Posts Tagged ‘British empire’

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This week marks the 100th anniversary of the world-historic Easter Rising in Ireland. And, here in the United States, we’re getting quite an education—first, with 1916 The Irish Rebellion, a big, lavishly produced slab of prestige television (with none other than Liam Neeson as the narrator), available on 120 television stations in the United States and on the BBC; then, on Sundance, with Rebellion, a soap-operaish version of the same events; and, finally,  A Full Life: James Connolly the Irish Rebel, a graphic remembrance of socialist agitator, editor, and author Connolly illustrated by artist Tom Keough.*

I’ve only seen the two television series, so I can’t comment on Keough’s book.

In my view, 1916 The Irish Rebellion does an excellent job of providing the necessary background (at least for those of us lacking the basic, Irish secondary-school-book knowledge of the events—although it tends to exaggerate the U.S. connection (highlighted in the trailer) and to downplay the egalitarian and socialist impulses in the Rising’s anti-imperialism (which, I presume, the Connolly book serves to correct). And while Rebellion is more an intimate recreation than a documentary (and does take historical liberties and shortcuts in dramatizing, I would say melodramatizing, the events), it does highlight the role of women among the forces for and against Irish independence.

Still, both television series serve to shine a spotlight on the short-lived and ultimately failed rebellion that showed to the rest of Ireland (beyond Dublin), the British Empire (for which this was the beginning of the end), and the rest of the world (in a wide variety of socialist, communist, and national-liberation movements) that the dream of making and changing history was embodied by and yet could not be contained within the “terrible beauty” of 1916.**

 

*Here’s the appropriate disclaimer: while 1916 The Irish Rebellion was largely financed by the University of Notre Dame and written by Notre Dame professor Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, I played no role in the creation or dissemination of the documentary.

**It is precisely that terrible beauty that is taken up in Ken Loach’s film, Jimmy’s Hall, which takes place in 1932 and focuses on the post-1916 political tensions among the Catholic church, the state, the landowners, and the republican movement.

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Apparently, the British public [ht: ja] are generally proud of their country’s role in subjecting the world to colonialism and the British Empire, according to a new poll: 44 percent were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism, while only 21 percent regretted that it happened. 23 percent held neither view.

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The same poll also asked about whether the British Empire was a good thing or a bad thing: 43 percent said it was good, while only 19 percent said it was bad. Twenty-five percent responded that it was “neither.”

I suppose the results are not surprising if, in fact, as the author of the article observes, the “British Empire is not widely taught in detail in British schools.” Therefore, British schoolchildren don’t learn about the numerous atrocities committed in creating and maintaining the empire—such as the Boer concentration camps, the Amritsar massacre, the partitioning of India, the Mau Mau uprising, and the famines in India.

What little they and their parents do learn probably comes from the likes of Niall Ferguson, the author of the 2003 book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (on which a television series of the same name, starring Ferguson, was based).

Ferguson actually attempts to come up with an answer to the question, was the empire good or bad? And, no surprise, Harvard’s incorrectly political ignorant gay-bashing bloviating right-wing infotainment war-crimes-apologist historian’s answer is the British empire was a good thing:

Many charges can of course be levelled against the British Empire. I do not claim, as Lord Curzon did, that “the British Empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen”; nor, as General Smuts claimed, that it was “the widest system of organised human freedom which has ever existed in human history”. The Empire was never so altruistic. In the 18th century the British were as zealous in the acquisition and exploitation of slaves as they were subsequently zealous in trying to stamp slavery out; and for much longer they practised a form of racial discrimination and segregation that we today consider abhorrent. When imperial authority was challenged – in India in 1857, in Jamaica in 1831 or 1865, in South Africa in 1899 – the British response was brutal. When famine struck (Ireland in the 1840s, India in the 1870s) their response was negligent, in some measure positively culpable.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that no organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world. For much (though certainly not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for relatively incorrupt government. Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that empire enhanced global welfare – in other words, was a Good Thing.

I suppose the best one can say is, Ferguson understands the brutality of the empire striking back. But, in the name of “global welfare,” his argument suggests he would join forty-plus percent of the British public and be on the side of the empire striking again.