From the ‘Christian’ British Empire to the multi-cultural Commonwealth with millions of broken lives in-between
THE COLONIAL WORLD – A history of European Empires, 1780s to the Present by Robert Aldrich and Andreas Stucki (Bloomsbury, 2023 pp 536)
Reviewed by TREVOR GRUNDY
“Poor loves. Trained to Empire. Trained to rule the waves. Englishmen could be proud then. They could, George. All gone. Taken away. By bye. All my lovely boys.” Connie Sachs to George Smiley in John le Carre’s ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.’
“Writing a history of European colonialism represents a formidable and indeed forbidding task, as the subject covers hundreds of years and encircles the globe.”
These are the opening words of The Colonial World – A History of European Empires, 1780s to the Present by Robert Aldrich, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Sydney, Australia and Andreas Stucki, Ludwig and Margarethe Quidde Fellow at the German Institute in Rome, Italy.
Kristen McKenzie, Professor of History at Aldrich’s University of Sydney says that his colleague’s book is ‘’a masterly account full of fresh insights and engaging arguments. Their innovative structure enables Aldrich and Stucki to wield the historical lens with enviable flair. The vast topic of European empire is telescoped into comprehensible trends and themes, while still allowing for the precise focus on distinct times and places that bring the past alive. This is a history of the colonial world for the here and now.”
The book weighs in at 457 pages followed by 79 pages of notes, recommended reading and an index. It is well-illustrated with several black and white period pictures from different parts of the European empires.
The book is divided into three parts which provide varying perspectives by time period, theme and place and they illustrate different levels of detail.
- Part one offers a chronological overview, necessarily a broad-brush depiction of colonialism.
- Part two treats a selected number of themes, such as ‘Colonialism and the Body’ and ‘The people of Empire’ with examples drawn from multiple time periods.
- Part three centres on particular locations and pivots around chosen years.
Of course, no single volume can hope to provide a comprehensive account of the myriad experiences and countless themes that are part of Europe’s often violent encounters with the wider world.
Aldrich and Stucki tell us from the word ‘go’ that difficult choices have to be made to tell a story which picks up on imperialism in the 1780s, although European colonialism had a much longer history.
And, as the authors say, a vast amount of work is still needed to paint a full picture of the story of events that so changed billions of lives around the globe.
There is a dedicated chapter on the British dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa: but the main thrust of this well-researched and very long book deals with imperialism in the South Pacific, Ceylon, German Southwest Africa, the Dutch East Indies, Palestine and the Middle East, Algeria, the Portuguese empire in Africa, Western Sahara and Belgium ‘s vast first privately-owned and then publicly administered empire in the Congo.
There is a special chapter on the slave trade and a series of succinct and fascinating insights into the way imperialism worked in so many different parts of the world -the Spanish Andes in 1780, Mauritius in 1810, Cuba in 1812, India in 1875, Burma and Vietnam between 1883-5 Ceylon in 1907. German Southwest Africa in 1908. Ethiopia in 1936 at the time of the Fascist invasion, the Dutch East Indies in 1938, Palestine and the Middle East in 1946, Algeria in 1962 and the Portuguese Empire in Africa covering wars in Angola and Mozambique that were instrumental in ending all-white rule not only in those countries but also in Rhodesia, South Africa and South West Africa (Namibia).
The continental empires within Europe, such as those of Napoleon and the Habsburgs, and the contiguous European and Asian empire of Russia are excluded as directly linked to overseas colonialism. Britain’s nearby ‘colony’ or Ireland is present only in the margins.
There are chapters dealing with imperialism and medicine and a special section on the way colonialism affected the minds of millions of people whose ethnicity was downgraded and mocked, along with their native customs, and arguably the most important of them all – their religious beliefs.
Most people in the so-called Western World had not the slightest idea what foreign rule did to the psyches and souls of conquered peoples.
The authors tell us that the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arednt reminded readers in The Origins of Totalitarianism ( 1948) that “many things that nowadays have become the speciality of totalitarian governments are only too well known from the study of history.’’
It was the British during the Anglo-Boer War that gave the world its first glimpse of concentration camps in which thousands of Afrikaner women and children died of disease, or starved to death.
‘Not even concentration camps are an invention of totalitarian movements,’’ she stated.
Anti-colonial figures such as the Martinican poet and politician Aime Cesaire picked up on Arendt’s remarks. In the 1950s, he argued that Nazism had applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved for colonial peoples.
His countryman, the psychiatrist and philosopher Franz Fanon went further and stated in the early 1960s that Nazi violence had “transformed the whole of Europe into a veritable colony.’’
This new book is timely.
The Black Lives Matter movement has raised issues about wrongs past and present and the topping and defacement of the statues of figures once though colonial heroes has raised questions about how the past is remembered and forgotten.
The author writes – “Colonial history-writing has also been stimulated, and on occasion, dragged into debate by present-day issues, such as migration to Europe from former colonies, questions surrounding cultural practices like the wearing of headscarves by Islamic women in Western countries and attempts to define communitarian or national identities. Research on colonial history has become more acutely sensitive to concerns about the legacies of colonialism – most notably, the long-lasting heritage of slavery – and demands by former colonies for restitution of looted artefacts and documents. Exposures of colonial violence, including torture, have forced a reconstruction of narratives about colonial benevolence.”
Although there is little that is startlingly new in the book, it might well become the new ‘bible’ for the young.
Right now, so many people are hoping that bolted windows covered in cobwebs in airless libraries will be opened at last so as to let in clear bright light needed to understand and analyse the impact imperialism and colonialism has had on the world’s most impoverished and wretched and the way it has disturbed the minds of billions of people around the world.
They know what happened, who made fortunes out of their slavery and where they came from.
But do the rest of us? It’s hard to answer because centuries of pro-empire propaganda need to be wound in before we can start the long journey of self-discovery.
Ironically, those who profited the most are now the people most publicly bleating on about how guilty they feel about the billions their families earned out of the slave trade.
But it won’t be easy. Pro-imperialists have ruled the roost for such a long time.
In a section devoted to early modern European colonialism, the authors remind us that one of the most exploitative conglomerates the world has ever witnessed, the East India Company, established a school in 1806 in Hertfordshire in England – Hailebury College – to train its employees.
They were the offspring of the English ruling elite, teenage boys taught to feel they ruled the world which was their heritage. And for a long time, singing empire’s praises in so many books, songs, radio and TV programmes and Hollywood films.
And if you think they’ve gone away, or been forced to give-up the privileges they receive while in their nappies, think again
Today, the same sort of boys and gals slip into the world of finance, politics and journalism as easily as their ancestors slipped into all the top jobs in Africa, Australia, India and Asia in a British Empire upon which the Sun never set.
And it never did set because, as the joke goes, not even God trusts an Englishman when it’s dark.
The company’s headquarters in Leadenhall Street was one of London’s most impressive buildings, and visitors could see a display of Asian objets d’art.
In India, the company constructed imposing administration buildings, warehouses, port facilities and residences. It commissioned paintings, furniture and textiles from local artisans. Among company employees, there was not only ruthless profiteers but also men who became serious scholars of Asian cultures, proficient linquists, prolific writers and avid collectors.
Hailebury produced exactly the kind of high-spirited, adventurous, self- sufficient and ultra-confident young men who lived for Empire -the sort of people Connie Sachs spoke about to George Smiley.
Sadly, for the children of Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Stowe School, Charterhouse, Marlborough and so many more ludicrously labelled “public” schools, there is no longer an empire to dance around and sing about, just a multi-cultural hotchpotch of former colonies called the Commonwealth which King Charles 111 heads-up thanks to his late mum, Queen Elizabeth 11.
The inheritors of the imperial explosion are not just eye-wateringly wealthy Brits. The children of other former imperial powers share their rat-like cunning.
Large sections of this book do not make for pretty bedtime reading.
The British treatment of Indians, Asians and Africans was loathsome and until fairly recently little known to the public. Likewise, the British empire’s treatment of a white tribe in Africa who hardly a soul cares about, the Afrikaners, during and after the Anglo Boer War. Thousands of Afrikaner men, women and children died of disease and starvation in British-designed concentration camps.
Also, until recently, little was known in British secondary schools about the way indigenous peoples suffered at the hands of their new masters little more than 100 years ago.
So, three cheers to Aldrich and Stucki for drawing fresh attention to the predicament of minorities within the majorities. They point out that almost all the legislation against gay people in different parts of the British empire was the result of public school-trained lawyers from the ‘home’ country.
The two authors warn it should not be swallowed in one go. It as been designed so that readers can go straight to whichever period or place that attracts them the most and then move back and forth among the various sections. Each chapter can therefore be read independently from the other in order to find out what’s needed to comprehend the nature of imperialism.
The book is timely because the fight against the way imperialism is taught to the young is hotting up. That, and suggestions that those whose families benefitted the most from slavery and other forms of exploitation do something practical to show their sorrow, given it’s even genuine.
Just three days after a Coronation in London that cost the British taxpayers about £150 million, King Charles 111 has been urged to go further towards offering reparatory justice for the UK’s role in transatlantic slavery.
Academics and campaigners are calling on Charles to adopt specific measures to help build an understanding of the legacy of the enslavement of black people, as well as putting forward suggestions for how the UK could work towards making amends.
“He should do far more,” said Brooke Newman, an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. “He has the money, obviously, and the connections to create an independent commission to really dig into these connections.”
However, she said it was encouraging that Charles appeared to be more willing to listen than some other members of the British establishment.
To cut to the chase, this is worthy of a place on the shelves of libraries in secondary schools and tertiary education colleges and universities. It’s is a book that knocks on doors and askes us to open them. The Bible tells us to read mark, learn and inwardly digest what the Gospels have to say. Wise words, worth remembering, as you turn the pages of this important book.
This article is from the June 2023 issue of the Canadian online magazine, ColdType.