The question of whether, say, India or Nigeria are “better off” because of British imperialism contains an inherent contradiction: before colonialism there were no states called India or Nigeria. But to prove the horrors of imperial rule — or to dispute the historians who recommend that the United States self-consciously adopt Britain’s former “burden” — one has only to examine the catastrophic choices of British colonialists that continue to influence events today.
“Our only justification for 200 years of power was unification,” says a character in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, reflecting on the ugliness of partitioning the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. “But we’ve divided one composite nation into two and everyone at home goes round saying what a swell the new viceroy is for getting it sorted out so quickly.”
While it is true that colonial policy was often formulated in London, it is equally true that Britain could become the greatest power on earth only by delegating power — either to Britons who served as imperial representatives or to local forces intent on doing the empire’s bidding. But Kwasi Kwarteng, in this fine book, argues that the empire granted far too much authority to the wrong people. “Accidents and decisions made on a personal, almost whimsical, level have had a massive impact on international politics,” Kwarteng writes.
“Ghosts of Empire” explores six cases where this impact was felt: Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, Hong Kong, Kashmir and Burma. This is a list without many success stories, and Kwarteng, who is a Conservative member of Parliament with Ghanaian parents and who claims to want to transcend “sterile” debates about the empire, ends up making a damning case. “The British Empire is a bizarre model to follow for fostering stability in today’s world,” he says. “Indeed, much of the instability in the world is a product of its legacy of individualism and haphazard policy making.”
Kwarteng’s examples all provide him with common themes. Although the kingdom of Iraq, which arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, was under an imperial mandate only until 1932, the British retained significant control until the late 1950s. Yet by repeatedly putting its faith in unpopular rulers who could be depended upon to ensure a steady supply of oil, London inadvertently set off several nationalist explosions. A string of army coups, starting in 1958, eventually led to Saddam Hussein. Kwarteng convincingly argues that the trust placed in the pro-Western Hashemite rulers was largely a function of the snobbery and arrogance of the people who actually administered the empire.
One sees the same arrogance in London’s treatment of Africa. Britons in Nigeria had an innate distrust of educated “natives” and decided to grant resources and autonomy to more traditional tribal chieftains, who were intent on pursuing local, not national, interests. Britain’s decision to join the Islamic north of the country with non-Muslim settlements in the south fed tribal conflicts and insurgencies that have lasted to this day.
In Sudan, meanwhile, British authorities ruled the north and south separately, ultimately to calamitous effect. Southern Sudan has recently become a separate country after decades of bloodshed, and the last 10 years have seen unconscionable war and genocide in the Darfur region, which was mindlessly tacked on to Sudan during World War I. Kwarteng quotes Rudyard Kipling, who, with astonishing condescension, wrote that the Sudanese “will honestly believe that they themselves created . . . the easy life which they were bought at so heavy a price.” Here as elsewhere, Kwarteng is critical but not patronizing, allowing the reader to grasp the motivations of the British while simultaneously seeing the shortcomings of their decisions.
Hong Kong, with its successful economy and relatively free society, is the one example in this well-written book that does not quite fit Kwarteng’s pattern. He ably conveys the unwillingness of British administrators to allow a functioning representative government. But it is still worth pointing out that the partial autonomy China has granted Hong Kong — largely because of the territory’s history as a British possession — compares favorably with the liberties allowed on the mainland.
Kwarteng is extremely effective at showing the problems with British policy, but his discussion of Kashmir reveals the limitations of his analysis. Yes, British rule in this beautiful state (which, despite its largely Muslim population, became part of majority-Hindu India after partition) was shortsighted. And yes, by ensuring Hindu domination in the century leading up to partition, British civil servants exacerbated the region’s problems. But Kashmir became an incredibly dangerous and volatile place only because of the much larger decision to partition India into two countries. If that fateful decision had not been made, the myopia of officials in Kashmir would have been localized. Similarly, in Iraq, the selfishness and greed of British civil servants must be set alongside the disturbing lack of knowledge about Sunnis and Shiites that was exhibited by officials in London (like Winston Churchill, then the secretary of state for the colonies), who insisted on British control in the first place. Big decisions can also have big consequences.
Kwarteng does not spend much time on religion, even though the British “legacy of individualism” that he highlights no doubt had something to do with the country’s Protestant character. Delegating authority probably contributed to British military successes in wars against more hierarchical Catholic powers like Spain and France, but the darker side of this aspect of Protestant individualism is visible throughout Kwarteng’s book. This is not to say that the Spanish or French empires were any less brutal than the British Empire — on balance they were probably more savage — but for the sake of his argument Kwarteng should have dwelt longer on how their religious beliefs influenced Britain’s imperialists.
In Simon Raven’s novel “Sound the Retreat,” a colonel in the British Army is having a conversation with an Indian friend on the eve of independence. After being informed that Indians “wish to order their own affairs,” the officer turns sour: “It’s your fault. You will insist on the British leaving.” To which his Indian interlocutor responds, “Partly because we do not like being spoken to in that tone of voice.” The British Empire would never have been what it was if its servants did not believe that they were part of a mission civilisatrice, something larger than themselves. But as George Orwell detailed in his fiction and essays about Burma, one of Kwarteng’s case studies, you cannot really rule over people for too long without losing a bit of your own humanity, no matter what your original mission.
It is no wonder that the men tasked with administering the British Empire were too often loftily arrogant and too often inclined to take the tone that Raven identifies. Kwarteng’s book does not condescend toward its subjects, even if they were much too condescending toward the people they viewed as their own subjects.