Nicholas Dirks, Financial Times – 2006-08-24 08:35:18
(July 11, 2006) — The invasion and occupation of Iraq began with the scandalous fabrication in some circles of claims about the dangers of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. But scandal did not stop there; it is a theme that has stretched from the emergence of photographic evidence of torture at US-run military prisons to continuous revelations about over-billing by companies with deeply embedded relationships at the highest levels of the US government. Most recently there have been investigations into allegations of marines executing innocent Iraqi families in Haditha.
With the price tag for the reconstruction of Iraq speeding past $300bn (£162bn), bombings bringing the daily death toll ever higher and the recent suicides in America’s Guantánamo Bay detention facilities, news of another billion-dollar desert pipeline project for a US company or a congressional lobbying indictment on Capitol Hill hardly seems like news.
But the worthy goal of spreading liberty and democracy has been deeply undermined as a result. Support for the war in Iraq has steadily fallen; there has been acrimonious debate in Congress about troop withdrawal and even talk of impeachment.
In defending the war in Iraq, pundits have argued that, like Britannia of centuries ago, an empire of American power can and must be a force for security, freedom and progress across the globe. Niall Ferguson, the British historian, recently eulogised the history of the British empire for its role in pioneering free trade, capital movements, free labour, liberty and democracy. The sad historical truth is that claims about the civilising and progressive missions of earlier empires have routinely been undermined by the scandal and corruption that have plagued the US effort in Iraq.
Take for example the one-time jewel in Britain’s crown, India, viewed by many as the great success story of imperial history. When the British East India Company’s charter was in jeopardy as early as 1693, company shares were used to influence parliamentary support for charter renewal. In 1695, just a few years after the opening of the stock market in London, the report of the parliamentary investigation into the developing scandal over quick fortunes made through bribery and insider trading led to the dismissal of the speaker of the House of Commons, the impeachment of the lord president of the council and the imprisonment of the governor of the East India Company.
Robert Clive, dubbed the “founder of empire” for his role in the military conquest of India, went to India as an impecunious youth only to return a few years later as the wealthiest man in England. He was the subject of a bitter parliamentary inquiry in 1772 that barely exonerated him just a year before he committed suicide.
By 1788, when Edmund Burke passionately denounced imperial excess at the spectacular impeachment trial of India’s governor-general, Warren Hastings, it was generally recognised throughout England that India had been pillaged by a succession of increasingly unscrupulous Englishmen.
If the origins of the British empire were mired in scandal from the start, the subsquent wars of conquest themselves were only made politically acceptable by the atrocity that became known as the “Black Hole” of Calcutta. During the years of imperial glory, at least, the terrible events of this incident could have been recited by every schoolchild in Britain. According to the canonical account, in June 1756 the Mughal governor of Bengal captured the British fort of Calcutta and forced all the English prisoners he found into a cell that had been used by the British to house their most difficult prisoners. On the stifling night of June 20 this cell, just 18ft x 14ft, became a death trap for the 146 unfortunates who were crammed into it. By the time the guards came to reopen the room in the morning, 123 of the prisoners were dead.
As Jonathan Holwell — the self-appointed storyteller among the survivors — put it: “The annals of the world cannot produce an incident like it in any degree or proportion to all the dismal circumstances attending it.”
Holwell’s account, like the charge of hiding weapons of mass destruction, became the widely cited pretext for imperial conquest and occupation. But it, too, turned out to be largely a fabrication. Not only was it based exclusively on his eyewitness testimony, but the story was murky and the few documented deaths that occurred at the fort were probably the result of fighting over treasure. Nevertheless, the story was used repeatedly to explain and excuse imperial expansion.
The corruption trials of men such as Clive and Hastings gave lurid exposure to the scandals of imperial business-as-usual in the 18th century, yet the idea of empire ironically escaped unscathed and stronger than ever. The East India Company was brought under firm parliamentary control in spite of Burke’s failure to convict Hastings. By the time the trial ended in 1795, empire had become securely linked to the national interest, threatened far more by France than by any imperial excesses in India. In the years after the trial, imperial attention was focused instead on the horrific practices of sati — widow burning — and thuggee — ritualised highway robbery, as Indian culture was used to justify empire and shield any mention of the national interest.
The imperial enterprise — far from seeming scandalous any longer — became a mission for civilisation itself. Private corruption was converted into public virtue, a scandalous monopoly was made the basis for global mercantile domination and an invidious history of conquest and exploitation was rewritten as the national epic of regeneration.
In spite of the disingenuous nature of imperial justification, the story of the progressive British empire continues to be used to justify not just the past but the present as well. Mr Ferguson has written that: “Just like the British empire before it, the American empire unfailingly acts in the name of liberty, even when its own self-interest is manifestly uppermost.”
This kind of history not only whitewashes the actual story of early conquest and occupation, it also neglects the fabrications and scandals that were as common in the early years of empire as they are in the current engagement with Iraq.
Not only does history provide no sanction for the present, it provides a remarkably apt cautionary tale. Empires were always a scandal for those who were colonised. What we seem to forget is that empires have always been scandals for the colonisers as well.
The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain, has just been published by Harvard University Press.
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