Whilst browsing second hand books at charity shop recently, I found myself witness to a heated exchange.
A man who looked to be in his early thirties had picked out from the shelves two books on the British Empire. As he paid for them, he remarked to the elderly man at the till that he felt whilst the wrongs of empire were well known, there were also positives.
“It would be good if the Empire was not only a source of shame, but also a source of pride,” he said.
At this the whole shop seemed to pause in silence. At the time there were perhaps six people in the shop, four customers and two staff — most were men, most elderly and all were white.
“Well, I don’t want to comment on that,” said the man at the till. As a regular customer I knew him to be a friendly and soft spoken gentleman. He was, however, clearly uncomfortable by what his customer had said, or had seemed to imply.
Though he said no more, his tone was unmistakably judgemental. Empire was not a subject for polite conversation.（註 1）
“I just think we needn’t be so ashamed of our past,” replied the man with the books. “It’s not as if we were the only ones who built an empire. I just think we did a better job of it than the Germans, French and the Japanese.”（註 2）
He went on to say how the Empire was a product of its age, and should be judged within the context of its time; and that if it hadn’t been the British it would have been others who may not have been so restrained. “Look at the Belgian in the Congo,” he added.（註 3）
The shop, which had been quietly listening, now exploded in bridled indignation. One shopper accused the man of being a racist, and of being insensitive to those who had been colonised. “Easy for us to say, we were the coloniser.”（註 4）
Another shopper weighed in by stating, as if a matter of fact, that if Britain’s empire had any redeeming features why then were countries desperate to leave the Commonwealth. This is, of course, not true. （註 5）
The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 independent and equal countries, including many that were never part of the British empire. It is also an association that is growing.
One of those most outraged by the words of this new-found imperialist, and who was most critical in denouncing the Commonwealth, happened also to be wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Rainbow flag.（註 6）Noting this I couldn’t help but wonder if he realised on the rare occasions when countries had indeed left this “oppressive, neo-imperial institution” —— it had not been over the memory of the British Empire, but because dictatorial regimes resented the Commonwealth’s inconvenient promotion of good governance, the rule of law and human rights. Gambia withdrew not because the people demanded it, but because its president, Yahya Jammeh, wished to be free to persecute and kill homosexuals, whom he had declared to be “a threat to human existence”.
Witnessing this example of how much of British society responds to its imperial past left me feeling uneasy. It was not as if the man at the centre of this storm had suggested the Empire was good, only that it was more nuanced than may often be portrayed in the common imagination. On this I was in agreement. It is the reasoned and educated position.
To see the Empire only as source of shame or guilt is to present as one-sided a view as to see it merely as a source of pride and celebration. Yet it has become politically correct to do so, at least to a degree.
As a child of colonial Hong Kong, and the member of an Eurasian family that existed in that space between the British and Chinese communities, the memory of empire is personal. Empire was the subject of my undergraduate thesis. The politicisation of the truth, of my memories and those of my family, whether by far right nationalists or progressive leftists, bothers me enormously. Ideology should not determine our understanding of history. This is dangerous as our understanding of history shapes who we are today.（註 7）
Yet despite my unease I dared not say anything. I did not wish to be seen defending a man whose views, if expanded upon, may be reflective of a type of nationalism that I consider to be deeply offensive. I was worried others might think wrongly of me for doing so. This reticence bothers me.（註 8）
The exchange did not last long, and the man soon left the shop. Happily he had taken the incident with good humour, and the shop soon returned to as it was. As he left I was able to see the two books he had bought. They were Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, and Inglorius Empire by Shashi Tharoor.
These are books I know well. That a man reading either of these books might be accused of being an imperialist, and even a racist, was revealing in itself.（註 9）
- “Though he said no more, his tone was unmistakably judgmental.” 作者也很含蓄。含蓄是英式文章的基本特徵。
- 這份論述本來並無抵觸邏輯，但這位顧客似乎有意測試其他顧客的立場和反應。果然，其中一個顧客反駁：你這種論調，沒有顧及被殖民者的感受，而且完全是種族主義者。「我們當然說得容易，因為我們是殖民的一方。」—— 這句話流露了自由主義者的歷史罪疚感。