Challenging the myths of empire: An interview with Priyamvada Gopal

The professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge talks to K Biswas about Britain's sentimental attachment to its imperial past, via selective amnesia and deliberate obfuscation

September 8, 2021 · 8 min read
The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square (Credit: Ivor Roberts-Jones)

K Biswas: In 2020, a YouGov poll found a third of Britons would like their nation to still have an empire. What are the main drivers of modern-day ’empire loyalism’?

Priyamvada Gopal: A certain mythology of empire is foundational to Britain’s national story, which in turn is very bound up with being an originary fount and ‘bestower’ of freedom. This is manifested, on the one hand, in a story of a plucky little island leading the anti-Nazi victory in World War II where some of the other parties to that victory are rendered marginal; and on the other, requiring further gymnastics, an empire that conquered in order to free, as Lord Macaulay put it. This latter story is one whereby the darker nations, to use W E B Du Bois’ phrase, are tutored by the British imperial project into becoming mature and worthy of freedom.

KB: What is the enduring appeal of the self-congratulatory view that Britain gifted its former colonies their independence? Why do many find it so difficult to acknowledge the success of certain black and brown civil rights struggles?

PG: I think that if your self-understanding – drawing on the tenacious mythology I describe above – is bound up with your nation (or culture or community) being the prime mover of global history, of being the mother lode of both ideas and action, then it becomes difficult to acknowledge that history has other agents too – particularly those who rejected the vaunted beneficence of the coloniser and challenged the colonial project. ‘The gift of freedom’ is a mythology that first sprung up around Abolition in which the efforts of ‘rebellious chattel’ to free themselves, within the constraints, have been totally written out to the point where it would seem, as Eric Williams quipped, the British only instituted slavery in order to abolish it.

From the case of slavery, the myth was easily adapted to the wider project of empire – it became a way of pretending that freedom was always the end goal of the project of conquest. It is worth noting that this appropriation of resistance, which involves pretending it didn’t really occur and then treating the outcome as the gift of the oppressor, extends beyond empire in the English case specifically, since Empire was not just a British but also a heavily English project. There is a long history of defusing and/or co-opting struggles from below and then repackaging concessions to those struggles as ‘gifts’ from above. Domestically too, the efforts of those who challenged power is transformed into a story of reform without conflict: it is the core narrative of liberalism.


KB: In Insurgent Empire (Verso, 2019), you discuss London as an ‘important node’ in bringing together critics of empire from across the globe. What were these dissidents able to achieve by making the case against empire on the British mainland?

PG: I think they were able to strengthen and gather together domestic criticism and critics of empire –a long running strand that gathered force in the first few decades of the 20th century. Ironically, of course, many of these figures could speak and organise freely in London in ways that would have landed them in jail in their colonial home countries. In London, they were able to address huge rallies and demonstrations, lobby politicians, give talks, write for the national press and organise petitions. Some ran for political office – most famously, Shapurji Saklatvala [a Communist and first person of Indian descent to win election as an MP] – and found a parliamentary perch. It is hard to calibrate ‘achievement’ or draw a direct line in all instances between action and result but it is clear that their presence as campaigners, organisers, and writers created a necessary counter-discourse to official imperial ideologies and policies.

The work of opposition is to create alternative possibilities, to raise a different historical horizon, and I think, in the end, they very much succeeded in doing that, as people like the Oxford don Marjorie Perham conceded.

KB: What was the role of white ‘allies’ in interrogating the imperial project? You have written about figures such as ‘Orientalist traveller and aristocratic horse-trader’ Wilfrid Blunt, suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and her Workers’ Dreadnought paper, and Labour MP Fenner Brockway. Do you feel that, nowadays, established figures publicly championing the liberation of people in the global south seem a bit thin on the ground?

PG: The people you name were less ‘allies’ than those who ended up seeing the empire and imperialism as fundamentally a white and British problem. Blunt was, of course, a literal ‘ally’ to someone like Colonel Urabi, who was imprisoned by the British in Egypt, but he is really most interesting when he comes into his own as a fierce anti-colonialist British voice. Blunt and his contemporary Frederic Harrison both came to see the evils of the colonial enterprise as something that needed to be challenged by white Britons because of what it did to them and what it did to Britain. Frequently they would note that what happened in the colonies would come back to bite Britons too. They were also aware of what empire did to British self-understanding and the ways in which it got distorted in the mirror of colonialism.

There is a long history of defusing and/or co-opting struggles from below and then repackaging concessions to those struggles as ‘gifts’ from above

The fact is that people like Blunt and Brockway, although they had access to the corridors of power in many ways, were relatively unique figures operating at unique points in British imperial history when the struggle was unfolding along largely national lines. Today there are not very many people with a high profile who would ally themselves openly with liberation struggles in part because the belief is that colonialism is over and what struggles are taking place are local or contentious – Palestine, Kashmir, Syria, Indigenous peoples in North America or Australasia – where the evasive word ‘quagmire’ is often used to signal difficulty. The other fact is that what we call the ‘global south’ is no longer simply fighting an entity we call the ‘west’ or the ‘global north’. The axes of postcolonial exploitation don’t just run along geopolitical lines.

Those doing the exploiting are quite frequently themselves African or Asian capitalists or corporations with multinational reach – I think of Vedanta, the British mining conglomerate or Gautam Adani, the Indian industrialist who has been charged with environmental damage in both India and Australia. The question then is who is fighting liberation struggles – the adivasis of central India fighting mining corporations as well as the Indian state are just one example – and against whom. These battles do not run along easy national lines. Additionally, there is a problem in western contexts where certain forms of anti-imperialism do not seem to have taken cognisance of either difficulty or the fact that the west is not the only oppressor in a complicated global picture. How to construct solidarities across national lines and build liberationist coalitions is a challenge still very much with us but it has to take into account historical shifts including the rise of neoliberal and authoritarian polities, personalities and forces in the global south.

KB: A recent government race report calls for a new story to be told around slavery (‘not only being about profit and suffering’). Do you have any advice for those, in the wake of BLM, currently navigating the culture wars?

PG: The Sewell report’s suggestion that a new story is needed, one in which slavery isn’t seen as pure victimhood but is a source for thinking about the construction of new ‘African British’ identities is a textbook example of muddled thinking around ‘agency’, a concept it pretends to embrace. Its idea of ‘agency’ is a bizarre concoction of toxic positivity and historical contortion whereby one is meant to be retrospectively grateful for slavery because today there are people who have hybrid identities and heritages.

In the process, what is written out is the very real agency of those who fought both slavery and empire, who were, in fact, agents whose actions-in-struggle shaped their own histories and that of Britain and the world more generally. If the report had an ounce of honesty in it, it would note that the enslaved and the colonised were always agents, even and especially at the very moment they were being brutally exploited. The documents of victimisation and exploitation are also the documents of agency and resistance – even if, of course, so much has been lost to history.

Priyamvada Gopal is the author of Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso, 2019)

This article first appeared in issue #232 ‘Rue Britannia’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media


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