Considering the unprecedented focus on movements such as Black Lives Matter and police brutality in North America, it strikes me that the reality of British involvement in the creation of contemporary racism is widely unknown. Indeed, it remains apparent that many believe Britain holds no place in the racial issues that plague the U.S., a common misconception that leads to a weaker understanding of modern societal issues. This is largely due to a lack of education concerning the morbid realties of the British Empire, and the oppression it imposed. It strikes me that, as a history graduate, I have been taught very little surrounding the impact of British colonialism and, when it is actually discussed, solely the positives seep through.
The all too familiar phrase ‘the sun never set on the British Empire’ only serves to feed the illusions of grandeur and wealth regarding Britain’s imperial expansion and masks the brutal existence of this late institution. The reality is that Britain exercised a much more villainous role over the territories it colonised, and the lack of understanding regarding this only reinforces British denial.
Indeed, it seems British reluctance to engage in the discourse encricling their responsibility for racial injustice, particularly in America, is somewhat shocking, especially when evaluating their role in the slave trade. It may, in fact, come as a surprise that Britain effectively kickstarted the endorsement of slavery. Certainly, Britain was the starting point from which the slave trade continued, and although the empire did not directly utilise slave labour, they unquestionably benefitted from its produce. Likewise, the introduction of sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations in both America and the Caribbean was undeniably the result of British interests. Indeed, it has been estimated that Britain transported 3.1 million slaves, only 2.7 of which actually survived. Due to Britain’s selfish desire to increase their economic gain, the slave trade and slave-holding societies such as North America continued to thrive and so did the suffering of millions of innocent Black lives. Subsequently, it remains obvious that Britain must be held accountable for the repercussions of the slavery it effectively started, and can no longer hide behind the idealistic view of British imperial ‘success’. Only in 1807, two hundred years after this horrific enterprise began, did Britain abolish this trade, at best under the scrutiny of those promoting new enlightened ideals.
Equally, another indubitably significant example of the extent of the imperialistic trauma Britain engaged in is that of the widely unknown ‘Boer War’. Between 1900 and 1902, the United Kingdom attempted to reinforce their dominance over South Africa, a nation desperately fighting to gain independence from the empire. Among the atrocities committed by Britain throughout this war was in fact the implementation of the first concentration camps. The unquestionable fact that Britain imposed such horrendous death camps, only just under 100 years after they abolished slavery, is despicable. As is the rejection of British blame. This war was intended to be hidden from the greater public as evidenced by the extensive letters of Lord Milner, the individual tasked with managing these camps. This obvious denial and rejection of Britain and evident inability to convey the actualities of British imperialism provides further confirmation of the need to cover this period in greater depth.
Likewise, British imperialism did not solely affect the minds of those it condemned but infiltrated the beliefs of many Britons themselves. British literary icon and avid imperial supporter, Rudyard Kipling, further enforced deep-rooted racist prejudices in the everyday lives of his peers. Astonishingly, even Kipling’s children’s books and illustrations were littered with unquestionably racist references to the ‘savages’ Britain saved through colonisation in Africa and excused treacherous behaviours through the ‘liberalisation’ of different races. Similarly, the author’s arguably most ‘famous’ or, perhaps more suitably, ‘infamous’ piece, ‘The White Man’s burden’, inexcusably urges the condemnation of other races through encouraging America to annex and colonise the Philippines. Kipling’s work sits amongst a plethora of undeniably racist writings and authors and is only indicative of Britain’s role in bringing about contemporary racial issues.
Of course, these are but a few brief examples which in no way cover the extent to which British imperial power affected those it entrapped. However, they are a start to gaining a greater comprehension of the U.K’s role in contemporary societal and systemic racism both in American and Britain itself. The fact that Britain effectively created and certainly endorsed modern chattel slavery but rejects any responsibility for the contemporary racial conflicts in America is due to a lack of knowledge and clearly further more education is needed. The British justification was always that of ‘educating savages’ and ‘enlightening the uncultured’, which in actuality is no justification at all but an insult to those the empire unmistakably affected. Only through understanding the British role in racial history and its modern repercussions can we better acknowledge our modern issues. Indeed, just as the sun never set on the British Empire, it should not set on the issues it created.
By Ella Walker
Below are some useful articles and books to better educate yourself on Britain’s colonial history and its role in our modern societal problems:
“Spin on Boer Atrocities” – Paul Harris
The Truth About British Colonialism – Mathilda Marcus
Racism is rife in Modern Britain:
How to be an Ally: Starter pack
Sign the Petition to Better educate British children about the Empire: