• Thursday, December 07, 2023
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Burying the Empire?


Occasionally, among the multitude current conferences, one comes along that catches the eye. Such was the case with a day event at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in a series of ‘witness’ meetings. Titled ‘The Legacy of Empire,’ it was held in conjunction with the Overseas Service Pensioners Association (OSPA) former members of ‘Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service’ who “served on expatriate terms in administering and developing the colonial territories during the last century.”

The question of all the European empires in Africa has exercised my mind of late. Although I consider myself a post-imperial (or post-colonial) being, I did in fact as a young man visit two countries (the Gambia and Barbados) that were colonies, although there was scarcely any more any Empire. I first went to the Gambia in 1964, just before independence, when Banjul was still Bathurst, a sleepy little backwater where cricket was played on Macarthy Square, and I met old man Lenrie Peters editor of The Gambia Echo, visited Manly Rollins at Mosdolly Stores, and took a drink with Albert Andrews in the Reform Club. I found in my collection a picture of this august structure, long since gone.

This is not, however, meant to be another exercise in nostalgia, tempting though it may be. The conference confronted a number of issues, beginning with that of the current debate among historians about the vices and virtues of the Empire, notably the Niall Ferguson/Michael Gove attempt to rehabilitate that institution. This is a disturbing development that this column has dwelt on in the past, including a consideration of the book Ghosts of Empire by the Conservative MP of Ghanaian heritage, Kwasi Kwarteng. He was in fact the first speaker at the conference, providing a dismissive view of the Ferguson interpretation as expressed in his books Empire and the even more explicit Colossus, which argued that the US should now become a “new imperial superpower.”

Between this “bold and crude” approach (he used the word “Whiggish”) that the British Empire was only “a staging post to a US-dominated free market world,” and the Marxist view that empire was only about oppression Kwarteng puts a ‘middle view’ well-expressed in Ghosts of Empire. What I found original in a book that dwelt on some of the difficult inheritances arising from “policy incoherence” the British left behind (as in Burma, Sudan, Kashmir, Nigeria), he devoted four chapters to Iraq, which had only ambivalently been a part of the Empire. His modern gloss on this was that the Iraq War, which he had opposed, had “shaped the political culture of my generation”, but it explains why he was so concerned with the historical background of Iraq. For me this genuine concern with legacy gave his book added importance.

Most of the other speakers also tried treading a middle way – another Ghanaian speaker was Professor Joseph Ayee who tried to go (rather benignly, I thought) beyond some of the easy criticisms and look at the pros and cons of the effect of colonial rule. He chose particularly to concentrate on economic development (balancing exploitation through extractive industries and monocultures) with the benefits of the provision of infrastructure). He also cited aspects of the bringing of education and the unifying effect of English language, even choosing to include the Commonwealth as a positive part of the legacy.

The Editor of The Statesman newspaper in India, Surendra Nihal Singh, and undoubted nationalist, provided a touchingly retrospective appreciation of the influence English literature had on him and how British justice had inspired many of the leaders of independence. There was also an equitable assessment by a former Ugandan Foreign Minister Martin Aliker, now in his eighties. The British left two important laws, he said – one forbidding the sale of land to non-Ugandans, and another making Kampala a multi-racial town, which helped save Uganda from the curse of the settler which you find in Kenya and Rhodesia, and according to some speakers, much less in Zambia and Tanzania (the horrendous aspects of empire in Kenya of which we have very recently been reminded were left under the conferences carpet). Aliker also spoke well of the Uganda governorship of Sir Andrew Cohen, one of the great liberal colonial officials, but concluded with a saddeningly gruesome account of the dictatorship of Idi Amin (avoiding the question of whether he had in fact been invented by the British).

If the general ambiance was a little too cosy for my liking, seen in the tone and self-justifying allusions of many of the elderly questioners, the conference redeemed itself with a real blast on the downside of empire from Sir Ron Sanders from Antigua, who reminded the audience that one of the consequences of the British Empire had been the slavery that had moulded the Caribbean empire, although even he admitted there was a mixed inheritance. I wrote in my notebook “the elephant in the room for the Empire was the racism of the British: discuss.”


From London

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