Insurgent Empire: Anticolonialism and the Making of British Dissent

Priyamvada Gopal’s history of dissent, reviewed by Mark Rappolt

By Mark Rappolt

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonialism and the Making of British Dissent, by Priyamvada Gopal Verso, £25 (hardcover)

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonialism and the Making of British Dissent, by Priyamvada Gopal, Verso, £25 (hardcover) 

During a brief stint as under-secretary of state for the colonies in 1942, Conservative politician Harold Macmillan went out of his way to characterise Britain’s relationship with its colonies as a ‘partnership’. He would say that; he needed colonial resources to support Britain’s ongoing war against the Axis powers. And some were calling the empire a fascist occupation. By the time he was prime minister (1957–63), with India and Sri Lanka having achieved independence and the decolonisation of Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia underway, Macmillan was suggesting that a sense of ‘national consciousness’ was a Western invention taught to colonial subjects and that ‘self-government’ had been the intention of colonial rule all along. Freedom, by extension, is a Western invention; the independence of former colonies a sign of Western success. For University of Cambridge-based academic Priyamvada Gopal, such attitudes are still prevalent in Britain today, in its politics, pedagogy and press. She even finds traces of it in Brexit Britain’s dreams of happy future trade with its former colonies and within the words of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, during a 2011 address to the British parliament in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. In it he appeared to suggest that freedom is at once Anglo-American and capitalist and that, therefore, to struggle for freedom is to struggle to be more American. As a corrective to that, this book traces instances of colonial insurgency, from the 1857 Indian Mutiny to the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya almost a century later, and the way those actions were mediated, interpreted and discussed within the metropolitan heart of empire. Key to her narrative is an emphasis on the ways in which these discussions were generated in the colonies, taken up by British dissenters, and then used to inform more general debates about social and economic justice, and race and class.

Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 and its brutal and bloody repression, for example, provides a moment of reflection about relative definitions of freedom: the colonial government insisting that it meant the freedom of former slaves to sell their labour to white planters; the former slaves insisting that it meant being able to own the land they farmed. Meanwhile, the Jamaica Committee, set up to ensure the trial of Edward John Eyre, then governor of Jamaica, for his excesses (hundreds of innocent black people killed alongside most of his non-white political opponents) worried that what might happen under martial law in the colonies might very well happen at home. Such warnings were later repeated by Bombay-born Indian-British Communist Shapurji Saklatvala, who was elected to parliament as the MP for North Battersea in 1922 and later arrested while supporting the 1926 General Strike. He insisted that there was a convergence between anticapitalism and anticolonialism and that, as Gopal puts it, ‘resistance to empire was in the interests of both the Indian and British working classes’.

Through the course of her narrative, Gopal traces a gradual awareness that the empire is run in the interests of capitalism rather than altruism and that a foundational element of any true sense of freedom is that it is achieved not granted. Along the way her history inter- weaves the publishing platforms operated by Nancy Cunard and Sylvia Pankhurst, critics of colonialism and its related racisms such as G.W. Gordon and George Padmore, with overseas-based anticolonialists such as the Pan-Islamist Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and theorists of Swaraj such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, to provide a complex history of the rise of dissent and criticism of the imperial project, and the people and labour involved in it. This is an important first step in the telling of a history that has been for too long overlooked.

From the Summer 2019 issue of ArtReview Asia