The “Debt Direction” of the British Empire Needs to be Reversed

While musing over what’s the “morally appropriate language” one should write in, Arundhati Roy was confronted with the following:

Only a few weeks after the mother tongue/masterpiece incident, I was on a live radio show in London. The other guest was an English historian who, in reply to a question from the interviewer, composed a paean to British imperialism. “Even you,” he said, turning to me imperiously, “the very fact that you write in English is a tribute to the British Empire.” Not being used to radio shows at the time, I stayed quiet for a while, as a well-behaved, recently civilized savage should. But then I sort of lost it, and said some extremely hurtful things. The historian was upset, and after the show told me that he had meant what he said as a compliment, because he loved my book. I asked him if he also felt that jazz, the blues, and all African-American writing and poetry were actually a tribute to slavery. And if all of Latin American literature was a tribute to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

One thing I’ve discovered about just about anyone who grew up in a former British colony is that they really don’t like either the concept or the reality of British colonial rule.  Americans, who themselves were the first to head to the exits, don’t really grasp this.  Roy offers some interesting observations on the effect of English in India (it’s been an advantage to Indian expats who head to some of those other former colonies) but I think that the following, which I observed in an appendix to my Positive Infinity New Testament, bears repeating:

The use of Bahamian paper explains how many of the pounds, shillings and pence got on this page; it came out of having to learn how to count it and spend it while in the Bahamas. The good news was that this education could be had in a place with a warm climate and people. This also illustrates one of the characteristics of the old British Empire: many of the colonies were improvements over the mother country. Why else would two small islands be able to populate two entire continents with the people who either wanted or had to leave, to say nothing of the “expatriates” in places such as South Africa and India?

If we compare the British Empire (especially in its early stages) with the, say, French or Spanish, the whole settlement pattern was different.  France and Spain wanted New France and New Spain to be echoes of the official idea of the mother country: no religious or political dissidents, etc.  With the Brits things were different: they were happy to export their malcontents (religious and political dissidents, economically distressed like the Scots-Irish, etc.) to their American colonies, and later to their others.  People wonder why there was a French Revolution and no English Revolution.  Actually there was an English revolution; it just took place over here and not in England.  Although the colonial system required the export (temporary or permanent) of officialdom, many of these (along with others) left because they could find a better life elsewhere than “Old Blighty.”

And the colonies returned the favour: they saved the “Old Country’s” bacon in two world wars (and that included just about all of them, including Canada, Australia, NZ, the US and yes India) and made English the global language that it is.  So perhaps next a Brit “imperiously” (how else would he or she do it?) waxes about the greatness of the British Empire, it’s worth reminding them that not only did the UK export the people, it exported the greatness too.  The debt of Empire is reversed.

Leave a Reply