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Doing the dissent thing…

Priyamvada Gopal’s counter-history of the British Empire is not only a well-written piece of scholarship but a necessary one, says Angela Cobbinah

15 August, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah

The attack of the mutineers on the Redan Battery at Lucknow on July 30, 1857

CLERKENWELL Green is no stranger to public protests but one in September 1866 hit a particular nerve by further highlighting a controversy that had shaken the English establishment to its core and raised serious questions about the imperial project.

Protesters had gathered there to burn an effigy of John Eyre, the sacked governor of Jamaica, who’d been branded a mass murderer for his brutal crackdown of the Morant Bay Rebellion two years previously that resulted in hundreds of deaths, including those of women and children. In contrast, the executed leader of the insurgency, the Baptist preacher George Gordon, was hailed a martyr.

Described in a press report as the “indignation meeting on the Jamaica atrocities”, it is just one example that Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal cites in her masterful counter-history of the British Empire to demonstrate how dissent in far away colonial outposts informed anti-imperialism back home in that it underlined how the quest for freedom and justice was part of a common cause requiring international solidarity.

To bolster her argument Gopal examines a number of major uprisings against British rule from the 1850s onwards, ending with the Mau Mau revolt a century later, as well as the campaigns of key dissenters in the metropole. They include the unlikely firebrand Wilfred Blunt, a one-time Tory squire who became involved in the Egyptian nationalist movement of the 1880s during his leisurely travels of North Africa, and the MP Fenner Brockway, one of the last century’s foremost anti-colonialists whose radicalism increased as he acknowledged the role of liberation movements in forging a new social order.

Shapurji Saklatvala, elected communist MP for North Battersea in 1922, and the activists CLR James and George Padmore are among those who helped internationalise Asian and African opinion, pushing British critics of empire towards a more radical direction in their opposition to paternalistic notions of a gradual handover of power. In doing so they shattered the belief, still maintained today by revisionist historians such as Niall Ferguson, that Britain’s vast empire was essentially a philanthropic project that sometimes got things wrong.

Gopal describes the process by which metropolitan dissenters came to learn something from their anti-colonial interlocutors and the movements they represented as “reverse tutelage”. Her opening chapter concerns the two-year 1857 Indian Rebellion, which unleashed hysterical racial outrage against the ungrateful natives, so justifying a ferocious counter-insurgency that included blowing suspect rebels from the mouths of cannons. The Chartist Ernest Jones was among those who sought to frame the rebellion as a struggle for universal liberty, no different from the 1848 uprisings in Europe, or for that matter the domestic struggles of the working classes.

Coming so soon afterwards in 1865, the events in Morant Bay, prompted by the poor living conditions of recently emancipated slaves, provided a further shock to the system, such that so-called liberals like Charles Dickens and John Ruskin became ardent supporters of Eyre and were bombastically open about the dangers of black freedom.

Dissenting voices, however, called for common cause to be made with the rebels because what the government had inflicted on them could very well be inflicted on English workers. This crossing of racial lines fuelled a fierce debate in the press, which put moral pressure on political moderates like the philosopher John Stuart Mill.

While Mill upheld the virtues of empire, he insisted on the equality of its subjects, remarkable, says Gopal, in an age where non-whites were routinely regarded as inferior and not deserving of parity.

She goes on to describe how English self-reflection and questions about the meaning of freedom in the context of empire, in reality an oxymoron, continued apace over the decades.

Labour leaders Keir Hardie and Ramsey MacDonald are among those who went on tours of the colonies – in their case to India –  to find out for themselves why there was so much unhappiness with British rule. Then there are the more radical figures like the heiress Nancy Cunard and suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst who actively collaborated with nationalists.

While a number of writers have talked about black agency in securing liberation, notably the aforementioned James and his study of the Haiti revolution of 1794 and more recently Robin Blackburn in his research into the rise and fall of slavery in the Americas, Gopal is perhaps the first to discuss at length the impact of anti-colonial movements in shaping progressive thought.

It is an impressive piece of scholarship, a well written one at that, which exposes the mythology of Harold Macmillan’s Wind of Change speech in 1960. Made just weeks after the official ending of the eight-year Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and even longer Malaya conflict, it suggested decolonisation was a managed, orderly affair that had nothing to do with resistance. The 2016 referendum and resulting Brexit highlights how empire continues to have a tenacious hold on the British imagination, hiding uncomfortable realities about our colonial past. As such, this book is a necessary and welcome corrective.

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. By Priyamvada Gopal, Verso, £25

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