One had the occasion to see the 2010 British film The King’s Speech for a second time recently. While the film explores the relationship between the Duke of York and later, King George VI (played by Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue, his Australian speech therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush) and is set against the backdrop of looming war in Europe, viewers in the former commonwealth may have found one particular line in the film rather distressing (though not surprising). It is when the outgoing prime minister Stanley Baldwin (played by Anthony Andrews), while tendering his resignation to the king, tells him “I have found it impossible to believe that there is any man in the world so lacking in moral feeling as Hitler”. That Adolf Hitler was woefully bereft of morals was well known and convincingly determined as Allied Armies liberated the many concentration camps in Europe towards the end of the war. Of course, the implied context was the German Chancellor plunging the continent into another crisis and yes, it was only one line in the entire film. However, what was disturbing was the prime minister’s implied belief in the moral superiority of his home country’s imperial project. It was not said but surely felt.
At the time Stanley Baldwin resigned from office in 1937, the Bengal Famine, one that was not a natural but a “man-made” one, as people like Ian Stephens and Amartya Sen have demonstrated in the past, was six years away. Rice Denial was official British Policy in the period preceding and surrounding the famine. Thirty-seven years previously, the British were running “concentration camps” in South Africa during the Second Boer War when Adolf Hitler was still a schoolboy in Austria. Fifteen years later, the British would viciously begin suppressing the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. The high court in London only recently ruled in favor of the three Mau Mau veterans who had traveled to the United Kingdom to seek justice for the humiliation they were made to undergo during those years of colonial occupation. They now have the right to sue the current British Government and seek reparations for crimes committed by the empire.
How was the metropole hallowed in the eyes of the British Empire’s subjects and indeed, in the eyes of the British themselves? The History of British India written by philosopher James Mill (1818), a notorious work reeking of imperial hubris and little else which was prescribed reading for civil servants headed for India, was authored by him without ever having visited India. Mill had no knowledge of any Indian language, too. Historian and politician Thomas Macaulay in 1835 famously said “I have never found one among them [Orientalists] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” The value of such works and words cannot be lowballed. For decades, they constituted the intellectual cornerstone of British Rule in the Subcontinent and elsewhere in the world. The justification for empire was one, a civilizing mission and two, a project undertaken to save the natives from ignominy by rescuing them from their hellish existence.
The attempt here is not to single out the British by writing a vituperative bill of indictment for their empire’s crimes (heck, a bill of indictment is only accusatory whereas what we are in possession of is conclusive evidence). Anti-colonialists, ideally, may not distinguish one imperial project from another. The notion of a benevolent empire is misleading and people should free themselves from the belief that imperialism in some forms may be good–even the Soviet Union was an empire (putting it plainly before readers jump to the conclusion that the writer of this piece is from the red brigade).
It is also odd when the postcolonial is told that the good from empire compensated the bad from empire. If Thomas Macaulay made that statement, he also played a crucial role in the introduction of English as the language of instruction at institutions of higher learning in India. The point is well taken. However, that further reinforces the claim that had it not been for European colonization, the Orient might have perpetually remained in a state of antiquated barbarism. The idea that people outside Europe were killing each other and were up to no good before the Portuguese or the British or the French arrived is malicious and utterly false. In reality, the period succeeding colonization was marked by chaos and bloodletting as the histories of the Americas, Australia, most of Africa, and so on tell us.
The claim that “Our way of life is better than yours” is nevertheless an important one for without it, the hegemonic subjugation of the colonized–so vital to the good health of the imperium–would be unattainable. The subsequent promise of “Don’t worry, we’ll make you like us” brings us to the civilizing mission of empire. Therefore postcolonials do not want to believe that there are such things as morals associated with empires.
A modified version of this article was first published in Millenium Post.