I was born in the British Empire, in September 1933. To all appearances the Empire was still at its height. George V, Emperor of India, reigned supreme.
Nowhere in history’s record of imperial endeavor is there anything to
compare with the British Empire. At it’s peak a nation of 45 million people
in a country of 94,000 sq miles directly ruled colonies containing nearly 500 million people
spread across 13 million square miles of the Earth’s surface. 80
percent of these 500 million lived in India: the land of my birth, the
colonial Jewel in the Imperial Crown of the British Empire.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the Empire depended for its founding and its financing on the trading and labor of slaves in the lands of the Atlantic Ocean. In the 18th and 19th centuries it depended for its financing on the taxation of Indian labor and goods, on the exploitation of raw material from its other colonies, and on the forced sale of opium to China. For its growth in the same centuries it depended on the massive armies of its Indian mercenaries. For its defense in the 20th century it depended on the forces of the Empire. One million Indians fought for Britain in WW1 and two million Indians fought in WW II.
The Empire was at its largest and most confident in 1900 at the end of Victoria's long reign. London was "...The new Rome..." the capital, according to the London Times, of the "..Mightiest and most beneficial Empire known to man". The coronation ceremony of Edward VII in 1902 was rewritten to give the British the opportunity for "...the recognition, by a free democracy, of a hereditary crown, as a world wide symbol of the dominion of their race". A photograph of a few of the citizens of this "..most beneficial Empire" are shown on the left. Understating their contribution to world morality has never been a British trait. Rewriting history has.
The Empire began to unravel at the end of the reign of George VI almost exactly 50 years after the coronation of Edward VII. Indian Independence in 1947 pulled the keystone from the arch of Empire. By 1962 the Empire had all but disappeared.
I was there at the beginning of the end. In August 1947, when I was 14, I witnessed the birth of Independent India. In January 1948 I attended the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi -- the chief architect of the fall of Empire. In 1953, when I was 19, I was in England where I witnessed (via TV) the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The title of "Empress" of the four previous Monarchs disappeared with her lost colonial possession, India, the "Jewel in the Crown", the single land which justified that title. Sic Transit Gloria.
The legacies of the British Empire are:
The end of the British Empire marked the close of all classical Empires.
Conquering distant lands and ruling them from a home base was widely
regarded as a legitimate activity before the 20th century. Even in the
middle of the 20th century relics like Winston Churchill continued to insist that Britain
rightfully ruled her colonies.
19th century English clarions of liberty like John Stuart Mill could denude
whole forests with their writings on liberty while they justified Britain's
enslavement of India. In fact, in the 19th century, Mill and his father James Mill
worked for the HEIC for nearly fifty years between them while they set and defended its
policies. As late as 1942 Winston Churchill was denying freedom to
India while he bayed about "freedom" being lost in Europe.
At the dawn of the 21st century America is perfecting her own version of the “White Man’s Burden”. This new Imperialism will have some superficial differences from the classic model. No longer will a Western power be able to send its representative clothed in a funny uniform, on an open ended sojourn to wreak his Imperial will on the body of a supine people. This new Imperialism will send its army on short trips to "install democracy". It will often be started by force, and will be implemented and maintained by banks and corporations and legions of lawyers working through suborned, compliant local cabals. Intentionally undefined concepts like "Democracy", "Terrorism", "Rogue Nations", "Weapons Proliferation", "Axes of Evil", "WMD's", "Open Markets", "Free Press" will provide the new moral underpinning.
Hysteria about the Bolsheviks of the early 20th century, and the "Red Menace" and "Godless Communism" of the last half of the 20th century has, now in the 21st century, been replaced with paranoia about "International Terrorism" and "Islamic Fundamentalism". The Muslim Moor, the bogeymen of the 14th and 15th centuries, has been replaced by the Muslim Fundamentalist, the bogeymen of the 21st. These bogeymen will no doubt be replaced by the "Yellow Peril" and the "Chinese hordes" last heard of in the late 19th century. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose --The more things change, the more they remain the same. On to The Raj and Us