Sorry seems to be the hardest word: Will Britain ever apologise for its violent empire?
December 22, 2022/Featured, Insights, Past Events, Peace & Security, Social & Racial Equity
The Netherlands have formally apologised for its role in 250 years of slavery. Will Britain do the same? The Conduit’s co-founder Paul van Zyl, who was the Executive Secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and academic Caroline Elkins discussed this and her new book ‘Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire’.
For a small, rocky island in the North Atlantic, we Brits have an extraordinary sense of self, even our name Great Britain can be read as a testament to how we see ourselves. The UK Government’s flagship international communications campaign rides on that to proclaim Britain’s greatness around the world.
But what is it that makes us ‘great’? Some argue that our ‘greatness’ is attributable to our former empire. Regardless of one’s stance on Britain’s colonial history, it is undeniable that the country modern Britain is today is a result of that history.
Elkins explores Britain’s exceptionality complex in her new book Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. She speaks on the duality and duplicity of the idea of liberalism, and how it can coexist with ideas of superiority and brutality, seemingly the very opposite of the liberal ideas this country was purportedly built on. The idea of liberalism did not constrain the extent to which violence was used by Britain across its empire, violence that she details graphically in her book.
The Dutch prime minister has apologised for his country’s role in slavery. As former colonial powers grapple with the historic and contemporaneous wrongs they are responsible for, the anatomy of an apology becomes relevant.
There is a difference between knowledge and acknowledgement. Knowledge is the collection of facts and information about a topic or event. Acknowledgement is a different beast. Acknowledgement is about morals and apologies, and yet genuine, heartfelt apologies are notoriously hard to find. Acknowledgement is predicated on knowledge, and knowledge is a necessary part of preventing history from repeating itself. History itself has a purpose and yet even the facts of history itself are sometimes hard to find and, if found, even harder to acknowledge.
The Empire was arguably one of the most efficient colonial systems and, as Elkins points out, bureaucracy always documents itself. Truth is a key theme in Elkin’s first book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. She speaks about the destruction of truth as a part of history that spans across the African continent and beyond. For a new version of history to be written, you first must destroy the old. This was starkly illustrated by the systematic destruction of documents by the British Government, documents which revealed brutal crimes carried out in Kenya and across the Empire.
The re-writing of history is an attempt to avoid acknowledgement. If you remove the evidence, it is as if it never happened, and if it can’t be proven to have happened, you never have to make amends for the damage you’ve done. We know about the Empire’s role in the Mau Mau uprisings, the Boer War concentration caps, the Bengal famine, the Irish potato famine, the partition of India, and so much else. Yet how much do we really know about what else the British really did in the places they colonised? There may be much that we’ll never truly know, but what the destruction of documents do tell us is that there was a lot that they would rather no one knew.
It is easy to forget that this country is built on the legacy of violence, particularly when history curricula does not make this explicit and the government has erased much of the records about what truly went on. There is also a strongly-held belief that, ultimately, the British Empire was a force for good though this begs the question ‘for whom?’
The remnants of empire
The British Empire’s ‘civilising force’ hinged chiefly on the idea that black and brown people were ‘not yet’ civilised, and that it was Britain’s duty to refine them, and bring British values and ways of life to the rest of the world. At the height of its control, it ruled over a quarter of the world’s population. Britain’s empire has all but disappeared, however the idea of exerting cultural and economic dominance outside of Britain’s borders persists. We continue to influence the world economically and with what we think is right, wrong, good, and fair. Some argue that Britain’s imperial reach continues, just in a more covert form, through seemingly ‘neutral’ and bodies such as the Commonwealth, the United Nations, or any multilateral organisation where former colonial powers have the most power in decision-making.
Britain’s empire is the reason the country looks like it does today; it is as diverse as it is because of the legacy of its empire. In an increasingly multi-racial country it is a fact many of us have to grapple with, including myself. As a person with dual heritage, with a parent from the UK and one from a former colony, the realities and legacies of empire is both around me and within me.
Will Britain ever apologise and pay for its crimes?
We still have to grapple with questions of acknowledgement and the impact that is still felt from the empire. As much as some would like to think that these are all matters of the past, countries that were colonised are still attempting to recover from the impact of British rule. This is particularly in reference to the exploitation of their people and natural resources, as well as the institutionalisation of colonial political and economic systems that have impacted their ability to develop since securing ‘independence’ from Britain. In having this conversation, we have to ask ourselves what an apology would mean? And what an apology would do. We can’t change the past, so would an apology really mean anything, or would it just be gesture politics that ultimately divide people further?
I don’t know, I don’t think anyone has the answers, but as with all complex problems, I fear we’ll have more questions than answers, at least to begin with. People’s opinions are divided, as we’ve seen with the Dutch Apology, but what is crucial is having a diverse range of vioces at the table, particularly those most affected by the impact of the empire.
What do these conversations around legacy mean for reparations? Would Britain ever agree to paying reparations? What would this look like? How do we quantify the value of resources plundered and human lives taken in the name of the British Empire, and to whom would we pay?
Whilst acknowledgement is a powerful thing, actions speak louder than words. Tackling the impacts of empire that we can still see today, such as institutional racism and descrimination, is essential for moving towards a more equitable future.
And for those of us dealing with the complexities of our relationship with Britain, we continue to question how we can reconcile the legacy of this country’s violent history and the horrors inflicted on our ancestors with this ’Great nation’ we now call home and all the opportunities it provides.
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