administrative region, no specific people and no historical memory. In Africa, two other artificial states were created: Nigeria, hopelessly divided between Christian peoples in the south and Muslims in the north; and Sudan, with similar antagonisms between a Muslim north and Christian south. The largest and most artificial nation created by Britain was the Muslim state of Pakistan, which originally contained an eastern province that became the independent state of Bangladesh after a civil war in 1971. Of all the above states, only Transjordan has since gaining independence escaped the fate of a long succession of internal violence involving quasi or outright civil war, political assassination, military takeover, and chronic economic disruption that in several cases has produced food crises and starvation. In these states, no matter how many failings one can point to among the post-independence rulers, the imperial legacy remains directly implicated because it created the terrain on which the subsequent conflicts were fought out.


In short, the transition to independence of a sizable part of the empire was a badly handled mess. Much of the blame for this lies with those critics of imperialism, in both the metropolis and the colonies, who were more concerned to end its rule quickly rather than wisely, and who were even less concerned that the boundaries of several new states saddled them with problems that were unresolvable except by violence. The Oxford history makes clear that, before the rush to disband it, British imperial rule in many parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, while it might not have been representative or democratic, was nonetheless orderly, largely benign, and usually fair. For all their faults, most British colonial officials delivered good government—or at least better government than any of the likely alternatives. The lives of millions of ordinary people in these countries would have been much happier had the British stayed longer, that is, until a more satisfactory path to independence and a more sensible map of territorial boundaries had been drawn up. Indeed, the uncivilized conditions in which many people in the old imperial realm now live is evidence that the world would be a better place today if some parts of it were still ruled by the British Empire.


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  1. The Oxford History of the British Empire, Wm. Roger Louis, editor-in-chief; Volume I: The Origins of Empire, edited by Nicholas Canny; Volume II: The Eighteenth Century, edited by P. J. Marshall; Volume III: The Nineteenth Century, edited by Andrew Porter; Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, edited by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis; Volume V: Historiography, edited by Robin W. Winks; Oxford University Press, $45 per volume.
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From The New Criterion Vol. 18, No. 9, May 2000

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