'Insurgent Empire' by Priyamvada Gopal

by Priyamvada Gopal

10 Sep 2020

This is part of our 2020 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize series celebrating the five non-fiction books shortlisted for promoting global cultural understanding. In this extract from, ‘Insurgent Empire', Priyamvada Gopal shows how Britain’s enslaved and colonial subjects were active agents in their own liberation.


On 4 August 1857, some three months after the commencement of the insurgency in India, though it is unlikely he was aware of it at the time, the former slave and American abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, in New York, felicitating a different revolutionary moment. Nearly 25 years before, in ‘one complete transaction of vast and sublime significance’, slaves in the British West Indies had finally been deemed human beings, restored to their rightful stature as free men and women. Three decades after the 1807 abolition of the British slave trade, often confused with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Britain’s human chattel on the vast sugar and cotton plantations of the West Indies had officially ceased to be slaves, though they would remain compulsorily apprenticed to their owners for another five years. In the United States, however, slavery still flourished – as indeed it did in other parts of the world such as Brazil, where it carried on to the end of that century. Douglass was speaking to fellow abolitionists, gathered in Rochester to commemorate the West India emancipation, and he took pains to contrast Britain’s significant achievement with the ‘devilish brutality’ he saw around him in a formally democratic and republican land. The act of abolition, deriving though it did from ‘the moral sky of Britain’, had universal ramifications since, Douglass insisted, it ‘belongs not exclusively to England and English people, but to lovers of Liberty and mankind everywhere.’

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Douglass’s speech paid due homage to the august ranks of British abolitionists. For those who had claimed that only Englishmen could ‘properly celebrate’ the West Indian Emancipation, he had a message: in that case all those who love freedom can ‘claim to be Englishmen, Englishmen in the love of Justice and Liberty, Englishmen in magnanimous efforts to protect the weak against the strong and the slave against the slaveholder’. Thereafter, however, his speech took a curious turn. Douglass had also to counter the charge, made by some of his fellow American blacks, that to commemorate the West Indian Emancipation was to celebrate the achievements of others, specifically the deeds of white people, ‘a race by which we are despised’. In a two-pronged response, Douglass noted that, while in the North American struggle against slavery, ‘we, the coloured people’, had not yet played a significant role, this was not the case with Emancipation in the British West Indies. To the extent that they had been able to, the ‘rebellious chattel’ in Britain’s Caribbean colonies had strenuously resisted their oppression, and so ‘a share of the credit of the result falls justly to the slaves themselves’. It is this insight that then leads Douglass to make his famous pronouncement: ‘The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.’ With an irony he was probably unaware of at the time – news of the Indian ‘Mutiny’ was only slowly making its way to and around Europe and America – Douglass quietly observed that some white abolitionists actively discouraged black initiative, expecting black abolitionists to ‘fight like the Sepoys of India, under white officers’. This, Douglass says, must not deter him and others who would struggle for their own freedom; it is ‘no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats’. As he was speaking, of course, the ‘sepoys’ had, in fact, risen against their white officers in a bloody insurgency that would alter the shape of the British Empire for good, ending the rule of the marauding East India Company in the subcontinent as the Crown took over full governance of British India.

Well over the century and a half since Douglass gave that speech, the notion that freedom from both slavery and imperial rule emerged thanks to the benevolence of the rulers continues to exercise a tenacious hold within certain influential strands of British imperial history and in the popular imagination. Both abolition and decolonisation – twin outcomes of Britain’s expansionary colonial project over three centuries – are all too frequently regarded as deriving chiefly from the campaigning consciences of white British reformers or as the logical outcome of the liberal and liberalising project that empire ostensibly always was, conquering in order to free. Despite an abundance of histories of resistance, and not only from a nationalist perspective, which make clear the constitutive role of resistance to the imperial project, ‘imperial initiative’ – colonies ‘given’ their freedom when they were deemed ready for it – as the motive force of decolonisation remains stubbornly entrenched in much political and public discourse in Britain. Where, for Douglass, the story of Emancipation specifically, and freedom more generally, was one of universal aspiration and shared struggles, in its most influential and popular versions it continues to be figured as a capacious British, or now Anglo-American, franchise generously extended to peoples across the globe. Edward Said observed correctly that ‘a standard imperialist misrepresentation has it that exclusively Western ideas of freedom led the fight against colonial rule, which mischievously overlooks the reserves in Indian and Arab culture that always resisted imperialism, and claims the fight against imperialism as one of imperialism’s major triumphs’. Writing in the 1930s, G.M. Trevelyan, Regius professor of history at Cambridge, understood such extensions to be ‘pre-eminently a result of our free institutions, our freedom of speech and association, and all that habit of voluntaryism and private initiative’. Today, where imperial initiative is not actively given the credit for decolonisation, we are offered the claim, here articulated by David Cannadine, that the Empire ‘was given away in a fit of collective indifference’. John Darwin, meanwhile, paraphrases that school of thought in terms of the notion that ‘the British colonial empire was liberated more by the indifference of its masters than the struggle of its subjects’. In either event, the ‘granting’ or ‘giving’ of independence to British colonies once they were deemed ‘ready’ for it, remains a cause for national self-congratulation; it fits neatly into an equally familiar establishment mythology about ‘English capacities to reform without violence or rejecting valuable past practice’. Like all mythologies, this too relies on the selective elision of key strands in the story.


© Priyamvada Gopal from Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, Verso Books, 2019

Insurgent Empire is shortlisted for the 2020 Al-Rodhan Prize.

Priyamvada Gopal is University Reader in Anglophone and Related Literatures in the Faculty of English and Fellow, Churchill College, University of Cambridge. She is the author of Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence and The Indian English Novel: Nation, History and Narration .

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