Image of a souvenir flag published for the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary, showing the British Empire coloured in red
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This piece contains themes that may be disturbing for some, including mentions of colonial violence, execution and racism.
When I hear people say that they are proud to be British, I can’t help but ask: what exactly are you proud of?
Before I cause any offence, let me clarify. Pride for your Britishness is not the issue. I myself was born in Britain to Italian parents and am immensely proud of my culture and where I come from. But all too often, nationalistic pride is paired with pride for the achievements and strength of past empires, all whilst ignoring the bloodshed, war crimes, and seizure of sovereignty in the process. The issue is how to negotiate your national pride without advocating for and justifying its bloody past. One can be both proud of their country and admit its colossal failings.
In 2021, pride and nostalgia for this era is widespread, with a recent survey showing that more than 30% of British people are proud of the British empire.
Amongst these individuals is our very own beloved (or, rather, not so beloved) Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In 2002, Johnson – a young Tory MP at the time – wrote an article in which he explicitly claimed that the people in Uganda are stuck in a primitive stone age, and that Africa would be better off if its ex-colonial powers returned to take charge.
If your reaction, like mine upon reading this, is one of shock-horror, then be warned – it only gets worse. Johnson proceeds to say that “the best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty”. The rest of the article is littered with racist comments and British saviourism, arguing that Africa’s problems today are in no way to be blamed on the empire’s occupation.
The rhetoric in this article is astonishing. To claim that colonialism was an entirely good thing and that “the problem is […] that we are not in charge any more” is to ignore decades of damage done through the colonial-capitalist exploitation of African labour and seizure of land sovereignty. This should not come as a surprise though: the British government has a long history of painting its colonial project through rose-tinted glasses, proclaiming that they – oh so generously – brought medicine, education, and ‘civilisation’ to the ‘savages’ living in Africa.
In a brilliant book called How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney makes exactly the opposite argument. European colonialism – far from being the benign development project it is painted to be – had countless negative impacts. Yes, it may be true that Western medicine, technology and infrastructure were introduced, improving the lives of both settlers and the colonised. But the reality is that ‘progress’ was disproportionately spread, entirely influenced by how economically useful an area and its peoples were.
In other words, providing for workers by keeping them literate and healthy was a self-interested investment. Beyond this, British colonialism entailed erasure of culture and identity, creation of dependency, a Eurocentric education, malnutrition, and the lack of development of intra-continental trade routes that would have actually benefited the continent.
If it is further proof you seek then look no further than the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British troops fired their guns on thousands of innocent, unarmed citizens in India, killing an estimated 1,000 people. Or the violation of human rights in the Mau Mau uprising when Britain executed 11,000 rebels, torturing and placing many more in internment camps.
It is paramount that these atrocities are not defended or justified or forgiven when one declares their pride for Britain. And the same goes for others too, the French in Algeria, the Italians in Ethiopia; the list of horrors is quite limitless. We must be careful not to include these horrors – carried out under the disguise of ‘progress’ – in the mix of things that we are proud of our country for.
So, when I ask the question “what exactly are you proud of?”, I guess more accurately I am asking: is it this that you are proud of? Violence? Massacre? Oppression? Or perhaps it is the illusion of the grandeur and might of the benevolent British empire that we have all been fed.
Article by Alice Falciani