I’ve spent the last week thinking about empire, as you do. It all started when I found myself watching BBC4’s “Shipwrecks” program which looked pretty interesting but ended up making me rage with it’s gung-ho nationalism. The moment when I knew that I had to stop watching it was when the presenter described the British Empire as “our global adventure”.
There are so many things so profoundly wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start. Not only have our imperial aspirations caused war, famine, and exploitation in the past, but it has a legacy of everything from continued bloodshed to skin-whitening creams. It’s taken me back to an interview I did with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing during my stint as editor of SteamPunk Magazine. At the time, I’d not long heard ‘Blood Red‘ their bile-filled poke at colonialism and imperialism in the steampunk movement. It’s the kind of song that lights a fire in you. When I asked guitarist/vocalist Andrew O’Neill about it, he said:
“It’s weird, because there’s a lot of post-colonial writing about the Empire, but it doesn’t seem to have seeped into the consciousness of British people. We kind of think that we went there and gave them trains and roads. Yeah, and then we left with all their stuff. We were in charge of Zimbabwe and we took everything of value and then people say: ‘Oh, look, but we left and they’re killing each other’. Yeah, they’re killing each other because we took all of the valuable things out of their country. The Empire was essentially us raping the world, and anyone who is supportive of the Empire and racist needs to fuck right off. At the very least we owe the Commonwealth the ability to come and live in a country that is only rich because we stole everything of value from the places we invaded.”
– “Less Brass Goggles, More Brass Knuckles”, Steampunk Magazine #7
At some point while I was ranting about this on Facebook, someone mentioned the Romans. This kind of got me thinking about whether our own legacy of being a colonised country has something to do with the highly-toxic attitude that Britain as a nation has towards its “great global adventure”.
For hundreds of years after the Roman Empire collapsed, the accepted belief was that Rome had lifted Britain out of savagery, and set us on the path to righteous enlightenment. In short, it was a little bit like this:
This view only really began to be challenged in the Romantic Age, when the folklore revival left European citizens increasingly aware that their ancestors weren’t quite as primitive and savage as they’d been led to believe. Even then, this idea that the Roman Empire dragged us out of an Age of Ignorance endures to this day.
It’s somewhat beyond my remit here, but needless to say that pre-Roman Britain was far from an ignorant hive of scum and savagery. If nothing else, the wealth of incredibly complex prehistoric monuments, intricately-made artefacts, and astronomical calendars is testament to that. Pre-Roman Britain was a long way away from pre-technological, so why do we still hold this perception of our ancestors?
I think a lot of it has to do with the type of knowledge and technology that the Romans brought to Great Britain: written records took over from oral traditions, centralised governments from tribal ones, and (maybe most importantly) Christianity replaced paganism. These forms of learning aren’t necessarily any more or less valid than the ones we had before, but they came together as a whole package which we (as a people) swallowed wholesale. John Michael Greer has written numerous times (and with great insight and clarity) on how Christianity is innately tied to our modern attitudes towards civilisation, science, technology, government, and learning. It is basically the subconscious foundation our whole society has been built on, with its centralised authority, omniscient patriarch, hierarchical structure, and focus on the written word.
There is a damned good argument that it is an ultimately Christian ideology that underpins the great strengths and terrible failings of the world we have built for ourselves in the English-speaking West. And I find myself wondering whether holding such a dim view of our own pre-Christian ancestors… With ultimately feeling as though we had to be lifted out of ignorance by Rome and by the Church… Doesn’t have something to do with this horrific “we brought them trains and roads” attitude towards the Empire.
After all, if we believe that’s what was true for us, that the Romans came here and uplifted us with better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, then why shouldn’t we believe that’s what we’re doing, when we set out to conquer an empire of our own?