In the last few days, the British government has offered to pay compensation to a group of people called collectively Mau Mau’s after an uprising in Kenya against British colonial rule in the 1950’s. A British government spokesman, William Hague, said that the British government were apologising for its part in the ruthless campaign against these Africans and would be giving compensation to a number of people. In a British paper I read, the Daily Mirror, the atrocities mentioned that the British used against those who they believed had resisted in any way included rape and castration, apart from those just killed. And please let me say quickly that both sides committed murders and atrocities against each other. But the culpability it now seems, admitted by the present British government, lies with the British administration first for its ruthlessness, arrogance, racism and pomposity of the British rulers and their general high-handed attitude to those they ruled.
This possibly little-known story, one of many such stories throughout the time of the British Empire shows up empire for what it really was, all empires I may add, and gives the lie to the sometimes fondly fostered myth that British people and Europeans, even rather genteel Middle and Upper class well educated and polite Europeans, were civilised and the rest of the world outside Europe was uncivilised and filled with barbarians. It’s been a theme used ever since people have conquered and colonised other parts of the world, but it seems that by the 19th century such ideas like civilised versus savage, superior versus inferior, European culture versus the rest of the world’s lack of culture, where beginning to be promoted and becoming a part of mainstream scientific and intellectual thought, helped along by Darwin’s and other pre-eminent men of letters ideas and thoughts of this nature. These notions, especially simplistic, easy to understand and highly charged ones like ‘civilised versus savage’ became the backbone of the ideology which blithely allowed British people, of all backgrounds, to conquer, ruthlessly oppress and exploit, grab land and otherwise murder and eliminate people all over the world, people they were calling savages! Is there not a dreadful irony to it all? Most people if they’re honest would suggest so. In the end, such ideologies merely added insult to centuries of injury, and gave justification, if that was really needed anyway, to the greed and selfishness of Europeans in their growing empires around the world.
Many people seem to think that such racism, such vile and simplistic ideas were directed only against black people or generally non-Europeans, but here is where racism and basically cruelty and unpleasantness take another turn, that of the Anglo-Saxon ‘superiority’ against the perceived ‘inferiority’ of the other Celtic peoples in the British Isles, falling particularly hardest against the Irish, but also culminating in oppression and brutality against the Welsh and the Scots too. One Englishman, a clergyman called Charles Kingsley, a supposed man of God remarked on the ‘white chimpanzees’ he had seen in Ireland. Kingsley had been impressed by Darwin’s 'On the Origin of Species’ which fed into the growing ideas of the day and helped them along, ideas that evolution and most perniciously ideas like ‘the Great Chain of Being’ where not theories but actual realities of the way the world had worked and the way the world should be conquered, dominated and colonised by superior white Europeans. The Irish Famine of the 1840’s, where about a million people starved to death has left an indelible stain on Irish history and popular culture to this day, and whatever the true facts of the case, there is a feeling amongst many Irish people even today, and those of Irish descent too, that those primarily in charge, the English establishment in London, did far too little and acted far too late to actually alleviate any of the suffering than if they had acted earlier. Some Irish people, although this can’t really be proved or substantiated to any serious degree, believe that the English wanted to clear the poor Irish off the land, one way or the other, so that they could get if for themselves and put pigs and perhaps other livestock on the land, more profitable than poor Irish peasants at any rate. Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems that a combination of English conquest and interference in Ireland for centuries, neglect by the English who ruled Ireland, a basic lack of consideration for what were seen as just Irish peasants, and basically English racism culminated in the tragedy or helped to make a bad situation into something that still makes Irish people bitter and angry to this day.
I have my own personal story to add to this. My dad was an Irish orphan, although brought up in England, and my mum has Irish and Welsh ancestry too, with a little touch of Scots for good measure. On discovering a little about my family’s ancestry, to my knowledge there is no English of any kind in us. Ironically all over the world, in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America, many people now speaking English and being seen as part of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world are as much likely to be Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish and even Manx as they are to be English. And in England itself, many people are like me, descended from Celtic ancestors who now might be calling themselves English or just the umbrella term ‘British’. The racism towards Celtic people was also possibly due to class differences as well; the rather superior English, or some of them at least, seeing that many poor people coming to find work in England from the middle of the 18th century onwards were not particularly educated, may have been poorly dressed and not sophisticated in any way, racism and class prejudice being in this way interlinked as they often are around the world. The curious thing is, I cannot really define what being English means; it is as much about culture, accents of all kinds and upbringing as it is about any real genetic idea of Englishness. Perhaps this is where English racism and notions of superiority come from, indeed all racism and notions of superiority come from, ignorance and uncertainty about who you are and what you might be culminating in a growing sense of hatred towards people that might seem to have a more solid ethnic identity like the Irish. But perhaps that is too simplistic, I just don’t know.
Here’s some links you might like to look at: