Since Niall Ferguson first published Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World almost two decades ago, there has been a remarkable resurgence of jingoistic Empire nostalgia in Britain, a trend that has gained renewed impetus with Brexit and as part of the current so-called “culture-war”.

Take for instance the controversy over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, which has become an unlikely rallying point for those of a more conservative persuasion. Rhodes’ modern-day supporters insist that was a great man whose memory should be honoured, and that removing his statue would be tantamount to the erasure of history.

Cecil Rhodes, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890s. Photo credit: Unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rhodes was furthermore no racist, we are told. Yet such a claim is difficult to reconcile with his deep commitment to white supremacy and lifelong dream of Anglo-Saxon world domination.

“I contend that we are the finest race in the world”, he famously wrote in his “Confession of Faith” while at Oxford, “and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at the present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…”

This was no youthful folly, as has been claimed, but a guiding principle in Rhodes’ racist creed and one that he reasserted time and again throughout his life. In an 1894-speech before the Cape House Parliament, he stated that “if the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall be thankful that we have the natives in their proper place”.

Having built a personal fortune in South Africa’s diamond mines, Rhodes set up a private company to extend British control into Matabeleland, which was annexed after a brief but brutal war. The Maxim machine gun was here deployed for the first time and proved so deadly that its inventor, Sir Hiram Maxim, used eyewitness accounts as advertisement: “We could see hundreds of niggers mowed down like wheat before a scythe.”

When the Ndebele and Shona people later rebelled against Rhodes’ company in 1896, he waged a merciless war against the entire population, using dynamite from his mines to blow up caves where local civilians had taken refuge. One of his men described an instance when “the women and children came out, and awful sights they were. The cave was evidently a small one and they had been thrown against the rocks and were all covered with blood and the dynamite had skinned them or burned the skin off their bodies”.

The indiscriminate violence unleashed by Rhodes’ forces was not so far from that which the Germans resorted to less than a decade later during the first genocide of the 20th century in present-day Namibia.

Even during his own lifetime, Rhodes was a highly controversial figure, and he was obsessed about securing his own legacy, which is precisely why he donated so generously to places like Oxford and established the Rhodes Scholarship. When people today rally to the defence of his statue, they are accordingly doing exactly what Rhodes intended: celebrating him for his philanthropic work, while ignoring his record of racism, brutality and exploitation.

The inevitable argument is, of course, that we should not judge the past according to our modern standards and that despite any shortcomings, Rhodes did much good.

Mahabharata to Marx

Yet the very notion of judging the past, as Priya Satia reminds us in her brilliant new book Time’s Monster, was always part and parcel of how the imperial project legitimised itself. Rather than being a critical endeavour, Satia shows how history as a discipline has, in the past as much as the present, been complicit in the imperial project by “making it ethically thinkable” and, ultimately, by providing a powerfully exculpatory narrative.

Time’s Monster is not only a sweeping account of the British Empire over the past three centuries, but also an ambitious intellectual history, touching on everything from the Mahabharata to Marx, and from Shakespeare to Said.

It begins with the gun-manufacturing Quaker Samuel Galton in the 18th century and ends with anti-Brexit protests in 2019. One of Satia’s key aims is to expose and dissect the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of liberal imperialism and the conceit of British exceptionalism: namely, that the Empire had as its primary function to uplift colonial subjects and spread the blessings of western civilisation to the far-flung corners of the world.

Dichotomies between ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’

The racial hierarchies that underpinned the notion of “The White Man’s Burden”, as Kipling described it, made it a moral obligation for the British to civilize those they considered as “savages” – yet at the same time made it inconceivable that those “savages” could ever really “catch up” and be considered as equals, culturally or biologically.

At no point were the British actually going to declare “civilising mission accomplished” and simply hand back control to their colonial subjects. Which is why, when decolonisation eventually did take place, it was the result of anti-colonial resistance, economic concerns and changing global politics.

Indeed, the brutal and drawn-out conflicts in Kenya, Malaya or Ireland gives the lie to the prevalent myth of Britain’s “peaceful retreat” from Empire. The British ruled through coercion rather than consent, and the truth is that the benign rhetoric of paternalism and reform only ever served to provide a veneer of respectability on what was otherwise outright oppression and exploitation. So how is it that the British Empire can still be considered “overwhelmingly a force for good in the world?” How can someone like Cecil Rhodes still be celebrated as a great man in the 21st century?

The answer, Satia argues, may be found in the particular understanding of history and notion of progress that underpinned Empire. This ethical outlook was rooted in both classical and Enlightenment ideas of time as linear and history as an inherently moral force “moving irresistibly forward”.

Civilisations that failed to evolve were doomed to decay, while people deemed to be without any civilisation at all were simply left behind. This goes some way to explain the 19th-century British obsession with the fall of the Roman Empire, as reflected in Gibbon’s work, which was read as a cautionary tale but in the firm belief that they would succeed where others before them had failed.

This was essentially the idea of the survival of the fittest applied to the realm of human civilisation, and once race science gained prominence, hierarchies of biological difference were indeed easily mapped onto pre-existing dichotomies between “civilised” and “uncivilised”.

For great white men like Rhodes to rule over darker-skinned races was seen as a natural right and the way things were supposed to be. The unfolding of history was, in other words, considered a judgement in itself. At the high-point of Empire, historians in the Whig tradition could thus in teleological fashion argue that Britain was the culmination of civilisation and the measure by which progress was to be defined.

The more insidious implication of this logic was that wars, famines and massacres could be justified simply as “collateral damage”. Tragic yet unavoidable, and in some ways even necessary to ensure the onward march of civilisation. When the pretence of benign imperialism became increasingly unsustainable, the history of Empire was simply rewritten to account for any diversion from the path of progress.

A narrative of redemption thus became central to this history, as abolition was presented as making up for slavery, or the suppression of widow-burning in India cancelling out previous decades of greed and corruption by East India Company officials.

Thus the idea of the civilising mission was born, yet what mattered was the avowal of altruism and good intentions, rather than the actual outcome or practical implications of reformist policies (freed slaves were not simply set free, and widow-burning was a relatively rare occurrence, but one that made headlines etc).

If great men acting as agents of progress had made the Empire, their corollary – the not-so-great men – turned out to be equally important when corruption and massacres were undeniable and scandals unavoidable. Whether it was the impeachment of Warren Hastings in the late 18th century, the trial of Governor Eyre in the 19th, or the condemnation of General Dyer after the Amritsar massacre in 1919, public examples were thus made of individuals who were deemed to have “let the side down” and failed to live up to the moral standards expected of an Englishman.

This was quite explicit when Winston Churchill denounced Dyer in 1920, describing the massacre of hundreds of Indian civilians as “a monstruous event which stands in singular and sinister isolation” and as “foreign to the British way of doing things”. Dyer was singled out as a “rotten apple” and the violence explained away as an exception that proved the rule of liberal imperialism.

This focus on the individual has also meant that racism has all too often been presented merely as a personal characteristic, or regretful lapse of character. The real issue, however, is not whether General Dyer, for instance, personally hated Indians, but the indisputable fact that he was not unique in either outlook or action.

The figure of the “rogue officer” nevertheless allowed for the disavowal of violence and racism as incidental and episodic rather than intrinsic to imperialism itself. The ubiquity of racialised violence, from everyday beatings of servants to large-scale massacres, is thus deliberately downplayed or simply erased from the history of the Empire.

If British imperialism was a vehicle for progress, and progress is both inevitable and objectively good, then it follows that the Empire – though it might suffer setbacks or momentarily lose its moral bearings – always remained essentially a force for good. The idea of progress and historical providence sustained the imperial project, providing a powerful moral alibi that has never really lost its grip on the British imagination.

Satia’s engaging exploration of the historical thinking of Empire brings into focus something very important – something all too often lost in the deliberate obfuscation of the confected “culture wars” of today. Current debates about the Empire and its legacies are not actually debates about historical facts or different interpretations of the past, which is after all the bread and butter of the historian’s craft.

Instead, they are the result of radically different, and largely incompatible, historical imaginaries. If you subscribe to the conventional narrative of history as progress, then any critique of the British Empire, or calls for decolonisation, reparations etc, are prima facie invalid. Demands for the return of looted artefacts to former colonies likewise makes no sense if Western museums is where you think they rightfully belong, simply by virtue of having ended up there.

This has, in fact, become a normative historical outlook, which means that critical scholarship exploring, for example, racialised violence, or revealing links to slavery, is all too often dismissed simply as “biased” or “woke” – not because it is factually incorrect, but because it challenges the very worldview that so many take for granted.

Balance-sheet approach

Realising this also helps make sense of the oft-repeated line about railways and the Raj, which is patently nonsensical since the British did not conquer the Indian subcontinent in order to build railways, and the ones they did build were primarily for their own benefit.

The railway-network first established in the aftermath of the 1857 Uprising was first and foremost intended for the speedy transportation of troops, that is, for defensive purposes, which is why many train-stations were built as veritable fortifications.

Secondly, the railways were used to extract resources and increase British profits, while also enabling foodstuffs being shipped back to Britain at critical moments while Indians starved. The refrain, “but what about the railways…”, however, does not actually refer to steam-powered locomotion but serves simply as a shorthand for progress and is thus considered self-evidently good.

This line of reasoning, it may be noted, merely regurgitates century-old talking points and with no questioning of who gets to decide what “good” means, or for whom these blessing of western civilisation were supposed to be an unalloyed “good”. The Empire is long gone, but Britain never underwent a process of decolonisation and now all that is left are the phantom-pains of former greatness and an outdated worldview.

The so-called balance-sheet approach is not, and never was, a genuine tool for historical analysis. Instead, it was always intended as a way to deflect critique and redeem the Empire. The flip-side to this narrative, namely the insistence that the Empire was simply “bad” rather than “good”, or that the British today should feel “shame” rather than “pride”, is by the same token not conducive to a deeper historical understanding either.

This critique simply tallies the balance-sheet differently, with imperialism coming up short, but does not ultimately challenge the basic premise of historical judgement. In order to move beyond this conceptual impasse, Satia argues, new ways of looking at history is required.

It is not only that the conventional narrative of great men and historical progress is ill-suited to adequately reflect the nuances and complexities of the past in a meaningful way. It actively hinders the consideration of other potential historical approaches and thus excludes different historical vantage points.

There has always been, as Satia reminds us, religious and philosophical traditions in which time is not considered linear but cyclical, and where man’s own actions, rather than some abstract notion of providence, determines his fate. And as long as there have been apologists of Empire, there have been dissenting voices challenging the moral grounds on which conquest was justified, including radical visionary William Blake and founding member of the Arts and Craft movement, William Morris.

The British anti-imperialist tradition, recently explored in Priyamvada Gopal’s excellent book Insurgent Empire, in fact, remains a powerful antidote to the chest-thumping jingoism we have come to expect from the likes of Kipling & Co.

A counter-narrative

The counter-narratives that emerged as part of the anti-colonial struggle of the 20th century, formulated by Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Frantz Fanon and others, offer yet more historical visions that directly reject western notions of progress and modernity.

The past indeed looks very different once we change our perspective, as global historians have long argued, and take into consideration a wider range of different experiences. Ultimately, Satia makes an impassioned case not to let the very definition of history be written by the victors.

This does not mean dispensing with academic rigour or indulging in some sort of historical relativism. Rather, it entails moving beyond an essentially moral framework embedded within an explicitly Eurocentric perspective.

Time’s Monster will prove uncomfortable reading for those who remain deeply invested in the myth of British exceptionalism embodied in historical figures such as Cecil Rhodes. And their inevitable response will be that he was simply “a man of his time”. Everyone is, of course, a product of their time, including Rhodes’ contemporaries who vociferously denounced him.

“What he called his ideals were the dregs of Darwinism”, the writer GK Chesterton stated, adding that “it was exactly because he had no ideas to spread that he invoked slaughter, violated justice, and ruined republics to spread them”. The people at the receiving end of colonialism, no less a product of their time but usually excluded from this argument, might also be expected to have held radically different views from that of their coloniser.

In 1902, the year of Rhodes’s death, Joseph Conrad’s classic exposé of the brutality of European imperialism in Africa, Heart of Darkness, was first published in book-form. While Rhodes still fantasised about Anglo-Saxon world-domination on his deathbed, Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, argued that “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. In the end, however, Marlow’s courage fails him and instead he lies to Kurtz’s Beloved, thereby preserving her faith in the nobility of the civilising mission.

In Time’s Monster, Satia does what Conrad’s narrator could not – she tells the truth about the Empire and reveal the “redeeming idea” for what it really is. A cruel conceit, that Kurtz himself had to face with his dying words. Skillfully dissecting the narrative of progress that undergirds the case for Empire, Satia nevertheless offers her own path to redemption.

This urgent and compelling book encourages us to listen to different voices, to tell different stories, and ultimately to rethink what it means to be a historian and to engage critically and imaginatively with the past.

The author is a Professor of Global and Imperial History, Queen Mary University of London.

This article first appeared on Kim A Wagner’s blog.

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire, Allen Lane.