Nowhere within the British Empire were black people passive victims. On the contrary, they were everywhere active resisters.

Peter Fryer, Black People in the Empire: An Introduction

On 4 August 1857, some three months after the commencement of the insurgency in India, though it is unlikely he was aware of it at the time, the former slave and American abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, in New York State, felicitating a different revolutionary moment. Nearly twenty-five years before, in ‘one complete transaction of vast and sublime significance’, slaves in the British West Indies had finally been deemed human beings, restored to their rightful stature as free men and women. Three decades after the 1807 abolition of the British slave trade, often confused with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Britain’s human chattel on the vast sugar and cotton plantations of the West Indies had officially ceased to be slaves, though they would remain compulsorily apprenticed to their owners for another five years. In the United States, however, slavery still flourished – as indeed it did in other parts of the world such as Brazil, where it carried on to the end of that century. Douglass was speaking to fellow abolitionists, gathered in Rochester to commemorate the West India Emancipation, and he took pains to contrast Britain’s significant achievement with the ‘devilish brutality’ he saw around him in a formally democratic and republican land. The act of abolition, deriving though it did from ‘the moral sky of Britain’, had universal ramifications since, Douglass insisted, it ‘belongs not exclusively to insurgent empire England and English people, but to lovers of Liberty and mankind everywhere’.

Douglass’s speech paid due homage to the august ranks of British abolitionists. For those who had claimed that only Englishmen could ‘properly celebrate’ the West Indian Emancipation, he had a message: in that case all those who love freedom can ‘claim to be Englishmen, Englishmen in the love of Justice and Liberty, Englishmen in magnanimous efforts to protect the weak against the strong and the slave against the slaveholder’. Thereafter, however, his speech took a curious turn. Douglass had also to counter the charge, made by some of his fellow American blacks, that to commemorate the West Indian Emancipation was to celebrate the achievements of others, specifically the deeds of white people, ‘a race by which we are despised’. In a two-pronged response, Douglass noted that, while in the North American struggle against slavery, ‘we, the coloured people’ had not yet played a significant role, this was not the case with Emancipation in the British West Indies. To the extent that they had been able to, the ‘rebellious chattel’ in Britain’s Caribbean colonies had strenuously resisted their oppression, and so ‘a share of the credit of the result falls justly to the slaves themselves’. It is this insight that then leads Douglass to make his famous pronouncement: ‘The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.’ With an irony he was probably unaware of at the time – news of the Indian ‘Mutiny’ was only slowly making its way to and around Europe and America – Douglass quietly observed that some white abolitionists actively discouraged black initiative, expecting black abolitionists to ‘fight like the Sepoys of India, under white officers’. This, Douglass says, must not deter him and others who would struggle for their own freedom; it is ‘no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats’. As he was speaking, of course, the ‘sepoys’ had, in fact, risen against their white officers in a bloody insurgency that would alter the shape of the British Empire for good, ending the rule of the marauding East India Company in the subcontinent as the Crown took over full governance of British India.

Priyamvada Gopal Insurgent Empire

Well over the century and a half since Douglass gave that speech, the notion that freedom from both slavery and imperial rule emerged thanks to the benevolence of the rulers continues to exercise a tenacious hold within certain influential strands of British imperial history and in the popular imagination. Both abolition and decolonization – twin outcomes of Britain’s expansionary colonial project over three centuries – are all too frequently regarded as deriving chiefly from the campaigning consciences of white British reformers or as the logical outcome of the liberal and liberalizing project that empire ostensibly always was, conquering in order to free. Despite an abundance of histories of resistance, and not only from a nationalist perspective, which make clear the constitutive role of resistance to the imperial project, ‘imperial initiative’ – colonies ‘given’ their freedom when they were deemed ready for it – as the motive force of decolonization remains stubbornly entrenched in much political and public discourse in Britain. Where, for Douglass, the story of Emancipation specifically, and freedom more generally, was one of universal aspiration and shared struggles, in its most influential and popular versions it continues to be figured as a capacious British, or now Anglo-American, franchise generously extended to peoples across the globe. Edward Said observed correctly that ‘a standard imperialist misrepresentation has it that exclusively Western ideas of freedom led the fight against colonial rule, which mischievously overlooks the reserves in Indian and Arab culture that always resisted imperialism, and claims the fight against imperialism as one of imperialism’s major triumphs’. Writing in the 1930s, G. M. Trevelyan, Regius professor of history at Cambridge, understood such extensions to be ‘pre-eminently a result of our free institutions, our freedom of speech and association, and all that habit of voluntaryism and private initiative’. Today, where imperial initiative is not actively given the credit for decolonization, we are offered the claim, here articulated by David Cannadine, that the Empire was ‘given away in a fit of collective indifference’. John Darwin, meanwhile, paraphrases that school of thought in terms of the notion that ‘the British colonial empire was liberated more by the indifference of its masters than the struggles of its subjects’. In either event, the ‘granting’ or ‘giving’ of independence to British colonies once they were deemed ‘ready’ for it, remains a cause for national self-congratulation; it fits neatly into an equally familiar establishment mythology about ‘English capacities to reform without violence or rejecting valuable past practice’. Like all mythologies, this too relies on the selective elision of key strands in the story.

Read exclusive interview of Priyamvada Gopal, the author of Insurgent Empire

Such accounts – which, of course, draw on a longer tradition of Whig historiography – typically figure the geopolitical West as rolling on inexorably towards greater freedom, the darker nations taught to follow in its wake. Influential popular right-wing historians such as Niall Ferguson have coined clunky neologisms like ‘Anglobalization’ which enshrine the pre-eminence of the British Empire as a positive force leading the world towards this hypothetical state of total freedom, an epic in which the Empire rises and falls, only to open out onto greater vistas of liberty. As the historian Victor Kiernan has observed, the word ‘freedom’ carries a racialized inflection, ‘easier made into a parrot-cry than defined, and Westerners boast now of being free very much as not long ago they boasted of being white’. In actuality, freedom from British rule was the end result of hard-fought struggles and different kinds of negotiation, historical processes which unfolded over a long period of time. As the Empire expanded from the slave colonies of the Caribbean to encompass the settler colonies of North America, Australia and New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent and large swathes of Africa, it was met with different kinds of resistance, both peaceful and violent, sometimes taking the form of mutinies, revolts and wars, and at others of civil disobedience and passive resistance. This much is not in question outside the most retrograde circles, even if there is disagreement about the extent to which such events actually had an impact on or effected eventual decolonization. While the work of such counter-historians of slavery and empire as Herbert Aptheker, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, C. L. R. James, Robin Blackburn, Terence Ranger, Hilary Beckles, Gelien Matthews, Richard Gott, John Newsinger, Stephen Howe and Antoinette Burton, to name just a few, has shown comprehensively that the history of the British Empire is also the history of resistance to it, and – importantly, from both beyond and within Britain – such resistance is still not central to the writing of British imperial history. ‘The trouble with British imperial histories’, Burton has noted recently, ‘is that they are not written with dissent and disruption in the lead’, even though ‘the very character of imperial power was shaped by its challengers and by the trouble they made for its stewards.’ The familiar ‘rise-and-fall’ model is indeed misleading, suggesting a long period of stability followed by a sudden end, whereas the maintenance of imperial rule in fact required constant vigilance and frequently forceful responses to resistance.

The Old Plantation: An American folk art watercolour depicting slaves, South Carolina, 18th Century

On the other side of the coin, much attention, within both imperial historiography and postcolonial literary studies, has been paid to the ways in which colonial subjects took up British ideas and turned them against empire, ‘writing back’ or ‘striking back’ when making claims to freedom and self-determination – the now well-worn ‘Caliban’ model, as it were, of a language learned from and deployed against the colonizer. Originally theorized by the Latin American critic Roberto Fernández Retamar, the idea has now been generalized beyond recognition and its original historical usage. As an abstract paradigm it is vulnerable to being read as a version of an idea familiar to imperial historians whereby anticolonial nationalism was the result of ‘the tendency of the colonial rulers themselves to construct political institutions which could then be captured by local politicians and used against their masters’. Also invoking the figure of Caliban – Shakespeare’s slave who learned language from his master, Prospero, and then used it to curse his enslavement – Jan Nederveen Pieterse notes: ‘The most commonly observed form of dialectics of imperialism is the dialectics of assimilation, particularly as regards education … [This] reared a colonial intelligentsia who absorbed the Western ideals of liberty and patriotism and put them in the service of national awakening.’ However, while Pieterse himself is attuned to it, in general the possibility of reverse impact – including reverse appropriation and reworking – either has been curiously sidelined or is, at best, invoked notionally. In fact, read carefully, a substantial archive points clearly to the existence of such reverse influence, particularly
in relation to the emergence of British criticism of empire – too often read, in Whig mode, as a simple outcropping of a home-grown liberalism.

What would happen if, in something akin to the ‘spirit of dialectics’ which informs Susan Buck-Morss’s exploration of the Haitian Revolution’s influence on Hegel, we explored the possibility that Britain’s enslaved and colonial subjects were not merely victims of this nation’s imperial history and subsequent beneficiaries of its crises of conscience, but rather agents whose resistance not only contributed to their own liberation but also put pressure on and reshaped some British ideas about freedom and who could be free? We might even ask whether the idea of Britain’s uniquely liberal Empire, which was humanitarian in conception and had the liberation of its conquered subjects as its ultimate goal, might itself have been, at least in part, a response to the claims to humanity, freedom and self-determination made by those very subjects. One axis, though not the only one, along which this question can be explored is that of dissent around the question of empire in Britain, with dissidents variously referred to as ‘critics of empire’, ‘imperial sceptics’ or British ‘anticolonialists’. We know, of course, that not only was there significant diversity in attitudes to the Empire within the metropole, but also, at various moments, interrogation of and even opposition to the imperial project itself. In recent decades, a small number of distinguished historians have produced an important body of work fleshing out the activities and impact of imperial dissidents. They include, most importantly, Stephen Howe, to whose foundational Anticolonialism in British Politics this work, particularly the later chapters, is indebted. Significant additional contributions to scholarship detailing the nature of domestic criticism of aspects of empire have also been made by Gregory Claeys, Nicholas Owen and Mira Matikkala. While between them these works offer an impressive and substantial account of the existence and importance of British dissent on the question of empire over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they do not examine in any depth the vital relationship between anticolonial resistance in the periphery and the emergence of such dissent in the metropole. In his unsparing account of colonial repression and violence, John Newsinger has discussed the ways in which ‘radicals and socialists in Britain organised, demonstrated and protested in solidarity with … resistance movements’ in the colonies, noting rightly that the likes of Ernest Jones, the Chartist leader, are part of a proud British anti-imperialist tradition. But it is important to account also for the ways in which that tradition was influenced and shaped by anticolonial insurgency and anticolonial agents (including campaigners and intellectuals). As we shall see in Chapter 1, the Indian uprising of 1857 fired Jones’s imagination, distinctly shaping his criticism of the imperial project, and leading him to go as far as to urge British working people, whose own struggles were flagging, to learn from the Indian rebels. The emergence of metropolitan dissent on colonial questions alongside liberation struggles in the colonies, Insurgent Empire argues, was a dialogical and, at times, dialectical process in which the lines of influence can be seen to go in both directions.

Priyamvada Gopal
Priyamvada Gopal, author of Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent

To examine the extent to which awareness of rebellion and resistance in the colonies, and in due course contact with anticolonial figures, shaped British domestic criticism of empire, which eventually grew from occasional dissent into a more full-throated anticolonialism, is to overturn the still prevalent emphasis on political and intellectual influence as radiating outwards from the imperial centre towards the periphery. It is to interrogate the tenacious assumption that the most significant conceptions of ‘freedom’ are fundamentally ‘Western’ in provenance, albeit open to subversive appropriation by the colonized. A closer look at the archives indicates that, in the contexts of both antislavery and anticolonialism, ‘freedom’ was a contested concept, its content emerging dialogically, determined through experience and struggle. The rebels of Morant Bay in 1865, for instance, challenged the notion that they were being ‘emancipated’ from slavery into wage labour, insisting instead on different labour practices. Nearly a century later, for many Kenyan resisters and insurgents in the period following the Second World War, self-determination involved not individualism but collective land-ownership as manifested in a struggle for ‘Land and Freedom’. Such contestations, I suggest, were not without impact on metropolitan ideologies and practices. Without merely replicating the inversions of nationalist histories, Insurgent Empire shows how specific states of subjection and struggles against them were fundamental to how freedom – and cognate concepts like ‘liberation’, ‘self-determination’ and ‘emancipation’ – were understood and asserted both by insurgents on the ground and by their interpreters in the diaspora, influencing, in turn, how it was understood and reframed in the imperial centre. As Timothy Brennan notes of anticolonial thought in the peripheries, the very fact of colonialism entailed that the ideas at hand would ‘include (inevitably, though not exclusively) those from Europe’. Without pretending that the field could ever have been level or the lines of influence simply reciprocal given the constitutive power differential, this book suggests that there was also an anticolonial impact from outside Europe on metropolitan thought – specifically, though not only, on British dissent around and criticism of the colonial project. Resistance to the colonial project in several parts of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helped shape criticism of and opposition to the imperial project within Britain itself. That influence was not necessarily always ideational, best assessed using the tools of intellectual history; it was often exercised through struggle and by crises occasioned by insurgency.

Palestinian cultural mural in honour of Edward Said

Insurgent Empire argues that there were heterogeneous but not unconnected arcs of criticism of empire that can be said to constitute a dissident and frequently outright anticolonial inheritance in Britain forged over more than a century. It examines, first, some nineteenth century critical engagements with empire in the wake of rebellions and unrest; and, second, the emergence of more explicitly left-wing and internationalist anticolonialism in the twentieth century. Two major nineteenth-century crises of rule – the 1857 uprising in India and the 1865 rebellion of former slaves in Morant Bay – had important consequences for many of a liberal or radical bent in Britain. Through the fog of racialized imperial righteousness that enveloped the public sphere, these crises and the controversies they generated allowed for a rebel consciousness to be discerned, acknowledged and interpreted, even if only through newsprint and parliamentary papers. Having troubled liberal hierarchies of ‘freedom’ in which elite white Englishmen were its most ardent and deserving devotees, these crises then cleared the ground for common cause to be made with some radicals, like Jones, drawing parallels between colonial insurgencies and working-class resistance. In the case of the Positivist Richard Congreve, it formed the basis for a working-class (and interestingly also female) rejection of the imperial project. At the fin de siècle, several politically inclined travellers to antique lands under British rule arrived into milieus of ‘unrest’, finding themselves not the dispensers but the subjects of political tutelage, learning from what they witnessed, shifting their views, and even being radicalized in the process. From the years following the First World War, this process of what I call ‘reverse tutelage’ was furthered by the presence of strong anticolonial black and Asian voices within the metropole, who took on the function of interpreters between British dissidents and the millions who were resisting being governed by Britain. The ‘interdependence of cultural terrains in which colonizer and colonized coexisted and battled each other’, to use Edward Said’s formulation, is examined in this study through the lens of resistance and response – specifically the response of those inclined to interrogate the imperial consensus. British national self-conceptions, particularly those to do with a love of liberty, certainly drew on existing domestic traditions; but as the Empire expanded through the long nineteenth century into the first half of the twentieth century, these conceptions were also subject to the pressures created by resistance to that Empire. When these moments of discernment are set alongside the growing contact between domestic critics of empire and anticolonialists from Britain’s vast sphere of colonial possessions and influence, it becomes clear that the development of ideas of freedom in the context of empire did indeed involve lines of influence in both directions, if unevenly so, since ‘it was not the struggle of same with same’. Said rightly notes that, without ‘metropolitan doubts and opposition, the characters, idiom, and very structure of native resistance to imperialism would have been different’. Those doubts and opposition were moulded in turn by native resistance – a point Said makes but does not elaborate in any detail: ‘Opposition to empire in London and Paris was affected by resistance offered in Delhi and Algiers.’ In assessing this relationship, both British imperial historiography and postcolonial literary studies have left work to be done.

British ruleColonialismDissentGreat BritainInsurgent EmpireRevolution

Tweet this

An exclusive excerpt from the Introduction of Priyamvada Gopal’s latest book, ‘Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent’
Enemies of Empire