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Thursday, 4 January 2018

Destiny and Change


An article in today’s Guardian concerning objections to a seminar to be held in Oxford to examine the “benefits and costs of Empire” certainly got me thinking. Since retiring and moving to live in Germany I have begun to realise that a considerable amount of what I was taught, have read, and which is popularly believed in the English-speaking world, is, if not actually false, certainly not the entire story. That doesn’t mean I support the removal of statues, the defacing of memorials or the excising of historical figures or aspects of history from public view or from the history books. Far from it, I would far rather see their actions, or the events, examined in context, if possible with the view from “the other side” so that those hearing it or studying it, are in a position to be able to form a balanced opinion.
Far too often I hear people claim that the British Empire brought “civilisation” and “rule of law” (specifically English Common Law) to various places and must therefore be a “good thing”. That completely ignores the fact that many of these places — such as India — already had perfectly good, functioning, civilisations and legal systems. In this version, the "British" had a "manifest destiny" to bring their brand of civilisation, their order of society, their version of Capitalism and their concepts of justice to the rest of the world, and, if necessary, impose it. Yes, in some places we found no formal “civilisation” which had built roads, railways, harbours or even cities. But did not mean they didn’t have a social structure, hierarchical society or a sense of nationhood before we trotted in, shot a few to make them realise how superior we were, and then proceeded to herd them off the land they held so we could put it to better use. Yes, that is a rather cynical summary, especially as I am the descendent of English settlers in Africa. 
I will defend my view by saying that my forebears had little real choice but to leave a Britain where they had little chance of rising out of poverty, and every chance of ending up dying of cholera, tuberculosis or something else in the slums of the British cities at a very young age. In Africa they faced an understandably hostile native population, totally unfamiliar climate and soil conditions and the exploitation of moneyed “younger sons” sent out to build their own estates and grab a share of the wealth available. A short reading of the history of the governments and those “elected” to govern in the Cape is enlightening to say the least. So is a short reading of the history of the development of the exploitation of the nations natural resources, starting with the diamonds in Kimberley and ending with the seizure of the Boer Republics so as to gain full control of the gold reserves. The mines were already in the ownership of Rhodes and his chums, but their monopoly was threatened by the political affiliations and anti-British attitude of the ruling Afrikaaner governments. 
In the minds of those in power in Britain and the brokers of power and wealth, the Boers had to go! Reading how the Daily Mail portrayed the Afrikaaners is instructive, partly because it is how, even now, the Daily Mail and its stable companions in the nationalistic Press portray any people or nation they want to whip up enmity against. Raised on the British version of the Anglo-Boer War it came as something of a shock to learn that the Boer Republics actually had a very sophisticated society. Their legal system was based on Roman-Dutch Law, the judiciary was independent, their lawyers widely read and travelled. Their Parliaments were lively, democratically elected and their Presidents and presidency modelled on the US style executive moderated by a Parliament. Their Public Buildings, and their cities would not have been out of place in Europe. Some of their leading families traced their antecedents back to titled families from France, the Netherlands and Germany as well as Britain.
Yet nothing of that is ever mentioned in the history taught to those of us of English descent. To us the “Boer” was always portrayed as a caricature. A dour Calvinist, living in an ox wagon, shooting buck, herding cattle, and occasionally planting a crop when not beating the natives or trying to take the gold and diamonds away from “Uitlanders”. Ironically, cut off from the Netherlands in 1805, the Dutch Reformed Church drew its post British Occupation ministers from the Scottish Presbyterian Church, from which it gained its Calvinism via Knox! Yet it isn’t as if the history from the Boer perspective isn’t known and available, it just is not mentioned!
Reading the Guardian article it struck me that a large part bon the problem we face at present in western civilisation stems from the Edwardian view that the British Empire was some great civilising force. That we, as the British (by which is usually meant “The English”) have a “manifest destiny” to bring the entire world under our benevolent and superior governance. Since the end of the second world war, this “manifest destiny” has been extended, if not entirely subsumed, by the US, the successor western power to the British just as Byzantium/Constantinople was to Rome. In the eyes of many in the UK and the US, it is our “right” and our “destiny” to shape and form the world. In that view, the Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-American peoples are superior in every sense to every other nation and race. In a large part, reading the news feeds (particularly the rabid commentators on some of them), this slewed version of our history is what has led us to Brexit, to the animosity toward the rest of Europe, and the refusal to be “part of the team” in some quarters. It is also what has led to Trump, to the xenophobia toward anyone “not one of us” and underpins a lot of racism everywhere.
To me that is a rather frightening and dangerous delusion. One that only a real awareness of history taught from ALL sides can overcome. Thus, I hope that the proposed symposium on the study of the history of the British Empire does not simply adopt the usual approaches of “it is all rotten” or “it was essentially good, but with awkward bits”. We have to confront the reality of the bad — like the industrialisation of slave trading, the Irish Famine made infinitely worse by laws to protect English farmers, the massacres of Aboriginals in Australia, Africa, the Americas — and acknowledge what was achieved that has benefited those lands (and there is quite a bit).
What we do have to do, is drop the complete nonsense that it was all about bringing civilisation to anyone else. That may have been a side effect in some instances, but the real purpose was the control of resources and wealth. The world is changing, and we need to change too, to embrace, perhaps, a new destiny in which we recognise that there is considerably more value in being honest about our role in shaping today, and working with everyone else, to shape tomorrow. Then we can celebrate the achievements of the little men and women on all sides who endured, suffered, rebuilt and plugged on after the, to quote Kipling, “Shouting and the tumult dies, The Captains and the Kings depart …”


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