Britain’s belated reckoning with imperial crimes

Britain could not have won World War II without the massive exploitation and abuse it unleashed on its colonies.

Al Jazeera Soldiers of the Empire op-ed photo

On February 13, Al Jazeera English released a documentary called, The Forgotten Heroes of Empire, which tells the story of “the UK’s scandalous neglect of its colonial-era African soldiers”.

During World War II, Britain recruited – through propaganda, coercion and promises of sizeable compensation – thousands of African soldiers to fight against Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan on some of the most brutal battlefronts across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Using historical records and witness testimonies, the Al Jazeera investigation exposed the discrimination, abuse and racism these soldiers experienced during their service and highlighted the poverty and hardship the small number of surviving veterans and their families continue to endure in their homelands to this day.

The film’s central discovery is a file buried deep in the British National Archive which reveals how the government systematically discriminated against African soldiers, paying white personnel, even those living in African colonies and serving alongside African soldiers in British colonial units, up to three times more than their black counterparts.

The revelations in the film received extensive media attention in the UK. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn called for an “urgent inquiry”, while other senior Labour Party figures lamented the “utterly reprehensible” treatment of elderly veterans demanding that the government launch an investigation into the matter, issue a formal apology and pay veterans compensation.

The Conservative government seems to believe it has already paid its dues for the shameful mistreatment of Commonwealth soldiers. Last year, it attempted to address the issue by announcing a $15m “aid package”, with the minister for international development saying the cash would be used to “provide two meals a day and regular cash transfers to 7,000 veterans and war widows who served in the British armed forces across the Commonwealth”.

However, the government made no formal apology for neglecting these veterans and their families for decades. It also shamelessly framed what should have been compensation for wage theft, coercion and use of corporal punishment on African soldiers during World War II as a benevolent expression of gratitude and contribution to “international development”.

While the current UK government’s apparent reluctance to honestly address the violations of the British Empire is disheartening, the debate the Al Jazeera film cause represents a significant and welcome shift in thinking. We have to take the opportunity to extend this conversation past World War II and the colonial army.

Historical ignorance

The racialised wage structure for soldiers serving in the British armed forces during World War II was not an aberration, as the shock expressed by prominent British politicians concerning this week’s revelation might suggest. Instead, it was the defining feature of the ruthlessly exploitative colonial labour markets through which the UK built up the capital we still benefit from today.

Across the British Empire, a primary function of the colonial administration was to terrorise and immiserate local populations so as to produce large pools of extremely cheap “native” labour.

That colonial authorities valued “European” lives more than “Asian” and “African” would have been no revelation to the British public, if it wasn’t so structurally ignorant about the historical realities of colonialism. And this ignorance continues to be propagated by politicians, historians and the media. Just a day before the Al Jazeera film was released, the Times of London published an article by prominent politician and journalist Baron Finkelstein, titled: “Even though the wartime prime minister was a lifelong white supremacist his strengths far outweigh his weaknesses.”

Finkelstein’s defence of Winston Churchill came in response to a televised debate in which his shameful role in the Bengal Famine of 1943 was discussed. Churchill has played a central role in shaping prevailing British notions of modern history. As both grand imperialist and leader during World War II, he made possible an unlikely re-framing of the British empire as a benign historical project, because he (and imperial Britain by extension) is supposed to have single-handedly “saved Western civilisation” from the greater evil of Nazism.

Such delusions about Britain’s imperial and military history remain powerful cultural narratives that help to perpetuate the ugly imperial politics of bigotry and exploitation today.

Colonial exploitation

The documents from the colonial archives that were presented in the Al Jazeera film are indeed evidence of racial discrimination in colonial Britain, but they are not unique – any colonial historian can attest that the archive is chock-full of files which detail official racial prejudice extending way beyond the army.

Like military personnel, civilians, too, were extensively abused and exploited in mines, construction sites, plantations, etc, across British colonies. Deeply exploitative forced and indentured labour was an everyday feature of British colonial rule, buttressed by the racist notion that work has a “civilising” effect on “native” workers.

In Kenya, for example, the British counterinsurgency strategy against the anti-colonial Land and Freedom Army during the 1950s centred on violently extracting labour from peasants who, having been driven from their land by white settlers, had resisted taking up the starvation wages on offer from colonial labour markets.

While African soldiers helped Britain win the war against the Axis, civilians across the colonies helped it amass wealth, the benefits of which we still enjoy on the island. Recent estimates by economists have set a figure of $45 trillion (in today’s money) on British theft from India between 1765 and 1938.

There are no figures for Britain’s colonies in Africa. However, we do know that there was the same kind of collusion between the British government and private interests in African colonies aimed at extracting wealth and impoverishing ordinary African workers. The whole enterprise was underpinned by a shared ideology of white supremacy and entitlement.

Time for an honest conversation

As the Brexit crisis is creating dreams of Empire 2.0 in the minds of part of the population and political establishment – dreams of renewing lucrative connections with Commonwealth countries and past economic and military glory – we urgently need to re-assess our understanding of the British Empire and its crimes.

We have to acknowledge and interrogate the causes of not just the extreme violence, torture and other atrocities people suffered at the hands of the empire, but also the systemic exploitation by racist colonial structures which relegated many to life in abject poverty and misery.

Britain owes a debt to all its former colonial subjects and to their descendants. It is high time we take seriously the irreversible nature of the political, economic and cultural entanglements produced by empire, of which military service is just one example. We must finally discard the jingoistic notions of this history that we’ve inherited from white supremacists such as Rudyard Kipling and Cecil Rhodes.

The UK’s trade and immigration policies should be commensurate with our historical obligations to formerly colonised people. Such policies ought to be shaped by formal recognition of abuse and exploitation suffered by societies across the world under British rule, and by the question of how to make amends.

The story of how Britain stole from the African soldiers who fought the Nazis can help towards a necessary and long-overdue reckoning with the enduring harms for which Britain bears responsibility.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.