Pankaj Mishra: Sun At Last Setting on Britain's Imperial MythRoundup: Talking About History
tags: colonialism, imperialism, Guardian (UK), British Empire, Kenya, Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra is an Indian author and writer of literary and political essays. His books include Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond. His new work, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, is published in 2012.
Scuttling away from India in 1947, after plunging the jewel in the crown into a catastrophic partition, "the British", the novelist Paul Scott famously wrote, "came to the end of themselves as they were". The legacy of British rule, and the manner of their departures – civil wars and impoverished nation states locked expensively into antagonism, whether in the Middle East, Africa or the Malay Peninsula – was clearer by the time Scott completed his Raj Quartet in the early 1970s. No more, he believed, could the British allow themselves any soothing illusions about the basis and consequences of their power.
Scott had clearly not anticipated the collective need to forget crimes and disasters. The Guardian reports that the British government is paying compensation to the nearly 10,000 Kenyans detained and tortured during the Mau Mau insurgency in the 1950s. In what has been described by the historian Caroline Elkins as Britain's own "Gulag", Africans resisting white settlers were roasted alive in addition to being hanged to death. Barack Obama's own grandfather had pins pushed into his fingers and his testicles squeezed between metal rods....
Fantasies of moral superiority and exceptionalism are not only a sign of intellectual vapidity and moral torpor, they are politically, economically and diplomatically damaging. Japan's insistence on glossing over its brutal invasions and occupations in the first half of the 20th century has isolated it within Asia and kept toxic nationalisms on the boil all around it. In contrast, Germany's clear-eyed reckoning and decisive break with its history of violence has helped it become Europe's pre-eminent country.
Britain's extended imperial hangover can only elicit cold indifference from the US, which is undergoing epochal demographic shifts, isolation within Europe, and derision from its former Asian and African subjects. The revelations of atrocities in Kenya are just the tip of an emerging global history of violence, dispossession and resistance. They provide a new opportunity for the British ruling class and intelligentsia to break with threadbare imperial myths – to come to the end of themselves as they were, and remake Britain for the modern world....
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