As the issues of racism and privilege moved across the ocean to my home country of the United Kingdom, British people are re-examining their beliefs and the role that they have played in allowing racism and any form of “privilege” to continue in our world. Yes, our colonial ways have come back to haunt us once again.
As the streets of the UK filled with Black Lives Matter protestors, we have already witnessed the fall of a number of statues of known British slave traders and racists from our past with calls for the statue cull to continue.
As you will see from the title of the piece, I am a white British citizen which means that I belong to a nation with a history of colonising vast areas of the world during the time when we were known as the British Empire.
We are the head of the Commonwealth, a collective of 54 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Pacific, all of which were once ruled by the British Empire. That´s right. We conquered and ruled over at least 54 countries in our time, all far away from British shores. Commonwealth countries include many small states and islands yet Canada and Australia are still part of the Commonwealth, despite their size. We hold no power as such. I guess the Commonwealth is a way of honouring old ties that should never have been.
Even outside of the Commonwealth, we meddled away in many other countries. The first pilgrims left British shores to travel across the pond to settle in lands we now know as the United States of America, displacing the Native Americans in the process.
The same happened when we sent convicts and prisoners to a penal colony in Australia for their sins. They would become the original settlers who eventually displaced Aborigines.
We raped and pillage our way across the lands we now know to be India, stealing their natural resources for our own use. We ruled India until the 1960s when Gandhi and his associates led a peaceful revolution that returned India to the Indian people.
The British had their fingers in the African pie, too. There are too many African countries to mention here. Instead, I’ll use the example of South Africa which is still a member of the Commonwealth as the country was once ruled by the British. Yes, we were responsible for apartheid with white rule only coming to an end with free elections in 1994.
While slavery is rooted in most early civilizations, along with most European countries, we played a big part in the trade of slaves that saw millions of Africans sold as commodities and sent to all four corners of the Earth including the United States of America.
Our meddling and conquering ways have created havoc in this world. We have a lot to answer for. We do not deserve the title “Great Britain,” that’s for sure.
With a natural curiosity for history and culture, I have trotted far and wide around the globe to many places where the British once ruled. I travelled throughout India for six months and visited places of historic and cultural importance. I spent a great deal of time talking to the people about their views on our involvement in their country where English is still the most widely spoken language.
How did we end up ruling such a vast land as India? There was once a time when we traded with India but why trade when you can conquer and rule? Once we took control, India was called “The British East India Company” for the wealth we could steal from the country. Some believe we stole an estimate 45 trillion dollars (today’s valuation) of goods from India during our rule.
One of the many items we stole was tea, which is a drink we English are known to love. There are many plantations called tea stations high up in mountainous areas of India. I visited a tea plantation called Kelagur Tea Estate in Karnataka back in 2005.
One evening, as we watched the sunset over the tea plantation, we were joined by an elderly Indian gentleman. As soon as he realised that my friend and I were English, he was excited to talk about his experiences under British rule.
You see, he was one of the cooks to a British Raj in the 1920s. The Raj was the equivalent of the governor of each region of India. We enjoyed a wonderful evening of storytelling, as he talked of times gone by. He shared how he was taught to make a British roast dinner with all the trimmings, and how the cooks had to adapt Indian food to be covered in a sauce, so the British wouldn’t miss their gravy. The Indian dish known as curry was born.
He shared, with a smile how Indian people found the British peculiar with their airs and graces, yet he didn’t say a bad word about us.
Me. I felt ashamed to my very bones even though I enjoyed his stories.
You see, many Indian people shared the positives of British rule such as the building of the train network that crisscrosses the whole of India. I would always remind them that we built the train network to transport goods around the country, and not to benefit the local population. We didn’t rule India to help Indian people. We ruled India to rob Indian people. We thought ourselves racially and culturally superior, treating Indians as our subjects while we stole their natural wealth.
This is one example of why I feel deep shame for my country’s history. Suffice to say, I do not believe we deserve the title “Great Britain,” a title that was conceived during what we perceived to be our glory years. Sometimes, I feel Britain’s current downfall on the world stage, as we become a much smaller player is part of our karma for our deplorable past.
Which is why I find myself apologising for my country in almost every land I roam. You may say that I am not responsible for the actions of my ancestors, but I have greatly benefitted from their actions. I am British and white which means I belong to one of the most privileged groups of people in the world. I can’t change this but I can make sure that I apologise and show humility to those who do not have the same level of privilege because of my country’s actions in the past.
Indeed, I apologise for every western country if they have meddled in the affairs of any country I visit. I guess my eyes are open to “western privilege” which I believe has been and continues to be a real problem in the world. French, Spain and the USA, I apologise for them all.
Which is why people of privilege must apologise and show humility at every given opportunity to underprivileged people; whether in their own country or the foreign lands that they visit. Privileged people have greatly benefited from the colour of their skin and/or their country of birth and not because of their actions or hard work.
It´s time to move on from our old ways of privilege if we are to live in a world based on fairness and equality.
I believe it is time to stop idolising people from the past who contributed to the rise of privilege by treating them as false idols with statues and the like. These relics belong in a museum to remind us of our tainted past and should not be examples of heroes on top of a pedestal for us all to look up at.
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(c) Samantha Wilson 2020. All Rights Reserved.