Why is the British Empire still so controversial?

Professor Richard Toye and colleagues in the Centre for Imperial Global History at the University of Exeter have produced the free online course “Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism.” Here, Richard looks at why the British Empire is still so controversial.
 Professor Richard Toye, lead educator on a free online course about the British Empire

Fifty years ago, the British Empire was in the process of being dismantled. It was not something that happened overnight. We might see the beginnings as occurring in the early 1920s, when Southern Ireland gained effective independence. In 1947, India had secured its freedom from British rule, and other territories soon followed.

The Sixties were certainly a watershed, when the pace of decolonization in Africa accelerated dramatically, in the wake of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s celebrated “Wind of Change” speech. Even then, however, there was a long imperial hangover: arguably, it was only with the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 that the Empire truly came to an end.

Why does the British Empire evoke strong emotions?

But now, surely, it is all past history – so why does it still evoke such strong emotions? Well, there was undoubtedly much about the Empire that was brutal. Consider, for example, the so-called Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. As the historian John Lonsdale notes: “On official data, Mau Mau (or Africans so described) lost 12,590 dead in action or by hanging over the four most active years of war; 164 troops or police died in the same period, most of them Africans. Mau Mau killed 1,880 civilians, nearly a third of them KG [loyalist Kikuyu Guard] and all but 58 of them black.”

Undoubtedly, the British response to Mau Mau was excessively harsh; there were notorious atrocities such as the “Hola Camp massacre” of 1959, in which unarmed prisoners were beaten to death by their guards. Yet, as Lonsdale’s remarks suggest, the situation was a complex one. The rebellion was not simply an anti-colonial uprising but was also a kind of civil war between the Kikuyu people themselves. As the statistics show, most of Mau Mau’s victims (who often died in horrible ways) were themselves black Africans. So there is considerable moral complexity about which to argue.

Who now cares about these historic events?

But again, one might ask, who now cares about these historic events? The answer: quite a lot of people. Many former Mau Mau detainees are still alive, and some of them have successfully sued the British government for mistreatment; another case is still ongoing. The corollary of this is that some British taxpayers may resent having to stump up compensation for misdeeds committed by others a long time ago.

Some Britons may also feel – in my personal opinion, wrongly – that the negative side of the Empire’s record is of little significance compared to its achievements. In other words, the British Empire is inevitably controversial both because of its genuine ongoing legacy and because it involves debates about values.

The British Empire still has real world effects today

In other words, the British Empire is not just a matter of history but still has real world effects today. Formal empire (the direct control of other countries) was always complemented by informal empire – that is, forms of economic, diplomatic and military influence that stopped short of full legal title to the lands of others.

It could be said that modern day British interventions in, most notably, the Middle East, actually show a continuity in this sense with earlier traditions. Let me conclude by suggesting – controversially – that although the British Empire has long since come to an end, British imperialism has not.

Want to learn more? Join the free online course “Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism,” visit the Centre for Imperial and Global History’s blog or follow @ExeterCIGH and #FLEmpire on Twitter.

Category Learning

Comments (40)


  • M LV k parvathi

    I am a student I wanted to learn feminism and colinialism

    • M LV k parvathi

      I am student

  • Jim Shaw

    I’d be interested in a cool, objective balanced look at this topic which, as other posts show, still stirs strong feelings in both directions. However, Prof Toye’s statement above — “some Britons may also feel – in my personal opinion, wrongly – that the negative side of the Empire’s record is of little significance compared to its achievements” — suggests that he’s already made up his mind and we’ll only get one side of the story. So I won’t be signing up for this course.

    • Steph

      Sorry to say that, having completed this course a couple of years’s ago, it was very biased. There were a very small number of participants who had connections with colonial countries who, with me, felt it was too one sided.

  • Onyi

    Located at the corner of West Africa, the legacy of the British empire is still being felt today. in 1914, a Scottish General Fredrick Luggard, forced together sovereign nations which comprised of different cultures, religions and value systems, in an unholy matrimony to create what we know today as Nigeria, the so called giant of Africa. It also happens to be the most populous black country on the planet. This event was done for economic and administrative convenience at the expense of the indigenes. This has caused untold sufferings, misery and millions of deaths among the entire population. There is a deep mistrust amongst the constituent components and the only solution that seems viable is for the various parts to exercise their right to self determination under UN Law. The challenge however is that Britain being a signatory of the UN charter, is reluctant to see the country dissolve into its constituent parts. I hope to learn a lot from this forum and contribute my thoughts.

  • Keshav Bansal

    The British empire, as pointed, was controversial in every sense of the words. With a fair shake of misdeeds and atrocities, and some deeds thought of as good, though open to debate as to whether or not they were for their own selfish and imperialist desires and benefit, the imperialist invader did influence the shaping of the world as we know it. It is interesting to find that for all that happened and there are still apologists and people who take pride in it.

    • Keshav Bansal

      *every sense of the word,

      • Keshav Bansal

        *that for all that happened, there are still apologists and people who take pride in it.

  • wendy wright

    I agree with Professor Toye and in the same way as we learn about and perceive the Roman Empire – its history, what it gave the world and what it destroyed,- so it will be with the British Empire. I live in France and am very interested in the French empire – I am surrounded by people from Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium – I could go on – they all had empires. After the Roman empire came of the rise of the Islamic empire.
    The Moors conquered Spain and were finally defeated in France at Tours – The Ottoman empire lasted nearly 1,000 years in various forms – we are seeing a strong attempt to revive that empire now. I mention these other empires across the world because I see a very narrow and ultimately skewed view of the British Empire as being the jackboot of history. The Moghul empire that conquered what is now Pakistan in the 16th cent introduced the slave and harem culture into that region, that had in turn been introduced to them by Ghengis Khan. So when we are considering imperialism I think it is important to understand that it was not invented by the British – they followed a well trod path.


    I agree with Professor Toye’s statement ” Let me conclude by suggesting – controversially – that although the British Empire has long since come to an end, British imperialism has not.”, and I do not find it controversial, because it is supported by facts. Britain led, introduced and still leads in many areas, which did not end when a number of former colonies and protectorates were given “home rule”. This influence on the culture of our historic partners includes English language, sports, financial systems, legal systems, government systems, administration, industry, education, military traditions, meals, drinks, clothing, brands, protestant christianity (where there was no established religion, such as hinduism or islam) and general behaviour and lifestyle.
    The difference now is that Britain assists its historic partners when it is invited to, not by imposition. Is it “payback time”?


    Professor Toye says “….it was only with the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 that the Empire truly came to an end.” I maintain that the British Empire has not ended. Unlike every other historical empire which has finished, Britain still has 3 Crown Dependencies, 14 British Overseas Territories, and 16 nations in The (53 country) Commonwealth share Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State.

  • Md. Rubel Islam

    British history create a fulfill a knowledge for human being.

  • Steve Uren

    For Australia the British Empire was viewed by most as our cultural home,economic partner and military protector up until 1945.
    The transition post WW 2 toward the USA and greater economic ties with Asia have taken us in a new direction .
    I’m very interested in the legacy left by Britain and how some are quick to highlight the negative impacts such as indigenous disposition from traditional lands and a White Australia immigration policy. However the legacy of the Westminister system of government, competitive economic systems, trade unions and seperation of powers are often overlooked by commentators.

    • B. Maye

      My understanding is that the White Australia Policy (The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth)) was passed by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to prevent the importation of slave labour to work in the mining, farming and other industries. The ALP did it for industrial relations purposes so “the working man’s paradise” would not end up like America with cheap or “free” labour displacing people from jobs. I am not sure why the ALP’s action would be attributed to Britain.

  • Mike Chaney

    Reading some of the comments already posted on this subject reminds me of the almost unlimited capacity of the British to deceive themselves by their capacity for hypocrisy. If there were ‘benefits’ to those who were colonised, they came about as a happy by-product of the primary purpose of ‘the Empire on which the sun never set.’ The purpose of ‘planting the flag’ was unquestionably commercial. It allowed ‘the workshop of the world’ to obtain its raw material cheaply and then to sell its wares to a captive market. That the British built roads and railways was one of those by-products: they had the twin purposes of getting raw materials out and manufactured goods in – and allowing troops to move swiftly should they may be needed to persuade stubborn colonials of the benefits of this system. The same is true of systems of justice and the provision of education. British hypocrisy is seen most clearly in the missionary system, which preached the oneness of humanity while the apparatus of the ruling elite asserted its superiority.
    I worked, for the state system, in Nigeria in the dying days of its colonial status. Sixty years later my conscience still troubles me.

  • Emena Ben Yedder

    imperialism is always controversial. I did not experience the British Empire as such but I did live under the French rule when Tunisia my home country was part of the French part. We certainly had a milder form of imperial rule than our neighbouring Algeria where French domination was harsh and discrimination absolute. No chance for education and total denial of the indigenious culture. The war for liberation was particularly bloody, a testimony of the severity of the way the French behaved in Algeria.

    • Emena Ben Yedder

      It is my experience of it. The novelist Yasmina Khadra, describes quite well French occupation in Algeria. As for Tunisia, we had second rate schools, no access to universities and no promotions to top positions in the colonial administration.

  • Jarcher

    Imperialism is not just British my friend, Russian – American – Chinese – French just for starters, the list is endless my friend

  • Arif Zaman

    Interesting no mention of the Commonwealth here. In its 50th year and and as the first former colonies if Africa (staring with Ghana in 1959) mark five decades as independent sovereign states, it is worth asking if the Commonwealth is a colonial relic (as Gambia perhaps conveniently claims) or a powerful network of relationships, knowledge and diverse communities whose potential largely untapped (see Lord Howell, previously, Minister for the Commonwealth, FCO, Old Links and New Ties: Power and Persuasion in an Age of Networks, 2013).

  • James Ferron Anderson

    What would a balanced course on this subject look like? Is that possible? I’m interested not only in the coverage of the empire, but in how this course is to be run. What biases will become apparent? For they will certainly be there.

  • David Holloway

    I am British and proud of our heritage, although not all the deeds undertaken in the name of the Crown. I worked for the government in Hong Kong immediately before the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997, and since then in the private sector. Hoping this course provides a balanced view on the benefits and consequences of Empire

  • R. Terrance W

    can’t wait to chime in on topic. My interest was peaked after a short conversation with a gentleman living in the US who is originally from Nigeria. I was informed of the continued hatred this gentleman felt he was victim to by the current day Brits. again can’t wait

  • scott

    Tantalising topic and a massively complex area of both factual history and moral polity. I travel a great deal around the globe and the scent of BRitish imperial rule is everywhere. It’s extent is all-enveloping, breathtaking, for good and for ill.

  • Kathryn Geekie

    I am interested in learning more about imperialism, in this case British. I am looking forward to gaining a greater understanding of this period, the realities, including ideology and values, and how the legacy has contributed and influenced today’s global picture.

  • Russell Luscombe

    Like the themes lined up. Hope this course encourages us all to look afresh at – and ask questions of – all kinds of associated objects in local & national museums.

  • Colin Beazley

    When I moved to the UK from my original country, I saw surprised at the collective guilt felt by many about Empire. Indeed, in the introduction to this course, the lead educator makes his sympathy with this viewpoint clear.
    I would suggest that those who found themselves under the so called yolk of the British Empire could count themselves fortunate, considering the alternatives.
    There is a trend to judge those in history by the mortal and ethical standards of today, rather than those that prevailed at the time. I feel this is misguided and trust we will hear of Wilberforce and Hobhouse in the same way as we will hear about the Opium War.

    • judith de temmerman

      I don’t know enough to comment on Colin’s final paragraph, but I agree with his comments in paragraphs one and two

      • sentinel

        Let me recommend ‘Britain’s empire: resistance, repression and revolt’ by Richard Gott.

  • Anne Ward

    As an Irishwoman who was born in 1949, the year Ireland finally became a republic after centuries of colonial rule by the British, although it actually achieved statehood in 1922, I have a very personal interest in the history and consequences of British rule in Ireland. We are still dealing with the long term impact and legacy of the plantation of (13,000) Scottish farmers in Northern Ireland in 1622 evident in the culture clashes which cause deep rifts in both communities still to-day, and having lived in Belfast and had a Northern Irish mother I can see how much damage that has done, culturally , politically and emotionally.
    I have recently completed an on-line Open University course with Trinity College on Irish History 1911-1922 which was excellent and am looking forward to this course as I hope will be just as interesting and informative.

    • Nuala Wilson

      I have just registered for the Trinity course so I’m delighted to hear that you found it to be excellent.
      I am from an Irish family but was born and have lived all my life in England. Having had a mother who remembered the Black and Tans first-hand, I have my own view about the benefits or otherwise of British Imperialism. I am hoping that this course will help to broaden my understanding.

    • John Harris

      I agree with Anne Ward completely and I hope the course will address the issue of Ireland. a country still under foreign occupation by The British State. Long after India (1949) and other parts of the British Commonwealth (British Empire have achieved full Independence. The North of Ireland remains under British control. I have recently completed an online Open University course with Trinity College on Irish History 1911-1922 which was excellent and I enjoyed it. As an Anglo-Irish person I am looking for ward to this course.

  • Paul Daniels

    What fascinates me is that the empire won’t stand still so that you can get a good look at it, it depends on your perspective. What I mean is that if ‘progress’ has been the progress of democracy, emancipation and human rights, which is arguable, I think, the British Empire looks completely different depending upon where in the march of progress you are standing. The behaviour of the Empire during the Boer War, for example, would be completely unacceptable by contemporary standards. The First World War was in this way, as in so much else, a huge watershed, when empire began to have to justify itself ethically. So I am hoping to get a snapshot from here, and perhaps some understanding of other perspectives, which I cannot hold, but that doesn’t make them unimportant.

  • Jim Mitchell

    Has the British Empire come to end yet? Or are the current movements towards more self-government/independence in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland part of a continuing trend that started with Ireland and India?

    • Ben

      Good question, the Empire began (from what I know so far) through trade investments and pacts with foreign rulers to protect mutual interests. Maybe the current period is just a low point as regards overseas financial investments, or possibly US and Chinese empires are over taking.
      An opinion of Scotland is that influential Scots created the Union of Gt Britain, following financial losses in Panama, as they saw greater potential in the early British Empire than what could be done alone. Indeed, many of the British Empires greatest explorers and leaders were Scottish.

  • Graham Hogg

    Offspring of Empire Builders so grew up under the Union Jack and living in “former” Dominion have first hand experience of the huge benefits that Empire gave to those countries who formed part of that enormous domain. I am also acutely aware of the controversies and animosities of living in a country classified as a “new democracy”.

  • Denise Elliott

    I am looking forward to this course and to discovering how British Imperialism casts a long shadow today. But I think we might also remember that
    Britain is not alone in its history, for example France and other European countries have similar past histories which presumably still resonate today. It’s a complicated world we live in and I am hoping this couse will help me to make more sense of it.

  • Lisa Osepowicz

    Imperialism is still casting its shadow over the globe. I’m really looking forward to this course to learn more about the British empire, its history and controversies.

  • Iain Cameron

    I’ve no doubt that the British empire will raise questions about role the imperialist had for over 150 years. The debate will last long into the future.
    I’ll mention only two instances, the war of the Spanish Succession and the Napoleonic war, without a strong country and allies what would Europe and the world have looked like today?

  • Terence H

    I too am looking forward to the course and to seeing how the presenters deal with the complex problem of looking at past occurences from the perspective of current social mores. Examples are the death penalty and corporal punishment which, in the past, were accepted by the majority of the world’s population as a necessary part of the maintenance of social order. Just a few weeks before I find out!

  • Lee Scott

    I’m really looking forward to this course in the New Year. In my school days received knowledge talked of the grandeur of the British Empire, but it has subsequently become clear that this Imperialism had consequences for those over whom Britain exercised its sovereignty and this was not always so enlightened as it has sometimes been portrayed. I’m hoping for some interesting discussions.