Challenging Imperial Ahistoricism

Challenging Imperial Ahistoricism

[Written by Beatrice Efimov]

[Image Credit: The Dutch East India Company arriving at Mocha, Olfert Dapper, 1680]

In relation to the nation state, unity is a term that poses significant problems. Nation states are established entities within a fixed geographical boundary, and defined by state sovereignty; yet unity is a term that resonates across borders, penetrating every form of national discourse. Unity is key in the artificial construction of one’s national identity within the arbitrary spatial boundaries that we refer to as our nation. I want to explore the state’s creation of national identity through the carefully crafted processes of manipulation, exclusion, and distortion that national histories have undergone; histories that are the foundation and often the grounding of our understanding in relation to our unified identity.

Ironically, all states across the world are united in their culpability of feeding a one-sided interpretation of history; one that is beautifully organised into a set of chronological events, simplifying history to a graspable chain of cause and effect. The ‘right’ events are included in our national history as acts that were admirable, morally superior, and that now define the very core and essence of the nation.

Now, think about the nation we live in: Great Britain. A nation that seemingly prides itself on its rich history, starting with William the Conqueror in 1066 and persisting through to World War Two (maybe beyond); a nation whose fundamental values are principally built on democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, and tolerance. However, how does the UK deal with its shockingly shameful, murderous and immoral past?

Very simply; it ignores it.

At the very best it is briefly acknowledged but framed within a particular narrative, one that focuses on Britain’s ‘positive’ role in aiding and developing its colonies. It is a narrative that is imposed from the top down, in line with the fundamental values this nation is built upon. In a 2014 YouGov Poll, 59% of the respondents thought that the British Empire was something to be proud of, that percentage being even higher at 60% with the aged over 60 respondents. One of the many conclusions one can draw from this is that something is going very wrong in the retelling of British colonial history.

How can one be proud of Britain’s key role in the slave trade? Britain’s use of concentration camps in the Boer Wars? The sectarian violence perpetuated by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947? These are just three examples of Britain’s unjustifiable acts as coloniser, three out of countless events that were forgotten and aggressively excluded by the national history.

A particularly pertinent example of this, the nation’s pride and joy, is the gifting of the railway to India. The narrative we are told focuses on how the railway was the greatest gift given by the colonial power; it unified India, linking and connecting the country through the ability to travel quickly across provinces, it facilitated the trade of agricultural products and most importantly it brought modernity.

However, what is often left untold and ignored, is that the building of the railway was merely an extension and reinforcement of colonial rule. The railway was not built for the Indian populace. Instead, the project was based around the military and economic benefits the Empire would gain in return.

Firstly, the military advantages the railway would bring were the main driving factor towards construction. The railway would reduce military expenditure, improve internal security, and provide a defence mechanism against foreign aggressors. Unsurprisingly, the Sepoy Mutiny (1857-88), the unsuccessful rebellion against British rule, triggered the rapid expansion of the railway.*

Secondly, the railway brought in significant economic advantages to the British by providing easy access to ports, which in turn made it simpler for the British to export commodities. India was rich in natural resources such as coal, iron, ore, and cotton; all of which, thanks to the railway, were made simpler to export back to British factories. In addition, British businesses and manufacturers were advocates for the building of the railway due to the profits they would receive by having access to the new, opened up Indian market and the inevitable subsequent expansion of the Anglo-Indian trade.

The cotton textile industry in both Glasgow and Manchester has a vested interest in the construction of railways in India. This was a consequence of the USA becoming increasingly unreliable as a cotton supplier, which had knock-on effects for British industry. The milling sector turned to India, seeking reliability in supply from the resource rich region. To extract foreign loans, the Indian Government offered a 5% guarantee of interest. The 5% guarantee was paid by Indian taxpayers, until the railway was profitable enough to self-finance the loans. However, the profits from the railway were nowhere the value of the guarantee, with two decades passing before it was profitable enough to sustain the interest on the loans.

It should be evident by now that the ‘gifting’ of the railway had nothing to do with facilitating travel for the population, travel was simply a by-product. European, and very rarely wealthy Indian travellers, travelled in first class, perhaps second, whereas the rest of the population were almost herded into third and fourth class. Third class was a heavily overcrowded space that contained wooden benches and not much else. There were no basic facilities such as lighting or toilets, and at first there were no bars over the windows. Toilets were made available to third class in 1909. Fourth class had absolutely no benches or basic facilities, although by the 1880’s fourth class had been abolished and a new ‘intermediate class’ was created instead. This should serve to highlight how the arrival of the railway to India could hardly be counted as a gift, and was more an extension of British exploitation in the region.

I will not deny that railways can bear benefit. There is no denying that connecting towns and rural villages to cities can facilitate social mobility, but the extent of this shouldn’t be overplayed. However, the British framing of the narrative—the gifting of the railway—greatly overlooks the exploitative nature of the gift. At the time of construction, the railway was a gift from and to the British, not a gift given to the majority of the Indian population.

What these examples show us is that we need not stand united in our history. National histories are manipulated, and are devices used by states to protect its vested interests; its legitimacy and control over its territorial boundaries and subjects within it. The state’s fear of disunity should not be our fear. We should not be afraid to challenge and deconstruct our national histories. Instead of simply ignoring our states inexplicable acts, we should be dealing with the messy and complicated histories, rejecting the chronological, linear version of events we are fed. We need to start shattering these imaginary narratives that force onto us the concept of unity and this needs to start from the bottom-up. Without this we will be caught up in a circular cycle of mistakes, unable to move forward because we have not dealt with the past. If we are the bearers of our own history, why should the state dictate who we are? We can stand united in the rejection of the dishonest myths we have been fed.

 

*Belkacem Belmekki, A Wind Of Change: The New British Colonial Policy in Post- Revolt India, Atlantis Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo- American Studies, 30.2, (December 2008): 121-122

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