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Meeting Summary: Narratives of Resistance Under British Imperialism

One thing that we can learn from investigating our colonial history, is that there will almost always be movements for resistance

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One of Salma Yaqoob's slides from the meeting: An example of a British man being carried on the back of a Sikkimese woman in India. circa 1900.


On July 15 Stop the War held a meeting to explore the history of British Imperialism and its impact on foreign policy. [Watch the full meeting here]

Contributors were Emy Onuora, Co-author of Great War to Race Riots and lecturer on Black British history, Salma Yaqoob, Stop the War Patron and activist and Chris Nineham, Vice-Chair of Stop the War and author of The British State: A Warning. The meeting was chaired by Murad Qureshi, Chair of Stop the War. 

A summary of the contributions is given below.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests and the tearing down of Edward Coulson’s statue, an important discussion has begun to take place about Britain’s imperial past. This Stop the War event explored that legacy but also outlined how the imperial story is unfortunately far from over. 

Beginning with a brief introduction on the replacing of Edward Coulston’s statue with a statue of a BLM protester, Emy Onuora, author and lecturer on black history, argued that “Britain played probably the most important role in the development of the slave trade.”

The first British slave voyage took place in 1562 when 300 African slaves were sold to the Spanish in Hispaniola, which is the present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic. The second slave voyage was sponsored by Queen Elizabeth I.

By the 18th century slave trading was not just endorsed by the monarchy but by banks and insurance companies – the slave trade had become central to  the entire economy, and the captured African people themselves had become a currency for British merchants.

Banks and insurance companies made enormous profit from slavery, profits used to finance Britain’s industrial revolution. Manchester’s textile industry, Lancashire’s cotton industry and Birmingham’s metal industry all prospered as a result of the financial boom built on the backs of slaves. The development of the Great Western Railway and the Liverpool and Manchester Railways relied on the investments made from this trans-Atlantic trade. It was these same profits that built Bristol and other many other British cities.

“Britain became the workshop of the world and the world’s most powerful industrial nation, precisely because it was the foremost and most dominant nation in the slave trade. All of that came at a price to the African continent itself. Between 1525 and 1866 12.5 million Africans had been forcibly removed from the continent. These people were farmers, merchants doctors, teachers, craftsmen, children and young people. (…) it destroyed entire communities, it destroyed fishing industries, agriculture and other industries were [all] destroyed as a result of the forced trade itself.”

Against a background of torture and tremendous trauma there was, Onuora reminded us, always resistance. There were constant revolts in the slave colonies, the most famous of which was the Haitian revolution, following which, in 1804, the former slave colony declared its independence and in so doing liberated all Haitian slaves. This sparked a powerful movement which sent shockwaves around the world and eventually led to the abolitionist movement.

Onuora explained how racism as a fully-formed ideology first emerged during the 17th century “as a justification for the continuation of slavery [and] as an argument against those people who wanted to see its abolition.” A systematic pseudo-scientific racism emerged attempting to justify and legitimise the horrors of imperial rule, “virtually every British scientist and intellectual firmly believed in the 'innate superiority’ of Europeans. (..) These racist ideologies were used to justify slavery and later on colonial dominance and expansion.”

This theme was taken up by Salma Yaqoob when she explained the how ideas of white supremacy fed into the notion of the ‘white man’s burden’. “The white-washing, the erasure of Britain’s role (in colonisation) is very much part of colonial activity. There’s controlling people physically, there’s controlling resources, there’s also controlling people’s minds psychologically,” she said.

Britain’s colonising tactics were based on controlling the narrative; colonisation was justified as ‘saving the savages’. Yaqoob explained how this story has been continually reinforced, the “narrative was very carefully constructed and disseminated, even hundreds of years ago. So it’s a story that was told by the conquerors to themselves.”

This narrative was so widely accepted that Rudyard Kipling, one of Britain’s favourite poets and authors, born in Indian in 1865, endorsed the idea of the “White Man’s Burden” to civilise the uncivilised.

“Remember, imperialism is always presented as humanitarian: the white man’s burden, the cross going round the world, the poor benighted natives, the sun never sets… So you have to be very careful about humanitarianism.” – Tony Benn

Yaqoob noted how this narrative was directly drawn upon in the run-up to the ‘war on terror’, when Bush and Blair spoke of ‘humanitarian’ intervention, and bombing to bring democracy. “It’s that very same language of humanitarianism which has been used to justify the new imperial wars, whether they be in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Yaqoob said. “Any imperialist intervention has always relied on a very deliberate narrative which white-washes the violence, the bloodshed and the subjugation that goes on.”

Salma Yaqoob’s talk was illustrated by a powerful image of a British colonial administrator being carried on the back of a Sikkimese woman. This image clearly displayed where the colonial burden truly lay. It was through colonialism that indigenous people lifted the west – economically and militarily. Just as the early industrial revolution was built on the back of the free-labour of African slaves, the raw materials extracted from South Asia enabled Britain’s continued growth and development.

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Founding member of Stop the War, and author of The British State: A Warning, Chris Nineham gave a concise description of the narrative from WWII to the most recent wars waged by the British state.

People who want to cleanse Britain’s imperial record claim the British government had a new direction following the Second World War. No longer pushing its selfish interests, the myth-makers claim, Britain granted independence to its former colonies. This myth of liberation - that the post-war British Labour government was on the side of freedom and democracy - is a myth which needs to be challenged.

Military campaigns against uprisings in British colonies were common during what many believe was a more peaceful post-war era. The reality was that during this time “the British government refocused its energy on trying to hold on to as many of its possessions as it possibly could.”

The British state continued well into the 1960s to suppress colonial independence movements in the most brutal of ways. Churchill himself was hell-bent on ending Gandhi’s peaceful movement. It was in the midst of WWII in fact when Churchill had 500 Indian independence leaders arrested, including Gandhi, although many Indians were laying down their lives for the ‘motherland’ at the time. Indian Independence was only granted in 1953 when opposition to British rule was too strong for an enfeebled Britain to resist.

But British troops continued to occupy Palestine, and played a huge role in creating the Israeli state – as well as the division which now exists between Israel and Palestine. They fought a brutal campaign in Malaysia, they cooperated with the CIA and organised a coup in Iran in 1953. Later, in 1963, the British ‘freelanced’ and launched a massive bombing campaign against the independence movement in Aden, part of what is now Yemen. In 1966 Britain led a military campaign in Egypt in which over a thousand Egyptians were killed – but the resistance movement was once again too strong.

In the fight for Kenyan independence, huge strikes took place in Nairobi. In 1954 twenty thousand British troops were sent to Kenya to crush the ‘Mao-Mao’ rebellion. It was during this military campaign that fifty activists were hanged every month by the British in Kenya. They were “hanged on mobile gallows” in order to be toured around the country to insight fear in anyone who wished to oppose British rule.

“People talk about the post-war era being different” said Nineham “but this intervention against the independence movement in Kenya, was probably the biggest movement of oppression against opposition to imperialism since the great rebellion in India in 1857.” But still the movement of resistance was strong, and finally the British state was defeated.

It was during the post-war years when the US emerged as the dominant power that the decision was taken to “tie British imperial post-colonial interests to those of the US.” Since then all sides of the British political class have shown loyalty to the priorities of US foreign policy, whatever the cost. This relationship has solidified into the ‘Special Relationship.”

Nineham highlighted that both Labour and Conservative governments have been equally committed to maintaining this post- colonial power structure, as was evidenced during the Bush-Blair years when a new phase of imperialist endeavours, disguised as humanitarian interventions, took place.

“I think it’s important that we shouldn’t forget the ways in which the War on Terror has reshaped the world,” said Chris Nineham in his closing statement. “It has had an absolutely massive impact […] It has created a series of failed states, it has spread violence and misery across whole regions of the globe … and it has had a toxic effect on domestic politics too.”  A toxic effect which to this day we see in Britain’s arms-trading habits and continual patterns of intervention.

To end on a positive note: one thing that we can learn from investigating our colonial history, is that there will almost always be movements for resistance - and in the end these movements have prevailed.

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