The jubilee of colonialism associated with the activities of the British East India Company makes it possible to re-illuminate the complex set of historical and political myths that, on the one hand, have become quite firmly embedded in the narrative of Western culture and constitute one of the foundations of the historical identity of modern British society, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 mark the anniversary of a particular event, and can rightfully be called the jubilee of colonialism. 420 years ago, by the decree of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the East India Company was founded. It is clear that the colonial expansion of the European powers had begun much earlier, practically with the discovery of America by Columbus, and even earlier — with the capture of the Canary Islands by the Spanish and the appearance of the first Portuguese trading posts on the western coast of Africa. Nevertheless, we have to admit that it was the British East India Company that became a real symbol of colonialism and the imperial expansion of the Western powers to other continents.
In this regard, it is appropriate to recall the historical chronology of events. On New Year’s Day, December 31, 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a royal charter to the founders of the company. A few days later, on January 10, 1601, the company obtained the right to monopoly trade in the eastern seas. Its expeditions to India, Malacca and other countries of the region began, and at first they were of a purely commercial nature. But soon the company, in one way or another, acquired its colonies in the region, the first of which were established in 1611-1612: in Masulipatham and Surat. Later, the company was consolidated in three zones, which subsequently became the centres of British expansion in India: in Madras (1640), Bombay (1668) and Calcutta (1690).
The colonial expansion of the British in the region was not limited only to the territory of the Indian subcontinent. Over time, both through the East India Company and directly by the British Crown, a system of British residencies and protectorates was established in the Persian Gulf, in Aden, on a number of Indian Ocean islands on the way to India, and in 1843, following the results of the First Opium War, Hong Kong fell under the control of the British.
Gradually, in the controlled territories, the East India Company began to perform direct government, tax and police functions (usually the starting point is 1757). In India, it lost them only after the Sepoy rebellion in 1857-58, when the ownership of the company came under the direct control of the British Crown. As a result, India became a symbol of the so-called second stage of British colonisation (as opposed to the first stage, associated with the colonisation of North America), which shaped the global British Empire, where “the sun never set”, which lasted until the collapse of the Western colonial system after World War II.
For the modern politics of historical memory, it is important to emphasise that the activities of the East India Company (as well as subsequent British colonialists) were accompanied by the emergence of fairly persistent historical myths. Their remnants still retain their influence on public opinion in the West. The first myth is associated with the heroism and romance of the sea pioneers of the 17th and 18th centuries, which in the 19th century were supplemented by the myth of the speedy “clipper ships” and the speed of transoceanic communications. This myth is still exploited in mass culture, in cinematography, and, apparently, is quite in demand in the production of semantic narratives in Western public opinion. We have to wait and see how the erosion of these narratives in the context of BLM will affect their further representation.
Another myth is more complicated, even in the stereotypical Western-centric paradigm. This is the myth of “benevolent” and “progressive” colonialism. This is the once-popular notion that England brought with it to the conquered countries not only (and not so much) exploitation and oppression, but technical development, railways, access to education, higher education in London for the inhabitants of the colonies, the expansion of political participation through advisory councils under the governors (which would then become the prototype of parliaments), the rights of women, etc. It is obvious that in the current conditions this myth is no longer politically correct in its entirety, and with the exception of the extreme right-wing forces, it’s rare to find those who risk of addressing this myth in this way without exception. But some elements of the myth are nevertheless preserved; they can be seen in some Western academic studies and in popular culture. Paradoxically, the vitality of this historical myth is sometimes fuelled by public opinion in the former colonies themselves. Especially in those cases when independence did not bring a better life to the masses of the people, and the new ruling elites descended into corruption and luxury. Against this background, nostalgia for the “good old metropolis” is in demand, forming a part of public opinion in the former colonies themselves.
On the whole, this set of ideas has developed into a basic historical myth about the greatness of the British Empire. A myth that, at least before BLM, many tried not to touch directly. This is due to the surviving royal dynasty in England, and to the fact that the queen is still the formal head of state in a number of former colonies. This myth is also fundamental to the formation of historical identity in England, and its overthrow would look too revolutionary and startling. But, perhaps, everything is still ahead.
On the other hand, the struggle against these myths about “good” colonialism was a significant part of the political struggle for the liberation of the former British colonies. India, for obvious reasons (as a “diamond in the crown of the empire”), found itself at the forefront of this ideological and value struggle. Both the works and the political practice of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru clearly confirm this. In modern India, one of the intellectuals who are purposefully working to debunk this myth is Shashi Tharoor. His book “Inglorious Empire. What the British Did to India” is a prime example of detailed analysis and debunking of these myths, both from the point of view of technology and economics, and in terms of social relations. Now the context of BLM and the overthrow of monuments, which also affected England, can further contribute to the rejection of old historical narratives.
One of the unresolved political issues, which until today were associated with the activities of the East India Company and the British colonialists in general, is the problem of the Chagos archipelago, with the island of Diego Garcia. The British in 1965 seized this territory from their colony of Mauritius and created a new colonial entity, the “British Indian Ocean Territory”. Then, in the early 1970s, when, all the atrocities of colonialism seemed long ago in the past, the British forcibly evicted all local residents from this archipelago, and gave Diego Garcia to the US for the construction of a military base. In recent years, international courts have made decisions demanding that Britain return the Chagos archipelago to Mauritius. The Valdai Club has already covered this issue in detail. The UN General Assembly has repeatedly supported this. The British are so far ignoring all these demands of the world community, but let’s hope that the situation will change under the influence of BLM.
As a result, the jubilee of colonialism associated with the activities of the British East India Company makes it possible to re-illuminate the complex set of historical and political myths that, on the one hand, have become quite firmly embedded in the narrative of Western culture and constitute one of the foundations of the historical identity of modern British society. On the other hand, as the global wave of Black Lives Matter has shown, these seemingly old myths are still an extremely acute irritant for a large part of the population of the former British Empire. Therefore, the question of the value of rethinking the historical heritage of this empire is becoming more and more clear on the political agenda.