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Imperialism

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.

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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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