The only way for Britain to make up for its dark colonial past is to repatriate the cultural and historical artefacts it stole during that time.
The tragic killing of George Floyd and its subsequent riots showed the world what black and other ethnic minorities have been screaming from the top of their lungs for years: that the US is rotten to its core. “I can’t breathe” is the rallying cry that challenges institutional racism at every level: from the police forces to the White House.
Across the pond, Brits look at these events in horror, feeling grateful that such racism isn’t prevalent here. Some even have the gall to think that racism is an issue unique to America.The weeks following the riots in America challenged that notion, as protestors in the UK tore down the statues of vile slavers from history. They also conveniently forget the skinheads of the ’60s and their violent attitudes towards Asians.
But this idea of British racism is still not widely accepted. Partly because they compare themselves to America and feel like the progressive older cousin. But this is far from the truth.
Yes, social policies within Britain have been relatively progressive, especially compared to the US. But the effects of Britains’ racism aren’t seen in their own country as strongly as it is visible in the rest of the world. The British Empire’s attitude and policies towards its colonies were just as bad, if not worse than America’s history of racial violence and segregation.
Here are some facts about British colonial rule in India. 45 trillion dollars, that’s how much Britain stole from India over two centuries. India’s contribution to the global economy was reduced from 25% to less than 4%. The country was world-renowned for its textile industry until it was systematically destroyed by the East India Company, displacing them as the world’s biggest exporter of finished textiles. To quote Dr. Shashi Tharoor, “Britain’s industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialisation of India.”
Even the Kohinoor was taken from the Punjabi throne by force. A ten-year-old boy, Duleep Singh was the heir to the throne and was the owner of the diamond. In 1849, the British forces imprisoned his mother Rani Jindan, and forced him to sign a treaty giving up claim to the diamond.
Indian soldiers also formed a significant portion of the British forces during both world wars. More than 1.5 million soldiers fought in WW1, many of them poor villagers from north India. But given the racism and mistreatment of Indians within the ranks, it was closer to slavery than it was to an army. Indians both funded and died for both the world wars, all while Churchill deliberately deprived Bengal of food during a famine, killing 2-3 million people.
Churchill’s policy of denial led to essential food and grains being exported out of the region to make sure that Japanese forces couldn’t get their hands on them. As a result, mortality rates in the northeast regions soared. [To find out more, Dr. Hickels’ piece in Aljazeera further fleshes out the true nature of British exploitation back then.]
Britain has blood on its hands. Brits today think that their country isn’t racist because most of their brutality was committed on foreign soil. The list of massacres committed by the British officials that I HAVEN’T mentioned cannot fit in a short piece, nor can its horror can be described adequately by mere words.
I was inspired to write this while reading Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s book “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India”. For those who want a condensed version of this, here is a speech he gave at Oxford that inspired him to write further flesh it out in a book.
Dr. Tharoor debunks the common myths surrounding the British atrocities in India and makes a case for moral colonial reparations. Not one of money, for the bill would exceed Britain’s GDP by a large margin. Rather, he asks for a formal apology on moral grounds.
But justice delayed is justice denied. After a certain point, a moral victory is meaningless. Actions make a statement have more conviction and meaning. While it’s true there can be no sum in the world that can right the wrongs done by the colonisers to the colonised. But the least they can do is stop profiting off of their former colonies now.
According to UNESCO, 90% of African art is in museums outside the continent, and most of them are acquired during the colonial era of history. The British Museum alone has over 50000 Egyptian artefacts. India’s famous jewel, the Kohinoor diamond sits in the Tower of London. It was chipped down to half its the size and placed on Queen Elizabeth’s crown, a display of power over all its colonies, part of an empire once believed that the sun could never set on.
The ball has already begun rolling. Countries like Austria, Germany, and France are already starting to acknowledge the error in keeping possession of plundered artefacts in European museums. To do so would mean condoning the actions of their imperialist regimes of the past and deliberatively profit off of the theft of thousands of items, crucial to the history and culture of countries they plundered in the past.
That is Britain’s legacy, brutality, and force. Systematically plundering a country for about 200 years and enacting a regime and starved and murdered millions of people. Returning the diamond to India and historical artefacts to all its colonies won’t undo the damage done by empire, but it will show regret for their past actions in a manner that benefits its victims. An apology without action is just meaningless words.