Setting history straight


Cambridge-based historian Priyamvada Gopal’s new book ‘Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (2019)’ which was launched at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival 2019 shows how Britain’s colonial subjects were active agents in their own liberation and also shaped British ideas of freedom and emancipation


Q. Why do you believe that this book was something that needed to be told and written about?

The story of the empire in Britain is told in largely benevolent ways with eventual independence for the colonies painted as a ‘gift’ from the mother country to colonies rather than as fought for by the colonised.

There’s also this notion that criticism of empire is ‘anachronistic’ and that back in the day, people didn’t see anything wrong with what Britain was doing in various parts of the globe. I wanted to challenge both these narratives. My main argument is that there was a profound connection between British critics of empire and those in the colonies who fought for freedom – although the definition of ‘freedom’ often varied.

Q. What was the kind of research that went into the putting together of this book?

I went to a lot of archives in Cambridge and elsewhere in Britain to look at letters, pamphlets, Royal Commission reports, Parliamentary Papers, and out-of-print books. It was fun but very time-consuming and often cold!

Q. What were some of the challenges you faced while penning it?

British critics of empire have been marginalised and cut out of the story for the most part, so by definition they are not easy to locate. It took a lot of research to find them and trace them, and then to try and identify how they were linked to anticolonial movements and campaigners in India, the West Indies and Africa. There was certainly a lot of digging through boxes of papers in the archives!

Q. What were some of the things you discovered during the course of writing this, that took you by surprise?

What took me by surprise was, first, the extent of criticism of empire in Britain but also the extent to which there was engagement and interaction between those critics of empire and anticolonial movements. I describe a process of ‘reverse tutelage’ where it was the colonies which influenced British dissidents in developing opposition to empire.

Q. How did the idea of what freedom meant differ among the different regions under the British Empire?

Freedom did not only mean ‘sovereignty’ although that was an important part of it. In some cases, as in Jamaica in 1865, it meant the right to own a small piece of land and farm it, in others, as in Kenya, it could mean the right to communal ownership of land by a community or tribe; and it often meant the freedom to speak out freely and assemble, to have labour rights and decent working conditions as well as freedom from hunger, violence and injustice. Overall there was a broader and richer understanding of what ‘freedom’ might mean that isn’t reducible to the market-driven idea that prevails today which is basically about the freedom to consume.

Q. Who were some of the anti-colonial names in Britain who voiced their dissent?

We have people like the Chartist leader, Ernest Jones, who was very inspired by the 1857 uprising in India and Wilfrid Blunt, who, despite being an English aristocrat, ended up calling himself an ‘Egyptian patriot’ in 1882. In the early 20th century you have people like Keir Hardie and Henry Nevinson who took the Swadeshi movement in India very seriously. Then you have the British Indian communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala who famously debated Gandhi. There are interesting feminist figures like the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and the poet Nancy Cunard as well as British politicians like Fenner Brockway who was quite close to Nehru for a time. Black Britons like CLR James and George Padmore are also a central part of the story.

Q. History education in schools in India only make the British out to be ruthless rulers, without looking at those in Britain who were in fact opposed to this. Shouldn’t we be taught to look at this era from all angles?

Yes, both in Britain and in India, the history of the empire needs to be taught in more complicated ways. There is no point in simply reversing the British story of empire as a great and benevolent enterprise and putting nationalists at the centre of the story. As I show, in India, the Indian National Congress and its leaders were not the only forces resisting colonialism, and equally, there were those upper-castes and elites who collaborated with the colonial project. We need to acknowledge those too as well as the ways in which we have failed to shake off the colonial legacy, indeed, we have embraced much of it.