‘Many Britons unaware about country’s dark colonial past’


Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Portal Welby pays tribute to the martyrs at the Jallianwala Bagh martyrs memorial in Amritsar on September 10, 2019. (Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images).
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Portal Welby pays tribute to the martyrs at the Jallianwala Bagh martyrs memorial in Amritsar on September 10, 2019. (Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images).

By Nadeem Badshah

THE “darker side” of the British Empire continues to be ignored in the UK, aca­demics have warned.

They have highlighted a lack of aware­ness about the impact of the British Raj in India after research found 30 per cent of people in the UK believe Britain’s colo­nies were better off for being part of an empire, a higher proportion than the other major colonial powers.

Britons were also more likely to yearn to still have colonies more than the people in France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany or Japan, the YouGov poll found.

People quizzed aged over 64 were more than twice as likely to be proud of empire than those aged 18-24.

Experts believe the views are based on “myths” about the British rule as some teachings focus only on the positives.

Dr Rina Arya, professor of visual cul­ture and theory at the University of Hud­dersfield in Yorkshire, told Eastern Eye: “This doesn’t surprise me for a number of reasons. National identity and the ques­tion of what it means to be British is more precarious now than it has been for a long time.

“Many hold on to the idea of empire as a sign of an idealised past, ignoring the realities of what actually went on. This story is based on myth.

“The darker side of the history of the empire, such as the bloodshed caused and mass exploitation, is often over­looked or at least marginalised in favour of its gifts.”

She added: “For the older generations, empire represented the peak of Britain’s glory. For many younger generations their understanding of the history of em­pire is patchy and disconnected from the history of migration, which is problemat­ic, and goes some way to explain the atti­tudes to Brexit.

“In general, Brexit has generated a sense of flux about what it means to be British and the empire is something tan­gible that people hold on to without nec­essarily having to evaluating its impact.”

March marked 90 years since the his­toric Dandi March in Gujarat to protest against the British salt tax.

Dr Meera Tiwari, a reader in interna­tional development at the University of East London, said a similar study in 2014 showed that 52 per cent of Britons thought the British Empire was good for the colonies.

She told Eastern Eye: “A drop of almost 30 percentage points in those who hold the same views today sends both positive and worrying signals.

“Positive, because clearly the historical awareness is becoming more widespread through several efforts in the literature and academia for the decolonisation of knowledge.

“But worrying because a third of the those surveyed remain oblivious of the impacts of the empire on the Indian sub­continent in particular.”

She added: “The Inglorious Empire [book by Shashi Tharoor] provides a comprehensive evidence-based analysis of the enormous economic and social loss the subcontinent was subjected to while the colonial masters rapidly sy­phoned the riches.

“The true history of the empire leaves no room for doubt regarding who lost and who benefited.”

It comes after a report by the Runny­mede Trust last year found there is not enough teaching about empire in schools, despite the curriculum stating young people should learn about “how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world”.

Researchers called on the government to make the teaching of migration and colonial history in secondary schools mandatory and to provide teachers with practical support and resources to equip them to give lessons on the topics.

It found that 78 per cent of teachers surveyed wanted training on teaching migration and 71 per cent on teaching about Britain’s colonial past.

In the latest research, Scotland was the only part of Britain where more respond­ents thought the Empire was “something to be ashamed of” rather than “some­thing to be proud of”.

And only the Netherlands appears to be more positive about its imperial his­tory than the UK. Half of Dutch respond­ents said it was something to be more proud of rather than ashamed.

Ross Greer, a member of the Scottish Parliament for the Green Party, said: “The British Empire killed tens of millions. Many, many more were tortured and abused. It was a project of occupation, theft and genocide, underpinned by white supremacy. The UK desperately needs to learn our own history, not some mythical alternative.”

Lisa Nandy MP, who lost to Sir Keir Starmer for the Labour leadership, last month pledged to remove references to empire in the honours system.

Under her proposal, the Order of the British Empire would become the Order of British Excellence.

Nigel Biggar, professor of moral and pastoral theology at Christ Church col­lege, Oxford, who has previously defend­ed the Empire, said the fact that only 32 per cent said empire was something to be proud of meant that “if the post-colonial­ists really want to hound imperial flag-wavers, they should go after the Dutch”.

He added: “Public post-colonialists like to claim that we British suffer from selective amnesia over the British Em­pire: we remember the good bits and for­get the bad bits.

“[But] are most Britons really not aware of our involvement in slavery during the 17th and 18th centuries? … When the largest segment (37 per cent) report that they think it ‘neither something to be proud nor ashamed of’, they could mean that they’re perfectly aware of the Em­pire’s moral ambiguity.”