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‘Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent’ review: Striking back at the Empire

Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire is a bold and important work that seeks to take away the throne of conceits on which the ghost of the British Empire still sits, providing aid and comfort to 21st century inheritors of the White Man’s Burden. There are three conceits in particular that engage Gopal’s attention. One, that the Empire was essentially a force for good, bringing ideas of freedom and democracy to the rest of the world; two, that when the natives had been imparted these ideas sufficiently, the Empire virtually withdrew itself, with nary a care for the loss; and three, that it is anachronistic to talk about the Empire in negative terms today because back in the day, everybody went along with the Imperial project happily.

Shapers of liberty

It is compelling to observe the author, who teaches at Cambridge University, take apart each of these conceits with meticulous attention to details excavated from the written records of Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, it would be appropriate to consider this 607-page tome as an example of the ‘reverse tutelage’ that Gopal conceptualises — the process by which in the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonised educated the colonisers on the true meanings of liberty, equality and fraternity. The difference, of course, is that Gopal is tutoring not yesterday’s colonialists, but today’s right wing historians of Empire (among whom Niall Ferguson figures prominently in the book), that the colonised were not passive recipients of the idea of liberty, but were active shapers of it, and not just in their own nations, but in the heart of the Empire itself.

British dissenters

This is indeed the core proposition of Insurgent Empire: that the insurgents in the colonies, from India to Egypt to Kenya to Jamaica, moulded the opinions of British dissenters in the metropole. This “vital relationship between anti-colonial resistance in the periphery and the emergence of such dissent in the metropole,” Gopal believes, has been overlooked in the existing discourse on Empire, even after taking into account substantive post-colonial studies.

By making this the centrepiece of her work, Gopal accomplishes two things at once. One, of course, it turns the colonised into active agents who shaped their own and the world’s destiny, and two it brings into focus those parts of colonial history that mainstream historians of Empire have tried hard to forget, if not hide — the parts where the slaves and the colonised rise in fierce opposition at every stage of the colonial process right from the beginning, and also the parts where dissidents within the metropole questioned the nature and actions of the Empire, deeply influenced and changed as they were by contact with the insurgents in the colonies. In other words, the ‘back -in-the-day’ argument can no longer hold, since it has been shown to rest on imperfect memories of Empire.

The 1857 uprising

After a theoretical Introduction that engages with existing academic literature on the subject, the first chapter of Insurgent Empire begins with the 1857 uprising in India and that is quickly followed by the Morant Ray rebellion of 1865 in Jamaica, both of which had profound effects on the Empire. This kind of juxtaposing is indeed the greatest strength of the book — it allows the reader to make connections that may not otherwise have been obvious, and also helps bring alive a period in all its complexity.

In the case of the Indian and Jamaican uprisings, the book trains its focus not on the main actors as much as on the nature of the interactions between British dissenters and the insurgents and how this helped shift attitudes of the British dissenters from paternal benevolence to fellow feeing and reciprocal engagement — the first minor cracks in the Imperial edifice, so to say. Gopal quotes Frederic Harrison, British jurist, historian and Positivist: “The events of 1857 forced all of us to consider the whole question of the Empire... From that day, I became an anti-Imperialist.”

Leaders of resistance

The Insurgent Empire brings you face to face with a large number of fascinating characters whom mainstream history has marginalised, especially dissenters in the metropole like Ernest Jones, Nancy Cunard and Richard Congreve. It also brings back to focus Caribbean activists and leaders of resistance such as George Padmore, C.L.R. James and Marcus Garvey and, of course, Shapurji Saklatvala, the Indian-origin Parsi who was a Communist Party MP for Battersea in the British House of Commons.

This is one of the strongest attacks on the on-going rightwing myth-making about the Empire that has practical implications for politics today in Britain. For Indians, the beauty of the book lies in the way it locates the struggle for Independence within the global colonial context — and also the detail it fills in on events such as the Meerut Conspiracy Case — which is a stark reminder of the way India’s politicians in power today continue to use the brutal and unjust methods and techniques devised by the British a century ago to put down the ‘insurgents’.

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent; Priyamvada Gopal, Simon & Schuster, ₹699.

The writer is the author of Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From.

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