Imperial Blame

Almost every month Britain is being asked to apologise for one or other of her imperial crimes, to tear down statues of her most egregious imperialists (actually there aren’t that many), and even to compensate her victims financially. That’s going to be difficult, of course, when the victims are long dead, though there’s an argument for saying that the damage Britain did then still lives on, in the present economic and social state of the West Indian islands, for instance (the major example); as well the original profits of slavery that we could still be said to be living off, albeit somewhat diluted. All the same, at this distance in time it’s going to be difficult to disentangle the long-term effects of slavery from those of other events since, such as the misrule of the West Indies’ own democratically-elected governments; or, of course, from the benefits that their enforced connexion with Britain from the 17th century on may have bestowed on them. (I don’t want to make too much of this; but perhaps we can all accept cricket?) In any case ‘compensation’ surely smacks of a rather mercenary approach to these problems, such as is widely criticised in, for example, cases of medical malpractice today. Foreign aid should be determined by present need, not past crimes. Although whether the £25 millions that Britain has recently pledged to Jamaica to build a new gaol, to which Britain can shift some of her own offenders, is a particularly good example of this is a moot point.

Even ‘apologies’ are problematical. Slavery had nothing to do with any of us. It happened long ago, before we were born; as did most (not all) of Britain’s colonial atrocities. Why should present-day Britons be held responsible for events whose only connexion with them is that they were perpetrated by people who happened to live on the same patch of land as we live on today – but in very different circumstances? I’ll accept some responsibility for the Iraq war – I was against it but clearly didn’t protest loudly enough – and possibly for the horrors of the Kenya concentration camps, though I was only a boy at the time. But the slave trade? Or Amritsar? Or the near-extermination of native Americans and Australians? Or the Irish famine? I can just about see the point of governments formally acknowledging the crimes of their ancestors in these respects, and even more of those crimes’ being highlighted in schools, if only to counter more celebratory versions of British imperial history. But apologising? And how far back should that be taken? As a native of eastern England, I’m still waiting for Denmark to apologise for her ancestors’ rape and pillage of my country in the 10th century; or Normandy (originally Scandinavians again, of course) for her brutal subjugation of England after 1066; or Italy for the Roman empire (and for enslaving us); or Saxony (or wherever the Anglo-Saxons came from) for pushing back the Celts. Or – come to think of it – the English upper classes for consistently down-treading the rest of us for most of that time. Where will it end?

Quite apart from all that, the British Empire might be the wrong target to choose for this – quite understandable – resentment. Of course slavery happened under its aegis, but it wasn’t the only aegis – even high-minded Sweden had a slave colony, continuing to practice slavery for some years after Britain had abolished it – and it was quite a weak one, so far as aegises go. One myth about the British Empire – it probably derives from the big-sounding word ‘empire’ – is that it was a powerful entity, dominating its subjects and imposing its ways on them: rather like those Vikings and Romans did, or are thought to have done. In fact it wasn’t. It grew out of Britain’s world-wide trading interests, which are often dubbed ‘imperialistic’ today per se, but weren’t regarded like that at the time. It was formally ruled by just a handful of Britons – perhaps 2,000 at its height, which must be fewer than it takes to run a medium-sized town today, albeit with native collaborators and the backing of a few British troops. It was always vulnerable, and consequently ultra-cautious about imposing its will on its subjects, for fear they would stop collaborating – that was a lesson the Indian ‘Mutiny’ taught it. It was exploited by capitalists and settlers, who were responsible for most of the worst atrocities there, but usually against the wishes of their more paternalistic – minor public-school educated – rulers, though they were often too few and weak to prevail. If you want a proper target to blame for these crimes, then free enterprise – the outsourcing and ‘privatising’ of its government to businesses and settlers – might make a better one. As a result, the Empire was pretty cheap to run, apart from the Royal Navy that secured Britain’s trade routes as well as her empire; and also, and partly for that reason, of relatively little interest to ordinary people back in Britain; except during the ‘Boer War’ of 1899-1902, when one very little colony humiliated their army. That was of interest.

Of course this doesn’t exonerate Britain from retrospective responsibility for the crimes attributed to empire. It was morally wrong of her governments to off-load their responsibilities to capitalists and privateers, and then, when they got into trouble, to step in to defend them. But it does spread the responsibility somewhat: to the descendants of the European settlers who actually did the enslaving and massacring in Jamaica and Australia, for example; or to private companies like Jardine Matheson, which was originally responsible for the vile opium trade. (Jardine Matheson is still going, though its webpage keeps quiet about this.) It happened under ‘imperialism’. But the ‘blame’ goes wider than that: to many more agencies and phenomena than a monolithic British Empire, and to a different time from our own. The past is a foreign country. What it did was wrong, in many – not all – respects, and that must be acknowledged, with proper humility: in fact, drummed into old empire-nostalgic reactionaries. But speaking for me, and my government, we have an alibi – the best one of all. We weren’t even born.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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16 Responses to Imperial Blame

  1. “I was born British, am fond of certain British things (cricket, steak and kidney puddings, our humour), and proud of others (our part in the early months of the last European War, the NHS), but have never been a ‘patriot’ in that limited sense.”

    So, Bernard, you DO feel pride in accomplishments which you played no part in achieving!


    • Yes, I thought of that, which is why I chose two events which happened in my lifetime. You can share passive responsibility for things that happened while you were alive, even as a mewling child, but not retrospectively. A rather contrived excuse, I acknowledge! – I think my problem is that I’d like to be proud of those two things, if I could allow myself to.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Cricket madness at the SCG on day 4 of the Test: it was reportedly 50 degrees centigrade on the playing field, 43% in the shade; like playing on another planet and a threat to the players’ health. Poor Root ended up in hospital and could not bat when play resumed.

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  3. Pingback: Oxford and the Ethics of Empire | Porter’s Pensées

  4. Philip: my children’s accomplishments are their own. I feel relief that my imperfect (I’m sure) parenting seems not to have damaged them too much (and retrospective pride at one particular bit of parenting, too personal to reveal here); but nothing that would allow me to crow over, for example, less fortunate parents. I’m just happy for them. Sorry to have surprised you again!

    Ben was at days 1 and 2, before the pitch took its deadly toll. He enjoyed day 2. Everyone seems to agree that the MCG pitch was dreadful. I imagine that had to do with preparing it after a season of hobnail Aussie Rules boots; but they’ve managed that in previous seasons, haven’t they? I thought the rain might have livened it up, but that didn’t happen. I’m sure lessons will be learned. Either that, or we go back to ‘timeless tests’.

    Have a good 2018. Globally it can’t be worse than 2017 – or can it?


    • The pitch used at the MCG was of the ‘drop-in’ kind; that is, it was cultivated in a hothouse by horticulturists and then implanted before the match. When it is no longer needed, presumably after the Australia versus England One Day International, it will be extracted. The practice has been employed to protect the ground, whose primary use is for AFL matches. In days of old during winter, the cricket pitch area became a quagmire, which cannot be tolerated in the present mud-free era. The Sydney Cricket Ground, site of far fewer AFL games, is now holding out as one of the last bastions of a great tradition by refusing to accept drop-ins.
      Thank you, Bernard; all the best for 2018 to you as well.
      Unlike you, I fear that 2018 could be much worse than the year just past. Trump badly needs a great big new war, the bigger the better, to protect himself from the very real threats to his presidency, and to the Republican Party, with the mid-term elections looming in November. Like another famous charismatic, he might choose to go down in flames rather than with a whimper, should he find himself cornered. I hope I am totally wrong.


      • Thanks for the info about the MCG. I’ve watched both cricket and AFL (Sydney Swans) at the SCG, and wondered how they cope with the change-over. But not all AFL games were played there – some were at the Olympic Stadium. You’d have thought that even ‘drop-in’ pitches could be prepared better than last week’s.
        I share your fears about 2018.
        Another England collapse, I see as I wake up this morning. (It’s good to know that there are some traditions still going.) Perhaps the Sydney pitch will help Anderson and Broad.
        PS. On ‘pride’: I remember Ben feeling very chuffed when I TOLD him how proud I was of him. So it’s a useful parenting tool.

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  5. For example, let us imagine that Professor Bernard Porter is invited to make a submission to a special commission on historical wrongs suffered by Indigenous peoples as a result of imperialism. Would he merely say, when the question of an apology was raised, which was specifically requested by current Indigenous leaders: “As I personally bear no blame for genocidal actions committed by imperialists in the past, I do not believe that any government should offer an apology”? What if he also said, “I do not see that what these imperialists did in the name of the British Empire is anything to feel ashamed about”?

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    • Government apologies – Fine. As I wrote originally: ‘I can just about see the point of governments formally acknowledging the crimes of their ancestors in these respects, and even more of those crimes’ being highlighted in schools, if only to counter more celebratory versions of British imperial history.’ – Following that, obviously the imperialists who did these things ought to feel (ought to have felt) ashamed, but not me. So far as the historical nation is concerned, more Britons were against these actions than pro. (See my recent blog on the British historical origin of ‘anti-imperialism’.) If I identified with anyone in the past, it would be with them; taking ‘pride’ in my radical forebears.

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  6. I think, Bernard, that your arguments in the 2016 post are basically sound; however, I feel that there is a missing word that deserves to mediate between ‘blame’ and ‘innocence’ in this context, namely, ‘shame’.
    In some circumstances we rightly feel shame, even when we have committed no wrong ourselves.
    If person X worked in the Grunenthal factory that made Thalidomide between 1957 and 1961, and he knew nothing about the toxic nature of the drug he was helping to produce, the absence of adequate testing and the subsequent cover-up, it would be a mistake to blame X for the deformities that ensued. Nevertheless, we would reasonably expect X to feel ashamed of his association with Grunenthal. We would think something was morally amiss if X boasted of his connection to his company.
    Since the war, Germans, even those who had nothing at all to do with the Nazi regime and its crimes, have been encouraged to feel shame for what what was done in the name of their nation. We feel shame when the institution to which we are connected has behaved ignobly or abominably, even though we are not ourselves to blame.
    Even going as far back as 1919 and Dyer’s troops’ massacre of protesters at Amritsar, although you rightly state that we who live today cannot possibly be blamed, there is still the sense that Dyer is one of us and that we should feel a degree of shame for what he did as part of the Empire. At the very least, our subjective attitude to this massacre needs to be different from a citizen of today’s India.
    I have had to teach History classes where it was necessary to describe and explain Australia’s White Australia Policy: a policy that was terminated before I was eligible to vote. When Asian students have been present during such lessons, I have found the situation more than embarrassing. In feeling shame on such occasions, I do not think I was making a moral error.

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    • I can understand this point of view, and absolutely respect it, but can’t bring myself to accept this kind of responsibility personally. It may be that I’m unusual in this – never ever, for example, feeling shame or pride for anything my ‘tribe’ has done in the past. Or even in the present. Alastair Cook’s unbeaten double century at the MCG last night thrilled me (and kept me awake here in Sweden); but I took no ‘pride’ in it, despite Cooky’s being an ‘Essex boy’ like me!
      The main value in pointing out your nation’s shortcomings to students is to dampen down any nationalistic pride they might otherwise have, which could turn out dangerously. (Vide Brexit.) And to show their past victims – your Asian students, in this case – that you are aware of the injustice done to them.

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      • With all due respects, Bernard, I do not think that the issue here is your personal attitude to these moral matters. The issue in my view is more of a collective matter that concerns such questions as: should governments apologise and make reparations for past wrongs done in the name of the Empire? and what moral attitude should students be taught to adopt when surveying the effects of Empire?
        I feel confident you would accept that on occasions it is right that we feel ashamed of ourselves when we have committed a wrong and that shame is qualitatively different from guilt. However, in the English language, and others as well no doubt, it is also acceptable and meaningful to say something like: I feel ashamed of what my company, nation, tribe did when it participated in genocidal acts. You appear to be suggesting that a sentence like the following should be ruled out of court as meaningless or morally confused: Though I am in no way responsible for the massacres of Indigenous persons committed by British settlers, I am nevertheless ashamed of their actions.
        My own view here is influenced by the writings of the philosopher, Raimond Gaita, who was a participant in the debate about whether the Australian government should apologise to Indigenous Australians for the Stolen Generation, those children who were forcibly taken away from their Indigenous parents by virtue of government edicts. The apology was largely a symbolic act; however, it was sought and very positively received by Aboriginals, and many non-Indigenous people, who regarded it as an important acknowledgement of the historical wrongs – which continue to resonate in Indigenous communities – that victims were made to suffer.

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      • So, Bernard, at the risk of belabouring my point, do you ever feel pride in the accomplishments of your children? Or, would you say when you do, you are really only feeling pride in your own achievements, experienced vicariously? It would surprise me if you did not feel that your pride was bound up with their triumphs, which are not connected to your own input.
        A pity for your son that the Melbourne Test was ruined to some extent, notwithstanding Cook’s heroics, by the unsuitable pitch, which seems to have been loathed by both teams. I had thought that the pitch had been over-engineered for commercial reasons, ensuring it would extend for the full ten days to please the broadcasters, sponsors, ticket-sellers etc.

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  7. Pingback: The Colonial Blame Game | Porter’s Pensées

  8. Pingback: British imperialism forgotten? | bernardjporter

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