Monday, January 25, 2021

British Imperialism

In the Nov. 2, 2020 issue of the New Yorker is a review of Time's Monster: How History Makes History (Harvard) by Stanford professor Priya Satia.  The review was written by Maya Jasanoff who early in her review tells us "A March, 2020 poll found that a third of Britons believed that their empire had done more good than harm for colonies -- a higher percentage than in other former imperial powers, including France and Japan.  More than a quarter of Britons want the empire back."

Historians, the good ones, recognize that it is a major historical sin to judge a previous people by the standards of one's own day.  Both Satia and Jasanoff seemed at times to be doing that -- but maybe not.  They don't argue that the British (in the days when there was an empire) knew that having an empire was wrong.  They find evidence of criminal abuse, and beyond that evidence that the abuse was systemically covered up by burning or otherwise destroying imperial records.  India's first day of independence in 1947 was notable in that there was a clear sky in which a rainbow could be seen.  Prior days were marred by the smoke going up from records being burned by the British -- well that does sort of change things if one has been thinking up until then that the British were operating in accordance with the widely held beliefs of the day and were performing their duties in good conscience.

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