Opinion: The British Empire: A legacy of violence?
I recently moved to New York from London where I’ve spent more than a decade. The city is an impressive place: its subway systems, its skyscrapers, its many restaurants, its many clubs, its movie theaters, its bars, its parks and museums, and its churches filled me with pride.
But the city, and the United Kingdom in general, are deeply scarred by a legacy of violence. It’s not always obvious, and not always in ways you might like. When you take a trip to many of Britain’s cities, on many an occasion, it’s not the violent crime of the city’s streets that fills you with unease but rather the violence of the country’s past.
The past is a powerful thing. It can haunt and torment and paralyze and frighten as well as arouse and enliven and inspire. The past can take the form of a memory, of a song, of a poem, or a photograph. It can be a story, a photograph, a film, a painting, or an artifact, or even the words of those who have suffered from it. It is a powerful, almost indefinable force.
That’s partly why it is so important to understand the history of our country. It’s more accurate to say that we have so many good historical narratives and so many histories, most of them just very good. But the history and stories we have from the British Empire, and their impact on us, are not always so good.
It wasn’t just that Britain was a big, diverse, and turbulent nation, with a long, bloody history of imperialism. Nor, for most of that history, was Britain a particularly homogeneous nation. This can lead to some very misleading accounts of British history.
For a long time, the British Empire was seen by historians as a single empire, a single British empire, one of many empires. In this view, the history of the British Empire was defined, in large part, in the history of the mother country in which it operated: the history of Britain was the history of the British Empire.