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A powerful account of a hundread years of anticolonial struggles
on 26 October 2011
The storm caused by this book in the media and the vilification of its author by the BBC "in conversations" with Kwasi Kwarteng and Jeremy Paxman, authors of other recent books on the British Empire, indicates that Gott's book has touched a raw nerve. The book follows an old-fashioned genre - that of a chronicle. Not in strict chronology but thematically linked, the book's 66 odd chapters chronicle a long series of struggles against British colonial rule in every part of the globe, revolts, rebellions and resistance struggles, some of which proved successful and effective, most of which tended to be overwhelmed by brute force. The book does not seek to engage with the question of whether empire was all bad - Gott leaves this question for the Paxmans and the Kwartengs. Instead, he offers a cummulative and powerful document of the extent to which imperial rule was questioned, contested and challenged, something that I am sure the vast majority of people are simply not aware of. In doing so, Gott offers a voice to those who were generally defeated and dominated and whose stories have generally gone unheard.
Gott is not arguing against a received and glorified account of the British Empire, as Paxman and co have charged him, in order to then denounce him as one-dimensional or naive. Instead, he rightly demonstrates that empires rarely earn their legitimacy by persuading, enlightening and 'civilizing' their subjects - a ruthless and often invisible rule of fire and steel is the ultimate source of their power.
A final note. I noticed that in conversations in the media, Gott was patronizingly told that few people believe uncritically in the glory of the British Empire in these days of multi-culturalism and globalization. And yet - how many programmes, films, books etc. look back nostalgically at the days of the raj as the highpoint of Britain's historical legacy (maybe only trumped by the WW2 nostalgia)? Postcolonial theories today have demonstrated powerfully how colonial mindsets, patterns and even institutions persist long after colonial rule per se has finished. Gott's book shows vividly how much blood it required for these colonial institutions to take hold and, maybe, what future struggles it will take overcome them.