ON THE EVENING of August 14, 1947, as India prepared to declare its independence, the last British Viceroy in India was sitting alone in his study, when, as he recounted later, he thought to himself: “For still a few more minutes I am the most powerful man on earth.”
Viceroy had ample reason to be glum: his empire was relinquishing its crown jewel, one that had enriched Britain for centuries. Louis Mountbatten was not exaggerating the extent of his power. Nehru had noted in his earlier writings that the power of the British Viceroy was greater than that of any British prime minister or American president
. His Majesty’s deputy was India’s colonial master, ruling over 350 million bodies across a continent 20 times larger than Britain, accountable to none of the people he governed.
When Nehru, writing from a prison cell in the 1940s, did search for an analogy to the Viceroy’s power, the only name he could think of was that of Adolf Hitler.
In a poem titled “Partition,” W. H. Auden memorialized the image of an unprepared lawyer amputating an entire subcontinent:
In seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided
A continent for better or worse divided
The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
What followed this irresponsible and careless partition was murder, rape, and mob lynching on a scale never before seen in South Asia. The subcontinent had always prided itself on its syncretic traditions; certainly, there were moments of disharmony, but nothing like what would happen in 1947. Muslims killed Hindus and Sikhs, Hindus and Sikhs killed Muslims, neighbor turned on neighbor — and on their neighbors’ children. As far as the eye could see, bodies lay strewn across roads packed with refugees; pregnant women were targeted and cut open; corpses littered the roads of ancient towns and cities. Between one and two million people were killed in the span of this homicidal fury, and over 15 million people were uprooted. It was one of the most harrowing human migrations in all of recorded history. One person, at least, knew where to lay blame for this violence. Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and first Governor-General of independent India, would later bluntly tell a BBC reporter: “I *censored*ed it up.”
Niall Ferguson, the most prominent exponent of imperialism
today, has written that there is a “plausible case that Empire enhanced global welfare — in other words, [that it] was a Good Thing
.” Ferguson is not alone in this view.
Just last year the academic journal Third World Quarterly
was forced to pull an article entitled “The Case for Colonialism,” in which Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University argued that colonialism was “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate,
” the second claim more odious than the first.
In England, Oxford professor Nigel Biggar rushed to Gilley’s defense in a piece published in The Times
, chastising Brits who felt guilty about their nation’s colonial history
. Backlash against Gilley’s imperialism, expressed primarily through social media protests, amounted to nothing: late last year, Oxford announced that Professor Biggar would be heading a new “Ethics and Empire” project, aiming to study a more balanced — and benign — story of colonial plunder.
The publics for which Gilley and Biggar write, along with the great bulk of the citizenry, do not know the colonial story from the perspective of the colonized.
Western intellectuals have constructed a fantastical balance sheet where the benefits of colonialism outweigh the costs, where some imaginary moral good ultimately exculpates theft and murder. Western publics have hypnotized themselves with historical untruths about their darkest chapters, or else reinterpreted the story as a parable of Western benevolence.
That goes for both sides of the Atlantic, and both sides of the English Channel.
Setting the economics of plunder aside, the sheer human consequence of this are such that Angus Deaton found that “the deprivation in childhood of Indians born around mid-century was as severe as any large group in history, all the way back to the Neolithic Revolution.”
The deracination and deindustrialization of India was the direct consequence of British policy — duly deliberated, signed, and enacted by the most educated individuals in the world
Indians were conquered at home but also shipped abroad as indentured servants; some three million Indians were forced to migrate to the West Indies and South Africa to work the plantations
. If a parallel to the Indian experience exists, it might be found in the experience of the Africans who were transported in chains, many of them on British ships, to the New World. While indentured servitude was legally distinct from slavery, in the boats and the fields they were functionally the same. Later, the Indian independence movement would influence the American Civil Rights movement and in particular Martin Luther King Jr., who looked to Mohandas Gandhi for inspiration.
There would have been no Industrial Revolution — and no rise of the West — without the colonial gains stolen from India and the bodies snatched from Africa. The freedom of the West was purchased by its looting of the East and South.
The conquered knew that this had happened and in their diaries, journals, and memoirs, whether written by slave or subject, they documented the shame it caused them — a primordial shame followed by an equally primordial anger. If a balance sheet of the colonial record is therefore to be constructed, the bodies and wealth stolen from the colonized should be the first accounts to be settled.
Omer Aziz indicts the Western amnesia around colonialism....