Recovering the lost voices of anti-colonial rebels

Britain's Empire:

Resistance, Repression and Revolt

THE STUNNING image on the cover of Richard Gott’s Britain’s Empire says volumes about the perspective and aims of the book. It’s a photograph of “Tipu’s Tiger,” a mechanical organ made in 1795 for Tipu Sultan—the powerful ruler of Mysore whose armies halted the British conquest of Central India for several decades. The wooden cover of the organ features a large tiger ravaging the prostrate body of a life-size British soldier; the machine, now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, apparently emitted roars and screams when played. An admirer of the French Revolution who reportedly called himself “Citizen Tipu” and a Jacobin, Tipu Sultan appreciated European technology and democratic ideals but nursed a fierce hatred of British expansionist goals, championing his sovereignty and independence.

“Tipu’s Tiger” highlights two major aspects of Britain’s Empire, a richly-detailed study of the first century of British imperial reign from the 1750s to the 1850s, that make it a must-read for those who are critical of imperial conquest and violence. First, the image tells us that Gott writes from an unapologetically anti-imperialist point of view—championing revolts and rebellions, large and small, against the brutality, torture, and genocidal campaigns of empire. Like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Britain’s Empire is written in the “history from below” tradition: it exposes mainstream histories as serving the interests of the ruling classes, and takes the perspective of the oppressed—of indigenous peoples, slaves, native rulers, and other colonial populations—as essential for understanding the truth about empire.

Secondly, “Tipu’s Tiger” points to Gott’s significant effort to recover, with painstaking detail, the lost voices of anti-colonial rebels—creating an archive of the leaders, groups, and peoples whose heroic struggles against Britain’s military dictatorships have been buried under centuries of imperialist and racist mythologies about Western civilization’s love for democracy, humanism, and progress.

Significantly, these are rebellious voices from a very specific historical moment—the dawn of industrial capitalism in Western Europe—and Gott opens the door to a study of the complexity and unevenness of their ideas, actions, and possibilities. Readers of C.L.R. James’ history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791, The Black Jacobins, will appreciate Gott’s effort to underline the radical nature of these struggles of the oppressed in a time before modern mass movements came into being.

Britain’s Empire excels at demonstrating the dynamic of anti-colonial revolt and brutal repression that was a central feature of the entire imperial project from the start.

Beginning with an ambush of British military near Pittsburgh by Shawnee and Delaware guerilla fighters in 1755 and concluding with the great rebellion in India in 1857 that Gott says “threatened the entire enterprise” of the empire, we are offered a grand narrative of rebellion and struggle that juxtaposes oppressed peoples across continents and local contexts.

In this period, indigenous populations fought against both European militaries and white settlers in Australia, New Zealand, and North America. Massive slave revolts intermittently shook the Caribbean from the 1791 Haitian Revolution until the abolition of slavery in 1834. The Xhosa of South Africa repeatedly fought encroaching settlements, and were sometimes victorious in retaking their land. The Irish rebelled continuously, uniting across religious lines in 1798. Rulers and ordinary people in Afghanistan, Burma, India, Sri Lanka, and other places thwarted and delayed imperial ambitions.

Britain’s Empire also offers glimpses of rebel organization: coordination between plantations in slave revolts, as in Barbados (1816), Guyana (1823), and Jamaica (1831); the secret societies of Irish peasant rebels, extending across generations; the self-organization of Maori insurgents like Te Here Rangihaeata in 1843; the demand for self-rule by Santal rebels in India in 1855. We also learn of victories of various kinds, including the 1803 rebellion that kept the British out of central Sri Lanka for decades, the 1806 victory of Buenos Aries residents against British desires to get a foothold in Latin America, the inspirational impact across the empire of the Afghan victory over the British in 1841, and any number of important, if short-lived, acts of insurgency by individuals and peoples trying to shake off the British yoke.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of Britain’s Empire is its juxtaposition of local and regional struggles, always placing them with the larger historical moment and opening up the intricate links between them. This double movement is achieved through the book’s organization. The ten parts of this 500-plus page book highlight events in Europe that shaped British imperial policy on the large scale (e.g., the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, the abolition of slavery, the 1848 revolutions, the Crimean War), but the chapters within each part highlight revolts and rebellions—including those of land-hungry white settlers, chaffing against the limits that the British Parliament periodically placed against expansion. 

The result is an intricate picture of empire in which apparently isolated events are shown to be linked, and apparently smooth historical developments are revealed as uneven and contingent. Rather than seeing slave revolts, white settler rebellions, colonial wars, and indigenous peoples’ uprisings as discrete phenomena, we are forced to juxtapose them in their common historical context. At the same time, by “slowing down” this early history of empire, we see that while the British Empire was able to be successful in the big picture—transforming from a collection of settlements, outposts, and footholds that benefitted East India Company partners to a colossus that straddled the globe and fuelled industrial capitalism itself—it did not always do so smoothly or according to its own devices.

But most of these revolts were ultimately crushed, and Gott exposes the racism and greed for land that drove the British to policies of martial law and extermination.

Among the repression and British atrocities Gott details are Lord Amherst’s deliberate policy of spreading small pox blankets to indigenous peoples in North America, the genocidal policies pursued against the Pindaris of Central India in 1817 and the Aborigines of Tasmania in 1824, the indiscriminate shootings of Xhosa villagers in 1835, the horrific souvenirs made of Malay warriors’ bodies in 1836, the slaughter of Batang Maru “pirates” in 1849, and the 1857 terror tactic of tying rebellious Indians to cannons and blowing them to bits.

The opinion of a settler in the Cape Colony in pushing for a war against the Xhosa was typical throughout the empire: “Is it just that a few thousands of ruthless, worthless savages are to sit like a nightmare upon a land that would support millions of civilized men happily?”

It’s in the context of such violence that Gott discusses the often vicious responses of oppressed peoples. For instance, in describing the massacre of twelve shipwrecked European traders by a Maori group in 1834, Gott writes: “For an indigenous people on the brink of bring conquered and colonized, this was a wide precaution.”

Faced with such steadfast rebelliousness, even the British were often forced to admit that all of their talk about “winning hearts and minds” was a sham. As Charles Metcalfe, political agent of Delhi, noted after a Gurkha rebellion in 1815, “Our power in India rests upon our military superiority. It has no foundations in the affections of our subjects.”

As its best, Britain’s Empire contributes the sort of historical research and global perspective required to flesh out Marx’s outline of the relationship between colonialism, slavery, and emerging capitalism in Capital, Volume I:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, [signaled] the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.

At times, however, the book reads too much like a military history, focused on specific policies and battles. Emerging capitalism is more of a backdrop than a driving force for empire, and left me asking how Gott would relate this first century of British rule to the second, marked by the context of mass industrial production. In addition, Gott minimizes questions of politics, ideology, and culture, with two significant exceptions that only illustrate the problem: when Irish rebellions are discussed they are clearly marked by discussions of class and ideology, and when revolts are dominated by Muslim participants, especially in South Asia, they are quickly marked as “Islamic” (including the 1857 revolt).

While researching this time period is always difficult due to scarcity of sources, I would have liked to see more consistency in approach. Contemporary research on the 1857 revolt, for instance, has much to offer in terms of the ideological and social diversity of the rebels. The goal may be to chart an ongoing British/Christian conflict with Islam that continues to the present day, but we must be careful not to reproduce a “clash of civilizations” narrative of the Samuel Huntington variety and give “Islamic” motivation when it isn’t the dominant drive.

Britain’s Empire offers many lessons for us today, when imperialists claim to be acting in the best interests of subject peoples but produce, in reality, massacres and repressive conditions that only inspire further acts of revolt and insurgency.

Gott offers a priceless quotation from one Captain John Orde, who ruefully said about slaves in Dominica in 1791: “Notions and opinions have certainly got root in the minds of the slaves…which I must apprehend will militate against their even being such faithful, obedient, and contended servants as they were formerly.” We can imagine any crackpot imperialist or dictator saying the same about rebels and insurgents in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, or Syria today.

In the context of the revolts shaking the world, inspiring one another in their victories and teaching one another in their defeats, the value and timeliness of a book like Britain’s Empire cannot be overestimated.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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