“Why are you so against the British Empire when it gave you much?” So goes the logic of any colonial apologist and the thinking of a lot of Britain’s white population. The implication is that people of colour walking around in England, speaking English, wearing Western clothing, studying at Western schools and universities have benefited from empire.
“Benefiting” essentially means that these people have been able to have a Western standard of living, which is the measure of success and progress in the minds of the post-colonial British population.
This line of thinking, even if it doesn’t appear to be so, is racist. To assert that anyone, but the imperialists, benefited from empire is factually incorrect and offensive. It is also an attempt to minimize the role that the empire played in providing British people, and by that I mean white British people, with untold levels of privilege. It also forgets the fact that Britain was built on the pillaging of other nations and justified by racial pseudoscience, Christianity and capitalism.
Who benefited from colonialism? It’s not hard to see: white people. Of course there were levels to this prosperity and a lot of British people were not affluent during the times of Empire but people such as David Cameron created and consolidated their family wealth off of the back of the slave trade. Without the consolidation of this wealth it’s possible that Cameron would never have been able to become Prime Minister. One way or another the slave trade helped him to get to this position of power.
But even if not all white people benefited from empire at the time, one way or another they all did within a global context and it’s called white privilege. The pervasiveness of the English language and the myth that their nation is great and modern are examples of this. Even aside from that, the fact that the world is structured with the West at the centre is difficult to dispute.
And whilst it is also true that I, being born here, have had certain advantages over those born in India, is not to say that I benefited from colonialism. Colonialism ripped apart the sub-continent causing my grandparents to leave the Punjab and relocate. I doubt they’ll be sending any postcards to the Queen thanking her for the great benefits of partition, nor will the survivors of the 15 million people who were displaced at the end of British rule, or the one million who died.
Beleiving that people of colour should be grateful for colonialism plays into even more subtle forms of racism, ones that put Western standards of living at the top of a cultural hierarchy. Many people have been conditioned to see Western ways of living (skyscrapers, financial centres, Western schools, etc) as modernity and advancement. Such misguided beliefs overlook the huge advancements made to “modern” society by people of colour and people from outside the Western world (these are too vast to list).
Such misconstrued ideas of the West’s importance are also disingenuous and overlook the historical context of the time. Britain was not as wealthy as pre-colonial India. It only consolidated its wealth as a result of the colonial project and its related thefts. India under the Mughals, for instance, was the second largest economy in the world. So even by the standards of economic prosperity as a sole detriment of progress, India was ahead of Britain.
It is now well known that the loot stolen from the Empire built modern Britain. Not only did major families consolidate their wealth during this period but major British corporations did too. There is a good case for Barclays Bank to pay reparations. Liverpool and Bristol were literally built off of the slave trade and it is commonly accepted that the industrial revolution in Britain was financed by the illegal plunder of the colonies.
The British colonial project and the transatlantic slave trade were historically unique. They were unique because they were underpinned by what we now know as modern racism. This form of racism was inherently European and is what separates this type of colonialism from previous historical empires.
It separated the world into humans and unhumans. Let us not forget that celebrated war-leader Winston Churchill remarked of the Bengal Famine that killed 3 million people (in what some have described as a genocide): “I hate the Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Such crude ideas and such a stark sense of cultural superiority were paramount during colonialism and still resonate to this day.
British people need to come to terms with the fact that they were the ones who benefited from the Empire both directly and indirectly. It must be understood that the Empire was barbaric, unique and laid the foundations for what we now describe as “racism”. They also need to stop pretending that people of colour have anything to be thankful about.
The idea that Britain left Utopias in its wake is a complete myth. Britain didn’t lay down democracy. Britain didn’t end the slave trade and in many ways Britain didn’t end its informal rule in the colonies. Britain was built off of the empire and to suggest people of colour living in Britain have benefited from it is ignorant at best.