Book Review: Britain’s Empire, Richard Gott (Verso 2011)
Hegel’s metaphor about the awareness that comes only after the event — ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk’ – might encourage the thought that finally we are able to look back at the British empire and draw some fair-minded conclusions. Not so with the likes of historians like Niall Ferguson who in his Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003) prefers to spin the neocon party line about British power bringing the rule of law and leaving a legacy of democracy and freedom, achievements that he regards as ultimately outweighing in value undeniable facts, like the harsh treatment of native populations or involvement in slavery, which he cannot help but acknowledge were aspects of British imperial rule.
Gott’s Britain’s Empire, a salutary counterblast and a goodbye to all that Ferguson and his ilk would like to establish as the official history to be taught in British schools, contends that the treatment of subject peoples and rebels in British imperial territories established a precedent for the racist ideologies that afflicted Europe in the 20th century. Just as the Nazis started on the practical road to genocide with ‘mercy’ killings in German hospitals and mass executions during the invasion of the USSR, the beginnings of their exterminationist mindset can be traced further back to practices that characterized British imperial rule. Hitler’s great admiration for the British empire was certainly not based on the spread of democracy and freedom but on the ability of a small number of people to govern disproportionately large territories. Where Nazism and the British empire overlapped at an operational level was in their response to outbreaks of violent resistance by sections of the populations they controlled: counteracting acts of resistance by the savage employment of greater violence and helping to rationalize what was done by their belief in a natural racial superiority over those they suppressed. This is the sorry subject matter of Britain’s Empire and it takes more than 500 pages to just chronicle acts of resistance to British rule, and the military responses they produced, from the 1750s to the great Indian Mutiny of the 1850s.
Ireland served as a training ground for imperial rule and not just by way of shipping settlers to and from its shores. Wellington, Kitchener and Montgomery are mentioned by Gott as examples of notably successful British military figures associated with Ireland; he could also have mentioned ?ber failures like General Percival, the inept commander who surrendered to the Japanese in Singapore in 1942 (how different would the course of World War II in Asia have been if Tom Barry’s plan to assassinate him in Bandon had been successful?). But Gott has a lot of ground to cover and it is impressive just how much information he packs in to the sixty-six chapters of his book. The cumulative effect of reading how one revolt after another was ruthlessly crushed could be a feeling of despair and resignation but what emerges is, paradoxically, an uplifting sense of people’s refusal to be cowed into submission and exploitation; for no sooner is one uprising put down in the Caribbean that another one erupts in South Africa or Ceylon, Bengal or Burma, Sarawak or West Africa. The red that marked the British empire on world maps was a suitable colour given how blood was shed everywhere to preserve its existence.
For some reviewers, it is not enough to tell this story in plain prose and so we read a comment like this one from the UK’s The Independent:
Some of the conflicts he covers were of great historical importance, others utterly inconsequential – and there’s very little discrimination here between them. Thus, for instance, in his treatment of Ireland, Gott gives roughly equal space to the 1798 revolution, which was on any account a central passage in Irish history, and to “Captain Rock’s rebellion”, which never actually happened (nor did Captain Rock himself ever exist). Gott has given us a chronicle, not a history: one damned, bloody thing after another. It is a very great pity for a book which promises so much to fall so far short.
The real pity here is the inability to see the point of Britain’s Empire. Yes, the book is a chronicle and, yes, ‘history is just one fucking thing after another’ (as this variously attributed statement was expressed in The History Boys) but there are varying motifs and conflicting patterns that frame and make meaningful what happens. Description is interpretation. The criterion for Gott in covering certain events is not their putative consequence for Irish history but the evidence they provide for the ongoing rejection of British rule and in this respect episodic moments of rural unrest are just as important as those that constituted the larger moment of 1798. The town of Bantry is today a blatant oligarchy that drearily reflects economic rule in modern Ireland but Gott reminds us of a time when Captain Rock promised a better future:
In January 1822, a band of 400 Irish peasants ‘acting under crude military discipline’ attacked a troop of fifty British soldiers and police in the hills above Bantry, in County Cork, forcing them to retreat to the town…In February, the acting British home secretary, Lord Londonderry, formerly Viscount Castlereagh, announced in parliament that ‘nothing short of absolute rebellion’ now prevailed over much of south-west Ireland.’ He was not exaggerating. Accustomed to trouble further afield, the Empire found itself seriously challenged between 1821 and 1824 by rebellion nearer home. Extensive armed resistance occurred in the rural areas of Ireland, chiefly in Munster and Leinster, accompanied by a wave of millenarian excitement.
Captain Rock did exist, though not in the empirical sense that seems to be the only one some people can comprehend, and in post-colonial Ireland it is time he made it a reappearance and brought back some millenarian excitement.