A word that, almost instinctively, echoes in your mind as you say it. Powerful, omniscient, mighty and vast. Yet, something pervades the air when thinking upon the British empire.
The Sunday Times bestseller discusses the British empire in the context of Akala’s own perspective as the ‘child of a British-Caribbean father and a Scottish/English mother’. However, many of the inferences he makes from his experiences resonate with anyone of colour, growing up in Britain with family from a non-white ‘commonwealth’ country. Essentially, this book provides some explanation for the disparity between what you’re taught in school, and what you’re taught at home (or in Akala’s case, the history he was taught in his pan-African Saturday school) and they way in which empire lies like a ghost under our floorboards.
My favourite chapter is ‘Empire and Slavery in the British Memory’, which marks the end of the first third of the book, and opens with a quote from Winston Churchill:
I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes. It would spread lively terror.
When we were taught about Winston Churchill at school, we learnt of his wicked sense of humour, lightning wit, his masterful skills in oration and what a brilliant strategist he was, protecting our shores from the fascism of the Germans. What I learnt at home from my Indian, immigrant parents was “what they don’t want to tell you” about the great Winston Churchill, who also once said:
‘I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia…by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place’
– Truly inspiring words of a hero. The most interesting part of this tradition of teaching extra-curricular history, amongst ethnic minority parents, is that at no point do they believe that ‘they’ are trying to hide the history from ‘us’ but rather, concealing it from ‘themselves’ – which is perhaps an even more sinister thought. In this chapter, Akala uses the example of William Wilberforce – Britain’s most famous evangelical Christian and abolitionist of the trans- Atlantic slave trade – as one of the ‘self-serving fairy tales’ that ‘eases a nation’s cognitive dissonance’ with the empire.
Wilberforce is currently described on Wikipedia as the ‘leader of the movement to stop the slave trade – as Akala puts it, ‘what a pile of twaddle’. Never mind Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an African born, ex-slave who led the defeat of the French and declared Haiti an independent state, becoming the first country to abolish slavery in the Western hemisphere. Similarly, the end of apartheid is boiled down to Nelson Mandela, with the omission of the support given by Castro against the racist regime, and the independence of India is condensed down to Mahatma Gandhi and his policy of non-violence. The idea that peaceful protests and non-violent methods alone suddenly triggered a conscience into people who were profiting beyond their wildest dreams through racist legislation and war-mongering, for centuries, is simply laughable – yet, it’s generally accepted as truth in schools and wider society. It is not to say that Wilberforce had no role to play in the abolition of slavery, or Gandhi in the independence of India, but rather to clarify on what the education system has failed to tell nationalist Britain. Simple solutions to complex institutions, based in white supremacy, simply don’t exist; there isn’t just one man who’s up for the job of dismantling centuries of exploitation, rape, and murder. Of course, it’s much more convenient to teach.
According to Akala, we find ourselves in the ruins of Empire. Both Conqueror and Conquered are re-building their identity, piecing themselves together from what is salvageable amongst the rubble of old traditions and history, as well sourcing new ideas to construct the rest. In turn, this is creating somewhat of a hybrid identity for both, creating conflicts, which are evident today in the rise of right-wing populism across the globe. This is all due to the fragility of identity when it is based in the history of the ruling classes.
Deformed, depleted and centuries behind on their industrial revolutions, the newly independent states of the Commonwealth were left to explain why they weren’t doing as well as their fellow Commonwealth states, such as Canada or Australia, who had received dominion over their countries for being white, and thus deemed fit to govern themselves. Rather than draw conclusions from historical fact, it became an instinctive assumption to link level of melanin to level of development. This is where the education system’s irresponsibility perpetuates ignorance. Akala describes many incidents of conflict with teachers unable to comprehend the possibility of the intelligence of the enslaved/conquered. And whilst it is often mentioned that the empire gave India the rule of law (which is questionable anyway), it’s not mentioned that the empire also forced mothers to rub opium into their nipples to quieten their hungry babies as a result of the heavy burden of excessive taxation, lining British pockets. Even today, the study of eugenics is legitimised by prestigious institutions such as the University of Cambridge (The Guardian).
Akala closes this book somewhat pessimistically, understandably, as banana skins make their come-back on football pitches and far-right movements pick up their pace across Europe, the US and UK. However, this flagrant racism is less tolerated in comparison to the days of Akala’s childhood, considering the level of surveillance in the form of mobile phones has changed everything, and criminal prosecution of racially-aggravated crime is a lot more sincere than it was in the days of the tragic case of Stephen Lawrence. This is not to say the system is perfect, as racial profiling and the treatment of non-white, mentally unwell people in custody is still a problem, and the survivors of Grenfell are still waiting for justice. But, when our fathers and uncles are able to tell you first-hand stories of having their heads kicked in for having the audacity to turn up to a football match to show their support for their team, things have certainly progressed since, slowly, but surely. And when you consider the centuries of plunder and slavery that took place over the course of the British empire, I think it can only be expected that it will take centuries of healing before the snatched souls of the natives can be put to rest.