From China to Iraq, we kid ourselves when we downplay the effects of Empireby Daniel York Loh / July 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
A recent YouGov poll revealed that 59 per cent of Britons think the Empire is something to be proud of. They also tend to think it left its colonies better off. A third would like it to still exist.
This is possibly not surprising. Many of the people asked for their opinions in that survey would probably agree that they don’t believe they’ve experienced any blights of the Empire directly. Indeed, it’s clear that many people in this country (like most other countries in the Western world) have benefited enormously from the vast profits of colonial exploitation—at the expense of other nations.
Take a country like Iraq, for instance. Iraq was created by the British Empire by amalgamating three Ottoman provinces (Mosul, Baghdad and Basra) under the Sykes-Picot agreement—an agreement which made sure to keep oil-rich Mosul out of the equally colonial hands of the French government. The British authorities then placed favourable elites in charge of the governance of this racially and religiously divided region. How anyone could expect that to proceed happily is quite beyond me.
Yet while most of us would chuckle at the belief, widely-held in the People’s Republic of China, that Mao was “70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong”, this is precisely the kind of delusion we sell ourselves when we look for what is disingenuously termed a more “balanced” view of Empire. But “balance” is exactly what we need—although not the “balance” some pundits are calling for. At the moment, our schools barely seem to educate us about the realities of Britain’s colonial past. I don’t remember the subject of Empire being touched on at all at the state schools I went to. The first time I heard the words “opium war” was when the director of a short film I was working on made a flippant remark about it in reference to my “Chineseness.”
What the Opium Wars actually were
Those same Wars came up in a Twitter dispute I had recently. “There was nothing illegal about opium trade,” I was told, in all seriousness, by someone who describes himself as an academic. Perhaps he was suggesting that it was legal, at least under British colonial law, for Britain’s fearsome East India Company to operate as the single biggest drug-running cartel in history,…