Truth or Artificial Facts?

In light of Donald Trump’s election campaign and the issue of ‘real vs fake news’, I’d like to share this article about a book reviewing Britain’s Imperial Past. Truth or ‘alternative’ facts? Told by who to whom?  Manufacturing myths or propaganda? I for one, a British end product of colonialism in South East Asia, at least found this enlightening and explaining my worldview.

Let’s end the myths of Britain’s imperial past

David Cameron would have us look back to the days of the British empire with pride. But there is little in the brutal oppression and naked greed with which it was built that deserves our respect
 
A map of c 1900 showing British empire in red
A map of c 1900 showing the possessions of the British empire in red. Photograph: Time & Life Picture

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”. He urged the nation to revive the spirit that had once allowed Britain to find a new role after the empire’s collapse.

Tony Blair had a similar vision. “I value and honour our history enormously,” he said in a speech in 1997, but he thought that Britain’s empire should be the cause of “neither apology nor hand-wringing”; it should be used to further the country’s global influence. And when Britain and France, two old imperial powers that had occupied Libya after 1943, began bombing that country earlier this year, there was much talk in the Middle East of the revival of European imperialism.

Half a century after the end of empire, politicians of all persuasions still feel called upon to remember our imperial past with respect. Yet few pause to notice that the descendants of the empire-builders and of their formerly subject peoples now share the small island whose inhabitants once sailed away to change the face of the world. 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.

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. Not a year went by without large numbers of its inhabitants being obliged to suffer for their involuntary participation in the colonial experience. Slavery, famine, prison, battle, murder, extermination – these were their various fates.

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. At one time or another, the British seizure of distant lands was hindered, halted and even derailed by the vehemence of local opposition.

A high price was paid by the British involved. Settlers, soldiers, convicts – those people who freshly populated the empire – were often recruited to the imperial cause as a result of the failures of government in the British Isles. These involuntary participants bore the brunt of conquest in faraway continents – death by drowning in ships that never arrived, death at the hands of indigenous peoples who refused to submit, death in foreign battles for which they bore no responsibility, death by cholera and yellow fever, the two great plagues of empire.

Many of these settlers and colonists had been forced out of Scotland, while some had been driven from Ireland, escaping from centuries of continuing oppression and periodic famine. Convicts and political prisoners were sent off to far-off gulags for minor infringements of draconian laws. Soldiers and sailors were press-ganged from the ranks of the unemployed.

Then tragically, and almost overnight, many of the formerly oppressed became themselves, in the colonies, the imperial oppressors. 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 empire was not established, as some of the old histories liked to suggest, in virgin territory. Far from it. In some places that the British seized, they encountered resistance from local people who had lived there for centuries or, in some cases, since time began. In other regions, notably at the end of the 18th century, lands were wrenched out of the hands of other competing colonial powers that had already begun their self-imposed task of settlement. The British, as a result, were often involved in a three-sided contest. Battles for imperial survival had to be fought both with the native inhabitants and with already existing settlers – usually of French or Dutch origin.

None of this has been, during the 60-year post-colonial period since 1947, the generally accepted view of the empire in Britain. The British understandably try to forget that their empire was the fruit of military conquest and of brutal wars involving physical and cultural extermination.

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. Indeed it is often suggested that the British empire was something of a model experience, unlike that of the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Portuguese – or, of course, the Americans. There is a widespread opinion that the British empire was obtained and maintained with a minimum degree of force and with maximum co-operation from a grateful local population.

This benign, biscuit-tin view of the past is not an understanding of their history that young people in the territories that once made up the empire would now recognise. A myriad revisionist historians have been at work in each individual country producing fresh evidence to suggest that the colonial experience – for those who actually “experienced” it – was just as horrific as the opponents of empire had always maintained that it was, perhaps more so. New generations have been recovering tales of rebellion, repression and resistance that make nonsense of the accepted imperial version of what went on. Focusing on resistance has been a way of challenging not just the traditional, self-satisfied view of empire, but also the customary depiction of the colonised as victims, lacking in agency or political will.

The theme of repression has often been underplayed in traditional accounts. A few particular instances are customarily highlighted – the slaughter after the Indian mutiny in 1857, the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, the crushing of the Jamaican rebellion in 1867. These have been unavoidable tales. Yet the sheer scale and continuity of imperial repression over the years has never been properly laid out and documented.

No colony in their empire gave the British more trouble than the island of Ireland. No subject people proved more rebellious than the Irish. From misty start to unending finish, Irish revolt against colonial rule has been the leitmotif that runs through the entire history of empire, causing problems in Ireland, in England itself, and in the most distant parts of the British globe. 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. Entire armies were recruited in Ireland, and officers learned their trade in its peat bogs and among its burning cottages. Some of the great names of British military history – from Wellington and Wolseley to Kitchener and Montgomery – were indelibly associated with Ireland. The particular tradition of armed policing, first patented in Ireland in the 1820s, became the established pattern until the empire’s final collapse.

For much of its early history, the British ruled their empire through terror. The colonies were run as a military dictatorship, often under martial law, and the majority of colonial governors were military officers. “Special” courts and courts martial were set up to deal with dissidents, and handed out rough and speedy injustice. Normal judicial procedures were replaced by rule through terror; resistance was crushed, rebellion suffocated. No historical or legal work deals with martial law. It means the absence of law, other than that decreed by a military governor.

Many early campaigns in India in the 18th century were characterised by sepoy disaffection. Britain’s harsh treatment of sepoy mutineers at Manjee in 1764, with the order that they should be “shot from guns”, was a terrible warning to others not to step out of line. Mutiny, as the British discovered a century later in 1857, was a formidable weapon of resistance at the disposal of the soldiers they had trained. Crushing it through “cannonading”, standing the condemned prisoner with his shoulders placed against the muzzle of a cannon, was essential to the maintenance of imperial control. This simple threat helped to keep the sepoys in line throughout most of imperial history.

To defend its empire, to construct its rudimentary systems of communication and transport, and to man its plantation economies, the British used forced labour on a gigantic scale. From the middle of the 18th century until 1834, the use of non-indigenous black slave labour originally shipped from Africa was the rule. Indigenous manpower in many imperial states was also subjected to slave conditions, dragooned into the imperial armies, or forcibly recruited into road gangs – building the primitive communication networks that facilitated the speedy repression of rebellion. When black slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the thirst for labour by the rapacious landowners of empire brought a new type of slavery into existence, dragging workers from India and China to be employed in distant parts of the world, a phenomenon that soon brought its own contradictions and conflicts.

As with other great imperial constructs, the British empire involved vast movements of peoples: armies were switched from one part of the world to another; settlers changed continents and hemispheres; prisoners were sent from country to country; indigenous inhabitants were corralled, driven away into oblivion, or simply rubbed out.

There was nothing historically special about the British empire. Virtually all European countries with sea coasts and navies had embarked on programmes of expansion in the 16th century, trading, fighting and settling in distant parts of the globe. Sometimes, having made some corner of the map their own, they would exchange it for another piece “owned” by another power, and often these exchanges would occur as the byproduct of dynastic marriages. The Spanish and the Portuguese and the Dutch had empires; so too did the French and the Italians, and the Germans and the Belgians. World empire, in the sense of a far-flung operation far from home, was a European development that changed the world over four centuries.

In the British case, wherever they sought to plant their flag, they were met with opposition. In almost every colony they had to fight their way ashore. While they could sometimes count on a handful of friends and allies, they never arrived as welcome guests. The expansion of empire was conducted as a military operation. The initial opposition continued off and on, and in varying forms, in almost every colonial territory until independence. To retain control, the British were obliged to establish systems of oppression on a global scale, ranging from the sophisticated to the brutal. These in turn were to create new outbreaks of revolt.

Over two centuries, this resistance took many forms and had many leaders. Sometimes kings and nobles led the revolts, sometimes priests or slaves. Some have famous names and biographies, others have disappeared almost without trace. Many died violent deaths. Few of them have even a walk-on part in traditional accounts of empire. Many of these forgotten peoples deserve to be resurrected and given the attention they deserve.

The rebellions and resistance of the subject peoples of empire were so extensive that we may eventually come to consider that Britain’s imperial experience bears comparison with the exploits of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun rather than with those of Alexander the Great. The rulers of the empire may one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the 20th century as the authors of crimes against humanity.

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.

Richard Gott’s new book, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, is published by Verso (£25).

As a post note, Gott has received a lot of criticism for this book, many referring to it as pseudo science, a bit like pop psychology. He has managed to substantiate via research some of his notions but scholars have questioned others. What I find intriguing is that no one ventures to question the notion of ‘Terra Nullius’ in Australia in the same commercial space as Gott and it’s this double standard that truly highlights who is in power and control and who isn’t. What is true and real is only so if it works in your favour which ever way you need to twist reality to come out on top. 

Creating the white majority in non-white countries

OK as you’ve guessed from my blogs, I touch on discrimination heavily. It’s because my activities of daily living are heavily punctuated by events of discrimination- shopping, driving, picking kids up from school, working as an allied health professional etc.

It gets tiring doesn’t it to hear your own kind being brandished as racists all the time when you personally feel you are not? But that’s the catch. We’ve moved away from criminalized racism like the KKK in the US at the turn of the century to now more subtle forms of discrimination that still impact on the daily lives of individuals- it’s the nuanced difference of having a good or bad day, of getting that job without sitting through fifty interviews, of general politeness, courtesy and respect from your fellow human. And I agree with many observers that this theme is getting tiring especially with all the anti- discrimination legislation, civil rights movements, progressive and somewhat ‘leftist’ teaching in our schools and universities. I wonder though how much is ‘preaching to the converted’. Brexit still happens, Trump gets voted in and Pauline Hanson sits back on the Senate, so what changes? We keep going around in circles.

Specifically talking about Australia the cynic in me says well done governments of yesterday! You’ve done a beaut job in creating the white majority here. Pat on the back, couldn’t have done better, pity it hasn’t prepared this island to deal with a progressively more connected world and international community…keep saving your lower class, poorly educated albino bethren, keep ensuring ‘they’ will always stay on top of the dung heap of Australian society. No sympathies when socially things really get pear shaped- you have yourselves to blame- but you can always tell the rest of the non white migrants to ‘leave it’ and bring back the Restrictive Migration Act and see how well this cess pool survives- go on, do it. Or just blame multiculturalism- that’s an easy scapegoat as it doesn’t require anyone to grow up. It will be the most popular government election policy – you’ll join the ranks of Trump and Duterte and quite frankly this country deserves a ‘leader’ like that. Appease the bottom white trash – after all they are the people looked after the best here so why change? And be aware of giving this demographic power and freedom of speech because a dangerous leader with low EQ will incite hate and violence as we saw today with the storming of the US Capitol https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/us-protests-what-we-know-so-far-about-the-storming-of-the-capitol-20210107-p56sa1.html.  Mental Note: we don’t want to be like North America. In this article, see how much race and racism had a lot to do about White people feeling their entitlement is being usurped: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/08/us/politics/trump-georgia-capitol-racism.html?smid=em

And don’t bleat the white majority line to me either- that was socially engineered from the time Australia was conveniently deemed ‘Terra Nullius’ and yes we’ll have all the legal buffs putting their moot points on that so that Whitey can always come out on top. Please, you’re a white majority because it was constructed that way. Would you like some examples? The 10 pound Poms, Restrictive Immigration Act, taking 1000s of British orphans and children (some without their parents knowledge) and dumping them into Australian childrens’ homes, the continual genocide of Aboriginal people etc. The whites are not indigenous to Australia and their ‘ownership’ is tenuous at best. You really don’t have a strong platform to dictate ‘we will decide who comes to our country’ when you’ve effectively stolen it from another people and continue to side line everyone else here as ever being Australian.  I don’t see a great deal of ‘ethnics’ in leaders, our government, our CEOs and on our TV despite the vast numbers of smart ‘ethnic’ people I grew up with. If you want to talk about proportion of representation then I don’t believe the representation of diversity is proportional at all. Some of us ethnics can hide behind our phenotype better than others (think Mathias Cormman). Again, Tim Soutphommasane speaks about this in his article: https://www.smh.com.au/national/why-being-an-australian-citizen-doesn-t-mean-others-will-believe-you-truly-belong-20190205-p50vus.html

Well done! A really good job for letting the rest of the world know that this island broke off from the UK floated all the way East and South and landed where it is today- because that’s how you’d want history to tell its story to give you legitimate hold and place here.

In the New World countries of North America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it especially irks me that the hypocrisy is lost on many white people. The entitlement attitude still remains even though the facts of history blatantly show up the disposition of indigenous people from their lands in order for the white colonialists to take power and possession. I understand that we can’t blame modern day white people, often generations away from their invading forebears, but this group doesn’t seem concerned about righting things either in modern times and they are way too proud and arrogant to ever succumb to the humility of guilt. It’s still about maintaining their birth right of privilege and power in countries that are not originally their forebears native grounds. And they happily continue with the  genocide and disposition of indigenous people without question, without inquiry and certainly without legal recourse.

I completely get that if it had not been for the these white forebears, many, many ethnic people in these New World countries would not have the affluent and free lifestyles they are able to enjoy and that includes me although my opportunities compared to a white counterpart need to be gained through an extraordinary amount of effort (read miracle). It is absolutely a show of resilience and persistence that a penal colony could produce an economically thriving first world country like Australia. I’m almost certain the original penal colony got help from the local indigenous communities but we can’t ever let that become another inconvenient truth if it were the case.  

At the end of the day, we’re here in modern Australia and we may not be able to change history but we can change our attitudes and for most people who are sheep-like in their adherence to ideas, this needs to come from the ‘Top’. Too bad the ‘Top’ is still represented by Low EQ white men with low empathy and a penchant for narcissism.  We’ve a while to go yet here in Australia.