The British Empire Writes Back

January 13, 2024
5 mins read

The Impediment of Colonialism
By Andrew Allen
On the first of January, 1877, a small, middle-aged Englishwoman took the title “Empress of India”, signifying her dominion over a huge, ancient land thousands of miles from her own.
Alexandrina Victoria, then in the 40th year of her reign in England, was said to have swooned when her favourite Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, delivered the anniversary present.
She certainly never forgot the honour, henceforth developing a quite inappropriate bias towards Mr Disraeli and against his great rival, William Gladstone.
But what to Victorian romanticists looked like good honest patriotism smacked to others, among them Mr Gladstone, as cheap politics.
Disraeli’s answer to a rudderless, incompetent administration and flagging popularity was to flatter the English nation and its Queen with the notion that their great, benign Empire was somehow endowed with a mystic internationalism that separated it from such ‘bad’ empires as that of the Ottoman Turks.
A Sephardic Jew of strong middle-eastern appearance, this ultimate outsider of 19th century British politics obviously knew very well how to tickle the egos of his host countrymen.
He knew, too, that, for politicians like him, the benefits of empire extended way beyond the opportunity to please an old lady and win an election.
While England and Victoria basked in the glory of the Indian ‘Raj’, the functionaries of Empire were as busy as ever looting India for the benefit of the metropole. The contribution of India to Britain’s national wealth in the 19th century was immense.
Though by the 1870s Britain was being outpaced by Prussia in terms of industrialisation at home, her empire (especially India) allowed her to extend the term of her dominance long beyond what was justified by her national wealth or productivity.
Meanwhile, India itself floundered under the weight of a civil service whose only real raison d’etre was to maintain the dominance of the colonial system for the benefit of Britain.
Its emphasis was on the extraction of the textiles, raw materials and manpower upon which British industry’s survival hung. Its legacy of overbearing paperwork and unresponsiveness to local needs remains to this day.
Likewise, a reminder of the colonial policy of favouritism among different ethnic and religious groups (a cynical latter-day application of Julius Caesar’s maxim) is to be found today in the sporadic violence in places like Kashmir and Gujarat.
If the Indian nationalists’ notion of a glorious pre-British India is largely mythology, then so too is the British Imperialist myth of a basket-case whose redemption was only possible under the kindly, stern hegemony of a ‘mother-country’.
It is estimated that, in terms of living standards and GDP in relation to other nations, India was better off before the British came 300 years ago than she was after they left.
So it is the ultimate irony that Victoria’s professed affection for her Indian subjects should have been apparently reciprocated so much by so many Indians.
At her death in 1901, widespread mourning broke out in Indian cities. Later, hundreds of thousands of Indians volunteered to fight for Britain in her many over-dramatised ‘times of peril’, even as India faced the far more real peril of national extinction at the hands of her exploiters. Such is the madness of colonialism.
Of course, no-one sensible would suggest that the Caribbean and the Bahamas experience of colonialism was anything like that of India.
As a member of the so-called ‘old empire’ (those colonies originally settled by Englishmen, rather than captured by British arms), the administration of justice and government here has always been closer to the model in England itself than in Asian or African colonies.
In fact, unlike many other countries around the world, the Bahamas has no real reason to begrudge Britain anything. She has left us many institutions that have been of great use to us and even those that have not have often been compensated for by the ‘quaintness’ factor that they lend to an increasingly bland cultural landscape.
But colonialism in the Bahamas still impedes our progress in ways that are often not obvious. On the most general level, Bahamians’ view of themselves will never mature into a healthy one until we discontinue looking to other, alien cultural icons for legitimacy.
And with every year that passes since 1973, the British monarchy is more alien. In no respects, not even sentimentally, does it now reflect the interests, aspirations or self-view of the modern Bahamian.
It is also a fact that the general colonial mindset (of which the Monarchy is a crucial part) continues to impede our development of national solutions to the problems that we face as an independent nation.
Self-confident policy (as opposed to either conservative or defensive policy) has not been a feature of Bahamian governance since independence, and this is clearly related to the psychology of colonialism.
Today, one frequently hears timid, misguided voices opining that trade with China, for instance, will place us on the wrong side of the US (China’s largest trading partner).
This kind of thinking, reflecting the backdrop of cold war geopolitics, views the US as Britain’s regional proxy and so shuns any engagement with the wider world as turning away from the US.
But perhaps the most dangerous and persistent form of colonialism in our region has been the uncritical acceptance of British notions of justice and administration, especially among elites.
This has had the effect of weakening policy and creating an almost comical tendency to follow the British lead in legal, juridical and policy reforms.
A few years ago, a group of CARICOM countries (the Bahamas included) began experiencing increased instances of jury tampering in drug-related trials. In a few instances, highly controversial acquittals followed these allegations.
There soon arose suggestions from within several regional jurisdictions that jury trial be abrogated in some instances in order to deal with this threat. Predictably, Caribbean elites laughed off the idea as an affront to a most fundamental notion of (British) justice.
Several years after this debate began and ended in our region, Britain began experiencing its own wave of jury tamperings, especially in trials involving Jamaican ‘dons’.
Its response was the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, one of the effects of which is to remove (for the first time) the right of an indicted person to trial by jury in instances involving serious drug related crimes. Presumably we are all now safe to follow suit.
On this and many other occasions, the result of our region’s mindset has been that we continue to look to another country for legitimacy of our actions. The other country (Britain) may alter course to suit its interests. But we may only do so after getting the nod. That is no way to run an independent country.
So colonialism is still a danger. For so long as a royal face is on our money and our Governors General continue to bow on our behalf before an English monarch, then real nationhood (that state in which our moral legitimacy and the prestige of our national institutions derives from within the Bahamas and nowhere else) will be incomplete.
Andrew Allen is an attorney in the Bahamas, where he runs his own law firm. Allen’s column – Perspectives – has run on Mondays in the Bahamas Tribune since 1999. He has written articles for Caribbean Week, Private Wealth Management Review and the Bahamas Financial Services Review. He blogs at bahamapundit.
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