The Sun Never Sets
At its height, the British empire controlled nearly a quarter of the earth’s territory, ruling subjected peoples with violence and propaganda. For many, the legacy of that rule is still alive and well today.
In the middle of a boring geography lesson, a young British schoolboy falls asleep and begins to dream of a sumptuous King’s Christmas Pudding. In his reverie, he meets South Africans who gift him with oranges, Jamaicans who ply him with rum, then on to Zanzibar, Palestine, India and beyond to collect more ingredients before instructing a melting pot of local cooks in the making of his delicious empire pudding. So goes the short film One Family, a piece of propaganda made by the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) in 1930 to encourage the citizens of Britain’s colonies to buy into the dazzling idea of the British empire, its happy citizens ready and willing to make treats for white British schoolboys’ palettes.
Many films produced to support a pro-empire agenda were made by the conspicuously named Colonial Film Unit and transported across east and west African countries via mobile cinema vans from 1939–55. The leaders of the British colonies in Africa felt that film had great potential to persuade and educate the masses, according to this excerpt from the Conference of Colonial Governors (CCG) in 1930: “The Conference is convinced that the cinematograph has very great possibilities for education purposes in the widest sense not only for children but also for adults, especially with illiterate peoples.”
“Nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the suffering inflicted by Britain, including the spread of disease across swathes of the world, or the stoicism shown by those who bore the brunt of that exploitation.”
By “education”, of course, the CCG meant encouraging the adoption of British cultural norms: embracing Christianity, speaking English (through films like 1954’s not-so-subtle I Will Speak English) and convincing Africans of their racial inferiority. In doing so, the colonisers attempted to embed the empire into the psyches of the colonised. “Propaganda is the deliberate, systemic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist,” explains psychologist Jazz Sehra.
“Visual stimulation of emotions overrides logical mechanisms of thinking. This primes our intuitive judgements. If people are being given this information in place of a more complete understanding of empire, then they’re more susceptible to the emotional manipulation involved in propaganda … and [it affects] their willingness to be sold a myth of dominance.”
Although the empire of the day and the modern British establishment would have us believe that “illiterate”, uneducated native citizens happily went along with the ideologies of their white invaders, long and calculated propaganda campaigns were crucial in manipulating their psychology through media, financial incentives, and erasure of indigenous history. Propaganda like the EMB’s fanciful tale of sweet treats was often used as a form of military strategy to mask the acute violence of the British empire. While it served an obvious purpose at the time — to continue to subjugate its colonial citizens and rally support for the empire at home — in modern Britain, the hangover of this state propaganda still persists. In a world still ravaged by the enduring legacy of empire, how do you begin to free yourself of its grasp?
“You see this even now in the narratives of British exceptionalism in relation to the pandemic,” says Priyamvada Gopal, academic and author of Insurgent empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, “the sense of Britain as a uniquely heroic and stoic culture. Nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the suffering inflicted by Britain, including the spread of disease across swathes of the world, or the stoicism shown by those who bore the brunt of that exploitation.”
Generations of Britons believed — many still do — in this myth of supremacy, and Indians in particular, through the colonial education system and racist political rhetoric in India, were taught to think of themselves as inferior from a young age. This narrative has been part of the storytelling of my own family: my grandfathers would often retell stories of Sikhs like us under the empire who, like Gurkhas, were labelled a “martial race”.
The term was coined by army generals after the rebellion of 1857, which split castes into martial and non-martial categories based on their perceived ability to fight.
“On a surface level, this may invoke pride,” says Jasveer Singh, of the Sikh PA, “but it was actually a way to categorise Sikhs into a role for the British empire, helping them to be seen as only useful being soldiers and therefore taking away power of agency when it came to self-governance. This worked to dampen the sovereign mindset of the Sikh for generations.”
Sikh soldiers were also used as propaganda in both the first and second world wars, and featured on cigarette and tea packaging depicting “Military Uniforms of the British Empire Overseas”. Images from the Brighton Pavilion archives depict Indian Muslim and Sikh soldiers sitting up in military hospital beds, smiling as they receive care from male doctors. In reality, these were segregated quarters from which white female nurses were prohibited, a move designed to keep interracial relations at bay and maintain the “purity” of white nurses.
“Images from the Brighton Pavilion archives depict Indian Muslim and Sikh soldiers sitting up in military hospital beds, smiling as they receive care from male doctors. In reality, these were segregated quarters from which white female nurses were prohibited to keep interracial relations at bay and maintain the “purity” of white nurses.”
For female Indian soldiers fighting for the British in the first world war, the methods of exploitation were slightly different. Women with fairer skin were recruited to join the Women’s Auxiliary Corps with the promise of “food, healthcare, war pensions … but many of them never received these, according to available letters”, says Kiran Sahota, a historian specialising in south Asian history. “And the accuracy of our history is unknown because men wrote in Gurmukhi, Urdu and Hindi, which was [mis]translated by the British,” effectively erasing the contributions of Indian women to the Imperial war effort.
These acts of cultural assimilation and historical erasure were almost a century old by the time they were deployed for the war effort. They began in Indian classrooms in the middle of the 19th century under the guidance of Thomas Babington Macaulay, a member of the Supreme Council of India, tasked with the “civilising mission” of British supremacy upon India’s education system. In his 1835 Minute Upon Indian Education, he wrote: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
Outside of the classroom, one of the most potent tools of cultural reeducation came in the form of the Royal Tours, designed to act as a ‘show and tell’ of success — “all tiger shoots, and elephant rides and all the absolute biggest clichés that you can possibly imagine,” says Alex von Tunzelmann, historian and author of Indian Summer. In 1920–21 the Prince of Wales, who would go on to become King Edward VIII, carried out a significant tour, made controversial by protests by Gandhi and his followers. So effective was their resistance that many Indians stayed away and didn’t come to cheer on the royal parade.
“The British had to start bribing them with free food,” von Tunzelmann explains. “This was one of the forms of enticement, and there were all sorts of tricks and counter-tricks going on. In Lucknow, there were trucks driving around painted with signs saying things like ‘Come And See The Prince And Have A Free Ride’, to basically, bus people in.”
Back home it proved easier to draw crowds for similar spectacles. Celebratory festivals like The Empire Exhibition (1924–25), a mighty showcase in London’s Wembley Park, were designed as a visual motif to present the strength and prosperity of colonial holdings through wares from Jamaica, Australia, India and beyond. The British were one of many European empires to indulge in such exhibitions of colonial plunder; at the 1897 Brussels International Exhibition, King Leopold II showed off his very own Congo Free State. In 1931 the French hosted the International Colonial Exposition, flexing their prowess for subjugation with a vast showcase of looted goods and a giant replica of Cambodian temple Angkor Wat. Many of the spoils of these exhibits can still be found in Brussels’ Royal Museum for Central Africa or London’s British Museum, where they are the subject of fierce debate about their repatriation.
The pathos in empire-serving British literature also embedded racist rhetoric into contemporary culture. From the white saviour motifs in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — which continues to appear on school reading lists — to Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden (both written in 1899) about civilising savages amidst the Filipino-American war, ‘heritage’ literature played an important role in reinforcing hierarchies of power in the minds of generations of Britons.
The same narratives were terrifyingly present in the children’s literature of the day, in particular Hergé’s depictions of Tintin. In his 1931 jaunt to “the Congo” Tintin promptly tries to get the locals in order. “Come on you lazy bunch, lend a hand,” he demands of a group of Congolese men mooching around a broken-down train. When he encounters a dispute between two villagers arguing over a hat, he tears it in half like the wise King Solomon. “White man very fair, him give half hat to each one,” concludes one villager, now clutching half a hat, as Tintin strolls off to teach basic maths to black kids and take on the evil Congolese liberation movement.
“Hergé’s work created a justification for some of the worst colonial abuse in history — his smiling, colourful characters masking the insidiousness of racial bigotry pervading the literary canon.”
As Johnny Pitts writes in his 2019 book Afropean, “Hergé’s story is riddled with such arrogance and violence, depicts a situation so vulgar, that no matter how the story is framed it can’t hide the hideousness it so desperately tries to conceal or spin.” Nearly 30 years later, Hergé renounced the work, but the global popularity of his books had already created a justification for some of the worst colonial abuse in history — his smiling, colourful characters masking the insidiousness of racial bigotry pervading the literary canon.
Today, we are far from addressing the damage wrought by imperial propaganda. In 2014, a UK YouGov poll found that 59% of Britons thought the British empire was “more something to be proud of,” than ashamed. In 2016, they asked the question again: 43% of British people told them that they thought that the empire was a “good thing”. The legacy of empire propaganda runs deep, affecting more than just the erasure of historic atrocities.
So how do you empower generations of people at the mercy of a psychology that manifests a legacy of self-hatred, colourism, or structural racism? How do you begin to fight back against the lie of second-class citizenship that influences the contemporary landscape? Perhaps we can take some comfort in knowing that we can fight on the frontline thanks to activism and an appetite to unlearn.
A useful place to start might be in the classroom, by decolonising the curriculum. British education must reckon with its own history, which largely tells the tale of white imperial governance with little mention of the accompanying atrocity. The addition of books to the syllabus written by colonial subjects would offer a much more rounded picture of history and begin to allow questions to be asked about the cost of the myth of British exceptionalism.
Gopal, perhaps, puts it best. “Our history is one of exploitation and collaboration but also resistance and solidarity. Without education, there can be no decolonising.”