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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.

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Comments (35)

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  • 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.

  • STUART LESLIE

    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”?

  • STUART LESLIE

    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.