In the year that marks the anniversary of both the Balfour Declaration and the partition of the Indian subcontinent, it is difficult to say that you are English or even British without also feeling a profound sense of shame, responsibility and guilt
Examining the past should be an uncomfortable experience
‘I have plenty of reasons not to like the British,” the wife of a colleague of mine told me recently, by way of an introduction. “Actually it’s not the British I don’t like,” she quickly retracted, zeroing in on my accent. “It’s the English.”
The list of reasons that follow – and there is always a long list – often say as much about the person making them as they do about the various atrocities, crimes and misdemeanours enacted in the name of British imperialism.
In this instance, the offences had a particularly North American cast. As well as 18th-century atrocities committed against Native Americans, there was the 1814 burning of Washington and British support for the Confederacy – and that was without crimes committed, she continued, in Africa, India and the Middle East.
Her list reminded me of a book, Steven A Grasse’s The Evil Empire: 101 Ways England Ruined the World. Its author, a disgruntled American patriot, marketing guru and self-described lay historian, sets down charges against the English ranging from the fair (“they encouraged and subsidised the slave trade” and “enslaving the world to get their tea fix”) to the very partial (“befouling the world’s stage with incomprehensible dramas”).
There are many more-local reasons for the lady in question to have come to the same conclusion: the British burnt and sacked Ras Al Khaimah, for example, not once but twice, but in trying to make a serious point, I also decided to play devil’s advocate.
Robert Ross, the overall commander of British forces during the Anglo-American War of 1812, was from Northern Ireland, I countered, and is commemorated by a 30-metres granite obelisk on the shoreline of Carlingford Lough in County Down.
As historian Amanda Foreman showed in her book A World on Fire, there was British involvement and support for both sides during the American Civil War.
In the year that marks the anniversary of both the Balfour Declaration and the partition of the Indian subcontinent, it is difficult to say that you are English or even British without also feeling a profound sense of shame, responsibility and guilt, especially when a 2014 opinion poll showed that a significant number of people in Britain still think the empire is something to be proud of.
My feeble attempts at corrections only served to infuriate my accuser, and I knew they would, but my intention wasn’t to absolve the English of any responsibility or to implicate my British neighbours in past imperial crimes.
Now is time to strive for accuracy and honesty when we look at the past with enough knowledge of the actual events to make sound judgments. Whether we are the accuser or the accused, history should never make us feel comfortable about the past or about ourselves. We need to wake up from our fantasies.
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