Shashi Tharoor&’s recent speech at the Oxford Union, stale jokes and all, about imperial reparations from Britain satisfied a yearning among educated Indians to have their self-esteem boosted, not mindful of the fact that the union, which is the university&’s debating society, prides itself above all on frivolity and iconoclasm. This was the same venue where in 1933 the motion that ‘This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’ was soundly carried. Tharoor&’s address is in keeping with the zeitgeist; the empire has come in for a good deal of buffeting of late, both within and outside Britain.
Accounts in the west of the iniquities of empire are as old as the empire itself. Long before Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano (alias the freed slave Gustavus Vassa) penned a harrowing account in 1789 of the Africa to Americas slave trade and began the move towards its eventual abolition. William Bolts in 1772 in his book, Considerations on India Affairs, revealed the plight of Bengali weavers who were forced into starvation by the East India Company. Roger Casement, writing of the Belgian empire in the Congo, described it as “greedy, brutal and insatiable when it came to food, drink, women, animals, skins, ivory; in short, everything that could be stolen, eaten, drunk, sold, or fornicated with, or enslaved, tortured, maimed or murdered”.
In contemporary times, the empire&’s legacy is under sustained assault, a consequence of the geopolitical weakness of the United Kingdom, the globalization of international human rights law, and a sense of post-colonial identity or nationalism that wants to express itself by shredding the symbols of an oppressive foreign past. Much of this reaction is moderate, but an approach based mainly on recourse to lawsuits and emotional rhetoric will result in a highly reductive analysis of the period of European expansion.
It is no longer enough for the crimes of empire to be acknowledged; apologies have been sought and have been forthcoming from Germany for the massacre of the Herero people in Namibia, Italy for Tripolitania in Libya, and the Dutch for the 1947 killings in Indonesia. In London, the British Museum has to counter demands for the return of artefacts seized from New Zealand, Nigeria, Egypt, and of course, the Elgin marbles from the Acropolis. The British monarchy is under sporadic Indian pressure to surrender the Kohinoor diamond. New Delhi has not yet turned its attentions to the Peacock Throne in Iran. The Irish want redress for Britain&’s responsibility for the potato famine of 1845-52. The Protestant and Catholic churches are facing appeals for compensation for their connections with slavery and other institutions for colonial profit. Fifteen Caribbean nations have banded together under the leadership of Barbados to frame their request to Britain for some aspects of humanitarian assistance as reparations for slavery. Others will no doubt be encouraged by the compensation programme agreed to by Britain for over 5,000 Kenyan victims of abuse during the Mau Mau uprising from 1952 to 1960.
Meanwhile, images of Cecil Rhodes have been removed from Cape Town University, which he had once endowed, and the statues of Victoria and George V in South Africa have been vandalized. Courts in former colonial capitals are starting to hear complaints; the indigenous people removed from the Chagos islands, of which Diego Garcia is the best known, have fought for the right to return to their homeland. In 2000, a British High Court ruled that the order to evacuate Diego Garcia&’s inhabitants was shameful and invalid, but the court upheld the island&’s continued military status, which permits only personnel authorized by the military to inhabit the island, and called their claims for compensation unfounded. To thwart the Chagossian claims, and as a result of strong pressure from the US which has cited security reasons to prevent the islanders from returning, the British government, as usual subservient to Washington, issued an Order of Council in 2004, prohibiting islanders from ever returning to Diego Garcia. This archaic, centuries-old royal prerogative permitted the UK government to override the court verdict of 2000. But the Chagossians persisted, and in 2006 the London High Court ruled that the Chagossians could return to the Chagos islands other than Diego Garcia, along with a blistering assessment of the British conduct as “outrageous, unlawful and a breach of accepted moral standards”. Descendants of Malawians killed in 1959 and the daughter of a man killed along with others in Malaya in 1948 are also pursuing their cases in British courts.
Among those setting out to eradicate the footprints of empire, India has not been a laggard though the process moves in fits and starts. Mumbai has renamed the Victoria terminus the Chhatrapati Shivaji station, and the Prince of Wales Museum has become the prolix Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Statues of Wellesley and Cornwallis have been banished from sight though art historian Pratapaditya Pal warned that “we have turned our backs on the city&’s history which in turn formed its character”. The pain of the memory of empire has much to do with present-day political frustrations as well and the socio-economic inequality and privations that the post-colonial state has failed to alleviate. It is easier to change the names and banish the statues than banish poverty. Nations comfortable with their present have much less reason to question and re-arrange their past, although the once potent memories of the British Raj have waned considerably with the diminished power of the British Isles. But the apologies and court cases narrow historical judgement and distort a detached view of the immense complexity and causation of colonialism.
Among the pace-setters in the Indian renaming race have been successive governments of West Bengal. The present chief minister may have had time to take note in London that many streets in that great capital, and in ancient cathedral cities like Canterbury, Lincoln and York, have retained their same names for hundreds of years. Herein lies a lesson; if she still as pires to make Calcutta like London, she could begin there.
(The writer is India&’s former Foreign Secretary)