Contrasting images of Empire:
Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian:
‘Consider how Niall Ferguson deals with the Kenyan emergency: by suppressing it entirely in favour of a Kenyan idyll of ‘our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili – and our sense of unshakeable security’ in his book Empire.’ Photograph: Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Scuttling away from India in 1947, after plunging the jewel in the crown into a catastrophic partition, “the British”, the novelist Paul Scott famously wrote, “came to the end of themselves as they were”. The legacy of British rule, and the manner of their departures – civil wars and impoverished nation states locked expensively into antagonism, whether in the Middle East, Africa or the Malay Peninsula – was clearer by the time Scott completed his Raj Quartet in the early 1970s. No more, he believed, could the British allow themselves any soothing illusions about the basis and consequences of their power.
Scott had clearly not anticipated the collective need to forget crimes and disasters. The Guardian reports that the British government is paying compensation to the nearly 10,000 Kenyans detained and tortured during the Mau Mau insurgency in the 1950s. In what has been described by the historian Caroline Elkins as Britain’s own “Gulag”, Africans resisting white settlers were roasted alive in addition to being hanged to death. Barack Obama’s own grandfather had pins pushed into his fingers and his testicles squeezed between metal rods.
The British colonial government destroyed the evidence of its crimes. For a long time the Foreign and Commonwealth Office denied the existence of files pertaining to the abuse of tens of thousands of detainees. “It is an enduring feature of our democracy,” the FCO now claims, “that we are willing to learn from our history.”
But what kind of history? Consider how Niall Ferguson, the Conservative-led government’s favourite historian, deals with the Kenyan “emergency” in his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World: by suppressing it entirely in favour of a Kenyan idyll of “our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili – and our sense of unshakeable security.”
The British had slaughtered the Kikuyu a few years before. But for Ferguson “it was a magical time, which indelibly impressed on my consciousness the sight of the hunting cheetah, the sound of Kikuyu women singing, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mango”.