24 June 2021
By John Watson
Really, who cares? As the protagonists in the “Rhodes must fall” gets sillier by the minute, not least Oriel College which says that it will keep the statue because of the cost of removing it and the half wit who thinks that matters could be solved by turning it round, most of us simply make a mental note to avoid Oxford and leave student politics to work itself out as it usually does. But before we lose interest entirely there is one aspect of the affair that is worth a little thought and that is the gap which it exposes between history and science.
Let us look for the moment at the debate about the Empire. There are two camps. One deplores it as an instrument of repression and rapine. Members of that camp regard it as generally bad. The other says that for all its faults it brought progress to people who needed it. Those in the second camp regard it as, at least to some extent, good. I have no intention of taking any position in that debate but the interesting thing is that those who do so tend to do it by picking on particular elements of the imperial experience which support their case and then drawing conclusions by extension. For example the “bad” school might instance early participation in slavery whereas the “good” school would point to Britain’s role in its abolition; “bad” might focus on Amritsar: “good” might talk about missionary work; and so on. That kind of debate may be all very well for historians, assuming that the protagonists have an accurate view of the facts, but it pays little regard to science.
Many natural phenomena are caused by differences in pressure of one sort or another. A river flows downhill because one point on its course is higher than another. A wind blows from England to France because there happens to be low-pressure over Paris and high pressure over London. An electric motor runs because of the different charges on the terminal of the battery to which it is connected. Heat flows from a hot body to a cold one.
Now look at politics in the same way. If one nation or group of nations is much more advanced and thus stronger than another it will dominate that other and tell it what to do. Thus the disciplined Romans enslaved the known world; thus the horsemen of Genghis Khan swept his empire up to the edge of Europe; thus modern super states control their satellites.
What does this say about the politics of the 18th and 19th centuries? There was a disparity then, at least in military and technical matters, between a powerful Europe and the rest of the world. It would be strange indeed if that had not led to European domination and that is why colonial activity by the great powers all began at about the same time. Empires of one sort or another thus being inevitable, asking whether this was good or bad is about as useful as debating whether rivers should or should not run downhill.
Of course there was far more to it than a simple takeover by Europe of the rest of the world. There was fighting between the colonial powers. In southern Africa the struggle was between the English and Dutch. In North America between England and France, as indeed it was in India before Clive’s victory at Plassey. The fact that Britain came out on top was also down to a military gradient. In certain respects, naval and probably in the use of infantry, we were stronger than our protagonists so we pushed them out of their possessions. Nonetheless, had we not done so, empire would not have been avoided; the local populations would not have been left to find their own way; rather a different country would have been the Imperial master.
If one regards the process of colonisation as being scientifically inevitable the words “good” and “bad” can only be used in respect of specific actions. General Dyer’s order to open fire at Amritsar was a bad action by any standards. Napier’s threat to the Hindu priests in order to prevent women being burnt alive on funeral pyres was a good one. History is made up of such things and it is inevitable that we take moral views, albeit often with an imperfect idea of their context. What makes less sense, however, is to try to apply a measure of judgement to the imperial process itself and, alas, for those who have never studied the facts that is the only course available. Except for shutting up of course and what complacent, self-admiring Oxbridge student ever did anything as modest or self-effacing as that?