By Alan Gibson
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Insurgent Empire

This article is over 4 years, 3 months old
Issue 453

This book is a very important contribution to the history of anti-imperialism and racism in the UK. Priyamvada Gopal first tells the stories of several white colonialists who, as a result of the brutality of imperial rule that they witnessed, became convinced that it should be either radically reformed or ended.

The letters and the reports they either sent or brought back to Britain circulated among a growing number of anti-imperialists to become an important current that subsequently formed the basis of anti-imperialist campaigns up to the present day.

Gopal looks at how people such as Madras-based lawyer John Bruce Norton, UK-based liberal John Stuart Mill and Cairo-based “traveller” Wilfrid Blunt responded to key incidents. These included the brutal suppression of the 1857 Uprising in India; the bloody massacre of innocent Jamaicans following mass protests at Morant Bay in 1865; the murderous bombardment of Alexandria and subsequent invasion of Egypt in 1882; the “Mau Mau” struggle for land and freedom in Kenya in the 1950s.

Gopal argues that it was not just the horror and brutality of British rule that moved these people to oppose imperialism. Importantly, their solidarity with the resistance and subsequent uprisings carried out by the victims of British rule “served to radicalise liberalism” in the metropole.

Chartist leader Ernest Jones, for example, not only carried stinging polemics against British rule in India in his People’s Paper, but linked the desire of Indians to reclaim their country to the desire of English workers to end its “misrepresentation by her rulers”.

Similarly, Gopal explains how the arrest of 31 labour activists in Bombay in 1929 in what became known as the Meerut Conspiracy Case sparked not only a major outcry in India but in Britain too. The League Against Imperialism and the Meerut Defence Committee organised hundreds of meetings and demonstrations in support of those charged with conspiracy to “deprive the King of the sovereignty of British India”.

Gopal goes on to discuss the centrality of black voices in Britain to the political campaign against imperialism. Starting with the founding of the African Association in 1900, she writes about the role that writers, activists and politicians such as Shapurji Saklatvala, Claude McKay, CLR James and George Padmore played in placing race centre-stage in anti-imperialist campaigns and in protests against racism — an issue that remained for a long time a blind spot for much of the British left.

For all of them the key was their uncompromising rejection of the idea that imperialism could be gradually reformed, and an insistence on self-representation and self-determination for those fighting to rid their countries on colonialism.

Gopal brings together a history brimming with heart-lifting campaigns and grim episodes of racism, one in which the struggles against imperialism in Britain’s colonies time and again reverberated across this country. It does, however come with two caveats: price, so wait for the paperback, and an academic approach that can at times obscure her key insights.

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