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British Imperial Revival in the Early Cold War: The Malayan ‘Emergency’ 1948-60

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As we gain perspective on a summer of global protest, it is clear that the traditional narrative of British colonial history is being questioned by the public at large. The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in July represents a direct challenge to conventional histories of the beginnings of the British empire in the seventeenth century. But what of the end of empire?

Following the Second World War Britain declined as a world power, dwarfed by the bi-polar superpower colossi of the United States and the USSR and hamstrung by the inexorable disappearance of her imperial possessions. The sun of Empire, we are told, set across the world.[1]

From this perspective, British power and influence declined in relative terms. However, as recent research based on the ever-increasing release of official records has shown, this interpretation misses crucial discontinuities in the historical record. Recent scholarship by John Newsinger argues that Clement Attlee’s Labour government was as much a resurgent colonial warfare state as a domestic welfare state in the immediate postwar years.[2] Anne Deighton argues that Britain’s role in ideological battlegrounds of the nascent Cold War is demonstrably greater than traditional interpretations have suggested.[3] 

One concrete example of postwar Britain as a colonial Cold Warrior state is the Malayan Emergency of 1948-60. The conflict has been described by Malaysian-born anthropologist Yao Souchou as ‘a small, distant war’ not for its inconsequentiality in global affairs, but for its relegation to the side-lines of the historiography of the Cold War.[4] Bringing the conflict to the forefront of our attention, I believe, challenges the broad narrative of postwar ‘decline’ and demonstrates the continued international influence of the British state in the post-war period.

The ‘Emergency’ was the longest conflict fought by British forces in the twentieth century. With the aim of achieving national independence, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) fought a bitter campaign of insurgency against the British colonial government of Malaya and its local and Commonwealth allies. Despite their determined (and British-supported) resistance to wartime Japanese occupation, the MCP were ultimately defeated. More than just a decisive victory for the British empire, the campaign in Malaya was in fact the only conclusive military success by the Western powers in the entirety of the Cold War period.[5]

THE BRITISH ARMY IN MALAYA, 1957 (HU 51581) Men of the 48th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action against a terrorist hide-out near Segri Sembilan, Malaya. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205216100 [Accessed 22 November 2020]

Because of its abundant tin and rubber resources, Malaya, according to the British Colonial Sectary, was ‘by far the most important source of dollars in the Colonial Empire’.[6] With the British economy profoundly weakened by the loss of the former Indian territories, further capitulation in Asia was simply not acceptable. Although Marshall Plan aid chiefly funded Britain’s extensive (and expensive) programmes of urban revival and welfare reforms, a direct consequence of the economic recovery of ‘the West’ was the continuation of European colonialism for another two decades.[7]

The release of classified Foreign Office files has expanded our understanding of Britain’s propaganda machine in the early Cold War period. The intent of the Information Research Department (IRD) to promote Britain as a socialist ‘Third Force’ in world politics via its attacks on the Soviet Union and Communism is only now being adequately explored.[8] These offensive tactics were mirrored by a defensive approach to events in Malaya. Repeating the rhetoric used to describe the Jewish Irgun and Lehi in Palestine, British state propaganda relied on the dual euphemism of the ‘banditry’ of Malayan Communist rebels and the ‘emergency’ of their anti-colonial independence war in international representations of the conflict.[9]

The conflict was presented as arising from an international communist movement. It was done so with nuance: too strong a line could further align the Malayan Chinese ethnic group with the MCP; the opposite could have given the impression that the British were crushing a true nationalist movement. After the proclamation of American anti-colonial policy in the 1947 Truman Doctrine, the chief aim of British propaganda was to ‘manipulate the American colossus’ into thinking that political and economic support of an archaic colonial regime was ‘the corollary of [Communist] containment’.[10] To this, end, as the war continued, international British propaganda utilised the carefully chosen term ‘Communist terrorists’ in their representations of the MCP.[11]

In terms of national propaganda, a great deal of scholarly attention is often given to the figure of Sir Gerald Templer. Serving as Director of Operations and High Commissioner of Malaya from 1951 to 1954, his view that ‘the answer [to defeating the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle but in the hearts and minds of the [Malayan] people’ has dominated conventional historical analysis of the conflict.[12] A defining component of contemporary ‘cultural Cold War’ strategies, we must remain wary of attributing the ‘hearts and minds’ metaphor too much importance in Britain’s victory over the MCP. Indeed, the position of Templer as a semi-mythic figure in the historiography of the conflict simultaneously empowers the actions of the Western elite and obscures the reality of the counter-insurgency tactics the British utilised throughout the conflict.

THE MALAYAN EMERGENCY 1948-1960 (D 87947) Men of 22 Special Air Service Regiment practice carrying a casualty to a waiting helicopter during a training exercise in a jungle clearing at Ulu Langat, near Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212427 [Accessed 20 November 2020]

Based on racially motivated colonial attitudes exemplified by events of the 1948 Batang Kali massacre, Bennett argues that mass arrests, deportation and destruction of property corresponded to a deliberate British campaign of ‘counter-terror’.[13] The forced re-settlement of over 500,000 Malayans in ‘New Villages’ with the ostensible aim of removing Communist influence were in fact little more than concentration camps built to keep the rural Chinese population under strict surveillance and control.[14] The tactics employed by the British state against the MCP demonstrated a resolve to maintain dominance of the colonial periphery by often brutal means.

A colonial attitude of imperial retrenchment, implemented through and influencing a nascent Cold War framework, saw Malaya as a continued source of colonial power for the British state. Britain successfully re-imposed colonial order by armed intervention, protecting its markets and control of natural resources essential to economic recovery. An extensive and influential network of regional intelligence informed international and national propaganda strategies to manipulate public opinion with the objective of the furtherance of British colonial Cold War objectives. Brutal and systematic detention, deportation and violence facilitated the crushing of the MCP revolt.

The summer of 2020 has shown the power of challenging traditionally idolised historical figures from the beginnings of the British empire. Similarly, a revisionist interpretation of the Malayan Emergency makes it clear that in postwar South-East Asia, there was no gracefully setting sun.

Liam Raine is an MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, currently researching the metaphorical structures of the Cold War. This blog piece is based on an essay written in submission for the module HST674 ‘International Relations and the Early Cold War in Britain’. For those interested in the longer research project, please contact Liam at liamandrewraine@gmail.com.


Cover image: A Malayan guide passes tracking information to the British sergeant of an infantry patrol during the Malayan Emergency. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212424 [Accessed 22 November 2020].

[1] L. James, ‘Part Five: The Setting Sun’ in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York, 2006), pp. 523-622.

[2] J. Newsinger, ‘War, Empire and the Attlee government 1945-51’, Race & Class, 60.1 (2018), pp. 61-67.

[3] A. Deighton, ‘Britain and the Cold War’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), pp. 112-32.

[4] S. Yao, The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a small, distant war (Copenhagen, 2016).

[5] B. Z. Keo, ‘A small, distant war?’, History Compass 17.3 (2019), pp. 1-2.

[6] Memo, by Colonial Secretary, 1 July 1948, C.P. (48) 171, CAB 129/25.

[7] W. I. Hitchcock, ‘The Marshall Plan and the creation of the West’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), p. 162; O. A. Westad, The Cold War: A World History (New York, 2017), p. 265.

[8] H. Wilford, ‘The Information Research Department: Britain’s secret Cold War weapon revealed’, Review of International Studies 24.3 (1998), pp. 353-69.

[9] S. L. Carruthers, Winning Hearts and Minds (Leicester, 1995).

[10] J. Darwin, ‘Diplomacy and decolonization’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 28.3 (2000), p. 16.

[11] P. Deery, ‘The terminology of terrorism: Malaya, 1948-1952’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.2 (2003), pp. 241-47.

[12] R. Clutterbuck, The long, long war (London, 1967), p. 3; R. Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (London, 1966).

[13] H. Bennett, ‘“A very salutary effect”’, Journal of Strategic Studies 32.3 (2009), pp. 415-44.

[14] T.-P. Tan, ‘Like a concentration camp, lah’: Chinese grassroots experience of the Emergency and New Villages in British Colonial Malaya’, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies 3 (2009), pp.216-28.

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Decolonisation Strategies: Portico Library Curators at Sheffield University

What it is to be here banner WEB (1)

Radha Kapuria with Helen Idle and James Moss

A chance visit to Manchester’s historic Portico Library in September 2020 revealed a fascinating exhibition on the colonisation of Australia. Titled ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’, this exhibition marks 250 years since the Gweagal people in Kamay (Botany Bay) first encountered strangers, led by Lieutenant James Cook, or ‘Captain Cook’, approaching their shores. 

The exhibition launched in April, and chimed well with the renewed debates around decolonisation and ‘Black Lives Matter’ that followed the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 in the US. In step with these current movements, an exhibition panel also covered poignant photographs from the ongoing ‘Aboriginal Lives Matter’ campaign across Australia. 

As an instructor on Sheffield’s sector-leading undergraduate module, ‘Conflict, Cultures and (De)Colonisation’, I was also struck by how the exhibition’s layout and content were so relevant to our classroom discussions. Our module considers the growth and governance of empires, and the role of decolonisation struggles, in shaping our contemporary world. On approaching Portico Library staff, I was delighted to find a Sheffield History alumnus in the Librarian, Dr Thom Keep. Thom introduced me to the library’s Exhibitions Curator, James Moss, and the force behind the exhibition, Dr Helen Idle, a researcher based at the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London. 

My colleagues Prof Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Dr Esme Cleall, who lead the teaching team on the module, were similarly enthused at the remarkable synergies between the exhibition and especially our rubric for Week 6, on ‘Materiality and Ownership’. During this week we examine the representations of objects–some stolen from indigenous populations across the world–in museums in the West and how they are bound up in histories of colonialism. Slowly, a plan emerged, where the Portico curators would deliver a guest lecture to our students on ‘Decolonising a Museum/Library Exhibition’. This lecture would provide students a window into the curators’ experience of putting together an exhibition that consciously tackled the challenges of decolonising knowledge, narratives and artefacts, through creative and self-reflexive methodologies. 

Western Australian timber samples from Manchester Museum, displayed in The Portico Library’s exhibition. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn. 

The session with Helen, James, and Apapat Jai-in Glynn (art curator and collaborator on the exhibition) on Thursday 29 October was a massive hit with students. Students were especially interested since their seminar activities for the coming week required them to design their own ‘decolonised’ museum galleries on the British Empire. A series of inventive questions from students ranged from repatriation and the curators’ partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the impact of the exhibition on other museums, to efforts toward genuine reconciliation in Australia, the ethics of representation in museum displays, and the difficulties of knowledge production through colonial archives. We will now turn to the experiences of Helen and James, as independent researcher and library curator respectively, in assembling this remarkable exhibition at Manchester.

Portico Library curators answer questions (in text form on the right) from students during the Google Meets session at the University of Sheffield on Thursday 29 October. Image Courtesy: Radha Kapuria.

Helen Idle:

When you glance around the open space of the Portico Library your eyes will alight on a black and white photograph. A woman stands tall, wrapped in a blanket with her head bowed. She is covered but for her face, and her voice. Here Rene Kulitja, artist and Traditional Owner of Uluru (the monolithic rock formation in central Australia), performs a story of the colonisation of her people through the very stillness of a photograph. She shows how the English language of the British tries to smother her language, law and culture: ‘But we are not English. We are Pitjantatjara!’

Pulangkita pitjangu (When the blanket came), displayed at the Portico Library, talks back to an official account of James Cook’s 1770 voyage that arrived in Australia. The account, compiled by Hawkesworth (1773) and held in the Portico Library, records the ‘possession’ of Australia for King Geroge III under the assumption of terra nullius – land belonging to no-one. The photograph counters this claim showing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to survive and thrive in their country. 

Two young children in The Portico Library watching a video of artist Rene Kultja addressing audience members at Lowitja Institute. Above them hangs Rene’s artwork Pulangkita pitjangu.

For Rene Kulitja:

‘The blanket represents an important story with the significance of Captain Cook’s story, it’s on the same level. This is our side of the story.’

Putting these together affords a close re-reading of the account to reveal that Cook and his companions (eg. Joseph Banks) had seen people living along the east coast of Australia.

Shortlisted for the Australian National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2020, the edition on display was made by special arrangement with Rene Kulitja and photographer Rhett Hammerton. It journeyed from Melbourne to Brisbane to Alice Springs to Docker River via Uluru and Kata Tjuta before arriving in Manchester. In the collective effort to bring the photograph to Manchester we see a commitment to a principle of exhibition, ‘nothing about us without us’, and support the work of the artwork, ‘to get the story straight.’

In the words of Rene Kulitja:

‘It’s crucial we make one story out of our shared history, to get the story straight. At the moment, it’s too one-sided, the Cook side is bigger than the Blanket story. Finding a balance is really important for the wellbeing of our children

James Moss:

The Portico Library’s mission is to make its building, history and collection work for all the people of Manchester and beyond, and especially to share experiences and perspectives with and from those excluded by its early membership. Established at the height of British empire-building in 1806, the Library initially served only wealthy, white, male users (albeit including radical progressives, abolitionists and feminists) and overwhelmingly represents their voices among its books and manuscripts. It was central to Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, since it provided 400 of the leading industrialists, inventors and politicians with daily access to news, books and information, plus a space in which they met, networked and did deals, in the years during which Manchester grew from a town of about 60,000 to the biggest industrial city in the world. For the current team, who are committed to nurturing a socially responsible organisation, this unrepresentative nineteenth-century collection creates a challenge, but also an opportunity. By exposing the inequities upon which Britain’s prosperity was built, and those original texts that cultivated the white supremacist systems we inhabit, we can stimulate productive conversations among our visitors and users. 

The Portico Library, exterior and interior. Photographs: James Moss.

Port Jackson/Sydney in 1801. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales from its first settlement in January 1788 to August 1801, 1802. The Portico Library collection.

A view of the exhibition inside the Library. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn.

To achieve this, we have introduced increasingly collaborative and self-reflexive methods, working with experts-by-experience like Rene Kulitja and directly quoting campaigners such as Mangubadijarri Yanner to offset the obscurantism of the Library’s historic texts and our own inevitable biases. Rene’s photograph Pulangkita pitjangu, collaborative painting and text (Uluru Statement from the Heart) and performance at the Lowitja Institute are all intended to reach across lands and waters, time and place, to call each viewer and reader to action. In a Library whose books contain thousands of words about Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander people, the very least we can do today is to share words and intentions from artists and speakers like Rene. But this is of course just the start of what is needed. 

Anangu artists with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. From left: Christine Brumby, Charmaine Kulitja, Rene Kulitja, Happy Reid. Photograph: Clive Scollaly.

    A copy of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as displayed in the Portico exhibition.

As a small charity, our budgets are often stretched, but we have committed to always paying artists and contributors, and covering the additional costs of ensuring legitimate voices are heard. 

The necessity to work with people with first-hand lived experience of exclusion and marginalisation is directly relevant to decolonisation, and translates into institutions ensuring that their work and contributions are well-paid for. To exhibit with Rene, who speaks a Pitjantjatjara language and based more than 1,500km from the nearest city, and in a time zone 9.5 hours distant from Manchester—and whose priorities are distinct from those of exhibition producers in England —factoring in significant extra time between communications was essential. Colleagues like Helen and Apapat who are conscientious and patient but also responsive and adaptable are also vital. 

The process of addressing the enormous imbalances of the history we have inherited does not have an end point. However, the direction we choose can either help perpetuate the privileges that benefit a few while disadvantaging others–especially marginalised communities–or generate new ideas and an enthusiasm for change.

***

The exhibition ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’ is available online to view here.

Radha Kapuria is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of History in Sheffield. She researches and teaches cultural histories of South Asia and the Global South, with a specific interest in music and gender history, migration, displacement and borderlands, and conflict, decolonisation and culture. She tweets @RadhaKapuria .

Helen Idle is a Research Associate with the Menzies Australia institute at King’s College London. Her research considers how visual cultures, art, and artefacts work as agents of knowledge production in museums, galleries and libraries. She also produced the exhibition ‘Entwined: knowledge and power in the age of Captain Cook’ at the Portico Library. She uses creative narrative and self-reflexive methodologies to work towards decolonisation within these domains. She tweets @Helen1i .

James Moss is an artist and curator who uses artworks, events and collaborations to interpret collections’ significance with new audiences. He is currently the Exhibitions Curator at The Portico Library in Manchester. He has curated a series of site-responsive co-produced projects to promote and contextualise the Portico’s 19th-century collection, including Made In Translation, and Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles & Feminism. The Portico Library tweets @ThePortico .

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Afghan Independence and the Violence of Imperial Peace

HM MAX’s blog

As Afghanistan now stands on the verge of a withdrawal agreement and an end to the occupation since 2001, the nation once again ponders the meanings of peace after a period of conflict dating back to the 1970s. On 19 August 2019, Afghanistan also celebrates the centenary of the restitution of its independence from British imperial rule.

In the eighteenth year of the (current) Afghan war, ‘peace’ talks are taking place with the Taliban movement, the remnants of the very regime that the US-led NATO coalition dislodged in response to the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Al-Qaeda on 9/11. Important decisions on the future government of Afghanistan are being made far away from home, in Doha with the USA and in Moscow with Russia. Another imperially forged peace is on the horizon, but it spells a problem for the future of Afghanistan: the tragedy of the postcolonial present lies in the escalating deployment of rationales of power that were developed in the age of empire.

The signing of the peace treaty between British India and Afghanistan in Rawalpindi on 8 August 1919 has been captured as the moment when Afghanistan’s independence was restored. Between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, Afghanistan was part of British India’s empire of the Raj, whose economic, political and cultural influence stretched far beyond India itself: from Southeast Asia to East Africa, from the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia.

In effect, Afghanistan was a dependence of a colony. In April 1919, at a time when colonial violence was particularly tangible, Amir Amanullah Khan declared his government’s independence. Armed jihad, or struggle, became the chosen means to achieve its recognition. The Third Anglo-Afghan War became Afghanistan’s War of Independence. Fighting took place from May to June 1919 along the border with India, a conflict that sits in a longer history of empire-state-tribe interaction on the frontier.

The purpose of military violence was not invasion. It lay in the logic of imperial diplomacy. Afghanistan had been excluded from the peace conference in Paris, where a new global post-war order was being shaped. The road to self-determination for colonial peoples did not lie in the appeal to egalitarian ideals. Independence was not granted. It had to be won; and the path from imperial subjecthood to the international recognition of sovereignty led through military conflict. One hundred years ago, independence necessitated ‘belligerency’. Today’s practitioners of insurgency have likewise fought their way to the table of international diplomacy.

The history of empire has certified the capacity for violence that kills and maims as a path to power. The US government prides itself in the organised production of destructive force, like the Massive Ordnance Air Blast of 2017, also fetishised as the “mother of all bombs”. A US president casually articulates the mass murder of millions of Afghans as a potential path to peace.

In 1919, a bombing raid on Kabul conducted by the nascent Royal Air Force during the Afghan War of Independence led to similar fantasies of military dominance. Meanwhile, the numbers of civilian casualties effected by occupation and Afghan National Army forces, the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including the Islamic State, are rising. On 7 August 2019, a Taliban bomb exploded in Kabul. And yet, for empires and their insurgents, the reward for violence is a seat at the table of peace negotiations.

The USA and Russia are legitimising the Pakistan-backed Taliban as stakeholders in an Afghan peace, generating the movement’s legitimacy as an international negotiating partner. In exchange for their promise to abstain from supporting global terrorism, the Taliban are offered the prospect of partaking in a future government of Afghanistan. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, successive amirs of Afghanistan reached agreements with regional neighbours. They even forfeited the right to conduct independent international relations to British India in exchange for their rulership of Afghanistan.

As a result of the Great Game, the nineteenth-century imperial contest between the British-Indian and Tsarist empires in South and Central Asia, modern Afghanistan emerged as a ‘buffer state’. Today, Afghanistan is being shaped as its modern-day variant, a geopolitical container required by the War on Terror. Meanwhile, as the most important stakeholders, the majority of Afghans do not endorse these foreign power brokers. In the context of empire, political convenience and opportunity often trump accountability and democracy. The decolonisation of these power-driven rationales in international relations has never been more urgent.

Maximilian Drephal is Research Associate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield and also lectures in the School of Politics and International Studies at Loughborough University. He is the author of Afghanistan and the Coloniality of Diplomacy, which is published in the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series by Palgrave Macmillan.As Lecturer in International History at Sheffield, he has taught a class on “Afghanistan from the ‘Great Game’ to the ‘War on Terror'”, engaging with the subject also in previous publications in Modern Asian Studies (Cambridge University Press) and the edited collection Sport and Diplomacy: Games within Games (Manchester University Press).

 

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Apologise for Amritsar? Violence and Memory on the Centenary of the Massacre

The wall with bullet holes at Jallianwala Bagh

Saturday just gone (13th April) marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre. On this day in 1919, thousands of Indians from the city and its environs descended upon the Jallianwala Bagh, a public space, to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi, to attend a political meeting in the context of Gandhi’s Rowlatt satyagraha, or simply to rest and relax in the Bagh. The British commander in charge of the local army garrison, General Reginald Dyer, had earlier issued orders prohibiting public gatherings and imposing a curfew on the city. Considering the gathering a direct contravention of his orders, Dyer determined to disperse the meeting with force. Without any forewarning, Dyer’s troops opened fire upon this peaceful and unarmed group of men, women and children. After more than ten minutes of slow, deliberate firing, official figures suggest 379 people lay dead (other estimates are much higher), with three times that number wounded.

The Amritsar Massacre has come to occupy a prominent place in any litany of the violent excesses of British imperialism. At the time, Dyer’s actions were criticised by some (but not all) in Britain as an outright betrayal of British values. Most famously, in July 1920, Churchill recalled what happened as ‘a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation … Such ideas are absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things’.

Today, centenary activities have principally coalesced around demands for the current British government to issue an official apology, with debates on this issue in the Lords back in February and in the Commons last Tuesday. This reflects larger, ongoing concerns about how best to contend with Britain’s imperial legacy. Ahead of the debate in the Commons a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson revisited Churchill’s speech, in tones that were reminiscent of David Cameron’s visit to Amritsar in February 2013.

Whilst stopping short of an apology, Cameron expressed ‘deep regret’, drawing upon Churchill’s speech to both condemn the massacre and attempt to recover Britain’s reputation as a benevolent influence upon the world. Both Churchill’s and Cameron’s depictions have been informed by a narrative of exceptionalism, in which British colonial rule is portrayed as kinder and gentler than that practised by other European powers. In these accounts, Dyer’s actions are an aberration, abhorrent to the strong moral basis upon which the empire was built.

In reality, however, Amritsar was no exception, but the most well known example of the ordinariness of colonial violence in British India. Invoking such banality is not to suggest that we should take this violence for granted. Doing so can reduce us to simply reconstructing history for its own sake, rather than reflecting on how events and actions were experienced and justified at the time. At the same time this is not an attempt to excuse what happened, but to better understand the motivations behind such actions.

Rather than focus on the ways in which the massacre subsequently electrified Indian anti-colonial nationalism of various ideological hues and methods, Kim Wagner’s recent book has emphasised the continuities of colonial rule in the violence of 1919. Invoking ‘the spectre of the “Mutiny”’ of 1857, Wagner has revealed how a particular and recurring ‘colonial mindset’ was shaped by the contradiction between ‘white power and white vulnerability’. In fact, Dyer’s actions reflected a common desire to ‘keep up appearances’ and avoid ‘losing face’, in the context of a pervasive and imagined anxiety about the latent threat of ‘native rebellion’.

Whether we end up with a formal apology or not, we can be certain that the massacre will continue to figure on any roll call of British colonial violence. This owes much to the consistent depiction of Amritsar and other colonial massacres as exceptional events. However, such interpretations ultimately deserve much closer and more careful scrutiny, in view of both the inescapability of colonial violence and the shared pressures and apprehensions that informed it.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Oliver Godsmark is Lecturer in History at the University of Derby. His research considers citizenship, democracy and territory in late colonial and early postcolonial India. He has considered these issues in his recent monograph and in articles in South Asia and Modern Asian Studies.

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The Postcolonial Clairvoyants? Seeing Brexit in the Writings of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz

Conversation_across_the_water

A number of columnists and commentators have pointed to something disturbingly imperial in some of the arguments in favour of Brexit.[1] Few, however, have looked to the academic study of British national identity or imperial history for answers. By using the work of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz as a lens through which to examine Brexit, we can better perceive the role British imperial history and memory has played in exacerbating the current political situation. Writing long before the 2016 EU referendum, both Gilroy and Schwarz analysed the place of Empire in constructions of British national and racial identity. However, their analyses also happened to contain what have become key features of Brexiteer rhetoric.

In his 2004 book, Postcolonial Melancholia (published in the UK under the title After Empire), Gilroy continued a conversation he had begun back in 1987 with his Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Perhaps most pertinent to the Brexit debate, Gilroy analysed Britain’s enduring obsession with the Second World War, summed up for him by ‘the brash motto’: ‘Two world wars and one world cup, doo dah, doo dah’.[2] For Gilroy, the broken record quality of the British collective memory was deeply bound up with decolonisation. The uncomfortable complexities of the imperial past ‘have been collapsed into the overarching figuration of Britain at war against the Nazis, under attack, yet stalwart and ultimately triumphant’.[3]

The image of Britain standing alone in the summer of 1940 has been constantly invoked by Brexit-supporting British ministers. Back in September last year, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt ‘warned’ the EU that if they attempted to force a bad deal on the Prime Minister they risked stirring Britain’s ‘“Dunkirk spirit”’.[4] Earlier in January of that year, a group of pro-Brexit politicians and campaigners were planning to meet with European Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels in order to warn him that Britain would resist a bad deal with ‘Churchillian “iron will”’.[5] The simultaneous denial of Britain’s imperial past and obsession with the Second World War can be seen in microcosm in recent controversies over Churchill himself.[6] He is always portrayed in his ‘finest hour’, for instance, and never during his many more reactionary, imperialist moments.

This fixation with the 1940s is significant for Gilroy because it points to what it does not – and cannot – express: prideful regret at the loss of Empire tinged with discomfort and shame about the actual record of imperial governance. Signs of this stifled colonial past sometimes slip out of the very same politicians who invoke Churchill and Dunkirk.[7] On a diplomatic visit to Myanmar in 2017, Churchill biographer and Brexiteer Boris Johnson was bizarrely unable to contain a recitation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Road to Mandalay’.[8] But as Gilroy noted, these postcolonial parapraxes can also be altogether darker, finding expression in the politics of xenophobia.[9]

The unspoken fear of being colonised or becoming a colony based on ‘the terrifying folk knowledge’ of what that actually means in practice, is expressed in a desire to expel immigrants and, in this case, shun Europe.[10] At one end this is behind the fears of Johnson and other Brexiteers who speak of Britain being doomed ‘to the status of a colony’ by a ‘bad’ withdrawal deal.[11] At the other, it can be seen in Leave.EU’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster which attempted to conjure up dystopian images of Britain’s white population reduced to a minority, submerged by a black or brown ‘mass’.[12]

In his 2011 Memories of Empire, Volume 1: The White Man’s World, Bill Schwarz provides an account of the British experience of decolonisation. He argues that the highly racialised politics of British white settler colonies, especially Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), rebounded on the metropole. Settler political leaders like president of the Central African Federation Roy Welensky (1956-1963) and Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith (1964-1979) portrayed their fellow settlers as authentic white Britons in conflict with out of touch, metropolitan liberal elite in league with black anti-colonial nationalists.[13] During the 1960s, the Conservative New Right, notably the Monday Club (founded 1961) and, infamously, Enoch Powell began to talk about an imagined British people in similar terms.[14] Schwarz writes that they came to believe that:

The governors of the land lived faraway… they were out of touch with the real feelings of the English people… and, wittingly or unwittingly, they were working to destroy the nation. The rulers, in other words, had become the enemies of all true English men and women.[15]

Though Powell and the Monday Club were reacting to post-war Commonwealth immigration, Schwarz’s summary of their arguments could easily apply to Theresa May’s recent controversial statement on Brexit.[16] More broadly, this colonial conception of a metropolitan liberal elite, out of touch and in league with the ‘other’, became a familiar epithet of the Leave campaign and pro-Brexit sections of the British press.[17] This perhaps unsurprising when many of the main spokespeople for the Leave campaign were born or raised in the white enclaves where this kind of politics developed, in countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda.[18]

The point of all this is not that academic writing on British imperialism and national identity can be used to prove that all Leave voters are racist or hanker for ‘good old days’ of British imperialism. The work of Gilroy and Schwarz helps reveal the un-exorcised ghosts of British imperialism lurking within the on-going campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. Whether in the talk of a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ or metropolitan liberal ‘Enemies of the People’, the morbid symptoms of a nation that has failed to reckon with its past are readily observable. Brexit was not caused by the British Empire but the unresolved imperial past has worked to intensify and accelerate a constitutional crisis in which Brexit negotiations have been driven by a series of delusions about the national past instead of present political realities.

Liam Liburd is in his 3rd year PhD studies with the University of Sheffield. His thesis is titled “Radical Right, Imperial, White: Imperialism, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918 to 1968”. His research focuses on the relationship between the British Radical Right and the British Empire. An article of his, on ideas of imperial masculinity in the British Union of Fascists, was recently published in Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies. He has broader interests in gender and cultural historical approaches to British and imperial history in the twentieth century.

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Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics by Aaron Ackerley

 

[1] Gary Younge, ‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’, The Guardian, 3 February,

2018; Fintan O’Toole, ‘The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit’, The Guardian, 16  November, 2018.

[2] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p. 117.

[3] Ibid., p. 97.

[4] Gordon Rayner, ‘Jeremy Hunt warns EU a bad Brexit deal will stir Britain’s “Dunkirk spirit”’, The Daily Telegraph, 30 September, 2018.

[5] James Rothwell, ‘“We will channel Churchill” – Brexiteers to warn Michel Barnier of “iron will” to walk away from bad deal’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 January, 2018.

[6] Kieran Andrews, ‘MSP defends claim Churchill was racist’, The Times, 29 January, 2019.

[7] Felix Klos, ‘Boris Johnson’s Abuse of Churchill’, History Today, 1 June 2016; Harry Yorke, ‘Boris Johnson likens Brexit dilemma to Churchill’s defiance of Hitler’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 December, 2018.

[8] Robert Booth, ‘Boris Johnson caught on camera reciting Kipling in Myanmar temple’, The Guardian, 30 September, 2017.

[9] Gilroy, After Empire, pp. 102, 110-111.

[10] Ibid., p. 100.

[11] ‘Boris Johnson says Brexit deal will make Britain an EU colony’, Reuters, 3 October, 2018.

[12] Heather Stewart & Rowena Mason, ‘Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police’, Guardian, 16 July, 2016.

[13] Bill Schwarz, Memories of Empire, Volume 1 – The White Man’s World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 347, 398-399.

[14] Powell was an outspoken Eurosceptic and while the Monday Club was divided over the issue of European Economic Community, the organisation contained a stridently anti-Europe wing, see Schwarz, White Man’s World, pp. 432-433.

[15] Schwarz, White Man’s World, p. 398.

[16] ‘PM Statement on Brexit: 20 March 2019’.

[17] Claire Phipps, ‘British newspapers react to judges’ Brexit ruling: ‘Enemies of the people’, 4 November, 2016.

[18] Younge, ‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’.

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The 1807 Abolition Act and British Public Memory

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The passage of the ‘Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ on the 25th of March 1807 (two hundred and twelve years ago today) was a significant event in the history of the Atlantic World. It criminalised the transportation of slaves in British vessels, and helped to initiate the process which concluded the forced diaspora of Africans to the Americas.

Bicentennial celebrations were held throughout Britain in 2007 to commemorate the passage of this legislation through Parliament. Major public events celebrated the ‘benevolence’ of liberal institutions for their decision to end the transatlantic slave trade. The bicentenary was used by the government as an opportunity to demonstrate to a global audience that the principle of social inclusion had been enshrined in British political institutions since the early nineteenth century. Tony Blair’s Labour administration sought to present Britain as a dynamic multicultural nation committed to alleviating racial discrimination and socioeconomic disparities.

But these forms of public history deliberately simplified the development of abolitionist campaigning to a narrative of ‘moral progress’, primarily for political purposes. The commemorations did not effectively contextualise Abolition within the wider history of the Atlantic World during the eighteenth century, when Britain was the dominant slave trading power.

The period from the late-fifteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century saw over 12 million African slaves involuntarily transported to the Americas. By the eighteenth century, northern European powers, such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands assumed naval supremacy in the Atlantic, displacing Portuguese and Spanish control over this lucrative trade. The economic dynamism of British colonies in the West Indies stimulated a high demand for labour. Enslaved Africans worked on plantations to produce tropical commodities such as sugar for consumption in European markets. Consequently, Britain became the leading slave trading nation in the eighteenth century, and shipped approximately 3 million Africans to the Caribbean during the era of Atlantic slavery. This was not highlighted sufficiently during the official British commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act, drawing significant criticism from professional historians and activist groups as a result.

The public memory of Abolition in Britain places an excessive emphasis on the role of individuals, such as William Wilberforce, in campaigning for legislative change. This fails to acknowledge how the British Anti Slave-Trade lobby also drew power from mass campaigning, which transcended class and gender divisions, and from international links with social movements fighting for the same cause.

Anti-slavery sentiment was prevalent among working class supporters from burgeoning industrial centres such as Birmingham and Manchester, who submitted petitions to Parliament calling for an end to slave trading. The dogma of ‘separate spheres’ dictated that women were confined from exerting significant political influence at a national level. However, their superior position in the household gave women the power to boycott slave-grown produce and create informal pressure groups which highlighted the sexual exploitation of slave women by their masters. Transatlantic correspondence networks linked Quakers in North America to those in Britain, forming an important medium for the discussion of aggressive anti-slavery politics.

The 2007 commemorations also diminished the role of African agency in the Abolition process. The impact of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) on British Abolitionists, and the subsequent formation of the first black republic in the New World, should not be underestimated. Enslaved Africans put further pressure on West Indian planters and metropolitan legislators through a series of devastating rebellions across the Caribbean in 1795. Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were ex-slaves who played a prominent role in the British Abolition debate by publishing personal and emotive accounts of their experience of enslavement.

Although the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade was a significant piece of legislation, it is important to emphasise that Atlantic slavery did not end in 1807. Britain was only one nation among many which transported Africans to the New World and utilised their labour as slaves. This meant that the exchange of slaves continued in strength to Brazil and Cuba until the 1860s, despite British efforts to use their naval supremacy to suppress this trade.

Data from the Transatlantic slave trade database (TSTD) reveals that from 1807-1866, an era after British abolition, a further 3 million African slaves were transported to the Americas, a figure larger than the trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries combined. Furthermore, the use of slave labour in the British Caribbean continued until the Abolition of Slavery in 1833, and Britain continued to purchase cheap sugar from Caribbean slave societies long after this decision. It is also important to highlight that Britain was not the first nation to abolish the transatlantic slave trade: Denmark passed legislation in 1792 outlawing the practice, which came into effect in 1803.

A formal apology for Britain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade has yet to be given, probably because an admission of guilt opens the door for financial reparations to be made to Caribbean nations. This is resisted by most European governments, who argue that they are not legally accountable for historical crimes.

Correctly understanding and remembering historical slave trading remains important in the twenty-first century. This is because of the enduring legacies of Atlantic slavery in British society today. To give just one example, the products of African slave labour contributed to the formation of daily consumer rituals in the eighteenth century, such as tea drinking with sugar, that remain part of British cultural life. Historical memory is intensely and inherently political, especially when commemorative events are administered by government departments. A constructed narrative is often developed, which highlights what the organisers and funders want people to remember, and does not always prioritise portraying historical events accurately.

Michael Bennett is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research studies the merchants in the City of London who financed the expansion of the plantation system and African slavery on Barbados in the mid-seventeenth century.

Further Reading:

Christopher L. Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England (CUP, 2003)

James Walvin, ‘The Slave Trade, Abolition and Public Memory’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 19 (2009), pp. 139-149.

Forum on ‘Remembering Slave Trade Abolitions: Reflections on 2007 in International Perspective’, in Slavery & Abolition, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009).

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database (TSTD) https://www.slavevoyages.org/ (accessed 17/03/2019).

 

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