Recognising Britain’s past wrongs may open up space to avoid future missteps
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Recognising Britain’s past wrongs may open up space to avoid future missteps

PROMINENT Indian politician, author and former senior UN bureaucrat Shashi Tharoor has accused Britons of suffering from “historical amnesia” when it comes to their time as head of the British Empire.

Tharoor charged the UK with presenting a selective portrayal of Britain’s colonial past, which leaves people with “no real awareness of the atrocities.”

And one has to assume this assessment is correct given the results of a recent poll which found 44 percent of the British public are proud of Britain’s colonial past.

When asked if the British Empire was a good thing, 43 percent agreed it was, with only 19 percent believing it to be bad.

It seems since the empire crumbled and the power Britain once wielded has all but evaporated, the brutality of the empire has taken a back seat to the idea the period was Britain’s time in the sun.

The idea of Britain’s “good old days” appears to have eclipsed the reality of famine, war and misappropriation that ravaged the period.

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As a collective group, it appears us Brits have gone a little dumb.

And this may not be all too surprising given Tharoor’s second observation – Britain’s eagerness to airbrush its history books.

The negative side of colonialism is rarely taught in the British curriculum.

The grim bits of the empire are whitewashed, leaving Britain’s school children blissfully residing in ignorance to the brutality of the period.


The Bengal Famine, 1943. It is believed 12 million to 29 million Indians died under the British rule. Source: @IndolentFop

The selective portrayals in the British education system have left Britons with a watered-down version which reduces the empire to “the abolition of slavery, the building of the Indian railways and some vague talk about the rule of law, British values and the spread of the English language,” as British-Nigerian historian, writer and broadcaster David Olusoga points out.

British people will often have a very blinkered view of the empire, believing Britain helped the countries by providing amenities, infrastructure and education.

There was undoubtedly some good that came from British involvement.

They put pay to certain practices any moral person would deem vicious and barbaric, such as the ritual burning of widows in India, and in some instances, countries benefitted from access to education and infrastructure.

But to appreciate the positives, one must also appreciate the British occupation amounted to an illegitimate dispossession of territory and a violent subjugation of local populations for the sole benefit of the imperial power.

It is naïve to think Britain’s role in the empire was anything but selfish.

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The expansion was driven by a desire to enrich the motherland in the broader sense and often a personal lust for wealth from the people operating in the countries.

One cannot simply sweep under the carpet its policies causing millions of famine deaths, its running of brutal detention camps in occupied territories, the raping of natural resources and massacres of civilians by imperial troops.

And yet, even politicians maintain this blinkered view of colonialism.

Just last week, MP Liam Fox displayed woeful ignorance when he declared on Twitter the UK does not need to be ashamed of its history.

David Cameron, when he was prime minister, said the British Empire should be “celebrated”.

He refused to offer a full apology for the brutal massacre of 379 people in Amritsar, India, by the British.

He reasoned it would be wrong to “reach back into history” and apologise for the wrongs of British colonialism before going on to state there was an “enormous amount to be proud of”.

As a Briton living in Asia, I try my best to accept the criminal nature of the colonisation.

And while this appears to me, and I imagine to those reading this, the only acceptable view, it sadly remains a deeply unpopular one with much of the populist right and overzealous nationalists back home.

I cannot take responsibility for all the wrongs of Britain’s forefathers, no one can.

But we must open up the space for the recognition of past wrongs and acknowledge the damage left behind.

The hope is, I suppose, by identifying, naming and owning these wrongs as British people, we may be able to take steps, not only towards reconciliation for them, but to better predict and counter our future wrongs.

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