The recent debacle of David Cameron’s filmed condemnation of Nigerian and Afghan corruption and the Queen’s remark on Chinese officials’ rudeness highlights the persistence of imperial thinking in Britain. There seems to be a continuing assumption within the British establishment that it sets an example for others to follow and that the British are owed deference by others.
Ever since evangelical antislavery activists campaigned for Britain to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, Britons have assured themselves that imperial overrule is compatible with the “benign tutelage” of other races and nations. Unlike the other European empires, Britons tell themselves, theirs was an empire founded on humanitarian compassion for colonised subjects.
The argument runs like this: while the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Belgians and Germans exploited and abused, the British empire brought ideas of protection for lesser races and fostered their incremental development. With British tutelage colonised peoples could become, eventually, as competent, as knowledgeable, as “civilised” as Britain itself. These platitudes have been repeated time and again – they are still at the heart of most popular representations of the British Empire.
Even when we are encouraged to pay attention to empire’s costs as well as its benefits, these costs are imagined solely in terms of specific incidents of violence such as the Amritsar Massacre in India or the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. Britain has excused itself from that most structural injustice of empire – the slave trade itself – by the fact that it was Britain that pioneered its abolition.Stefan Rousseau / PA Archive/Press Association Images
Acknowledgement that cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and London were enriched by Britain’s dominance of the trade, that many stately homes were built on its wealth and that the compensation money paid to owners upon emancipation – rather than the enslaved – helped drive the industrial revolution and the growth of the City of London, tends to be confined to more critical quarters.
By contrast, runs the same argument, the benefits that empire brought to the world are universal. Everyone – Nigerians, Afghans and Chinese included – should be grateful for the rule of law, the English language, modern education, railways and free trade, all things that Britain provided in order to usher in the modern age.
But to remember empire in this way is an act of incredible selectivity, if not wilful forgetting. Far from being of universal benefit, these features of British rule were designed in the first instance to benefit British settlers, producers and traders. The partial inclusion of colonised peoples themselves in their benefits had to be hard won by those peoples in the face of racist laws and customs.Daniel Leal-Olivas / PA Archive/Press Association Images
Black people generally weren’t allowed to travel on the railways on the same terms as white people. Gandhi’s political awakening came when he was thrown out of a whites only carriage on a South African railway. Government-run education systems varied hugely in time and place but were generally not extended to “natives”. Their education was left to mission societies able to reach only a tiny proportion of them. The Indian Residential Schools of Canada and many of the institutions into which Aboriginal and so-called “half-caste” children were forced in Australia were notoriously neglectful and abusive.Library and Archives Canada
One of the first things that some indigenous elites did with their education was challenge white peoples’ entitlement to rule their countries. The colonial “rule of law” generally worked in favour of white settlers, elites and men. Even where explicitly racist legislation was avoided, proxies for race such as English language tests were used. These either imposed different standards on “native” populations or kept Asian people out of settler colonies unless their labour was required.
The wider adoption of English certainly facilitated more global conversations and business transactions among male elites. But it only served to heighten the exclusion of most non-English speaking subjects and women from access to the credit and political capital that flowed through Anglophone global networks.
Much the same could be said for free trade, which tended to enrich the colonial masters rather than their imperial subjects – let’s not forget it was the argument for free trade which was used to force China to continue accepting opium imports against its will, starting China’s “Century of Humiliation”.
Imperialism was no gift
Democracy was not actually a concept with which British elites were comfortable – or with which colonised peoples were familiar throughout most of the era of Britain’s imperial rule. Rather, it was something hard won, largely once the British had left.
Those under the “benevolent” rule of empire did not necessarily experience British imperialism as a gift. For many around the world, the costs of empire were not restricted to the occasional episode of violent repression, nor even to structural injustices such as the slave trade. Rather, these were systematic, everyday costs. These costs included exclusion – from power and privilege in their own lands – coupled with humiliation at being made to pay deference to white people who assumed the right to govern them.
Before condemning the corruption and rudeness of others perhaps we should remember the act of imperialism itself may be seen as self-interested, arrogant rudeness on a global scale.
I knew of our forced trade in opium and the sacking of Beijing, but the little details of before and after are particularly interesting and at the same time sobering. I hadn't looked into nor heard of the "Century of humiliation", so it was enlightening for me, but if it's old information for you, then kudos to you. It makes me realise how tenuous our position really is here:
How Humiliation Drove Modern Chinese History
The British destruction of Beijing's Summer Palace in the 19th Century encapsulates how the emotion played a major role in forming modern China.
Beijing's Summer Palace, in winter. (David Gray/Reuters)
In June 1840, following the breakdown in negotiations with the Qing Dynasty over the trade of opium on Chinese territory, a large British military force captured the city of Canton (now Guangzhou) before marching up the coastline and entering central China at the Yangtze River delta. Within two years, Great Britain had routed China and, during the subsequent peace treaty, extracted significant concessions: control of Hong Kong (in perpetuity), the widening of trade in new ports, and extraterritoriality for British subjects in China—a privilege obtained by American and French governments soon afterwards.
These events comprised the First Opium War, a defeat which began a era known in China as the “century of humiliation.” And only when Chairman Mao Zedong stood atop Beijing's Gate of Heavenly Peace on October 1, 1949 and proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China did this “century”—which actually lasted 109 years—come to an end.
Since then, the “century of humiliation” has been a central part of the P.R.C.'s founding mythology, of which the short version is this: Long the world's pre-eminent civilization, China fell behind the superior technology of the West over the centuries, an imbalance that finally came to a head with the loss in the Opium Wars. This begun the most tumultuous century in the country's—or any country's—history, one that featured an incessant series of wars, occupations, and revolutions and one that did not end until the victory of the Communist Party in China's 1945-49 civil war.
Since history is written by its winners, China's “century of humiliation” is self-serving to the Chinese Communist Party, and the country's troubles did not end in 1949. But the narrative of “humiliation” is not entirely a Chinese creation. In fact, in an episode recounted by Orville Schell and John Delury in their wonderful book Wealth and Power, during the Second Opium War in 1860 the British army set out to humiliate the Chinese by attacking Beijing's Summer Palace. Located in a northwest corner of the capital, the Summer Palace (known as Yuanmingyuan in Chinese) was an exquisite array of buildings, lakes, and parks, and served as the primary residence of the imperial court. In the Opium War, it had no military significance. But following the Chinese murder of several dozen British and French troops in an ill-conceived hostage crisis, the British took revenge by targeting the Summer Palace. Schell and Delury write:
The destruction of Yuanmingyuan was to be a “solemn act of retribution,”said the British commander Lord Elgin, in which no blood would be spilled, but an emperor's “pride as well as his feelings,” would be crushed. Indeed, before the foreign expeditionary force arrived in Beijing, the young emperor Xianfeng had already fled along with his concubine (soon to be known as the Empress Dowager Cixi) to safe haven in Manchuria. With the Son of Heaven in hiding far to the north in his hunting lodge, British and French soldiers set about teaching the Qing [Dynasty] a lesson they would never forget: that the British crown would not tolerate having the rights of Englishmen violated, even in faraway china. “As a deliberate act of humiliation,” historian James Hevia explains, “it was an object lesson for others who might contemplate defying British power.”
The systematic plunder of the palaces, which contained an enormous amount of priceless artifacts, lasted well into 1860. When it was finished, the men immediately understood they had secured a psychological victory over the Chinese:
“The great vulnerable point in a Mandarin's character lies in his pride,” [Lieutenant Colonel G.J. Wolsely, part of the British expeditionary force] observed. “The destruction of the Yuanmingyuan was the most crushing of all blows which could be leveled at his Majesty's inflated notions of universal supremacy.” Reducing the gardens to ruins was “the strongest proof of our superior strength” and “served to undeceive all Chinamen in their absurd conviction of their monarch's universal sovereignty.”
Today, a century and a half later, the Communist Party continues to preserve the ruined state of the Summer Palace as a reminder of the British plunder.
The history of war is full of many examples of where one side attacked a strategically insignificant installation in order to score a psychological victory over an opponent. But Schell and Delury's account of the destruction of the Summer Palace encapsulates just how large a role humiliation played in the last two centuries of Chinese history, and how his role in ending this humiliation forever colored Chinese impressions of Mao Zedong.
I've always known of previous horrendous acts by the "British" on my own country and of course brutal slaying of thousands of Saladin's captured soldiers and their families on the hill of Al 'Ayadiyeh
Key to the campaign's success was the capture of the port city of Acre. King Richard arrived on the scene in June 1191 to find the city under siege by a Christian army. In the distance, Saladin threatened - his army too weak to overwhelm the besiegers, but too strong to be dislodged.
Saladin immediately ran into problems meeting his part of the bargain and the deadline came without payment of the terms. As a compromise, Saladin proposed that Richard release his prisoners in return for part of the ransom with the remainder to be paid at a later date. Saladin would provide hostages to Richard to assure payment. Alternatively, he proposed to give Richard what money he had and allow Richard to keep the prisoners in return for Christian hostages to be held until the remainder of the money was raised and the Muslim prisoners released. Richard countered that he would accept the partial payment but Saladin must accept his royal promise to release his prisoners when he received the remainder of the ransom. Neither ruler would accept his opponent's terms. Richard declared the lives of the Muslim defenders of Acre forfeit and set August 20 as the date for their execution.
Slaughter In The Desert
Beha-ed-Din was a member of Saladin's court and (along with much of the Saracen army who watched from a distance) witnessed the massacre of 2,700 of his comrades:
"Then the king of England, seeing all the delays interposed by the Sultan to the execution of the treaty, acted perfidiously as regards his Musulinan prisoners. On their yielding the town he had engaged to grant their life, adding that if the Sultan carried out the bargain he would give them freedom and suffer them to carry off their children and wives; if the Sultan did not fulfill his engagements they were to be made slaves. Now the king broke his promises to them and made open display of what he had till now kept hidden in his heart, by carrying out what he had intended to do after he had received the money and the Frank prisoners. It is thus that people of his nation ultimately admitted.
In the afternoon of Tuesday, 27 Rajab, [August 20] about four o'clock, he came out on horseback with all the Frankish army, knights, footmen, Turcoples, and advanced to the pits at the foot of the hill of Al 'Ayadiyeh, to which place be had already sent on his tents. The Franks, on reaching the middle of the plain that stretches between this hill and that of Keisan, close to which place the sultan's advanced guard had drawn back, ordered all the Musulman
The motives of this massacre are differently told; according to some, the captives were slain by way of reprisal for the death of those Christians whom the Musulmans had slain. Others again say that the king of England, on deciding to attempt the conquest of Ascalon, thought it unwise to leave so many prisoners in the town after his departure. God alone knows what the real reason was. "
As Brits, considering all this. Doesn't it take you down a peg or two?! I enjoy history and I suppose it's why I like to travel as I like to get both sides' view on historical events. It makes me ponder how tenuous our position is here, I mean "here" collectively as countries outside of Britain that us expats have migrated to. How do you feel this relates to you or yourself as a Briton in a foreign land that our nation has - from a very great height - shat all over?
I think the one lesson I take from this is one of humility.