Ideas

If you support human rights you're obliged to be an anti-colonialist, argues scholar

At the height of the British Empire, many Britons came to a radical conclusion — perhaps the empire shouldn’t exist. They decided that Britain’s claim to be doing good for the world, spreading freedom and democracy was a fraud. Priyamvada Gopal examines a century of dissent on the question of empire in her new book.

Priyamvada Gopal's new book explores how resistance in the colonies changed British ideas of freedom

Priyamvada Gopal's book, Insurgent Empire, tells stories of how rebels in the colonies changed British attitudes about empire and democracy. The author believes if you lay claim to ideals of equality and social justice then, to be consistent, you must oppose all forms of colonialism. (Submitted by Priyamvada Gopal)
Listen to the full episode53:59

It's unusual to root for your own country to lose power in the world, but that's what British dissidents did during the British Empire's heyday, and perhaps it's what Canadians should do today, argues Cambridge University scholar, Priyamvada Gopal.

In 1882, Wilfrid Blunt lost his faith in his native England's claims of goodness and 'fair play.' He'd just watched his country brutally put down a rebellion by starving Egyptians. 

Despite being a mid-level aristocrat and horse-loving Conservative, Blunt found himself siding with the 'enemy,' and grew into a full-fledged anti-colonialist. He later went to jail for protesting Britain's rule over Ireland.
In the late 19th century, the 'Urabi Revolution was led by Egyptian nationalist Colonel Ahmed 'Urabi. The rebellion sought to end British and French influence over Egypt. In 1882, the British occupied Egypt. (Wikipedia)

"British critics of empire say they were compelled and instructed by contact with Asian and African campaigners," Gopal told IDEAS. Her new book, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent examines a century of dissent on the question of empire and shows how British critics of empire were influenced by rebellions and resistance in the colonies, from the West Indies and East Africa to Egypt and India.

Gopal argues that Europe's modern ideas about democracy and liberalism owe much to anti-imperialist thinkers and activists from around the colonized world — including those who were not exactly democrats themselves, like the 19th-century activist Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī or Egypt's Colonel Ahmed Urabi, both of whom strongly influenced Blunt.

Later, figures such as the Trinidadian-born writers C.L.R. James and George Padmore became influential members of the London left in the 1930s, socializing with the likes of George Orwell and Independent Labour Party members.

Parallels in 'hypocrisy'

For Gopal, an anti-colonial viewpoint is a must for people who want to lay claim to high-minded ideals of equality and social justice.

"You can't claim that you are for human rights, and you are for democracy ... and also not be an anti-colonialist," she said.

This raises the stakes for Canadians today, who might be willing to cheer for Blunt's dissident views in the 1880s, but still balk at the anti-colonial critiques of their own country now.

For instance, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, points to Canadian politicians' willingness to voice support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, while acting without the "free and informed consent" of all Indigenous nations in cases such as the Trans Canada pipeline expansion project.

"It's an absolute hypocrisy," said Phillip.

"I'm very struck by the parallels," Gopal said, comparing Canada's relationship to Indigenous nations with the British Empire's treatment of its colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

She argues that there are many reasons why a powerful empire's long-term best interests might be served by giving up its own power.

"The things done in your name, they will come back and bite you," said Gopal.

Gopal believes the anti-colonial alternative of choosing not to dominate can have potentially great benefits.

"We do need to find a different way of relating to each other," argued Gopal.

"If we don't do that, if we don't embrace sincerely the principles of egalitarianism, then we are headed for extinction."

 

Guests in this episode:



** This episode includes recordings of C.L.R. James from the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. It was produced by Tom Howell.

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