Americans are celebrating their nation’s independence from imperial rule this fourth-of-July weekend. But the way many people in the US understand their country’s historical relationship with the British Empire is puzzling.
During Barack Obama’s time in office, there has been the periodic accusation that the president holds his Kenyan father’s “anti-colonial” views. This claim has been a favourite of both American conservatives like Dinesh D’Souza and the UK’s Boris Johnson. Some Americans seem to be fans of the British Empire.
More popular though is the anti-imperial narrative. This view surfaces regularly in everyday conversation here in the US. The idea is that Americans were the victims of British imperialism – not only that they were oppressed, but even that they were the colonised. Timothy Egan adopted this view recently in his column in the New York Times. “In rejecting our former colonial masters, we threw off monarchy, the class system and a state religion,” he wrote in an opinion piece about Donald Trump and Brexit on July 1.
“Our former colonial masters” is a curious choice of phrase. It suggests a slide from “we left the British empire” to “we left the British Empire as a colonised people”. It implies that Americans identify with the surge of anti-imperialism that shook the world in the mid-twentieth century. India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and Burma gained their independence in 1947-'48. In the 1950s and '60s, another wave of exits from the British Empire swept across Africa.
Asian and African independence from British rule came after a century or more of colonialism, best defined as the extraction of labour, commodities and profits from the colony for the benefit of the imperial metropole and elites in the colony. In his 1940 letter to Adolf Hitler, MK Gandhi called the British Empire “the most organised violence in the world”. These were long and bloody struggles, and the fight against white racism was right at their heart.
It is odd to hear Americans liken their anti-imperial moment to those of mid-century Asia and Africa, even implicitly. To be sure, American colonists were taxed without representation at oppressive levels during the eighteenth century. Thousands lost their lives in the struggle against imperial rule during the American Revolution. But there was no notion of racial difference between these white Americans and the British imperialists they resisted. These Americans were hardly a colonised people. They were the local colonisers who had fallen out with those up the power ladder back in Britain.
There were two different kinds of struggles against the imperial centre. Most anti-imperial projects pitted colonised, non-white populations against their British colonisers. The other type was more unusual. Here, local white administrators in the colony broke away from their bosses in the imperial metropole.
This was the story of Rhodesia. During the 1960s as much of Africa was cutting ties with the British Empire, the white minority government of the colony of Southern Rhodesia declared independence from Britain. The de facto state of Rhodesia struggled for international recognition from its creation in 1965 until 1980, when it became Zimbabwe under an elected African head of state (the now notorious Robert Mugabe). Early independent America had little else in common with Rhodesia or Zimbabwe. But America’s exit from the British Empire was more like Rhodesia’s in 1965 than like what happened in India in 1947.
For American anti-imperialism to look like South Asia’s, the oppressed would have been a different group of people. An American Revolution by the colonised would have been led by indigenous peoples, not by the settlers clearing them from the land.
The popular idea that Americans resisted the British Empire as if they were a colonised population is perplexing and misplaced. Americans broke with Britain not as a colonised people, but as a group of overtaxed and underrepresented settlers who were themselves busily colonising others. This was an internal disagreement between local colonisers and the people at imperial HQ. If we’re going to suggest parallels, it will have to be with Rhodesia. And as the #RhodesMustFall movement reminds us, that one is probably best avoided.
Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian of British India. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison.