I’ve been hanging onto this review for well over a week now but I assure you I’m not publishing it now to pile on the British given the big shock last Friday with Brexit. I may put out some thoughts about that on another post but for now, enjoy a book review about a nonfiction book about the British Empire.
The British Empire may be a thing of the past but the effects of its legacy are not, still lingering across a lot of its past domains. The Empire was an impressive structure, stretching across the whole world and encompassing ancient nations like India and Egypt to creating new ones like Canada and Malaysia, and has been credited with bringing vital elements of modern civilization to its colonies like railways, civil services and rule of law. But on the other hand, British rule also played a huge factor in facilitating and exacerbating serious tensions that still exist in the present day.
From Nigeria to Kashmir to Hong Kong, Ghosts of Empire looks at six troubled countries and places that suffer problems stretching back to their colonial era. In doing so, author Kwasi Kwarteng, a British MP, tries to argue that the Empire, far from trying to promote democracy or uphold Western liberal values, was run according to the values and attitudes of its administrators on the ground. In this way, British rule often led to exploitative, myopic and ineffective policies, some of which were carried out with supposedly good intentions, that exacerbated or cultivated local ethnic and religious tensions and curbed local egalitarian development. Cultivating local elites that aped British behaviors whilst becoming alienated from and often exploiting their own people was a common tactic. Of course, I feel one cannot discount the fact that many of these places had their own problems and tensions that were already in existence. However, Kwarteng’s main point is to illustrate that the British Empire was not benevolent and had many flaws, some of which the former colonial countries are still paying for.
Kashmir, the landlocked Indian state that is under harsh military rule and contested by Pakistan, is one such example. When the British defeated the Sikh Empire in the mid-19th century, they took control of then-Sikh ruled Kashmir and then sold the heavily-Muslim region to a dubious Hindu nobleman, whose rule consequently continued until independence when his heir made the fateful decision to join India. The Sudan, scene of one of the Empire’s most famous defeats and subsequent victories, was an artificial construct that welded together a Muslim north and black, animist south. It is not surprising that civil war broke out after independence and lasted for decades before the south was allowed to secede in 2011. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with over 150 million people, is an even more brittle construction. While still in one piece, the country underwent a savage civil war in 1967, which even now is a sensitive topic, and suffers from tensions and mistrust between the Muslim north and rest of the country. Myanmar and Iraq are two Asian countries which experienced the dubious effects of British rule. While never a colony, Iraq was a British protectorate after the first World War I following the defeat of Ottoman Turkey by the Allies.
Hong Kong at first glance surprisingly makes up the list of trouble spots, but when one looks at its current tensions with its parent China, it becomes understandable. While some Hong Kongers may be nostalgic for British rule and equate democracy with that, especially the reign of the last British governor Chris Patten, Kwarteng argues that the democracy in Hong Kong was never a priority for the British and somewhat scathing of Patten, who he sees as naive about local realities and the previous record of British rule.
The book makes some solid claims that the British Empire was never as glorious or as some of its supporters may claim, but that its rule was often erratic and privy to personal whims and was very much responsible for serious problems that exist today in some of the former colonies. I think that is credible, but again, one cannot exempt the locals from being responsible for their own problems.