July 2020


The Weight of Imperial Inheritance

Humphrey Hawksley on a timely new book that examines the enduring legacies and attitudes of the world’s colonial past
Samir Puri was born in ethnically diverse and impoverished east London with family roots stretching back to Britain’s former East African and Indian colonies.
At school, he learned much about British heroics in the Second World War but, as he puts it, ‘nothing about the power and cruelty of the British Empire’.
In this, he is typical of the British general public, who have a patchy knowledge of their imperial history, especially its vicious underbelly, preferring to lap up Empire stories of valour, ingenuity and success.
Puri is now an academic, teaching at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the Dept of War Studies at King’s College, London. He is also an author and, in the Great Imperial Hangover, he offers a measured and timely account of colonisation.

Although written before the Black Lives Matter campaign burst into an international consciousness, Puridraws in BLM’s key issues of institutional brutality, slavery and racism.

Slavery was the ultimate manifestation of colonisation, not of land but of people,’ he writes.

The book’s publication coincides with this moral spotlight being shone on colonial history, manifested by debates over the statues that pepper the landscape of London and other cities.

Crowds in Bristol have toppled the statue of Edward Colston, city benefactor and slave trader, while Oriel College, Oxford has voted to remove a statue of the African coloniser, Cecil Rhodes, despite his trust giving scholarships to the underprivileged and donors threatening to withdraw funds.
And should Trafalgar Square host a monument of Major General Sir Henry Havelock, much praised at the time for his role in suppressing the Indian Mutiny of 1857?
Accounts of the slaughter carried out by Britain to secure its colony range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions, while in India the mutiny is referred to as the first war of independence.
The most successful colonisers are now largely part of what is known as the Western democratic system, whose influence and power is increasingly being challenged by autocracies and the developing world.
As history is unpeeled, more of the methods used to build empires, the slavery and repression, will become general knowledge. Unlike with Puri’s education, a more balanced history may – and should – soon be taught in schools and universities.
Indian historian, Amaresh Mishra, for example, describes the Indian mutiny as an ‘untold holocaust’ that may have caused up to ten million deaths. In a 1937 letter to a friend, the authorGeorge Orwell, wrote, ‘We like to think of England as a democratic country but our role in India, for instance, is just as bad as German Fascism, though outwardly it may be less irritating.’
At its colonial height Britain controlled 11 million square miles and almost a quarter of the world’s population. And that was just Britain. Other European powers, together with America, China, Japan and Russia, all built empires to an extent that, whether colonised or coloniser, Puri writes, ‘every one of us carries an imperial inheritance that is personal to them’.
Governments, like people, are also weighed down by colonial legacy.

The Great Imperial Hangover: How Empires have Shaped the World  by – Samir Puri, Atlantic Books, London

Having lost its empire in 1989, Russia is now rebuilding on its borders with hard power in Ukraine, Georgia and further afield in Syria, as well as strengthening its maritime Bastion of Defence that stretches from the western Arctic into the North Atlantic.
China’s foreign policy is driven by its ‘Century of Humiliation’, which began in 1939 when British gunboats breached its southern coastline and ended with the Communist Party victory in 1949.
Beijing’s new military bases in the South China Sea and its expansive Belt and Road Initiative is embedded in its vow to secure sea defences and supply chains so that the country will never be enslaved again.

The Great Imperial Hangover would have benefited from a separate section on the imperial history of Japan, whose brutal colonisation of Asia continues to shape the strategic mindset of the region.

It is therebut wrapped up in a section that focuses on China, whose rise coincides with what Puri describes as the ‘first empire-free millennium’.
But is it really?

After the colonial era came neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism, which Puri describes as bywords for international bullying. A weaker state might have the outward trappings of international sovereignty while, in reality, its economic system and politics are directed from outside.

Empires are still shaping the twenty-first century in profound ways through their abiding influences on present generations, he writes.

There is an irony that today’s rival powers, China and the United States, have both experienced colonisation and are now running their own empires, or neo-empires.
Yet had empires not existed, argues Puri, ‘it would have been necessary to invent something like them, to foster and upscale human progress’.
On the US side we have seen the recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. China continues to tighten its hold on Tibet and Xinjiang, while expanding influence in many smaller African and Asian countries.
Compared to China, the US is a brand-new nation. But America carries the bruises of wars, lost and won, and the benefits of forging influence and control through multi-national coalitions. As yet, modern China has little of this.
With his concise prose and pointed arguments, Puri accessibly joins such dots to help us better understand the global tensions of today.
Black Lives Matters is spearheading a change of global thinking, raising the question as to how Western democracies might or might not face up to their colonial histories.
Britain will be central to this because it is now seeking a new post-Brexit global status, and Puri knows a bit about what it will be up against. Before joining academia, he worked on government defence and terror issues.

Therefore, it might be wise if negotiators hunting for new trade deals with Britain’s former colonies carry a copy of The Great Imperial Hangover in their briefcases so as not to be caught out over the Chinese Opium Wars or methods of repression used in the Indian Mutiny.

Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Asia Correspondent. An expanded edition of his latest book, Asian Waters; The Struggle Over the Indo-Pacific and the Challenge to American Power, was published in June
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