Blog post

Ruling the waves with armbands on? Richard Gott on the British Empire

Leo Goretti20 October 2011

Richard Gott makes the case that it is time to "end the myths of Britain's imperial past" of the sort that David Cameron relies on in an eloquent piece for the Guardian

In his speech to the Conservative party conference this month, David Cameron looked back with Tory nostalgia to the days of empire: "Britannia didn't rule the waves with armbands on," he pointed out, suggesting that the shadow of health and safety did not hover over Britain's imperial operations when the British were building "a great nation".... Cameron was right about the armbands. The creation of the British empire caused large portions of the global map to be tinted a rich vermilion, and the colour turned out to be peculiarly appropriate. Britain's empire was established, and maintained for more than two centuries, through bloodshed, violence, brutality, conquest and war.

In the article, Gott outlines some of the key issues of his new book, Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt. The book is a critical reappraisal of British imperial history in the light of the experience of the subject people. As Gott notes,

Considerations of empire today must take account of two imperial traditions: that of the conquered as well as the conquerors. Traditionally, that first tradition has been conspicuous by its absence. ... Yet the subject peoples of empire did not go quietly into history's goodnight. Underneath the veneer of the official record exists a rather different story. Year in, year out, there was resistance to conquest, and rebellion against occupation, often followed by mutiny and revolt—by individuals, groups, armies and entire peoples.

Gott also points out how, also on the side of the conquerors, the price of imperial expansion was paid first and foremost by the working-classes: colonial soldiers were recruited mostly amongst unemployed, convicts and Irish migrants. Unfortunately, the logic of empire turned those who were oppressed at home into oppressors abroad:

White settlers, in the Americas, in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Rhodesia and Kenya, simply took over land that was not theirs, often slaughtering, and even purposefully exterminating, the local indigenous population as if they were vermin.

The authoritarian, brutal, tyrannical nature of imperial rule has never been properly rethought in the Britain, Gott writes: "A self-satisfied and largely hegemonic belief survives in Britain that the empire was an imaginative, civilising enterprise, reluctantly undertaken, that brought the benefits of modern society to backward peoples." Many young historians have devoted revisionist works to the horrific reality of British dominion in individual countries, but a comprehensive overview on the crimes committed in the name of Empire had yet to be written.

Gott also notes how it was the British occupation of Ireland that in a way provided the blueprint for the bloody establishment of the Empire outside Europe:

The British affected to ignore or forget the Irish dimension to their empire, yet the Irish were always present within it, and wherever they landed and established themselves, they never forgot where they had come from. The British often perceived the Irish as "savages", and they used Ireland as an experimental laboratory for the other parts of their overseas empire, as a place to ship out settlers from, as well as a territory to practise techniques of repression and control.

If the British rule in Ireland was the background for Britain's worldwide expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, European empires were the breeding ground for racist ideas and extermination practices that would be tragically implemented during the twentieth century, Gott claims:

The drive towards the annihilation of dissidents and peoples in 20th-century Europe certainly had precedents in the 19th-century imperial operations in the colonial world, where the elimination of "inferior" peoples was seen by some to be historically inevitable, and where the experience helped in the construction of the racist ideologies that arose subsequently in Europe. Later technologies merely enlarged the scale of what had gone before. As Cameron remarked this month, Britannia did not rule the waves with armbands on.

Britain's Empire has also been reviewed by John Newsinger for the Socialist Review. According to Newsinger, the book is a "vital contribution" to the understanding of British imperialism, and an essential resource "to counter the pernicious influence of Niall Ferguson."

Visit the Guardian to read Richard Gott's article in full.

Visit the Socialist Review to read John Newsinger's review in full.


Filed under: articles, reviews