THE journalist and historian Richard Gott has long been tagged as “anti-British”, and even accused of links with the KGB. This pungent and provocative book will do nothing to appease his detractors.
BRITAIN’S EMPIRE: RESISTANCE, REPRESSION AND REVOLT
For Gott, the British people try to forget that their Empire was the fruit of military conquest and brutal wars involving physical and cultural extermination of subject peoples; from native Americans, Caribbean slaves, Irish peasants, and Indian princes, to the “sea gypsies” of the Mallacca Straits.
From the mid-18th century to the Great Indian Mutiny of 1856-58, Britannia used extreme violence to impose her rule: from the Raj, one Lieutenant Cracklaw wrote to his mother: “I think no more of stringing up or blowing away half a dozen mutineers before breakfast than I do of eating the same meal.”
Nonetheless, the white settlers who turned against British rule hardly emerge as paragons of liberal virtue: American settlers wanted independence because the British colonial power was thwarting their ambition to occupy native territory; at the end of their Great Trek, only the Boers would be free in the Orange Free State.
As for the self-pitying descendants of deportees to the “Australian gulag”, they put strychnine in flour for Aborigines, while, according to a contemporary account, “babies were murdered and maidens violated”.
This is not the kind of glorious “narrative history” that Michael Gove has been calling for in British schools. Indeed, Gott is explicitly countering the pro-imperialist tale by Henrietta Marshall in Our Empire Story, first published in 1908, and publication seems timed to coincide with Jeremy Paxman’s new work on Empire. Often Gott’s style has its own child-like simplicity. If famine and brutally suppressed rebellions colour our history, it is still difficult to assert that “Ireland was a colonial classic, exquisite in its simplicity”.
There is not enough here on the complicities as well as the conflicts between the British and their “subject peoples”, or on differences of opinion among the British themselves.
This rich compendium of revolt rarely compares Britain’s Empire with the equally sordid and genocidal French, Dutch or Belgian ones, while the selective memories of the “decolonised” suggest that even the most heroic of rebels tend to be swept into the sea of oblivion.
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