Colonialism: The empire strikes back, sort of
Someone dares to have something positive to say about the imperial era, plus Palestine and Germaine Greer
The empire strikes back, sort of, with David Gilmour’s new panoramic history, The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience (Allen Lane).As the favourable reviews have noted, it does take a fair bit of courage these days to report that there was anything positive about colonialism, but here Gilmour gleefully plumbs for internment in the reeducation camps with an extensively researched and elegantly written account, full of the ironies of the past and brimming with colour, while eschewing academic jargon and fashionable theorising.
Not one for the #Fallists, then.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Gilmour’s work is just how few British were in India. They arrived in force in the late 18th century with the East India Company, which gave way to the Crown government a century later, but ruled largely by collaboration rather than coercion. The forces that crushed the Indian Mutiny of 1857, for example, included almost six native Indians to every white Briton. In 1901, at the height of the Raj, there were only 155,000 Britons there, in a country of 238m.
Who were these colonists, Gilmour wonders, these transients in India? They were individuals, he suggests, driven by “strong moral imperatives”, who governed, who built schools, railways and hospitals, who sincerely believed they were serving the Indian people by bringing them peace, prosperity and progress.
There were other diversions: brothels flourished as purity campaigners railed against depravities, and inevitably the concerns of racial superiority, such as the ridiculous notion that “the phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon” was better suited to cricket than “the excitable Asian.”
Critics of colonialism will not be swayed by Gilmour’s book, and will rightly point to the significant failures of the imperial project – not the least of which was the creation and perpetuation of the Muslim-Hindu antagonism, which would culminate in the collapse of British authority in 1947.Writing in the Guardian last year, Shashi Tharoor, author of the “savagely critical” Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (Hurst & Company/ Penguin), argued this was the greatest indictment of British rule.
“Partition left behind a million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land,” Tharoor said.
“Nor did Britain work to promote democratic institutions under imperial rule, as it liked to pretend. Instead of building self-government from the village level up, the East India Company destroyed what existed. The British ran government, tax collection, and administered what passed for justice. Indians were excluded from all of these functions.
“When the crown eventually took charge of the country, it devolved smidgens of government authority, from the top, to unelected provincial and central ‘legislative’ councils whose members represented a tiny educated elite, had no accountability to the masses, passed no meaningful legislation, exercised no real power and satisfied themselves they had been consulted by the government even if they took no actual decisions.”
Gilmour may find it difficult to argue with such sentiments, but on the whole he offers what some critics have suggested is a “balanced memorial” to the British in India. As one reviewer noted, “Their epitaph was provided by an address made by the then prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, when received an honorary degree from Oxford in 2005: ‘They have served our country well.’”
The child of a Holocaust survivor, the US-born journalist Yossi Klein Halevi has since 1982 lived in Jerusalem, where he is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and has written a series of books detailing his personal journey from right-wing militancy to interfaith reconciliation.
The first of these, 1995’s Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: The Story of a Transformation (Harper Perennial), detailed how, as a boy growing up in Brooklyn, his father’s horrifying stories of genocide instilled in him a seething rage for retribution. Soon enough, he was swept away by the teachings of the ultra-nationalistic rabbi Meir Kehane and, joining various right-wing movements, was taking part in various protest actions. At the climax of his activism, Halevi led an unprecedented demonstration in Moscow to force the world to free Soviet Jews.However, he then began to question motives and, repudiating anger, set out to free himself from “the bitter accounts of history”, seeking a life that was different from his father’s.That transformation was further explored in 2001’s At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (HarperCollins). An altogether more spiritual work than his first, it details a conundrum that Halevi had explored in a two-year search for a common language with Muslims and Christians: if religion had fuelled conflict in the Holy Land, could it also be a source of unity as well?Halevi’s latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, was published in May this year to general acclaim. The former chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks, described it a “deeply moving plea for human understanding across one of the most tragic divides in modern politics”, while Haroon Moghul, author of last year’s How to Be a Muslim: An American Story (Beacon Press), said the book was “a gift and a challenge, a gorgeously composed, deeply personal accomplishment animated by this simple gesture: I will share my convictions, because I wish for you to share yours.”
The book’s chapters are framed as letters that include both concise, balanced histories – of such topics as the history of present-day Zionism and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – and his own memories of growing up an American Jew. Halevi has stated that he wants “to start the first public conversation between an Israeli writer and our neighbours about who we are, why we see ourselves as indigenous to this land, and what is our shared future in the region”.
To this end, he has permitted an Arabic translation of the book to be downloaded for free and has invited Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims to write to him in response to the book in order to initiate a dialogue. According to the Times of Israel, Halevi may publish the exchanges in a forthcoming book.
More trouble on the horizon, this time in the form of Germaine Greer’s forthcoming polemic, On Rape (Bloomsbury). It’s fairly brief at 96 pages – it’s part of the publisher’s Little Books on Big Ideas imprint – but it’s going to put noses out of joint with its call to rethink on what she has termed a “hate crime”.“The word ‘rape’ as used in this essay,” Greer states at the outset, “will apply only to penetration of the vagina of an unwilling human female by the penis of a human male. It will not be a portmanteau word into which are tipped sexual assaults of many kinds, involving outrages inflicted with different instruments in different parts of the body. In the interests of clarity, the category of rape has here been decluttered, and the instrument limited to the penis and the site of the penetration to the vagina.”
Greer’s concern here is domestic rape. Writing in the London Sunday Times, she points out that very few of these cases ever appear before the courts. “It surely cannot be right that non-consensual sex is occurring daily up hill and down dale with most of the men involved getting away scot free, while those very few men who are tried and convicted are sent away for enormous lengths of time.”
HATCHET JOBS, ETCWhat did Christopher Howse, an assistant editor at the Daily Telegraph and a regular contributor to the Spectator, ever do to annoy the critic John Walsh? The latter reviewed Howse’s new book, Soho in the Eighties (Bloomsbury Continuum) for the Sunday Times of London recently and certainly put in the boot. And the knife. And the knout. And the knuckleduster…
According to the publisher’s bumf, Howse’s memoir recalls the “brilliant flowering of a daily tragi-comedy enacted in pubs like the Coach and Horses or the French and in drinking clubs like the Colony Room [in Soho].
“These were places of constant conversation and regular rows fuelled by alcohol. The cast was more improbable than any soap opera. Some were widely known – Jeffrey Bernard, Francis Bacon, Tom Baker or John Hurt. Just as important were the character actors: the Village Postmistress, the Red Baron, Granny Smith. The bite came from the underlying tragedy: lost spouses, lost jobs, pennilessness, homelessness and death.”
Walsh was having none of that. “Soho in the Eighties,” he concluded, "offers a claustrophobic Gehenna of crapulous deadbeats telling each other how worthless they are. It’s about as amusing as a burning orphanage.”
Ouch.THE BOTTOM LINE
“A woman with a good plane and a bold plan was impossible to ignore – and easy to disparage.” – Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O’Brien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).