Until recently, it seemed we, Britons, would do anything to get the attention of the world’s most powerful superpower. Up to and including becoming embroiled in ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s face it, the main reason we bang endlessly on about the “Special Relationship” is that we want to feel we’re special in the eyes of the U.S. But suddenly a certain section of British commentators (namely, those on the right) cannot stand the way Britain is discussed by a certain sections of the U.S. media (namely, those publications on the left).
Ed West, author of Tory Boy: Memoirs of the Last Conservative, captured the mood a few years ago when he tweeted: “I keep on reading in NYT that Brexit is about empire nostalgia. that paper is obsessed with the British Empire.” More recently, Douglas Murray complained in The Daily Telegraph that “in the last six years, the NYT has developed a strange and intense loathing of Britain” and produced, as evidence, a 2019 article which claimed that the country was “poisoned” with “colonial arrogance.” In September 2022, Iain Martin complained on the Reaction website that within hours of the Queen dying, “the NYT’s opinion page was running a screed from an academic saying the late monarch had helped to cover up the bloody history of colonialism… The niche, paying market the NYT wants in Britain is Britons who can’t stand Britain.”
As the author of a new book, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, which draws attention to all the ways in which Britain has been molded by the experience of running the biggest empire in human history, you might think I have an interest in defending the U.S. media cited here. But while I’ve struggled, along with others, to find any factual problems with the journalism in question, I’m also furious with our Yankee cousins about their attitudes to British Empire. But there’s a significant difference. While these right-wing commentators are cross about Americans seeing imperial influence where they insist it does not exist, I’m furious at them for not recognizing how the U.S. itself has long been shaped by British Empire.
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Much of the imperial history that made Britain is also imperial history that shaped America, and both nations are largely oblivious to it. Americans are, in my experience, largely ignorant of the fact that the British empire is contained within the language we share (thousands of English words originate from British Empire’s territories, just one example being “toboggan”, which is of Native American origin, deriving from an Algonquian word, probably Mi’kmaq “tepaqan” or Abenaki “dabôgan”). They are not alive to the imperial roots of multinational companies like BP and Shell that operate in the U.S. (“Anglo-Persian” was one of the antecedents of the former, while the latter was established by one Marcus Samuel, who started off selling antiques and importing oriental seashells from the Far East). In 1938, a U.S. census demonstrated that 40 million U.S. citizens declared “some degree of ancestry” from England, 14.2 million from Scotland, and 2.5 million from Wales; meanwhile many of 43.7 million with ancestry from Ireland ended up in the U.S. as a result of the imperial catastrophe that was the Great Potato Famine. Moreover, you rarely hear it acknowledged that, when the U.S. participated World War I and II, it was allied not just with Britain but with British empire, which contributed millions of troops and millions in resources.
Indeed, the U.S. is a British imperial creation. One of the greatest lies America tells about itself is that it was a victim of Britain’s imperial oppression and that it stands in opposition to everything the evil empire ever represented. This version of events, which I suspect is the reason Hollywood likes to pick Brits to play baddies (even when the characters are German Nazis), supposes that the Thirteen Colonies instantly and spontaneously rejected all things colonial when they came to a confrontation with the British Crown over the issue of local taxation, and that the War of Independence resulted in an entirely new country committed to the principles of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
But the Thirteen Colonies were, in themselves, a distinct phase of British imperialism. It’s true that the Puritans came to the New World to escape religious persecution, but the institutions they set up to promote capitalism, protect property rights, resist the abuse of government power, were British. As Tom Holland put it on a recent episode of The Rest Is History podcast: “The fascination both for English people and for Americans about the relationship between Britain and America is that America in a way is taking a path that Britain might have taken and vice versa. In so many ways the War of Independence is a Civil War.”
BBC History Magazine was right to conclude in 2008 that “despite the violent rupture of the revolutionary war,” the U.S. inherited from British empire “judicial procedures, political practice, and a tolerant pragmatism”; that despite only being established six years prior to the French Revolution, the U.S. “resolutely retained its Anglo-Saxon distrust of high-minded and over-controlling political theorizing, as well as keeping the ‘illogical’ English system of weights and measures.” Indeed, Duncan Bell reminds us that, between the late 19th century and the First World War, a network of prominent individuals, including the likes of Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, British editor and journalist W. T. Stead, colonialist Cecil J. Rhodes, and writer H. G. Wells even advocated unification of the U.S. and Britain.
Bell adds that “people excluded from the embrace of whiteness were largely absent from the unionist discourse, except when they were figured as a problem or threat.” This brings us to the racism of British imperialism, and how it influenced America racism and vice versa. The fact is that as British imperialism peaked, prominent journalists and authors across British empire and the U.S. colluded to spread ideas of white supremacy across the planet and the racism that persists in Britain and America has shared roots. The Enlightenment ideals which, counterintuitively, permitted the development of racism, were also a Transatlantic phenomenon. The intellectual age of supposed reason that dominated the world of ideas in Europe between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries evolved differently on the east side of America and, for example, Scotland. Also, it influenced the development of nations to different degrees. But Enlightenment thinking was a global phenomenon, and what the major players had to say about race shows us that white supremacy emerged at around the same time on both sides of the Atlantic.
For example, we had the lionized Scottish enlightenment thinker David Hume stating in 1753 that “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to whites,” whilst German philosopher Kant included in his Lectures on Physical Geography (published in 1802) his opinion that “the yellow [Asian] Indians do have a meagre talent” but that “Negroes are far below them and at the lowest point are a part of the American peoples.” Echoing this, we had Founding Father Thomas Jefferson asserting in 1785 that “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
Moreover, Britain’s racist imperialism, inspired America’s own racist imperialism. “I believe in the expansion of great nations,” wrote future President Theodore Roosevelt in a letter to a friend 1899. The colonization of India had done lots for “the English character. If we do our work well in the Philippines and the West Indies, it will do a great deal for our character.” A quote which echoes the words of British Professor of Black Studies Kehinde Andrews as he argued in 2021 that “in the new age of empire, the United States has become the centre of modern colonial power. The country likes to present itself as a victim of British colonialism, which freed itself from tyranny and now looks to do the same for the rest of the world. But this is a delusional fantasy. The United States is in fact the most extreme expression of the racist world order. Not only does the United States have its own history (and present) of colonial possession but its entire existence is based on the logic of Western empire.”
One important development in the story of this “racist world order” was, of course, slavery, which is something else Americans really should consider in a British imperial context more often. It’s true that Britain turned its back on the slave trade by 1807, and worked hard to get it abolished everywhere, but for centuries before Britain and the U.S. worked together to exploit Black slaves. British empire played a major role in the Atlantic slave trade, shipping around 3 million Africans to the Americas, and it was also an important customer for the produce generated by the toil of the enslaved, even after Britain had formally abolished slavery. Consider the city of Liverpool, for example, where at some points during the 19th century, 95% of the raw goods received at its docks came from U.S. plantations, and which sided with the Confederates in the American Civil War.
This interconnected history is also reflected in the way Black Lives Matter protests have resulted in both countries grappling with their twin legacies in similar ways. In Bristol, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was torn down, while, in America, similar controversies raged over monuments to Robert E. Lee, the slave-holding Confederate general, and Jefferson Davis, the slave-holding first and only president of the Confederacy. Britons are struggling to tally the heroism of Winston Churchill during World War II with his racism, racism that was extreme even by the standards of his time, just as Americans are struggling to tally Abraham Lincoln’s greatness with his open racism. In Britain, heritage body the National Trust has faced hostility for researching the colonial history of its properties, just as plantation homes in the U.S. have faced hostility for attempting to face up to slave history.
There are also parallel loci of amnesia, on both sides of the Atlantic, about how deeply people were involved in slavery. The popular view in Britain being that Black slavery never existed in Britain, even though the publication of advertisements appealing for the return of runaway slaves show that, in practice, Black slavery was a feature of British life, with some 14,000 slaves in Britain itself. There is similarly a popular view in the U.S. that slavery was strictly a “Southern thing,”, even though in 1703, 42% of New York’s homes had slaves. Perhaps such denial has long been a feature of our respective interconnected national cultures. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1935 that “our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially, that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right. Slavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America, while the South was blameless in becoming its center.” Eric Williams echoed the sentiment in relation to Britain in 1964: “The British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it.”
Reflecting on the fashion for such dubious history in the contemporary age, Clint Smith has in How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, pointed out that “there have been claims that up to one hundred thousand Black soldiers fought for the Confederate Army, that Black men fought under General Robert E. Lee, and that these men valiantly died as part of racially integrated regiments willing to sacrifice their lives to save the South. There is no evidence to support this.” Smith moves on to insist that “the history of slavery is the history of the United States…. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories.” To this I would add: the history of slavery is also the history of the colonialism, of empire, and of the largest empire in human history, run by Great Britain. It might drive some commentators mad to hear it, but if you want to truly understand American history, you really need to understand British imperial history.
Adapted excerpt from Empireland: How Emperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, published by Pantheon, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Sathnam Sanghera.
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