Empire’s should be measured by their legacy, not their longevity. Quality, in terms of what influences endure, is how to judge an empire’s contribution to the world. The British Empire’s legacy is one that has had a positive effect on the lives of billions.
It’s ironic to watch people complain and condemn, in English, the British Empire and its colonies in a medium invented by an Englishman (the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee).
It’s reminiscent of that sketch in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which the rebel leader asks the question, “What have the Romans ever done for us?!”
One by one the answers come: the aqueduct, sanitation and public health, the roads, irrigation, medicine, education, the wine (very popular), public baths, public safety, and peace.
Of course it’s true that there were terrible events, cruel people, catastrophic errors of judgement and other examples of the corruption of the human soul but then there were all these things in every empire before or since.
If the British Empire is to be judged only on these aspects then so must every other one and it’s surprising just how many there have been.
The capacity for cruelty and barbarism at one end of the spectrum, and spiritual, artistic, and scientific achievement at the other end is something that all humans possess.
The net result is that the British Empire may not have lasted the longest but it was the biggest (23.8% of the world’s land area) and its influence is being felt all over the world today, and that’s likely to continue for many years ahead.
The list of British inventions is long and comprehensive. It covers just about every aspect of human life. If you want a more detailed list you can divide this down into lists of English, Scottish, and Welsh inventions.
All the above are practical things. They are inventions that have contributed to the worlds of engineering, medicine, agriculture, science, technology etc.
They have enhanced people’s lives making them better and more productive. They have enriched and improved the lives of billions.
The list of inventions don’t take into account Britain’s contribution to the world in terms of everything from art, culture, music, government, architecture, and language, to sports, the postal service, and sense of humour.
The English parliamentary and judicial systems were adopted and absorbed by many former colonies. English is the first language of over 400 million people. It’s also spoken and understood by about 1.5 billion people around the world.
Oh, and let’s not forget what we won the Battle of Britain and held out against the Nazis when the rest of Europe was under the jackboot.
Despite all this, mention the British Empire anywhere and you’re likely to provoke some vitriol from those obsessed by the Slave Trade. Briton’s make an easy target for these arguments because we are, generally speaking, open and honest about our country’s past.
However, the people who cannot see anything else but this part of our history are often the same ones who seem unable to confront the Arab nations about their participation in the northern and eastern African slave trades.
Nor can they admit to the uncomfortable truth that many Africans become wealthy by participating in the slave trades with both the Europeans and the Arabs.
It should be apparent, even if it is only grudgingly admitted by some, that the net result is of British Empire’s legacy is one of enormous good to the world.
It is recognition of this combined with the long and fascinating history of Britain from the Stone Age to the present that makes me proud to be British.
It is also what draws millions of tourists to visit Britain each year to marvel at our landmarks, whether they were built 500 or 5,000 years ago.
In the years to come that influence will continue to reverberate around the world but it’s not a series of waning ripples from a past event. It is a strong pulse emanating from the beating heart of Albion as it continues to grow and develop as a nation.
Sometimes when I can’t get to sleep I don’t count sheep but instead I go through an alphabetical list of Native American tribes. It usually starts well; Apache, Arapaho, Apsaroke, Assininboine…I falter on the B’s; Brulé Sioux…but the C’s are quite easy; Creek, Cree, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Comanche, and Crow (though that’s cheating a bit because the Crow are the Apsaroke).
I’m usually asleep long before I get to zzzzzz…Zuni
Several decades ago I read a couple of dozen books about Native Americans:
A small charity based in Leeds called The Onaway Trust acted as a focal point for those of us concerned with the plight of modern day Native Americans and when the pay packet allowed I would send off a small cheque.
In return they supplied journals containing articles about the continuing struggles most notably the (at the time) recent armed siege at Wounded Knee in 1973. From these we learned about the American Indian Movement (AIM) and of people like Dennis Banks and Russell Means.
In about 1980 Russell Means came over to the UK to give a few talks to small audiences at universities and colleges and I jumped at the chance to attend. He was accompanied by Floyd Red Crow Westerman who opened the proceedings by singing some songs. After the interval we listened in respectful silence while Means gave his talk on the ongoing struggles of Native Americans in a world of injustice and hostility.
We have reservations about our reservations
Recently the world has witnessed how the many Native American tribes and others have gathered together on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in a way not see for generations to protest the threat to clean water and the encroachment on ancient tribal lands of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
With a hugely impressive display of dignity, forbearance, and non-violent protest in the face of extreme provocation (tear gas, dogs, rubber bullets, water canon, tasers) they appear to have been successful in halting the progress of the black snake.
The pride felt by these people for their cultural identity is self evident. At the same time Europeans think less of tribalism and more about a homogeneous whole: a multicultural, border-less utopia in which diversity is celebrated and everyone is equal (but not the same).
Come with me to the winged isle
Northern father’s western child
Where the dance of ages is playing still
Through far marches of acres wild
European tribes have been confined to the controlled spaces of folklore and historical study lest they stir up feelings of patriotism and (horror of horrors) national pride. Reveal your interest in Norse gods outside academia and sport a tribal tattoo and you’re likely to be viewed with some suspicion as some kind of racial supremacist.
We’ve learned to mock or even fear our own heritage. King Arthur didn’t exist! St.George was Turk! Faery Lore is dangerous! How sophisticated we have become in our modern multicultural mish-mash.
We love to learn about other tribes and agree to respect their culture and traditions, but we’re less celebratory and even a bit embarrassed about our own ancestry and tribal heritage.
According to many the Europeans screwed up the world and created all the problems inherited by the current generations. When it’s pointed out that our ancestors behaved arguably much better and certainly no worse than many other civilizations past and present these simple facts falls on deaf ears. One should never let the facts of history interfere with the current trend for hand-wringing apologies.
If you’re a white Briton the likelihood is that your DNA contains a combination of Western European, Scandinavian, Ancient Briton, and Mediterranean, with traces from further like the Near East or North Africa. We know this because DNA testing proves what the history books have taught us about successive invasions and migrations.
The blood of the British contains elements inherited from over twenty different tribes, Celts, Romans, Vikings, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, and Normans etc as well as any slaves and camp followers that came with them.
It’s all there in your DNA, like a dormant software program ready to be brought to life with the right combination of circumstances, or perhaps it will remain asleep and you’ll simply pass on the heritage to your children.
How did it get there?
Whether it was military invasion or waves of migration the melting pot of DNA was created through procreation.
Integration came about through intermingling and intermarriage.
Our ancestors got along (eventually) because they got it on with each other.
So when we consider that in 2005 Trevor Phillips warned that the UK was sleepwalking into segregation and that the recently published Casey Review confirms that segregation is now at ‘worrying levels’ it raises all kinds of questions that as yet have no answers.
For integration to occur people have to relax, keep and open mind, and respect differences but if your culture suggests that you are superior to others then that will never happen.
You will continue to see yourself as better than them. You are highly unlikely to celebrate your son’s betrothal to an outsider or to marry off your daughters to someone of a difference culture and religion. Your cultural beliefs may prohibit same sex relationships and condemn all kinds of lifestyles that are accepted within other tribes.
For some generations to come Europe will continue to be divided along cultural and tribal lines. We are long way off from being fully integrated. The only way to make any progress towards integration (assuming that is the goal and not everyone agrees that it is the desirable outcome) is to drop the orthodoxy and conservatism that isolates one tribe from all others.
Tribes and cultures that have a live and let live attitude with a little intermingling and marriage at the edges are the best hope for Europe.
Can we talk of integration until there is integration of hearts and minds? Unless you have this, you only have a physical presence, and the walls between us are as high as the mountain range.