Do colonial crimes merit a full apology or is acknowledgement sufficient?

The question of apologising for colonial crimes in the past is a controversial one; but should simple acknowledgement of them and their legacies be so controversial if it allows colonial subjects and countries to move on?

Charles, heir to the UK’s throne, recently said in a speech in Ghana that Britain’s complicity in the slave trade was an “appalling atrocity”

After all acknowledging the past, and the pain that went with it, allows closure so that collective thought, descendants, humility and good conscience can finally let go of the humiliation and pain of the past?

At the present time some may see apologies as mere words, but for those struggling with the legacy of hurt it means a great deal. Any right minded Indian who remembers the trauma and fissures of the British Raj or the pain of partition knows that closure is vital.

Back in Britain, the public are more or less proud of their country’s colonial past, mostly because they know more about its strengths, and ‘good’ that its mercantile nature as a dominant slave-trading power and looter.

Charles, heir to the UK’s throne, who recently said in a speech in Ghana that Britain’s complicity in the slave trade was an “appalling atrocity”

Slowly but surely, this may well be changing. Maybe it didn’t when Queen Elizabeth II and David Cameron acknowledged the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was regrettable (without offering a proper apology) but it may with Charles, heir to the UK’s throne, who recently said in a speech in Ghana that Britain’s complicity in the slave trade was an “appalling atrocity” that has left an “indelible stain” on the world. In Ghana no less, many Africans were shipped off to alive of slavery leaving behind an ugly legacy which Charles admitted was difficult to forget, particularly its “profound injustice”.

Back in 2011, the-then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has shown similar regret though pulled back from an unreserved apology. Who knows, maybe he feared a class action for reparations from descendants from those sold into slavery?

Next April 2019 will mark the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, a massacre of civilians of such brutality and bloodletting that it forever changed the direction of the determination of Indians to govern their own country, to be finally independent from a British Empire that at its peak controlled a fifth of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s total land area. Of course, it didn’t just control as was shown in Jallianwala Bagh, it caused immense suffering — such as the horrific famine deaths in British India, as well as its everyday crimes against humanity across the territories it occupied.

After the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, for instance, citizens were made to go on all fours and crawl across their bellies in streets infested with filth and squalor. If they refused or didn’t crawl enthusiastically enough, they’d be met with the butt of a rifle against their head, the point of a bayonet in their ribs or a thorough flogging in public. Such incidents were small dice compared to what else happened behind closed doors.

We should appreciate Prince Charles and his frankness here because it hasn’t been so forthcoming. Although David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain from 2010 to 2016, said the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was a stain against British history he still refused to apologise, and then of course he outright refused to return the Kohinoor diamond to India.

Acknowledgement costs no more than a bit of misplaced national pride but would win back hearts and minds.

“I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for,” Cameron said in 2013 on a visit to India and this is the myopic history that continues to be recited in British schools. Although I was taught about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (also known as the Amritsar Massacre) within its context, history lessons today give it lip service within the context of liberating India, of restoring order within an underdeveloped society which is of course incorrect.

How did the Jallianwala Bagh massacre benefit India exactly?

I think it is valuable for a nation to look back at its past and understand what makes it what it is today. Britain is good at doing this in many respects but manages to avoid some of the hard negative lessons of colonialism.

An apology may not be needed but an acknowledgment by the Royal Family of the historical and lasting impact that Britain’s empire has had on its former colonies — the separation of families, the attempt to eliminate age old traditions, customs and languages, the heavy contribution to lack of progress (in the case of Africa — millions of African men and women who were sent away to work as slaves contributing to the wealth and infrastructure of Britain and other European nations while its own country remained at a loss of healthy workers who would have been otherwise contributing to its growth). Of course Britain is not solely to blame, many of our African countries and Indian states have been riddled with ill equipped leaders and corruption — however we need to educate ourselves and not forget the negative impact slavery and colonisation by the British and other European empires has had on many countries, particularly Africa.

The fact that the monarchy in Britain is so celebrated — on par with celebrity status — is worrying and should be reassessed (especially when Every important British European family INCLUDING The Royal family, have invested and grew wealthy from the slave trade).

Acknowledgement costs no more than a bit of misplaced national pride but would win back hearts and the minds of those who rather than feel grateful for the “civilising” nature of the British yoke, as the nostalgic empire supporters seem to expect, resent the damage, the self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement.

If the UK really wants better trading relationships with China (Opium Wars, Burning of the Summer Palace, Boxer Rebellion), and India (Massacres of 1857 as part of the Rebellion, Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Bengali Famines 1770 and 1943) it should address these issues as you can be sure that these are still culturally part of their history and clearly not forgotten.

Saurav Dutt is a lawyer, political columnist and author of a forthcoming commemorative book to mark the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. Entitled “Garden Of Bullets: Massacre At Jallianwala Bagh” it will be released in Spring 2019. You can follow him here.