Reparations, refusals, regrets – by Dawood Ali McCallum

Editor’s Note: The Oxford Students’ Union recently hosted a debate on the controversial subject of whether Britain owed India some reparation having profited hugely over a period of  200 years of colonial occupation that left  the country  impoverished on Britain’s departure. The Indian MP, Shashi Tharoor, in excellent form, gave a witty and brilliant speech to support the affirmative option. The following article by Dawood Ali McCallum is a response to the debate.

The recent demand for reparations to India and elsewhere for Britain’s colonial excesses raises all sorts of confusions within me and reawakens my concerns about quite how I should regard that whole period of history. I suppose I have an advantage over my younger compatriots in that my schooling predated the current shunning of Empire as a fit subject for a history lesson. These days, history in England is taught against a strict curriculum: The Tudors are followed by the Holocaust with little worthy of study happening in between. Apart from the loss of any awareness of chronology, history teaching today is benevolent but determined political indoctrination.

And it wasn’t in your day, you may well ask? Of course it was but at least then history started off with ancient Britain and progressed through successive centuries to the Second World War. And it included the Empire. The view then was that all in all, the Empire was a good thing. Or at least by and large it tried its best to be. Decent. Well meaning. Civilised. And as a naive youngster I bought into that. No question.  On visits to Museums, I’d be impressed by the exotic wonders on display. Encased in glass, glittering and glorious. And I’d notice that these might quite often be a bequest from Major General Sir somebody or other. I’d innocently assume that they’d been the gift of some grateful potentate: a small token of appreciation for some service or other by the noble warrior, heroically offered, selflessly given. I could even envisage the old soldier, embarrassed at such largesse, saying, ‘Gosh, I say, look here, awfully kind of you and all that but I really don’t deserve this. So I eradicated famine and ignorance and saved a drowning child. Oh, and built all those roads. And the railway. But, well any Englishman would have done the same. Duty, my dear chap. Mere duty. The White man’s burden, nothing more.’ I imagined him showing the gift to his wife and admiring children on his return home, then saying, ‘Of course, one can’t keep it. Wouldn’t be right. Not the done thing at all. I know, I’ll give it to the jolly old V and A so everyone can enjoy it!’

Sometimes I might have wondered at a dried bloodstain around the edges of a gorgeous shawl or a gash hacked in coat of Rajput chain-mail. Result of careless handling at some point by a clumsy curator I’d assume. It came as a rude awakening to discover such items were far more often booty than bounty. Not a present from the bejewelled hands of a thankful prince but ripped from his cooling body in the aftermath of slaughter, along with the rings.  And the gift to the museum more to do with minimising death duties than sharing possession with a grateful nation. Sad, but I suppose we all have to grow up.

My greatest disillusionment concerned David Livingstone. Stupidly I’d assumed discovering something means you are the first person to find it or recognise it for what it is. I had therefore fondly imagined many generations of parched Africans standing around gasping for a glass of water. Then this Scotsman turns up and tells them they can find an endless supply of the stuff at a spot he’d just discovered. He’d thoughtfully even named it so it would be easier for them to locate: Victoria Falls. ‘Oh, thanks ever so, Bwana!’ I saw them dry-throatedly croaking. ‘We were wondering what that constant crashing roar over the horizon might be.’ To find out Livingstone was merely the first European to see the Smoke that Thunders was a huge let down. Great discoverer, my eye! The fellow turns out to be nothing more than an early adventure tourist. What a let-down.

As a young man, studied cynicism replaced this naivety. Not before time, you are probably, reasonably, thinking.  Empire was inevitably, wholly evil. I could see only the exploitation and brutality of the imperial mission. The greed and the racial superiority. The highest form of Capitalism. I was a passionate Marxist, but at a time when to be young, long haired and left wing was neither radical nor risky. I attended a trendy left-leaning college, the sort of place where lecturers barely older than their students wore faded jeans, smoked dope, embraced dissent and openly encouraged acts of civil disobedience. Only later did I realise that I was still absorbing and reflecting the received wisdom.

So now, like most post-world power Brits, I’m conflicted. Not only about what my country’s role in the modern world should be but about whether I should be guilty, proud or indifferent of our imperial past. I guess most people like me would have no problem agreeing colonialism is wrong. Bad. (But even then, being the competitive types we are we’d probably immediately feel the need to follow that with ‘But of course British colonialism was a hell of a lot better than French, Belgian or, God preserve us, Portuguese! And let’s not even begin to think about the Germans…’) How about Empire? Does that still have a glint of tarnished grandeur? And the Raj? Isn’t there a ring to the very sound of it that proclaims something very special, raising it above the tawdry business of economic exploitation and racial superiority?

And yet aren’t they all exactly the same thing?

David Cameron's visit to India

So what about reparations? The UK’s aid budget for India has exceeded £200 million per annum in recent years. Would it make any difference if that payment had been called reparation rather than aid? Of course it would. We talk these days of development partners rather than donors and recipients but the power dynamics remain unchanged. Bilateral aid, voluntarily given, can as quickly be unilaterally withdrawn. And aid comes with conditions, not just on what the money can be spent but on what values the recipient has to at least pretend to espouse. If war is diplomacy by other means, so too is foreign aid. It is the low risk exercise of high wealth power in the 21st Century. The grant replaces the gunboat but signals just as clearly who’s who and what’s what.

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So putting money to one side, what about a simple ‘sorry’? In 2013 Britain’s Prime Minister declined to apologise for the Amritsar Massacre. A few months later however his Foreign Secretary did apologise for British abuses during the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya. Germany has consistently and repeatedly apologised for the holocaust, yet whilst paying out significant sums to Namibia and acknowledging that it’s ordered slaughter of the Herero people there in 1904 was indeed a massacre for which it apologises, it rejects the term genocide.

Again, aren’t they all exactly the same thing?

Wouldn’t it be better if we focused less on fine tuning the terminology but taught the facts of the past rather than their current political interpretation? Wouldn’t it be better still if we focused on accepting responsibility for and righting current wrongs? It’s not like there aren’t enough to go around.

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Neil McCallum

 Dawood Ali McCallum is the author of three novels published in India and one (The Last Charge) published last year in the UK. His first story, The Lords of Alijah, is available to download free for a limited period at