Britain's bloody heirloom still hangs over us

British critiques of American Nazism will ring hollow until we have a proper reckoning with colonialism

October 31, 2017
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For those of us east of the Atlantic, the spectacle of American politics has moved from being bizarre and bemusing to downright terrifying. We’ve watched as a potent strain of white supremacy has surged from a silent undercurrent to a tide breaking right out in the open. Now columns of neo-Nazis march with torches and guns, their hearts filled with The Bell Curve, spurred on by the man who holds the nation’s highest office. Pundits on the left and right line up to explain it all away as nothing more than the disaffection of a beleaguered white working class. But it’s clearly more than that. In America, racism runs deep. It lies at the very heart of the nation. In a now-famous piece for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to whiteness as America’s bloody heirloom—an ancestral talisman that has been carried since the nation’s founding. For decades the talisman has been publicly disavowed, he claims; but the Trump campaign cracked it open, releasing a violent energy that is now ripping up the country. Britain sees all of this as unbecoming. The encounter with Nazism during World War II – a story endlessly rehearsed in schools and public ritual – has instilled in most a careful distaste for white supremacy. We watch aghast as Americans, who have never confronted Nazism on their own shores, flirt with a force that Europe knows to be nightmarishly violent. What’s dangerous about this stance is that it veils Britain’s own ancestral talisman. And I don’t mean the more obvious expressions of white supremacy – the English Defense League, UKIP, and Nigel Farage, whose Brexit campaign slogan, for all its dog whistles, may as well have been “Make Britain White Again”—although those are frightening enough. I mean something even more conspicuous, even more mainstream; something that sits right at the center of the very idea of Europe itself. Colonialism. While he was Prime Minister, David Cameron, reflecting on a visit to India, went on record saying “there’s an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for.” Today, Boris Johnson, bumbling Brexiteer-turned-Foreign Secretary, has refused to distance himself from a column he wrote in the Spectator in 2002 calling for the re-colonization of Africa. “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more,” he wrote. “The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty.” These are not fringe opinions. A YouGov poll found that 80 per cent of Britons do not regret colonialism. 44 per cent are actively proud of it. In his famous Discourse on Colonialism, the Martiniquian philosopher Aimé Césaire puzzles over this strange double standard. Nazism and colonialism, he argues, proceed from the same logic. When Nazism reared its ugly head in the 1930s, Europe shouldn’t have been surprised. “They hide the truth from themselves,” he writes. “That it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack.” No doubt most Britons would recoil at this equivalence. But Césaire makes a strong case. Nazism was a project of imperial expansion rooted in notions of racial domination, just as colonialism was. For Britain, the problem was not the logic of Nazism, or even its violence, but the fact that it was perpetrated within Europe.


I still remember the first time I taught colonial history at the London School of Economics. LSE students are among Britain’s finest: they graduate from the best schools, score the highest on their A Level exams. And yet when I gave a lecture about the Indian famines of the late 19th century to a classroom full of third year students, I was met with blank stares. As a direct result of British policy—forcing farmers to grow food for export to London rather than for their own subsistence—30 million Indians died. Laid head to foot, their corpses would stretch the length of England 85 times over. No one in the classroom had ever heard of it. This tragedy was not an isolated incident. The Great Bengal Famine in 1770 killed 10 million people, a third of the region’s population. Historians blame the British East India Company, which imposed crushing taxes on farmers and ripped up their rice fields to plant indigo and opium for export. Similar policies over the following two decades killed another 22 million people. The same nightmare played out dozens of times during British rule, over and over again. And not only in India: another 30 million people were killed by famine in China too, victims of British control over the country’s trade rules after the Opium Wars. Historian Mike Davis has famously likened these famines to the Holocaust. And yet the corpses that the British left heaped across the plains of India have been almost entirely forgotten. We would never tolerate such historical amnesia when it comes to the crimes of Nazi Germany; any ignorance on that front is met with the sternest rebuke, and rightly so. Yet an insidious form of holocaust denialism sits at the very center of Britain’s own narrative. What explains a nation’s horror at the specter of Nazism but ready defense of colonialism? One thing. Whiteness. The bloody heirloom. Earlier this summer I appeared on BBC radio to discuss my new book on global inequality. In passing, I made what I thought was an obvious point: that British colonialism was an unmitigated disaster for the colonies. My co-panelist, a pundit at the Cato Institute, erupted in rage, insisting that I judged too harshly. “Colonialism may have been horrible,” he said, “but it also brought a lot of good things: democracy, property rights, rule of law, antibiotics … we need a fairer, more nuanced perspective.” It is this nuance—“but we gave them the railroads!”—that Britons cling to. Indeed, it is the very basis of Cameron and Johnson’s claims. What a strange twist of reason this requires. Democracy? British rule was authoritarian dictatorship; Africans and Asians struggled and bled for the right to vote in their own countries, acquiring it only once the British left. Property rights? The object of colonialism was dispossession—securing the rights of the colonizers to the property of the colonized: land, gold, diamonds, even the bodies of the colonized themselves. Rule of law? The purpose of colonial legal codes was to deny equal rights to colonial subjects. What about India’s railroads? They were used to pump resources—grain and timber—out of the hinterlands to the ports. During the 1943 Bengal famine, some called for trains to send surplus food to the region. Churchill refused, and chose to stockpile instead. 4 million Indians died as a result. As Shashi Tharoor has pointed out, “Churchill has as much blood on his hands as Hitler does.” Even if we accept that useful things were shared during colonialism, that is not the same as saying they were a benefit ofcolonization. Colonialism is not a necessary vector for the transfer of antibiotics, for example. After their invention, antibiotics were transferred to Latin America without colonial occupation. Britain has long enjoyed the Arabic numeral system, and algebra, without ever submitting to Arab invasion. It takes a mind warped by racial supremacy to insist that the best way to share ideas with other humans is to colonize them.


And yet that is what both Cameron and Johnson have done. “In terms of our relationship with India is our past a help or a handicap? I would say, net-net, it is a help,” Cameron said. There isn’t a shred of evidence to back this up. During the entire 200 year history of British rule in India, there was exactly zero increase in per capita income. In fact, during the last half of the 19th century—the heyday of British intervention—income in India collapsed by half. And it wasn’t just income. From 1870 to 1920, the average life expectancy of Indians dropped by a fifth. India’s share of the world economy went from 27 per cent to 3 per cent during British rule. It would be hard to overstate the scale of human suffering that these figures represent. But even if there was evidence of some kind of “net help,” it is a chilling calculus. As if erecting electricity poles somehow justifies 200 years of violent dispossession; as if the Victoria Memorial stacks up against 60 million corpses. It is telling that, in public discourse, one can be “nuanced” about the legacy of colonialism but not about the legacy of Nazism. It is impossible to imagine a British politician or pundit arguing that there were some good things that came out of Nazism. Why the double standard? Because the victims of the former were brown and black. Their suffering just doesn’t matter as much. Their lives are the moral equivalent of electricity poles. Let’s not forget: Britain’s first forays into colonialism were linked to the consummate expression of white supremacy: the Atlantic slave trade. 300 years of state-sponsored human trafficking. 14 million souls shipped across the sea. Countless bodies shackled to plantations and churned into the sugar and cotton that fuelled the West’s industrial rise. And yet in the book I was made to read before taking Britain’s citizenship test, this dark history was reduced to three sentences – dwarfed by the many pages eulogizing Churchill’s valiance against the Nazis. You can visit Glasgow, Bristol, and every other British city that grew rich on slavery without encountering a single memorial. When he visited Jamaica in 2015, Cameron said he wanted to “move on” rather than wallow in the past: in lieu of apology, he announced that British taxpayers would help fund a new prison. The whiteness that is vipering through America right now may seem repugnant to us in Britain. “The chickens are coming home to roost,” I hear people say. “A nation founded on genocide and slavery, America has never really dealt with its racism.”True – but nor has Britain. That same bloody heirloom sits among us too, right out in the open, strung proudly as an amulet around the necks of Cameron and Johnson, perched with the Koh-I-Noor diamond among the crown jewels. We need to confront it before it explodes. For explode it will. The racist sentiments that are driving some segments of the Brexit movement now are but a portent of worse to come. Cesaire observed that colonialism has a way of decivilizing the colonizer—that it leads ineluctably to barbarism and savagery. Every act of torture and massacre and rape that we gloss over or ignore or purge from our history books leaves us morally degraded. “A gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread,” he wrote. “What am I driving at? That a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization—and therefore force—is already a sick civilization, a civilization that is morally diseased, that irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one repudiation to another, calls for its Hitler—its punishment.”