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OP-ED: A brief history of the British empire

  • Published at 01:15 pm June 11th, 2020
London Big ben
A thriving economy built on top of exploitation / BIGSTOCK

How Britain got rich by robbing our ancestors

Protests since the George Floyd murder have prompted long overdue discussions about racism.

Recently, when discussing racism with a British acquaintance, I made the point that school students in the UK should be taught that European imperialism, and the ideology of white supremacy which was used to justify it, was evil. 

My acquaintance was offended, and complained that people are always selectively criticizing the British, as if Japanese and Ottoman imperialism were benevolent. She also suggested that people who hate the British so much should perhaps not visit Britain or live in Britain.

This is nothing new. When brown people in Britain complain about prejudice, Brits often say: “If you don’t like it here, go home.” So to Brits I say: You are clearly in need of a history lesson, and here it is.

Let’s think about the history of imperialism as if Britain and its colonies had been different towns. 

Let’s suppose that your white ancestors lived in Angletown, and my brown ancestors lived in Bangletown, and that most people in both towns were initially farmers.

The Angle gang (from Angletown) took over Bangletown by force, and ensured that our marketplace would only sell stuff produced in Angletown. This led to investment in modern factories in Angletown, and prosperity for Angles, who left their farms to become well-paid factory workers.

The Angle gang also extorted taxes from every Bangle farmer. 

These tax revenues were used to build beautiful parks, modern hospitals, and prestigious universities in Angletown, while Bangles became increasingly poor, and remained illiterate farmers. All the while, the Angles kept telling the Bangles: “You are better off with us ruling you; you are illiterate, we are university educated. We are the superior white race, and it is our burden to rule you. Oh, and look at these beautiful railroads which we have built in Bangletown.”

After three centuries of this, the Bangles revolted, and the Angle gang realized that they would have to risk their lives to maintain control of Bangletown. As they were already wealthy, and were no longer willing to risk their lives to make more money, they left. 

However, they left Bangletown impoverished; many Bangles now go to Angletown to study at universities, or to be treated at modern hospitals, or to work in gleaming shopping malls. When Bangles living in Angletown talk about the brutality and arrogance of the Angles, you tell them: “You should be grateful that we let you live here in our beautiful town. If you’re going to keep complaining about us, you should leave.”

The thing is, your town is wealthy because your ancestors robbed my ancestors. 

The universities, hospitals and parks of Angletown were built with taxes which were paid by my ancestors. 

So Angletown belongs to us Bangles as much as it belongs to you Angles. 

When we Bangles speak about our history, the appropriate response from you Angles would be: “I am sorry that my ancestors robbed your ancestors. What my ancestors did was wrong. I recognize that Angletown was built with the taxes paid by your ancestors, and that you have as much right to live here as I do.”

We do not hold you responsible for crimes committed by your ancestors. 

However, do not expect us to forget crimes which were committed against our ancestors. Ever. 

Kazi Zahin Hasan is a businessman and an avid reader.

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