A group of Somali police, pictured c1910 with a white colonial leader (centre)
A group of Somali police, pictured c1910 with a white colonial leader (centre) © Bridgeman Images

In a phrase that has echoed down the generations, the Victorian historian John Robert Seeley wrote in his 1883 book The Expansion of England that the British had “conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind”.

Modern historians do not let the British and other European empires get off so lightly. True, even in the 19th and 20th centuries there were liberal and radical critics of empire. But the more commonly accepted, more comforting story told of an imperfect but essentially praiseworthy extension of European civilisation into far-flung parts of the world. This version of history is now under attack as never before.

In Britain’s case, the trend reflects to some extent the availability of material in once-closed national archives that sheds a new, harsh light on the violence of decolonisation in former British possessions such as Cyprus, Kenya and Malaya. In Time’s Monster, one of the four books under review, Stanford University historian Priya Satia goes further and suggests that the historical discipline itself has evolved into “an instrument of redemption for the victims of modern history”.

There is the “planetary crisis produced by dominance of the European tradition . . . The inclusion of scholars of diverse backgrounds has transformed our knowledge of race, gender and culture, undermining the narratives that underpinned empire and other forms of racial inequality,” writes Satia, author of a 2018 article, “The Whitesplaining of History Is Over”. Historians of the British empire, she says, should draw attention to the “abysmal history of looting and pillage, policy-driven famines, brutal crushing of rebellion, torture, concentration camps, aerial policing, and everyday racism and humiliation”.

Satia delivers volley after volley of ferocious attacks on “the self-pitying liberal view of empire”. Philosophers, political thinkers and authors of the 18th and 19th centuries who criticised aspects of British imperialism, including Edmund Burke, Lord Byron and John Stuart Mill, may have thought they were defending decency and the rule of law — but in practice they condoned inequality, exploitation and authoritarianism, she writes. “The liberals screwed their eyes shut and put their fingers in their ears, muttering ‘progress’,” she says.

Satia’s book raises an important question about whether historians are prosecutors and history is a court in which judgments should be passed on accused individuals. In her concluding chapter, she observes that historians of the Middle Ages allow people of that time “to tell us their stories on their own terms”. It would indeed be missing the point to condemn people living in 12th-century Europe for religious intolerance or enforcement of brutal laws. The age of imperialism is closer to our own times, but one task facing historians, as opposed to polemicists, is surely to explain why the creators, supporters and critics of Europe’s empires thought and acted as they did.

The passions aroused by imperialism make it hardly surprising that the question of how Britain and other post-imperial societies should assess their history has become increasingly divisive. It shapes the Black Lives Matter movement, stokes arguments over Brexit, affects debates over Islam in Europe and flows into many other controversies.

A recent example flared up in August, when the BBC considered cutting out the singing of the choruses of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia!” at the annual Last Night of the Proms concert. The move was apparently prompted by health precautions during the pandemic. However, Boris Johnson seized the opportunity to make a political point: “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history,” the UK prime minister declared.

Arguably, a more pertinent observ­ation about the British empire is how little most Britons know about it. There is a kind of collective amnesia, fuelled partly by the reluctance of many British schools to teach the subject in depth. Samir Puri writes in The Great Imperial Hangover that one consequence is an unconscious imperial mindset that expresses itself in “the confidence that borders on arrogance of some of its contemporary elites”. He is careful not to mention names.

A lecturer at King’s College, London and a former UK diplomat, Puri has many penetrating insights into the way the legacies of empire still affect the behaviour of states and the international climate. His book looks in turn at the US, Britain, the EU, Russia, China, India, the Middle East and Africa. He is particularly good on what he calls “the tragedy of America’s informal empire”.

A country defined in many ways by its 18th-century experience of throwing off imperial chains, the US found itself after 1945 in the unaccustomed role of running an informal “empire by invitation” in the name of democracy, free trade and anti-communism. There was a genuine idealism to these efforts, but it sat awkwardly with friendliness to some authoritarian regimes — not to mention the resort to war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and Iraq in 2003. “The early signs are that the habits of informal empire have not at all prepared America for a world in which it may no longer be top of the global pecking order,” Puri writes.

Some of his other judgments require a little more nuance, such as his view that in the 1990s, after the collapse of communism, “westernising modernisers tried — and ultimately failed — to untether Russia from its autocratic imperial legacies”. In fact, the concept of a rightful Russian sphere of influence in the “near abroad” — the newly independent former Soviet republics — took shape in official circles soon after the demise of the USSR in 1991. Likewise some readers will think Puri goes too far in suggesting that the EU’s commitment to closer integration and enlargement shows that the 27-nation bloc “has acquired quasi-imperial habits and characteristics”.

Lord Curzon, who served as Britain’s viceroy in India from 1899 to 1905, unveiling a statue of Queen Victoria in the Indian city of Patiala
Lord Curzon, who served as Britain’s viceroy in India from 1899 to 1905, unveiling a statue of Queen Victoria in the Indian city of Patiala © Bridgeman Images

In his chapter on India, Puri quotes Jawaharlal Nehru, its first post-independence leader, as writing in his 1946 book The Discovery of India: “Which of these two Englands came to India? The England of Shakespeare and Milton . . . or the England of the savage penal code and brutal behaviours, of entrenched feudalism and reaction?”

In his fascinating Waves Across the South, Sujit Sivasundaram shows that some among the colonised peoples of the Indian and Pacific oceans were thinking along the same lines as Nehru long before the Indian statesman.

In Mauritius, which the British seized from the French in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars, a political activist and journalist named Rémy Ollier wrote in the 1840s: “We are English today, we are not a conquered people . . . Why do we not possess the institutions of England?” There was similar discontent in Cape Town in 1848-49 when the British tried to settle penal convicts in the former Dutch colony.

Waves Across the South is an ambitious attempt to tell world history from roughly 1770 to 1850 not from an Atlantic perspective, with the usual emphasis on America’s war of independence, the French Revolution and other events in Europe, but from the viewpoint of the south, the “forgotten quarter” of the planet.

Sivasundaram, a history professor at the University of Cambridge, brings to life the “surge of indigenous politics” that marked this era in the South Pacific islands, the Bay of Bengal, the Gulf and the south-western Indian Ocean — all places that gradually fell under British control.

His core argument is not kind to the British. They expanded their reach with “scientific data-gathering, the use of costly armies, new technology and aristocratic militarism disguised with a language of liberation and free trade”, he writes. In Australasia, “colonial norms of gender and race were used to reorganise Aboriginal Australian senses of self”. In the Gulf, British “militarism, uncontrolled violence, treaty-making and wars that would not cease . . . altered the political scene, creating a counter-revolutionary imperialism”.

A mid-19th-century game depicting a tour through Britain’s colonies
A mid-19th-century game depicting a tour through Britain’s colonies © Bodleian Libraries; Alamy

Yet the story the British told and still tell about themselves — that the 19th century, at least at home, was an era of progress and largely peaceful liberal reform — was one which some colonial visitors to London recognised. Jehangir Naoroji and Hirjibhoy Meherwanji, two Parsi shipwrights who dropped in at the House of Commons in 1838, concluded that “the British constitution is acknowledged to be the best in the known world, and a perfect model to be imitated by others for the legislation of their countries”. They disapproved, however, of the bribery that scarred parliamentary elections.

As Tim Harper shows in Underground Asia, a magnificent, sweeping history of Asian revolutionary movements from 1905 to 1927, political liberalism and social reform in western Europe formed a stark contrast to the repressive methods of rule employed in the British, Dutch, French — and Japanese — colonies of Asia. Harper, a Cambridge historian, makes the intriguing point that as imperialism fostered globalisation, drawing together Aden, Alexandria and Bombay with Calcutta, Hong Kong, Penang and Singapore, so this same process allowed Asia’s anti-colonial activists to establish connections with each other.

There was an internationalist spirit among the revolutionaries that found expression, for example, in the fact that Shanghai was an early centre of Esperanto, the language in which much anarchist literature was distributed across south-east Asia. Yet the Chinese city also inspired the English author and foreign correspondent Arthur Ransome to write a coruscating 1927 article for The Manchester Guardian about the “Shanghai mind” — the expatriate British who “seemed to have lived in a comfortable but hermetically sealed and isolated glass case since 1901”.

Harper has a fine eye for the telling detail. Asia’s revolutionaries were almost always under police surveillance and on the move, he says. Yet MN Roy, the Indian communist, and his American-born wife Evelyn Trent dined in the finest restaurants and stayed in luxury hotels. Mikhail Borodin, a Soviet Comintern agent, who was to die in 1951 in Stalin’s Gulag, thought it essential to live the high life: “If you wanted to hide revolutionary connections . . . you had better travel first class.”

It was in the period covered by Harper’s book that the foundations of western imperialism in Asia were fatally undermined. Few modern historians would dispute his argument that “white violence across colonial Asia often undermined the very rule of law from which the west claimed its legitimacy”.

However, there is far less agreement, especially among politicians, about how postcolonial European societies should view and be educated about their past. As Puri observes, the struggle to come to terms with the consequences of empire is far from over. “Civilisations don’t clash,” he writes. “Imperial legacies collide.”

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire, by Priya Satia, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 384 pages

The Great Imperial Hangover: How Empires Have Shaped the World, by Samir Puri, Atlantic Books, RRP£20, 384 pages

Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire, by Sujit Sivasundaram, William Collins, RRP£25, 496 pages

Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire, by Tim Harper, Allen Lane, RRP£35, 864 pages

Tony Barber is the FT’s European affairs commentator

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Letters in response to this article:

Why do historians forget Britain’s first revolution? / From Shaun R McCann, Professor Emeritus Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

Colonialism’s ‘dirty work’ must be accounted for / From Ram Mukhija, Branchburg, NJ, US

Get alerts on History books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article