The backlash against colonialism holds lessons in guilt and gratitude

In the tsunami of words on the poisonous legacy of slavery and empire generated by the death of George Floyd, an African-American who was killed in Minneapolis in May by a white police officer, two stand out: “gratitude” and “guilt”.

Should descendants of those who built empires on the back of exploitation feel guilty for what their ancestors did? Or should the descendants of the colonised feel gratitude that their ancestors were conquered?

My wife is a descendant of the conquerors, having been born into the British Cecil family which has produced prime ministers and great political leaders. I am one of “midnight’s children”, born a few months before India won its freedom from British colonial rule in 1947. While I joke that she is a child of the conquerors and I of the conquered, I do not expect my wife to feel guilty for what her ancestors did. But I do reject the idea that I should be thankful that my ancestors were conquered.

That the conquered should feel gratitude was a view often expressed during the days of the British empire. It was not uncommon for the British to say that the Indians needed to be “civilised”. As Winston Churchill, who was then out of government and campaigning against self-rule for India, put it very bluntly in a speech in 1931, the vast majority of Indians “are primitive people”.

Today, some historians imply I should be grateful for colonial legacies. Niall Ferguson, in his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World makes the argument that the empire “enhanced global welfare — in other words was a good thing”. He adds that it brought free markets and the rule of law. Other individuals are still as blunt as Churchill.

While I do not think my ancestors needed to be civilised by Europeans, they had many faults. My family are high-caste Hindus and there is no denying the abominable way these upper echelons of society treated the so-called untouchable castes, now known as Dalits. My abiding childhood memory is of my mother giving the sweeper woman tea and sweets, thinking she was being generous, while telling us that nobody should ever use her cup and plate.

Years ago, I visited Bangladesh, where my family is from. While very hospitable, the Muslims there made it clear they had not forgotten the dreadful way my rich Hindu ancestors had treated theirs. I know I need to acknowledge such historical truths, but I do not see why I should feel personally guilty.

The same applies to my wife. For example, on a family trip (including nephews and nieces) to the National Portrait Gallery before the Covid-19 pandemic, we stopped before a portrait of Arthur Balfour, nephew of three-times prime minister Lord Salisbury and himself a prime minister. The potted history mentioned that, as foreign secretary, he was the author of the 1917 Balfour Declaration in support of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

I pointed out that, a few months before, he had warned the British cabinet in a memo, that Indians would not be able to manage parliamentary democracy because they were not of the same race as Europeans. Even education would not bridge the racial divide. Balfour and his fellow cabinet ministers, presided over by Lloyd George, did not dispute Lord Curzon’s estimate that it would take Indians 500 years to learn to rule themselves. I said this not to make my wife’s family feel guilty, but to highlight that the history we have been taught is far from the complete picture.

This is what we need to tackle: call it the “Machiavelli problem”. More than 1,500 years before the Renaissance diplomat and philosopher wrote his book on statecraft, The Prince, an Indian called Chanakya wrote a treatise on the same subject called Arthashastra, as a handbook for a great king.

Niccolò Machiavelli may or may not have known about its existence but it cannot be disputed that, while Machiavelli was merely a theoretician, Chanakya helped build one of India’s greatest empires. Indian schoolboys know of both men and the diplomatic enclave in New Delhi is called Chanakyapuri. Yet Chanakya is often described as the Indian Machiavelli and he is hardly known outside India.

The result of imbalances like these is that descendants of the conquered, like me, always carry two bags: one containing the conqueror’s history, the other that of the conquered. Descendants of the conquerors, like my wife, only have to worry about the first bag.

Unless we can equalise these historical weights and start to move towards a truly universal history, the past will continue to divide us and we shall always be wrestling with the problems of guilt and gratitude.

The writer, a British journalist, was the first sports editor of the BBC

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