Shashi Tharoor and The Consequences of Britain’s Imperial Past

It is a curious thing, the British public’s understanding of its imperial history. Shashi Tharoor’s Channel 4 interview, in which he argues that the British public has a ‘collective amnesia’ in matters of British history, has been doing the rounds on social media. It seems many would agree that Britain ‘needs a museum’ to ‘educate’ those of us who walk beneath the portico of East India House and other such buildings, blissfully ignorant of the sanguinary foundations of much of London. The consensus of opinion seems to be that Tharoor is correct; the way that he amiably puts across his points has most of us nodding our heads sagely. ‘That’s right’ we say, ‘put it on the curriculum!’. Indeed our curriculum may be a little full this year. Many of the same people who wish for a Tharoor–type History A–Level also blame Brexit for our indulgence of British history in schools which some academics, most notably Mary Beard, believe underline our friction with Europe. We should neglect to teach children the virtues of Churchillian oratory in favour of the virtues of the EEC they say. I am not altogether sure.

As for Tharoor’s museum idea, the trouble is that the weight of imperial history already lies fairly heavily on our shoulders. In a YouGov polls published last year, 45 percent of 18-25 year olds expressed a feeling of ‘shame over pride’ in reference to Britain’s colonial history, whilst 25 per cent admitted (rather humbly) that they ‘did not know.’ The shame camp may seem alarmingly small but when one considers that 66 percent of over 65 year olds felt ‘mostly pride’ at the nation’s imperial exploits, we can affirm that more than ever before, younger generations are growing increasingly aware of the crimes of colonialism (in more extreme case take Rhodes saga for e.g.). Such trends in opinion are understandable; over 65’s have been subject to the rhetoric of ‘partnership’ that characterised the post–war British Empire, as Britain tried, and failed, to ensure an increasingly muscular United States that she was the benevolent partner of underdeveloped nations, not the venal oppressor. This generation will have watched grainy BBC footage of white men carrying out good deeds in Africa, the emphasis placed upon Britain’s construction of colonial universities in Nigeria, railway lines in Tanganyika and their support for democratisation in the Gold Coast. Now these propaganda films have been archived, little evidence remains of British goodwill.

As such, there is no need for an ‘imperial’ museum. Most thinking people understand that subjugating people through violence halfway around the globe is not something to especially delight in. Despite David Cameron’s protestation that there were ‘good things and bad things’, an apology by a future Prime Minister will be almost inevitable once the final offspring of Britain’s imperialists’ die out.

A museum may be necessary in Ireland though, and not for the reasons you may think.

Between 1801 and 1922, Ireland was legally a part of the United Kingdom. In these years, the Catholic majority were subjugated in their own land – denied access to land and education – and de facto ruled from London through the Lord Lieutenant, a commonly English aristocrat who sat in Cabinet. Moreover, the Irish were naturally vilified by all from pub landlords (famously) to academics and the Queen (literally). Sydney and Beatrice Webb, the founders of the LSE, upon returning from their honeymoon in Ireland reflected: ‘we detest them (the Irish) for their very virtues.’ Gladstone, the great defender of Home Rule, visited only once and when he offered the largely ceremonial post of Viceroy of Ireland to Queen Victoria’s son, the Queen interjected the appointment, citing ‘the dismal climate’ and ‘troublesome people.’

Queen Victoria in Ireland

As such, it may surprise many, no less the Irish themselves, that the territory cultivated a significant number of collaborators with the British imperial system, especially in Tharoor’s native India. These numbers are not measly either; throughout the nineteenth century, Ireland gave a disproportionate amount of scientific, administrative and military personnel to the Indian subcontinent. In the Indian Medical Service, 38 percent of personnel were Irish in 1870 as many of Ireland’s rural doctors applied for positions in the East. In 1855, 24 percent of the Indian Civil Service were ‘Irish – born’ as Queen’s College, Belfast fine–tuned their curriculum to suit the needs of the Indian Civil Service. The prevalence of Irish administrators in the Punjab allowed the natives to detect the distinctiveness of the Irish and regard them as separate from other Britons. In the army, in 1830, 42 per cent were Irish born and numbers in the Royal Navy usually hovered around 25 percent for the majority of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, key positions like Viceroy appointments sometimes had All–Irish shortlists. One viceroy, Michael O’Dwyer, was the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab during the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 where 1,000 non–violent protesters were gunned down in the streets of Amritsar. This bloody event was recognised by Tharoor as one overdue an apology. He may direct his demands to Baronstown, County Tipperary – O’Dwyer’s hometown.

The Amritsar Massacre

This is not to suggest the Irish reaped the benefits of the Empire with any sort of broad zealotry for Anglospheric nationalism. As George Bernard Shaw once wrote ‘to escape from Ireland, the Irishman will risk his life for France or the Papal States and, failing that, for England.’ Indeed, in all likelihood, the majority of men and women were simply pushed towards the subcontinent by the same push factors of today, namely the absence of employment. Moreover, many were driven by the lifestyle promised by imperial enterprise. As historian Michael O’Leary so eloquently states: ‘For Irishmen whose working lives might otherwise be spent in some obscure rural practice or commuting daily on the 8:45 from Greystones to Kingstown to city offices, the experience in Punjab must have been heady and seductive.’

There is nothing contradictory about this episode in Irish history and the valiant efforts to overthrow the yoke of imperialism in their own land. In swathes of cases however, not just in India but in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, the Irish gave doctors, administrators and officers to the colonial project. So, when Tharoor directs his critique at the British and compels them to educate themselves, he may wish to include the collaborators (this is not too pejorative a term) from across the Irish Sea. It is excellent news that younger British generations, even those without direct guidance on the subject, are beginning to understand how the blood has yet to dry. The scars certainly remain. Perhaps younger Irish generations, now safely instilled with the valorous tales of pre-war revolutionaries, may redress their history and understand that parts their Irish ancestry were also culpable in the Anglo–Celtic plunder of the underdeveloped world.


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