Author: Piryamvada Gopal

Publisher: Verso

Year: 2019

Pages: 607

ISBN: 978-1-78478-414-0


Insurgent Empire is a lucid and sharp-voiced critique of British Empire pretensions. The author, who teaches at the University of Cambridge, offered two important insights to this reviewer: about ‘reverse tutelage’ – highlighting the experiences of Wilfred Scawen Blunt –  and also the anticolonialism of some great Labour Party personalities of yesteryear.

Piryamvada Gopal notes in the book’s opening pages,

My own students at Cambridge, studying what was then coyly referred to as ‘Commonwealth Literature’, came to class with very little knowledge of what the Empire was or how it lived on in the present and were to their credit, keen to know more. It became clear to me that some form of reparative history was desperately needed in the British public sphere which is still subject to a familiar ritual where politicians of various stripes will periodically announce that Britain has ‘nothing to apologise for’ or call for active ‘pride in the legacies of  the Empire.

Foremost in her sights are the likes of Niall Ferguson, who ‘draw on a longer tradition of Whig historiography – typically figure the geopolitical West as rolling on inexorably towards greater freedom, the darker nations taught to follow in its wake’.  In this tradition, it is the British Empire that ‘gifted’ notions of democracy to its colonies, and not much is said about the resistance and radical dissent to this ‘benevolence’. There were seven or eight major resistance movements to the Empire apart from the well-known Indian uprising of 1857:  for example the Morant Bay rebellion (Jamaica (1865), the Colonel Urabi movement (Egypt, 1882),  the ‘Arab’ revolt (Palestine, 1937) – setting aside the Queen Victoria’s ‘little wars’ in the Sudan, Afghanistan, the Zulu Kingdom, against the Maoris . . . .

The author considers how these acts of resistance played back in England, and the brave souls who were prepared to regard the ‘rebels’ as ‘patriots’ fighting for their freedom and dignity. She is not so much concerned with the stories of the Englishmen who came to Islam and became anti-imperialists (Abdullah Quilliam in the 1890s, Pickthall in the 1920s) but rather those who were ‘accidental anti-colonialists’. Blunt’s encounters with Jamaluddin Afghani and Colonel Urabi, resulted in this dilettante, aristocratic poet-squire becoming ‘an alternative voice to British establishment discourse on Empire’. In elaborating the term ‘reverse tutelage’, Gopal presents a case study of how Blunt  – whose circle of close friends included the ex-Viceroy Lord Lytton – ‘came to unlearn a habitual paternalism and understand that there were substantive cultural resources available to non-European subjects for thinking about emancipation and change which did not preclude engagement with other cultures’. Gopal’s point is that men like Blunt and his contemporary Frederic Harrison were inspired to view the Empire critically not because of ‘an allegiance to a species of English Liberalism’, but rather a ‘crisis of conscience’ and their exposure to intellectuals in Egypt and India.

The Labour leader Keir Hardie and journalist Henry Nevinson were emboldened to expose the fiction of a just and benevolent Indian rule as a result of ‘coaching’ they received from the likes of Aurbindo Ghose, Tilak and G. K. Ghokale. In developing this idea of ‘reverse tutelage’, Gokal has opened new lines of biographical enquiry on English anticolonialists. One of these might well be further research on Harry St. John Philby, to supplement M. A. Sherif’s biographical essay Brave Hearts [1]. As a relatively junior officer in India, he found himself attracted to ‘the eternal verities of life and philosophy’ in the local culture. After his transfer to Iraq he became increasingly frustrated with the Empire’s policies and resigned from the prestigious Indian Civil Service. He was uncomfortable with diplomatic duplicities and in 1925 – many years before coming to Islam in a public way – noted that, for many, Zionist settlement in Palestine was nothing but ‘an instrument of British imperialism’.

Gopal often quotes from Edward Said, in particular to convey the idea that dissent is a characteristic of all cultures – thus providing a basis for solidarity between Britons of a dissident inclination and like-minded activists elsewhere. She challenges the notion that the geopolitical West ‘is the wellspring of ideas on freedom, either ‘bestowing’ it on slaves and colonial subjects or ‘teaching’ them how to go about obtaining it.’

Insurgent Empire provides rich detail on the institutions, conferences, journals and marches that took shape in the Metropole in the 1920s and 30s. While criticism of Empire was shut down in the colonies through legal statutes such as Section 124A in British India, paradoxically views could be expressed more freely in London.  One of the photographs in the book is of C.L.R. James in full flight speaking at a rally in Trafalgar Square.

Similarly enlightening is the chapter, A Terrible Assertion of Discontent: ‘Mau Mau’ and the End of Imperial Benevolence. In their uprising in the early 1950s, the Kikuyu people of Kenya confronted a British army prepared to resort to torture and concentration camps.  The author notes that in the British cultural and political imagination, ‘Mau Mau’ had become a code word for demonic violence in excess of all justification. However, the movement

was the culmination of many years of resistance by those dispossessed of their lands and put to work on European farms. At the heart of the grievances, – which also included low wages, racist passbooks known as kipande, and lack of electoral representation – was ‘land hunger’, large swathes of arable land coming under settler occupation while poor Kenyans, mainly Kikuyu, lived economically deprived lives in ‘Reserves’, or tiny plots on settler land which they worked . . . treating the resistance initially just as labour unrest with traditional practices attached to it, the colonial government worsened the situation by increased repression and indiscriminate preventive detentions.

The injustices stirred giant figures in the Labour Party, who deserve to be remembered. These include Fenner Brockway (born in Calcutta), who had to be given an armed guard in his tour of Kenya because of threats from European settlers; Barbara Castle, on her tour ‘followed everywhere by the secret police just like the African trade unionists she met’; and the iconic Aneurin Bevan: ‘We talk here [at the Commons] as though the administration of Kenya, as though the seizure of land in Kenya and all those things were not responsible at all for Mau Mau.’

Insurgent Empire ends in a sad note, because in spite of loss of life and great sacrifices, in so many cases the new dispensation did not do away with authoritarianism. Priyamvada Gopal is conscious of this betrayal:  we continue to ‘look towards a more fully decolonised future for both Britain and the postcolonial world.’

Jamil Sherif, February 2020

[1] Brave Hearts, Pickthall and Philby: Two English Muslims in a Changing World. Islamic Book Trust, 2011