Britain Can No Longer Hide Behind the Myth That Its Empire Was Benign

7 minute read
Elkins is a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of history at Harvard University and author of the recently-released Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire

Imperial history wars, long-simmering in Britain, exploded when Black Lives Matter crossed the Atlantic in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Protestors, clad in black face masks, marched to London’s Parliament Square in June 2020, chanting “Churchill was a racist.” They stopped at the prime minister’s statue, striking out his name with spray paint and replacing it with the damning words being chanted. Other edifices to empire fell, including that of former Royal African Company director, Edward Colston, which an angry crowd unceremoniously toppled into the River Colton in Bristol.

The silence of Colston’s resting place stands in stark contrast to the debates over Britain’s imperial past that haunt and divide the nation. For some, this past is replete with unspeakable violence, leaving legacies that continue to scar populations across the world.

In the eyes of others, Britain was the purveyor of a liberal imperialism, or “civilizing mission,” that was the standard-bearer for all other empires. For sure, there were blots, like the trade in enslaved peoples, but on history’s balance sheet, any ill-begotten wealth had been more than atoned for through Britain’s largesse.

According to empire’s supporters, after spearheading the abolition movement, Britain launched its civilizing mission, transforming humanity. Sprawling across a quarter of the globe, the nineteenth and twentieth-century British Empire was the largest in history. Its developmentalist policies, which cleaved to racial hierarchies, allegedly brought 700 million colonized subjects, considered “backward” and “childlike,” into the modern world.

When its colonies moved towards independence in the 20th century, Britain declared its civilizing mission a triumph. Its subjects had “grown up,” taking their seat at the Commonwealth of Nations table. Today, the Commonwealth, comprised of 54 countries, most of which were former British colonies, is still headed by Queen Elizabeth II.

How we in the present remember the past, and how this past is deployed, has profound implications. In June 2016, for instance, Britain voted to leave the European Union, and memories of empire played no small role. The Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign touted a “Global Britain” vision, an Empire 2.0. “Churchill was right when he said that the empires of the future will be empires of the mind and in expressing our values I believe that Global Britain is a soft power superpower and that we can be immensely proud of what we are achieving,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently declared.

How did we arrive here? How do we in the present understand the past and the ways in which it shapes the world in which we’re living? Such questions were thrown into relief when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge embarked on an eight-day Caribbean tour. It was intended to commemorate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and to affirm her authority as the symbolic head of state presiding over 15 countries comprising the Commonwealth Realm.

Before departing, the young royals were given a history lesson, and warning, by academics and activists in the form of a letter. Chronicling Britain’s role in exploiting Jamaica through its use of enslaved labor and brutal colonial rule, it demanded accountability. Paying no heed, the duke and duchess forged ahead. Posters declaring “#SehYuhSorry and make REPARATIONS” greeted them in Jamaica, and the duke’s expression of “profound sorrow” for the “appalling atrocity of slavery” did little to quell demands for a colonial reckoning.

His carefully choreographed presence was part of the problem. In full white military dress, with the duchess, also clad in white, by his side, the duke stood in an open-aired Land Rover, once used by the Queen during her 1952 royal tour, to inspect the Jamaican Defense Force parade. The optics, reminiscent of Lord Louis Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, and his wife Edwina, during the final days of the Raj, drew swift backlash for their jaw-dropping colonial symbolism.

Wrapping up his ill-fated trip, the chastened duke turned to the monarchy’s age-old imperial play book, long an extension of the British government’s, for answers. Choosing his words carefully, he reaffirmed his belief in Britain’s civilizing mission, dedicating himself to the “Commonwealth family,” a cornerstone of the Conservative Party’s Empire 2.0. Yet, the monarchy’s ability to maintain its fictions, and Britain’s, clearly hang in the balance. “This tour has brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future,” the duke conceded.

Questions about Britain’s imperial past have, arguably, never been more salient, playing out in the nation’s streets, the floor of Parliament, and in the media. Historians, myself included, have much to say about this. I maintain that the question isn’t whether or not Britain’s empire was violent, because it was. The issues demanding sharper focus are how and why extraordinary coercion, endemic to the structures and systems of British rule, was deployed, and what methods Britain used to cover it up.

During the empire’s heyday, British officials were obsessed with the “rule of law,” claiming this was the basis of good government. But good government in empire was liberalism’s fever dream. Its rule of law codified difference, curtailed freedoms, expropriated land and property, and ensured a steady stream of labor for the mines and plantations, the proceeds from which helped fuel Britain’s economy.

After Britain waged some 250 wars in the nineteenth century to “pacify” colonial subjects, violent conflicts—big and small— were recurring as colonial officials imposed and maintained British sovereignty over populations who ostensibly never had it. When the colonized demanded basic rights over their own bodies and freedoms, British officials often criminalized them, cast their actions—including vandalism, labor strikes, riots, and full-blown insurgencies—as political threats, and invested police forces and the military with legally conferred powers for repression. To justify these measures, Britain deployed its developmentalist framework, pointing to the “moral effect” of violence, a necessary element for reforming unruly “natives.”

By the twentieth century, Britain’s empire was replete with declarations of martial law and states of emergency needed to maintain order. A well-oiled bureaucratic and legal machinery for repression emerged, transferred from one part of empire to another by colonial and military officials.

But in the post-World War II era of updated humanitarian laws, and new human rights conventions, British repression—which included widespread use of torture—was legally and politically problematic. British governments repeatedly denied their repressive measures in the empire while ordering the wide-scale destruction of incriminating evidence. Fragments remained, however, and historians have reassembled them, puncturing the myths of paternalism and progress, and demonstrating liberalism’s perfidiousness across the empire and at home. Our role now is to ensure that the broader public is aware of our findings—findings that often confirm the lived experiences and memories of formerly colonized populations.

Ultimately, Britain’s civilizing mission was always pregnant with conflict. Even if it took centuries, subject populations would “grow up,” and Britain would have to concede its sovereign claims to empire when its discerning eye judged the once “uncivilized” to be fully evolved. This when was always elusive, however. That Jamaica, Belize, and the Bahamas remain in the Commonwealth Realm, with the Queen as its symbolic head of state, and the monarchy still peddling the idea of a “Commonwealth family,” begs the question of whether this when is still elusive, at least in the minds of some. It is, indeed, a question the future heir to the throne, and others who maintain Britain’s uniquely “civilizing” past and present, should ponder.

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