Sorry, Empire

Sorry, Empire

‘No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye’. Saying sorry for empire should be painful; and yet it should also be easy, because a wrong has so obviously been done. Empires have much to be sorry for and little to their credit. Now, when most of the European empires are embarassing shadows of their former selves, it’s time for serious critical self-reflection. Gandhi’s words in response to a charge of sedition in 1922 ask for a plain answer. But empires, try as they might, find it curiously difficult to apologise.

At the beginning of the last century, European empires sometimes displaced their guilt by apologising to each other. After the First World War the British Foreign Secretary apologised to Germany, or more specifically to the ‘honour’ of its army, for war propaganda which suggested that the Germans had systematically bayoneted Belgian children, and boiled down their own war-dead to make glycerine. Meanwhile most of Africa deserved the real apology.

In our postcolonial times apologies have started to break out. They can be very curmudgeonly though. Before the United Nations conference on racism in Durban in 2001 the African nations drew up a ‘preamble’ which strongly suggested that they would like to see ‘an explicit apology by the former colonial powers or their successors for those human rights violations [that is, slavery], and that this apology should be duly reflected in the final outcome of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance’. Apologising for slavery should be even easier than apologising for empire. And yet various ‘former colonial powers’ (Britain included) couldn’t bring themselves to say sorry because they were worried about any apology resulting in compensation cases. The outcome was that ‘the Conference agreed on a text that acknowledges and profoundly regrets the massive human sufferings and the tragic plight of millions of men, women and children as a result of slavery, the slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide’ (UN Newsletter). The text ‘profoundly regrets’, which is good of it, and this handily means that it’s not really anyone’s responsibility.

Not everyone finds it quite such a convulsive political experience to ‘express regret’. Anticipating our ‘sackcloth and ashes’ times, the Mayor of Brisbane, Jim Soorley, led a National Sorry Day in 1998, formally apologising to Aborigines for the treatment they had received in the city. And in 2002, Belgium admitted that it had participated in the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, first Prime Minister of its former colonial territory in the Congo; and Belgium apologised.

Other effects of imperialism are so widespread that it’s hard to know where to begin. Visiting Peru last year I had that thought which is common enough when visiting post-colonial states. How did such a small European military force take control over such a vast population? Gunpowder, of course, is one answer, at least in Peru. As it turns out, though, the Spanish conquistadors where helpfully preceded by their colonising micro-organisms. Having already arrived in Mexico the Spanish had brought with them to South America smallpox, measles, typhus, influenza, and the common cold. The germs moved faster than the Spaniards. The Incas had no immunity to this invisible imperial army. The population of what is now Peru declined by 80% between 1530 and 1570, and presumably the rest weren’t in the kind of health that would allow for a fair fight.

Imperialism leaves all kinds of legacies of devastation, legacies which occasionally revisit us in the Western world from time to time like a bad dream. Nuclear warheads either side of the 1947 partitioning border between India and Pakistan is bad news now. Like every invented border, left after colonial withdrawal, the Pakistani-Indian one just creates trouble. Saying sorry for Partition, anyone? But borders are only the symptom of one of the most miserably impoverished things which imperialism exported – nationalism, a present from the coloniser even more devastating than the common cold. All around the world, European colonialism found peoples who were living out their own conflicts in their own ways. Over the course of imperialism these irrational systems of existence were helpfully reshaped into nations, and then left (some with borders organically drawn in a nice straight line along the nearest convenient round-number longitude) to work out how to be a nation-state. This may have made it easier to join the UN (we’ve seen how useful that can be to Africa), and even play to in the World Cup; but nationalism is not much of an answer to ‘what did the British/French/Belgian/Germans/Italians ever do for us?’.

An offshoot of the imperial firesale of nationalism to the rest of the world has been equally devastating, and even more difficult to shake off. The British ran India (as the Spanish ran Peru), with a tiny number of administrators and soldiers. Once the effects of the measles had worn off, some other way had to be found to control the population. And so was born the civil service. Thousands of administrators, writing everything down, slowly the mechanisms of the country to a pedantic trudge. To try to speed up the wheels of power, local councils were elected on the assumption that devolved power would work more quickly, but, brave attempt as it was, they found themselves mesmerised by the pacelessness of post-imperial life, and the gears shifted down again.

The cultural effects of imperialism are definitely the most insidious. They are therefore the most difficult to apologise for, and the easiest to avoid apologising for. Who should take responsibility for Merchant Ivory, for example, and the blacking up of Alec Guinness in A Passage to India? We need someone to lead by example. A suggestion: the City Hall in Durban is a 1910 version of Belfast City Hall. A symbol of what used to be iniquitous majority-rule replicated as a symbol of what used to be iniquitous minority-rule. A neat imperial contradiction, but also a bind which must be broken. We had our City Hall first, so I think we have a responsibility here. Or rather, our elected representatives do. So Belfast City Council should apologise to the people of Durban for imposing on them a piece of civic architecture with such unfortunate connotations. And there’s no point pretending Belfast didn’t mean it.

[The Vacuum, 2004]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s