Springingtiger's Blog

When The Map Was Pink


When I first went to school in the Nineteen Fifties the world looked very different. I mean that literally, back then most of the world was coloured red to show the extent of the British Empire; of course a few years later when more up to date atlases had been bought, those countries had become pink with a red outline to show the extent of the British Commonwealth. Now we call those same countries, with some changes,  merely “the Commonwealth”, but back then it was the British Commonwealth and the name was symptomatic of  an attitude that pervaded our society.

I will not deny that the United Kingdom of the Fifties and Sixties was racist,  but I think racism changed. When I was a child racism was not a matter of colour, it was more a matter of the British looking down upon other races with a mixture of contempt and pity; back then the white inhabitants of mainland Europe were hardly differntiated from the coloured people of the colonies,  who at least had the advantage of having had their cultures modified by the beneficence of British rule. As my uncle told me,  “Wogs, Wops and Dagoes begin at Dover”.

It may come as a surprise to young people today,  but back then we truly believed that the British Empire had been a force for good.  We were taught how Britain had benefitted her colonies, bringing the Bible, the railways,  and flushing toilets,  to say nothing of democracy. We had,  we were taught, civilised primitive amd backward races. We had brought peace and unity to much of the world,  we were taught, the Empire had been a good thing. The culture and education we imbibed as children was coloured by the awareness of our tolerant, benign, hard working, Anglican superiority. I referred to my uncle earlier,  I think he would have been horrified if someone had associated his attitudes with racist attitudes in modern Britain; he was a tea planter in India and worked hard for the wellbeing of his workers who were, in turn, devoted to him. I don’t imagine he would have felt modern racism to be a development of the sort of attitudes he held back then.

We learned of the benefits of Empire, we were not then taught to question those benefits and it must be said there were real benefits. However, those benefits were not given out of altruism, but imposed by the pragmatic demands of governance. I don’t think it occurred to me to question what we were taught until I was a teenager and it was two things that caused me to question, the Bhagavad Gita and the Morning Star. From my first reading of the Gita it became apparent that the assertion that we had brought civilization to backyard races was, at least in some cases, patently false. The Morning Star, coupled with a love of history, led me to reexamine much of what I had hitherto believed. We had been taught the benefits of empire, but we had not been taught of the exploitation of the empire. We knew about the industrial revolution, but weren’t told that many of the resources that powered it were stolen from the countries we had colonised. We knew that raw cotton for Lancashire’s mills came from India, but we were not told that when Indians preferred to wear the better quality handloomed cotton cloth of India, rather than the coarse mass produced fabric from England, British soldiers were sent to smash the weavers hands with their rifle butts. We learned of Gandhi’s peaceful resolution, but never of the people, like Subas Chandra Bose, Rash Behari Bose, Chandra Shekhar and Bhagat Singh who took up arms for freedom. We were led to believe that from the Magna Carta onwards Britain had been a baton of human rights with only the occasional abberation. We were taught the Soviet Union was the enemy of freedom and had imprisoned the freedom loving people of Eastern Europe; we were never told of how Britain attempted an invasion of Russia after the Great War, nor about how  enthusiastically the freedom loving, now oppressed, people had supported the Nazis in the extermination of Jews. Come to think of it we were not taught about Britain’s enthusiastic persecution of Jews over several centuries. The Irish were portrayed as ungrateful rebels, we were told nothing of the seven hundred years of oppression the Irish suffered at the hands of the English. We learned of how the Englishman, William Wilberforce brought about the abolition of slavery, but were never taught the extent of Britain’s participation in the trade, we were led to assume slaves were African, we never learned of the thousands of Irish shipped as slaves to the Caribbean, nor of the Indian indentured laborers in Africa.

With the passage of time I have learned that there is often a big difference between the history that happened and the history our politicians want us to believe happened; more sadly there is a discrepancy often between what happened and what we want to believe happened, because the truth often offend our perceived national identity. Whether our distorting of history is wrong, I cannot say, it may be necessary in order for our systems and structures to continue. As we had towards the Independence referendum in Scotland both sides are making historical claims for the effect of the Union on Scotland. While I personally will be voting Yes, I am not going to make assertions about our history, I merely ask you to examine for yourself the historical facts behind the Union and it’s effect on Scotland’s culture and economy.


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