The debate about the British Empire can often lead to moral binarism. It was either good or bad, or an uneven mix of the two. Even exemplary reports of remarkable atrocities such as the Amritsar massacre could fall victim to colonial rule. Imperial sympathizers of course insist that the same issues were the grateful beneficiaries of imperial governance.
Priyamvada Gopal's new book cuts the empty "good or bad things" to restore the men and women who opposed the flood of the empire in vivid human terms. Her characters include native – I mean British – opponents of imperialism such as Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Keir Hardie, Sylvia Pankhurst, Fenner Brockway, Nancy Cunard, the "Red Vicar" Father Conrad Noel and others.
Gopal's canvas of rebellion and disagreement begins with the Indian rebellion of 1857 and the bloody revenge of the British. This outbreak of violence by Crown agents sparked heated debate among radical circles in Britain, who recognized that the uprising ushered in a "frightening new historical era." For dissidents like chartist Ernest Jones, the rebellion has not only led to disgust at the imperial project, but also to a revival of domestic dissent. Jones wrote in the people's DailyA few years later, in 1865, the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica and the suspension of opposition politician George W. Gordon, on the orders of Governor John Eyre, proved equally fissile. Many imperial critics of the 19th century recognized that the radical anti-colonial cause in India, Africa and the West Indies had lessons for the labor movement at home. As Jones put it: "If it is not English to be on the Hindhu side, it is not English to be on the side of tyranny, cruelty, oppression and invasion." it had a strong impact on radical movements in Britain.
The significant achievement of Insurgent empire to unearth the long muffled voices of our native imperial critics. Gopal may overestimate the radicalism of Blunt, who denounced the British occupation of Egypt after the "Urabi Rebellion" – after all, his closest political associates were Randolph and Winston Churchill – but there is no denying that the passionate protest sparked the founding of the League against imperialism in 1927.
Gopal's story reached a violent climax in Kenya when the brutal repression of the Mau Mau revolt prompted British MP Barbara Castle to investigate British atrocities and the Tagesspiegel to regret: "The gunboat. The bomb, the prison area. This is what the Empah's monocle-flashing warriors mean when they speak of determination. Will the sun never go down? "In our time when the airships appeared to be in control, Gopal reminded us of the" Movement for Colonial Freedom ", which proclaimed:" Imperialism can only be ended by the British and colonial peoples who fight together against the common enemy , & # 39;
Gopal's book is an important and original contribution, but it's a shame that her findings sometimes have to be read through a cloud of academic jargon. The dilapidated traces of faded imperialism continue to shape attitudes and debates in modern Britain. Insurgent empire deserves to be read widely.
Insurgent Empire: anti-colonial resistance and British dissent
Verso 624pp £ 25
Christopher Hale is the author of Deception: How the Nazis Tricked Europe's Last Jews (The History Press, 2019).