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Colonialism: What's That?

In response to the Black Community's call to educate ourselves on issue's of race and racism, history graduates and brothers, Niall and Nathan Moorjani, are sharing their own personal educational exploration of Scotland's role within the British Empire.

You can find out more about Colonialism and Me by visiting their website and following them on Facebook.

A Brief History of the British Empire and Scotland’s role within:

A tale of one family, two brothers and three countries: In the early 19th century the Fraser family, one of the wealthiest in Inverness-shire, had invested vast amounts of money into sugar plantations in Guyana. The plantations were worked by enslaved Africans and overseen by James Fraser between 1799 and 1811 until disaster struck the family. Overproduction led to a crash in sugar prices and the family was left broke. Desperately seeking to pay off their debts, James followed his brother William over to India to set up trading in Calcutta. By this point William Fraser had already been in India for a decade; stationed in Delhi and working closely with the last vestiges of the Mughal Empire as a British civil servant. He loved Delhi and the Mughal culture. He dressed in a native style and even took native wives and fostered Anglo-Indian children. However, he viewed many of the natives as “barbarians” and saw himself as part of a ‘civilising’ mission. James did not take to India in the same way his brother did and resolved to return to Scotland. It was the last he would see of his brother. In 1833 William became the Governor General of Delhi, making him one of the most powerful British officials in India. The position would cost him his life as he was assassinated after becoming embroiled in a native political dispute. There is much more to this family story that can be explored here. But what it does is highlight something to us. One family, from right in the north of the UK had been able to send its children all over the world. Why? The deceptively simple answer is, British Colonialism.

What is Colonialism? Put quite simply by the Cambridge Dictionary Colonialism can be defined as, “The belief in and support for one country controlling another”. This is a particularly useful definition for us and cuts right to the heart of the issue of British historical colonialism. It is worth noting that the word has taken on different forms, many of which do not have such negative connotations. Such as ideas around colonising space and sending people to live on the moon or mars. However, when we talk about the British colonies, we are referring to countries which were conquered, occupied, and extorted all without consent and always at the overall detriment of the indigenous peoples. The British Empire in the Age of Empires:

A map highlighting the size of the British Empire

Alas this is not a reference to the splendid gaming series of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the time period between the late 15th century and mid 20th century saw many Western Empires emerge and assume vast amounts of wealth and power at the expense of those they colonised. It began with the ‘discovery’ of the Americas (‘discovery’ being a misleading word, indigenous Americans would be the first to tell you that they had been there for a long time). This was swiftly followed by the Spanish Empire. Who went on to conquer and and occupy vast swathes of South America, massacring as they went. They were hotly followed by the French and the English, both countries establishing colonies throughout the Atlantic to work as trading posts and to aid with the flourishing trade of enslaved Africans. Many other European powers had global empires, but our focus is the British Empire. Following the Act of Union in 1707 Scotland became part of the United Kingdom and began to play its own role in what is sometimes referred to as the Imperial Age. Between 1707 and the mid 20th century Scotland played a key role in the expansion of British interests all over the world. By the mid 1700’s the British controlled much of what would become the modern-day USA. British-run trading companies owned many of the Caribbean islands and had made great expansions into India and China. By the mid 1800’s the British Empire had lost control over America but now had full control over India (which included modern day Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri-Lanka). And by the early 20th century the British Empire controlled approximately a quarter of the globe and ruled over hundreds of millions of people. The phrase ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’ was certainly no exaggeration. The way in which the British came to achieve such power was immensely complex. But it often involved a blend of hostile trading, violent and nonviolent conquest, occupation, cultural colonisation, continued subjugation, extortion and finally collaboration (this is a highly simplified list). As was explored in our Scotland, Britain and the Slave Trade article, trade frequently involved the buying and selling of human beings from Africa and the wider colonies until Abolition in 1833. The wealth of Empire poured into Britain and made many of its citizens rich beyond their wildest dreams. Cities were built on the industries and riches of empire London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Paisley, Dundee, Bristol and Manchester to name a few. Whether the Empire was entirely detrimental or beneficial to local populations is something which is still widely debated today. Some argue that the British Empire was a modernising force for good. And many argue that it was a historical evil. However, what is clear is that the British always acted with their own interests be those economic, moral, or paternal, at heart. Uprisings such as those in India in 1857 or Jamaica 1865 were met with exceptional violence towards those who rebelled. The countries which were subjugated by the British were extorted of human and physical resources. A great list of human tragedies, such as the Bengal famine of 1943 (in which it is estimated that around three million people died due to the government’s lack of desire to send aid) stand as testimony to the disregard and inhumanity with which governed populations were frequently seen. Whilst we recognise and understand the Empire was complex and that there are arguments for its benefits, due to our wider reading, and interpretation of both sources and historians, we are compelled to say we do not subscribe to these arguments ourselves. In fact, our editorial stance is unequivocally anti-colonial. History, until very recently, has always been written by the conquerors and not the conquered. The British continued to be the most powerful empire in the world right up until the end of World War Two, when mounting pressure and financial reasons lead to India and Pakistan gaining their independence in 1947. This was followed by many African countries and the wider colonies. If you are surprised to learn we still had an empire during the World Wars, we invite you to ask what does this mean for our narratives of these wars? It is true that a great many millions of soldiers that fought in the war efforts came from, African countries, South Asia, the Caribbean and beyond. Yet why do we imagine ourselves as the plucky island standing alone against a mighty evil? How have these people, who fought and died for a flag which was not their own, not been remembered as central to the war effort? Was VE day really as simple as a victory for freedom over evil when those who won also owned owned whole countries? These are complex questions which we do not have any easy answers to, but they are certainly worth reflecting on. It is also worth noting that this is an extremely basic summation of the British Empire’s History, which was immensely complex and multifaceted. In some ways there was no one British Empire, that of the 17 century was profoundly different from that of the 19th. We have paid attention to general themes that ran throughout its long and muddy history.

But what does it have to do with Scotland and with me today? To tie us back to the beginning of our story we hope it is now clear how the Fraser family could spread itself across the globe with such ease. Scotland was part of a Union which saw its inhabitants gain access to and benefit from a gigantic empire. The Fraser’s were not alone. We have already seen in the article linked above that Scots were in the Caribbean. But they were also highly prominent in the governing of India, with many attaining the highest offices, some of our most famous Scots such as David Livingstone were exploring the world on the back of this same empire. It is also worth remembering that some of the most successful Scots abroad such as Alan Pinkerton and Andrew Carnegie in Canada and the USA respectively made their successes in countries which were built on the eradication and expulsion of Indigenous peoples. With regards to us today. Well the Empire only fully ended in the 1950’s and even still we have strange land claims all over the world, Gibraltar for example. In the following decade people from all over what was is still called the Commonwealth, were invited to come to the UK and help rebuild after the war. Myself and Nathan’s grandparents were among the first wave of Indians to sail across the sea and of course the famous Windrush Generation of Black Caribbean emigrants docked even earlier in 1948. Many believe that this was the first time that non-white people came to the UK. But as will be investigated in later articles the UK has had a non-white population since the days of the Romans. There were people of colour in Britain in the ‘Middle Ages’ and during the years of Empire this continued. Today we often hear the anger of immigrant populations over a wide range of issues. And at this current moment the Black Lives Matter’s movement is foremost in our minds. Radio 1 host Clara Amfo’s emotional response to the movement highlighted her fear “that people want our culture but they do not want us”. Sadly the pain and suffering of minority peoples are not new. It is hundreds of years old. It harks back to an age when white Brits, including Scots, sought fit to rule and dominate other cultures, to sell their people, extort their goods and eradicate their cultures. As has been said before our beautiful cities are built on the backs of these peoples. Today, some like to say that diversity is what makes Great Britain “Great”. Based on this article’s content we would argue that they always have.

Niall and Nathan Moorjani

Further Reading:

Akala, ‘Natives’ Shashi Tharoor, ‘The Inglorious Empire’ C. Bates, ‘Subalterns and Raj’ Chinua Achebe, ‘There Was a Country’

David Olusoga’s, ‘Civilisations, First Contact, Cult of Progress’

William Dalrymple, ‘City of Djinns’ In Our Time Podcast -The British Empire https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00547kp

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