Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

Looking back on colonial history, the past feels like a foreign country

The days of empire are over and while younger generations must learn from the many mistakes of this period, there comes a point where they are no longer to blame

The colonial-era Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai. EPA
The colonial-era Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai. EPA

If it is true, as George Santayana famously said, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, there should have been nothing unexceptional about the recent call by the UK’s opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for the legacy and role of the British empire to be taught in schools. Mr Corbyn’s remarks were instantly seized on by the conservative press, however, because those on the right feel that if the Labour leader had his way these lessons would consist of nothing but abject hand-wringing. As the former Tory minister Tim Loughton put it: “It is incredible that Jeremy Corbyn aspires to be the leader of a country he is apparently so ashamed of.”

That is vastly to oversimplify Mr Corbyn’s view, as it would be to claim that all right-wingers feel nothing but pride in the empire. How countries deal with their colonial past is far more complicated than that. Mr Corbyn was quite right, however, to say that they must do so, and in a fully informed way.

For instance, when I was taught at school in the early 1980s about Clive of India, the general who laid the foundations of the British Raj in the mid-18th century, his successes came across as a rather glorious affair. I remember hearing nothing of what the people of the subcontinent felt about being colonised; still less that British rule actually consisted, as the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor has argued, of 200 years of oppression, torture, imprisonment, enslavement, deportation and exploitation that reduced a wealthy and thriving society to “third world country” status.

It is right that the many sins of imperial conquests should be taught today, for their consequences live on in a myriad of ways. The continued marginalisation of indigenous peoples in Australia and throughout the Americas is a direct result of empires – not just the British, but the French, Spanish and Portuguese too – invading and “settling” previously inhabited lands with Europeans who reserved power, status and wealth to themselves.

The effects of the slave trade are felt in a US where African-Americans still suffer from structural and institutional racism. It may be true that West African chiefs were complicit in the trafficking, but it is cities such as Bristol in England and Cadiz in Spain that reaped the profits that contributed to still-standing architectural glories.

The Malaysia-based Hindu Rights Action Force filed a case only last year against the UK at the European Court of Human Rights over abuses it says that descendants of indentured labourers suffered as a result of their ancestors being brought to colonial Malaya from India and Sri Lanka by the British.

In China, memories of the “century of humiliation”, during which unequal treaties were forced on the country and territories such as Hong Kong, which were effectively taken with menaces by imperial powers, remain strong – a fact that other states dealing with Beijing would be foolish not to remember.

Empires that were formed by the addition of neighbouring lands may perhaps have treated their new subjects somewhat better. When a former UK cabinet minister enthused to me about “the traditional cohesion extended by the Habsburg dynasty over the Austro-Hungarian empire”, he was not alone. The interwar novels of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth are laden with nostalgia for the interconnected, multi-ethnic Central Europe that vanished with the empire’s break-up. Likewise, the historical fiction of Albania’s Ismail Kadare – winner of the first Man Booker International Prize – contains some admiration for the Ottoman empire in which a disproportionate number of his countrymen reached the office of grand vizier.

No such advancement was possible, however, for the peoples of the far-off European colonies, who were constantly made only too aware of the inferior status to which they had been reduced in their own lands. While it is fair to judge imperial adventurers and cheerleaders by the standards of their times, and unreasonable to say that present-day Britons, French, Spaniards and others must be held accountable for the injustices they perpetrated, their actions and the present-day repercussions must be fully acknowledged. It is not incompatible to admit that within the living memory of older generations, empire was considered to be a cause of pride – and even represented a “mission civilisatrice” to the French – while condemning today the notions that underpinned it.

By and large, the former imperial powers enjoy warm relations with their former possessions, as the continuance of the Commonwealth and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie suggests. Sometimes the willingness to let past grievances go is quite extraordinary. Being half-Irish and half-English, I particularly like the joke about the strong state of Anglo-Irish ties: “What’s a few centuries of repression between friends?”

But erstwhile empires are lucky this is the case. They should be wary of lecturing nations they once ruled, as the past is not forgotten and can quickly be revived by ill-judged or patronising remarks. Knowledge and awareness of these histories, of precisely the type for which Mr Corbyn is advocating, will help avoid such incidents.

His suggestion is to be welcomed. Our colonial ties do come with obligations, but as to whether they should induce pride or shame, a quote from another novelist, LP Hartley, might be relevant. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” We are connected to these histories but they are not us, and we are not condemned to repeat their mistakes – so long as we know about them in the first place.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

Updated: October 15, 2018 06:45 PM