New York Times: The British Colonial Phantom

Questions Over the Abuses of the British Empire
Alan Cowell, 15 April 2011

Leaf through the school-yard scrapbooks of some British baby boomers and you might find items common to them all, signposts to a distant era when possibility began to supplant privation as the legacy of war.
Faded snapshots from box Brownies show the just-built, semi-detached homes of an aspirant middle class, alongside the cramped row houses of its forebears. There will be photographs of youngsters in newly minted uniforms, notations of appointments with doctors and dentists under the just-created National Health Service. And somewhere among the keepsakes of a lost age, quite possibly, there will be the atlas showing slabs of the world colored pink to denote the reach of the British Empire.
At that time, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had yet to tell a South African Parliament in Cape Town in 1960 that a wind of change had begun to buffet the continent to the north (it took awhile longer to arrive in South Africa itself) — three years after Ghana became Britain’s first African colony to achieve independence, in 1957.
True, India, the jewel in the imperial crown, had wrested its freedom from Britain a decade earlier. But even though the imperial fabric had begun to fray, postwar Britain was still proud of its empire, its people used to seeing the vast networks of colonies and protectorates as part of a natural order.
Britain’s colonial conscience was clear: Had not Wilberforce campaigned against slavery? Had not David Livingstone focused Christianity’s bright beam into a dark continent?
Recently, in London’s High Court, four aging Kenyans offered their own riposte — one not mentioned in the scrapbooks. Seeking compensation, the four — three men and a woman — alleged huge abuse by the British colonial authorities as they suppressed the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s and deliberately kept Britons back home ignorant of actions committed in their name.
While the boomers were sharpening their pencils in class, young British soldiers, not much older than they, were beating, torturing, raping and even castrating people in the far reaches of Africa, the High Court case alleged, raising a question more familiar to modern Germans than modern Britons: Are the sins of one generation to be visited on its successors?
The same question recurred when Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting Pakistan, turned to the bloodstained dispute over Kashmir and its roots in the partition of imperial India. “As with so many of the world’s problems,” he said, “we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”
His assessment stirred protest among Britons and sat uneasily with Mr. Cameron’s own assessment in 2009 that “Britain is a great country with a history we can truly be proud of.” (Of course, the same Mr. Cameron once shocked his compatriots by saying that, in 1940, Britain was a “junior” partner to the United States in World War II a full year before the United States joined the fray, provoking some public questioning of his grasp of history. “If Winston Churchill were alive today,” said Gen. Sir Patrick Cordingley, a former military commander, “he would be dismayed.”)
Britain, of course, has long maintained a Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship with its past, weighing the achievements of empire (bridges, roads, schools, the rule of law, for example) against its abuses (conquest, artificial frontiers, the denial of equality, inter alia.)
But when the past reasserts itself as graphically as in the High Court case, the debate ceases to be academic. It stirs uncomfortable feelings — guilt, shame, anger, denial — and perhaps an unspoken acknowledgement that the charges might just be plausible, or even true. The past may well be another country, but it is not such a foreign land as to be unrecognizable.
Britons like to say that they ran their colonies more responsibly, more fairly than, say, King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo Free State. Yet they still benefited from the cheap raw materials and captive markets that fueled the 19th-century Industrial Revolution in Britain, long foreshadowing China’s scramble for resources in the 21st.
Indeed, the imperial past infuses the present in other ways, not just in Britain, as France displayed with its military deployed this past week in Ivory Coast, its former colony. But, for a decade and more, Britain embarked on military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan — two of the very lands where its own history taught the lethal perils of intervention in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now it is playing a leading role in the conflict in Libya, a land it occupied (along with France) in the 1940s.
As for Kenya, the four claiming compensation — Ndiku Mutua, 78; Paulo Nzili, 83; Wambugu Wa Nyingi, 82; and Jane Muthoni Mara, 71 — have their own narrative, one that Britain still disputes.
“It is about individuals who are alive and who have endured terrible suffering because of the policies of a previous British government,” said Martyn Day, the Kenyans’ lawyer. Not quite, Britain’s Foreign Office said: Legal responsibility for the acts of the colonial administration lies with its successor — Kenya’s first post-independence government in 1963.
But the debate is about moral responsibility, not legal conceits. The memory of perceived British transgression runs deep, not just in Africa or Kashmir. How often do Palestinian refugees invoke a British declaration in 1917 promising a Jewish homeland in Palestine as the source of their woes today?
“In so many of the world’s troublesome corners — Cyprus, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Kenya and Iraq — a stamp says ‘Made in Britain,”’ the author Charles Glass wrote in a Web posting. “Britain cannot undo most of the damage.”
Of course, the generations have changed since that legacy was created. The liberal reflex of post-imperial apology sometimes gives way to a clamor for a statute of limitations on colonial guilt. For every argument that Britain must shoulder responsibility for its past, there is another that says: enough already — the responsibility has surely passed to others.
“Britain’s rapid retreat from former colonies exposed historic fault-lines which now cause wars and unrest across the world,” Tristram Hunt, a historian and politician, wrote in The Daily Mirror. “But it is no longer good enough to blame Britain. It is an easy get-out-of-jail card for failing and corrupt leaders to blame the last Empire.”

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