The last couple of years have seen a lot of discussion about the way the British Empire and the men of that time are perceived; the irony of a South African student who was involved in the ludicrous ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in Cape Town then happily accepting a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University was not lost on many. Rather more worrying is the ‘1984’ style approach to shut down any dissenting voices so as to prevent a rational debate on the subject. Towards the end of 2017, Oxford University was again in the news, when one of the Professors dared to ask for a balanced approach the subject of Britain’s Imperial Past, thus making him the target of yet another Social-Media-driven deluge of manufactured rage and teenage temper-tantrums.
As Daniel Hannan wrote in the Telegraph on the 31st of December:
A controversy has been bubbling away in Oxford since Nigel Biggar, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, wrote a newspaper article arguing for a balanced approach to Britain’s colonial past. He was branded a bigot and a racist by Left-wing students, while 58 Oxford historians signed a letter denouncing him, followed by 170 of their colleagues from other universities.
What abomination had Prof Biggar committed? Had he donned a pith helmet and harrumphed about the unfitness of the African for self-rule? Of course not. He simply stated the obvious truth that “the history of the British Empire was morally mixed, just like that of any nation state”.
It is little wonder that those who are – for whatever reason – vehement in their hatred of the British Empire move to close down any rational debate on the subject, for their take on the matter fails to stand up to any sort of scrutiny. It should be blatantly obvious that an Empire which lasted for a couple of centuries and which spanned the globe cannot possibly have been all evil or all good at all times – to try and paint it in such a way is childish and simplistic. Indeed, no country, race or civilisation in history could possibly be considered in such black and white terms.
Those who have arbitrarily decided that ‘British Empire = bad’ are incapable or unwilling of looking at it in any sort of rational way, doing everything they can to ignore all the positives it brought, while gleefully trumpeting any negatives they can drag up. As it would be perfectly possible to do that with any nation / empire in the world, however, it really is a meaningless exercise.
The long-standing, and increasingly hysterical, efforts of the Left to equate the British Empire to the slave trade are a good example. By constantly talking of the slave trade and the British Empire in the same breath, such people are not lying per se, but they are doing all they can to give the impression that the British Empire was unique for having been involved in the practice – thus cheerfully ignoring the fact that pretty much every culture throughout history has indulged in the horrific practice of slavery. It is never mentioned, for example, that Britain itself was a victim of slavery at the time, with Barbary Pirates still raiding remote parts of the British Isles (as well as Continental Europe) as late as 1830 to carry captives off into slavery – raids which only finally ended when the French occupied much of North Africa[i].
Indeed, as Hannan goes on to say of the British Empire:
Yes, there was slavery, as there had been in every age and nation. Forced servitude had been part of the human condition for at least 10,000 years. What made the British Empire unusual was its relentless campaign to end the disgusting trade, a mission it took so seriously that, even when it was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon, it was diverting ships to hunt down slavers.
As Hannan suggests, what was actually most remarkable about the British Empire was not that it was, for a period, one of the countless participants of the practice, but that, from the 1800s and well into the 20th century, it fought tooth and nail to end first the slave trade and then slavery itself – a practice which is as old as mankind itself and which Britons through the ages have also been victims of.
This is not to say that Britain’s participation in the slave trade should not be a source of shame, but it is equally important to point out that, not only was Britain the first major power to recognise this as being a vile practice, but also that she then embarked on what was essentially a Crusade against it. The expenditure of blood and treasure to stamp out this evil is something to be incredibly proud of, and telling that side of the tale gives context and (to quote Professor Biggar) balance: something which certain groups clearly do not want.
This tendency to leave out anything which does not suit their argument is also a tactic which is regularly used to foist all the blame for both the Matabele War and the Boer War onto the wicked, scheming Brits. Though not always actually lying as such, many of today’s violently anti-British ‘historians’ will cunningly only tell part of the story, carefully leaving out a whole host of pertinent facts and thus mischievously leading their readers to come to a decidedly ill-informed conclusion. Which is, of course, the whole aim of this breed of writers.
When giving evidence, Courts all over the world use only very slight variations on the famous sworn testimony which requires the witness to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. The crucial difference between telling the ‘the truth’ and ‘the whole truth’ is, of course, that one could say something that is strictly-speaking true (eg. “I saw the accused arguing with the victim in the pub earlier that evening”) but which does not necessarily convey some relevant facts: “I saw the accused and four other men arguing with the victim in the pub earlier that evening”.
Unfortunately, the highly reasonable principle of telling ‘the whole truth’ is not something which some writers on Colonial history seem to think should apply to them in any way. This means one will regularly read statements along the lines of:
‘In October 1899, Kruger issued an Ultimatum to the British, demanding that they stop moving troops to South Africa. When this was ignored, the war began’.
Now, everything in that short statement is broadly true, but by not being (by any stretch of the imagination) ‘the whole truth’, it leaves out so many relevant facts as to be all but meaningless. It by no means tells the reader what was actually happening at the time, how this situation had come about or where culpability lay; the reason being, of course, is that those who write such things do not want their readers to know what was actually happening at the time, as their sole aim is to maintain the fiction that poor old Kruger was the innocent party in the war.
This handy little throwaway statement does not, for example, give any of the background to the situation: the reader is not told that, far from being a peaceful, benign little place, the Transvaal had been expanding her borders violently for a generation, waging endless wars against black tribes and snatching their lands. It fails to mention that, as early as 1884, the leaders of the Transvaal had been openly boasting of building an ‘Afrikaans Empire from the Zambesi to the Cape’, as well as making statements about the creation of a ‘third republic’ in the Cape and the capture of Natal.
Equally, this version does not tell the reader that Kruger had been pushing for an offensive alliance with the Orange Free State as early as 1887, or that his agents had been gun-running and stirring up trouble in British territories for years. Nor does it mention the Bogus Conspiracy, that the Boer armies significantly outnumbered Imperial forces at the time, or that the troops which Britain was indeed moving to South Africa were actually being rushed there because the Natal Government was screaming for protection against an anticipated Boer invasion.
The omission of all these historical realities is by no means an accident: no rational person can think that these ‘historians’ simply forgot to present the ‘whole truth’. It is a deliberate attempt to maintain the Apartheid-era fiction that the wicked British Empire was 100% responsible for the war, and to exonerate Kruger’s Transvaal of all culpability.
Similarly, in many books about Rhodesia or Southern African history, the origins of the Matabele War of 1896 are ‘explained’ in a line or two, usually something like:
‘The Rhodesian Pioneers had been in Mashonaland since 1893 and, in 1896, Rhodes turned his attention to Matabeleland and decided to invade’.
Again, there are no actual out-and-out blatant lies in this statement as such, but again it is by no means ‘the whole truth’ – for the simple reason that, by telling the whole truth, the writer would have to admit that Lobengula’s Matabele bore the lion’s share of the blame for the war.
The statement does not mention, for example, that Matabele raiding parties had continued to cross into Mashonaland since 1893, carrying off slaves, women and cattle as and when they wished. It fails to mention that Rhodes’ officials had repeatedly turned the other cheek to this raiding, merely remonstrating with Lobengula and asking him to control his warriors. Most significantly, it does not mention that the spark for the war was that a huge Matabele impi had crossed the border to raid Fort Victoria, burning and pillaging with carefree abandon, killing hundreds of Mashona and driving off great herds of cattle.
Whether or not it was right to react to this constant raiding, slaughter and pillage by breaking the power of the Matabele can be debated, and each will have his own view on this. But it is not possible to even have such a discussion when the reality of the situation is carefully air-brushed from history by a certain ilk of historian.
It is rather worrying that, such is their desperation to peddle their preferred tale on the British Empire in Southern Africa, many so-called historians can happily omit such crucial details. What is entertaining, however, is that they clearly know that if they dare to give ‘the whole truth’, their readers will not draw the ‘right’ conclusions, and thus a frantic attempt the censoring of historical reality is resorted to. One would have thought that, were such historians comfortable with the veracity of the narrative they are trying to sell, they would have no issue with offering the reader all the facts, rather than just the ones that suit them.
Though it has made me a good deal of enemies and seen me take a lot of amusing personal abuse, all I have tried to do in my research and writing is get behind these ‘soundbites’ and show the reader that there is a lot more to the story that many allegedly-esteemed writers would prefer to tell you.