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Guilt and glory

November 16, 2011

Pankaj Mishra in Financial Times:

In 1929, two years after he resigned from his job as a policeman in Burma, George Orwell settled, in his mind at least, the question that still troubles many people in Britain and the US: whether the British empire was good or bad. Burma’s “relationship with the British empire”, Orwell wrote, “is that of slave and master. Is the master good or bad? That is not the question; let us simply say that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.” Writing in 1942 about Rudyard Kipling’s legend of British soldiers, administrators and engineers in the colonies carrying heroically the white man’s burden, Orwell was blunter. “He does not seem to realise,” Orwell wrote, “any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern.”

This, broadly speaking, was a consensus about the British empire that Orwell shared with some unlikely people: India’s governor-general Lord Bentinck, who in 1834 reported that the “bones of the cotton weavers” driven into destitution by British free traders “are bleaching the plains of India”; Adolf Hitler, who greatly admired and sought to emulate in eastern Europe what he called “the capitalist exploitation of the 350m Indian slaves”; as well as anti-colonial leaders and thinkers from Egypt to China who developed a systematic critique of the empire of “free trade”. [More]

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