Writer: Giselle Gao
Graphic Designer: Farah Fauzi
Britain, it’s time to come clean.
The UK once claimed to be “the empire on which the sun never sets”. Its authority extended far beyond the bounds of its own ground, stretching across the continents of Africa and Asia. Its excursions into the New World began as early as the 15th century, but 1618 marked the first of its economic expansions, when King James I gave the London-based Guinea Company monopoly of businesses in West Africa, predominantly the trade of gold and slaves. In 1814, Britain annexed Cape Town in South Africa, implementing laws and orders in English. Over the course of the century, the British Empire would continue to spread its authority by provoking indigenous communities into physical conflicts as an excuse to take control over their lands with the aid of machine guns and artillery.
The irony of this British expansion was that while the Empire claimed to be concerned about restoring peace with their colonial conquests, the British army was persistent in leaving a trail of destruction, burning down cities and annihilating entire communities, along with their cultural and historical legacies: temples, palaces and other infrastructure - yet it made sure to seize all valuable treasures beforehand. It was also during this glorious period of British expansion that the first ever concentration camps were established, where prisoners of the conflict were left to starvation and death. Yet the suffering of more than 46,000 people was only so that the owner of the British South African Company, Cecil Rhodes, could further his ambition in the lucrative Diamond enterprise. This pattern of economic exploitation replicated itself across the rest of the globe: The Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia.
The “end of the empire”, in Prince Charles’ words, arrived in 1997, when the control of Hong Kong was transferred back to China. But for all of Britain’s former colonies, what did any form of independence really mean? Was it simply the change from one flag to another? When the British troops left their former colonies, did the indigenous people truly obtain freedom from Britain’s influence?
When they spoke, what came out of their mouths were syllables of the English language. When they picked up a book, what the curved characters on the pages made was but a tale of a girl whose skin was “as white as snow”. If they wished to view the surviving remnants of their own culture, they would have to apply for a visa to the UK before flying across the world to the British museum, where they would find artefacts like the Benin Bronzes, which, according to art historian and Princeton Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, were “visual archives” of the perished kingdom Benin. And yes, Benin was burned to dust after its defeat by the British Empire in 1897.
What did the people of the former colonies have to call their own?
As people become more aware of the need for racial equity in societies in the world, we are beginning, at last, to see the injustices of systemic and institutionalized racism toward Black people and other ethnic minorities in Western world. More attention is currently being drawn to the past acts and laws in the U.S., which were enforced to cement and augment the indelible gaps between the lives of people of different ethnic backgrounds. The sheer overtness of racism in the United States may astound us, but it is also evident here in the UK. In fact, the very establishment of the United States was based on British colonists’ expulsion of Native Americans from their own land.
The purpose of this article is not only to indict the United Kingdom for its past conduct. As the author, I want to draw your attention to a lack of acknowledgement of a violent, imperial past. Historically, the UK has taken advantage of ambiguous language to obscure shameless invasions and eradications of indigenous communities, as well as ruthless looting and destruction of their treasures. Outright celebrations of the empire further demonstrated a callousness to the numerous people who fell victim to the empire. The UK perpetrated countless crimes against humanity. Yet looking back on my own British schooling experience, I was never taught the history nor impact of the British empire in History class.
Why is the history of colonialism not incorporated more explicitly in British school curricula? Why does the description of the Rosetta Stone not specify that the artefact itself was stolen? Yes, the ugly history of the British Empire is not a secret, but it should not be concealed in tactful phrases and hidden deep in web pages. If British schools can dedicate entire history courses to certain dictators, like Hitler, and the global impact of the Second World War, as a means to educate students to be clear-minded individuals, surely they should not ignore the facts of their own abuses toward foreign nations.
Britain, it’s time to come clean.