WHAT DID THE EMPIRE DO FOR YOU?
My History classroom…the end of a lesson.
“Do you know why people say the sun will never set on the British Empire?”
“It is because God cannot trust the British in the dark!”
According to Collins English Dictionary, an empire is “An aggregate of peoples and territories often of great extent, under the rule of a single person, oligarchy or sovereign state”
Hence the British Empire-the largest the world has ever seen, at the head of which was the Queen Empress Victoria. I grew up in a time when political maps of the world were still dominated by scabs of red signifying British overseas “possessions,” and an annual “Empire Day” was celebrated in schools across the nation.
I also grew up at a time in which “the natives” sought their independence from the rule of Whitehall and in which significant numbers of British troops were sent to deter them from doing so.
I was naturally puzzled. What was an Empire? Why did we have one and how did we get it? It was at this time in the early 1950s that I read Gulliver’s Travels” for the first time. In 1726 Jonathon Swift wrote on how to build an Empire…
“For instance, a crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not whither; at length a boy discovers land from the top-mast; they go on shore to rob and plunder; they see an harmless people, are entertained with kindness, they give the country a new name, they take formal possession of it for the King, they set upa rotten plank or a stone for a memorial, they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more by force for a sample, return home, and get their pardon. Here commences a new Dominion acquired with the title by Divine Right“.
Ships are sent with the first opportunity, the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free licence given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony sent to convert and civilise an idolatrous and barbarous people.”
It was only later that I came to understand what Swift meant…to gain an empire requires the morality of the common thief…
”They’ve got it. I want it!”
(Norman Stanley Fletcher, Slade Prison, 1976).
This view is further amplified by an extract in “The Chatto Book of Dissent,” Rosen and Widgery, Paperback 1992. (pp222-223) entitled “Marine Corps Credo.”
“I spent thrity-three years and four months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force-the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from a second lieutenant to major-general. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short I was a racketeer for capitalism…
Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in…I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras ‘right’ for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1923 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
During those years I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. I was rewarded with honors, medals, promotion. Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents.”
(Major-General Smedley D. Butler, c.1930)
Then there is the reaction of all native peoples regardless of time and place…
CALIBAN. This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me, and made much of me; would giv’st me
Water with berries in’t and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night, and then I lov’d thee,
And showed all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Curs’d be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For | am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own King:and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest of the island.
(William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1611.
Of course there are those who argue that the colonists brought advantages to the colonised- in many ways they did, but only as a by-product of what was good for the colonisers
themselves-like the railways in India or Roman Roads in Britain.
I would direct such advocates to a short story attributed to Aesop…
“The Wolf and the Watch-dog.”
On a cold winter’s night, a wolf met up with a guard dog outside its master’s property.
The wolf compared his thin emaciated body with that of the sleek, well fed dog and asked why the latter looked so fit.
“It is thanks to my kind master,” replied the dog, “In exchange for me guarding him, his family and his property, he feeds me, provides comfortable shelter and medical care”.
“That sounds great to me”, replied the wolf, “do you think he would take me on as well?”
“I am certain of it,” the dog assured him. “Why not come along with me and I will introduce you”.
They were about to move off, when the wolf noticed something about the dog.
“Tell me”, he asked, “what is that thing round your neck?”
“Oh, you mean my collar? It is what my kind master uses to chain me up during the day before releasing me at night”.
“What?” said the wolf, “you mean to tell me that you are not free?”
“Only during the day”, the dog assured him, but think of the wonderful food and shelter I get!”
“Sod that!” said the wolf, “I would rather be free and starve than live my life on a chain like a slave however well fed and sheltered a life that would be!”
Some of us are so ungrateful to our masters that we will never accept servitude!