The British Empire presided over innumerable atrocities and acts of appalling cruelty, but what use is acknowledging those injustices when they are so distant from our own time? Priyamvada Gopal’s research illustrates both the strength of our ties to the past and the implications they have for our present.

We have to look at our relationship with history in a more complex way, one which implies questions about cultural and historical responsibility. We are part of a global system which is shaped by Empire and we should be asking what our relationship to that Imperial project is?

Dr. Priyamvada Gopal

Radio 4’s Start The Week is not renowned for hosting bad-tempered debates, but dedicated listeners may recall one episode a few years ago when the discussion threatened to become less than cordial.

The programme brought together a number of scholars, among them Cambridge’s Dr. Priyamvada Gopal, to consider the legacy of the British Empire. Opinions on the matter were sharply divided and as the discussion developed, it became clear that some panellists felt it was time to rescue the Empire from its current, negative image.

After all, one guest suggested, with hindsight, was the Empire not a force for good? British colonialism may seem distasteful to us, but ultimately, it was the mechanism which spread liberalism, parliamentary democracy and free trade throughout the world.

Gopal was not impressed. As she pointed out, this is a selective reading of history and one which fudges the issue. Seen in full, the story of the British Empire is also one littered with slavery, plunder, bloodshed, impoverishment, famine, genocide and exploitation. Say what you like about the Empire’s purpose or intentions. In practice, it was hardly benign.

The episode came and went, but the debate rages on. At a Conservative Party Conference last year, Michael Gove, now Secretary of State for Education, criticised the current history curriculum (to which Empire was recently reintroduced), for failing to teach schoolchildren about how Britain “became the home of liberty”.

Students, Gove said, “are either taught to put Britain in the dock or they remain in ignorance of our island story.” Others, however, wonder how teachers should tackle the multitude of atrocities that took place under the Empire if the aim is to instil a sense of unifying pride in the modern, British descendants of both the colonists and the colonised?

Gopal’s lecture at this year’s Hay Festival is entitled “How (Not) To Write The History of Empire”. Her work on the subject of its legacy is still developing. She is currently in the early stages of preparing a book which will investigate Empire’s afterlife, asking not only how we should read its history, but, significantly, what that should mean for us in the present.

To date, most people have viewed it either with a sense of nostalgia or one of guilt, but, she says, neither perspective is particularly useful.

Nostalgists see the Empire as an excessively-maligned force that ultimately brought much good to the world. Some such authors are keen to use the British story as an example of how Empire can provide an effective system of world governance, often with reference to America’s modern-day dominance of the globe, frequently referred to as “Imperial” in its own right.

As Gopal points out, this is a selective judgement, which prizes long-term benefits that we may feel in the 21st century over and above the horrors experienced by those indigenous peoples unfortunate enough to find themselves subjugated to British rule.

The problem is, however, that once we realise this, it’s easy to feel a sort of helpless guilt instead. After all, few British people today condone slavery, and few who were involved directly in the ills which took place under the Empire are still alive. How else should we deal with a set of troubling facts about things that cannot be undone?

“Guilt is a self-serving emotion, which means that it is limited,” Gopal says. “We have to look at our relationship with history in a more complex way, one which implies questions about cultural and historical responsibility. We are part of a global system which is shaped by Empire and we should be asking what our relationship to that Imperial project is?”

Here her work as a researcher in Cambridge’s Faculty of English, where she specialises in colonial and post-colonial literature, has been highly informative. English Literature, both in Britain and elsewhere, has a long tradition of engagement with the idea of Empire in a manner entirely separate from the nostalgia/guilt divide.

One book to which she draws attention is Barry Unsworth’s 1992 Booker prize-winner Sacred Hunger, an historical novel in which the chief protagonist is Matthew Paris, ship’s surgeon aboard a slave vessel that travels between Liverpool, Africa and the Caribbean.

At the start of the novel, Paris’ conscience and sense of fairness is disengaged from the immorality of the slave trade. He sees himself as a ship’s doctor, there simply to do his job. As the voyage goes on, however, his perspective changes. Paris realises that whether or not he wants to be part of the process, he is, simply by virtue of his place in space and time, implicated in the slave trade and must deal with the ethical consequences.

In this sense, he has an advantage over us. His story takes place during the Imperial age, whereas we, in the 21st century, can hardly engage with Empire directly. Nevertheless, Gopal argues, we instinctively see ourselves as severed from the idea when, like Paris, we are intimately connected to it.

“Very often this may emerge from thinking about the economic structure in which we live,” she says. “What historical privileges may have accrued to us because of our country’s position in the global order? Often, that will be a consequence of the Empire. For example, if you live in London, Liverpool or Bristol, the city in which you live has developed in a particular way because of that Imperial history. Many banks – Barclays is one example – also have roots connected with the slave trade.”

Another writer to whom Gopal draws attention, Jamaica Kincaid, illustrates beautifully the extent to which this attachment to the past can creep up on us unawares. In her book, A Small Place, Kincaid considers the western holidaymaker from the native’s point of view, reflecting that most of the world’s people are too poor to escape “the crushing banality” of the everyday as we do when we visit their countries.

The tourist sitting at peace on a West Indian beach, innocent, apparently of any direct misdemeanour, is, nevertheless “an ugly thing.” “They envy you,” Kincaid writes of those too poor to enjoy the same advantages. “They envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

Importantly for Gopal, however, the legacy of Empire is not just about western privilege, nor is it solely a western problem. Many Africans and Indians colluded in some of the worst atrocities that took place under its jurisdiction. Some have responded to the past by replacing British rule with equally appalling dictators (Idi Amin is one example).

Gopal also sees many British Asians as still having “colonised minds”. One case which illustrates this occurred in 2005, when a Royal Mail Christmas stamp was released bearing the image of a 17th century Indian painting.

The painting in question depicts the Madonna and Child as Hindus with traditional forehead markings. Britain’s Hindu forum complained that putting it on a stamp was “insensitive”, because “it showed people who were clearly Hindus worshipping Christ”. Other Hindu groups also complained, although some were supportive. Royal Mail, under pressure, imposed restrictions on the stamp’s sale.

The underlying irony was that the image was authentically Indian. According to Gopal, the response from enraged Hindus exemplifies British multiculturalism at its most ghettoised and Imperial. “The paintings represent India’s strong tradition of religious fusion,” she says. “That was part of the fabric of the country, but under Empire the cultures were actively separated. By demanding continued separation, British Asians have lost access to their own history.”

It is still hard, though, even if we accept that we are all consequences of Empire, to work out how to respond to that fact. Gopal suggests that a balanced reading of the history constitutes a start. That, in turn, might inspire changes of attitude as varied as the number of ways in which Britain’s colonial past continues to cast a shadow over its present.

A greater sense of responsibility to others with a less privileged inheritance would, she agrees, be a more positive response to the situation than simple guilt. This year, she knew that her undergraduates had “got” Kincaid when they ceased to ask about whether it was ethically justifiable to go on holiday to Antigua, and began to wonder about how to level the playing field for prospective Cambridge applicants who might not enjoy the same historical privileges as themselves.

Generally, however, the message Gopal derives from much of the literature she studies is wider-ranging. “You can’t just see the world as something that’s there for your consumption,” she explains. “Unless people develop a critical, demanding and informed perception of the world, everyone just becomes a victim of their time – of banks, corporations, politicians and everything else that happens to us. If we don’t take notice of that, we’ll just carrying on being victims and consumers.”

Priyamvada Gopal will be speaking at the Hay Festival on Saturday, June 5th at 11.30am.

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