This Spectred Isle

Posted by sepoy on June 15, 2006 · 9 mins read

Kumuda kindly drew my attention to historians Eric Hobsbawm, Niall Ferguson, Priyamvada Gopal, Linda Colley and Robert Beckford's appearence on BBC's Start The Week. They were to be "examining how Britain and other countries around the world have been changed by their experience of empire...discussing whether Britain should apologise and make reparation for its imperial past or glory in it, and asking whether the twenty-first century will see the birth of new empires." You can listen in on the above link.

The program is related to BBC's This Sceptred Isle: Empire - A 90 Part History of the British Empire. The TSI site has excellent profiles, maps, timelines etc. about the British Empire [def. some stuff to archive for class-material]. Most intriguingly, for me, it has a Send your Stories section. Below the fold, I highlight some that caught my attention.

update: So...I finally listened to the show. Niall Ferguson gets it...exactly wrong" said Gopal [author of Literary Radicalism In India: Gender, Nation And The Transition To Independence] near the end of the show. Just about on everything, I might add. Ferguson starts off with arguing that World Cup Football would not be possible without the British Empire. Hobsbawn corrects him. And it goes, well, uphill from there. Ferguson's shining moment could be when he asserted that the indigenous nationalist struggles, though well-meaning, got nothing done - and that the British Empire chose to give up their empire only because it was drained after fighting the Nazis. Obviously, to those from the colonies - Gopal and Beckford - this was a highly insulting claim. Eric Hobsbawn did have the best lines near the end as he tried to sum-up.

Rob links to an incensed open letter written by Priyamvada Gopal in the comments. Worth a read. To be fair, though, her letter is a tad unfair as well - she calls Robert Beckford "the token black man" [ "Empire landed on me" was the best line of the show, uttered by Beckford]. As for the overall show, it is worth a listen, if you like banging your head on the wall and that sorta thing.

Vivien FLYNN

I have two Empire connections. 1) I am a direct descendent of Sir Walter Raleigh on my mother’s side. We have authenticated copies of the family tree. 2) My mother's family was in Kashmir for several generations. My great great grandfather, Dr Amesbury, published a series of books on bone surgery and my grandfather was co-manager of the silk factory in Srinagar.

Margaret Penfold

My father was a British telecommunications engineer in the British Mandate of Palestine. My father was a true believer in the theory that God had raised the British to their eminent position in the world to serve His purpose. The myth of the White Man’s Burden was higher here in Palestine than in any colony and, as children, my siblings and I had this myth drubbed into us daily. Like many middle-class British children who returned to England from the colonies and did not go on to public school, I received a culture shock. Ordinary people in England did not regard themselves as at the top of the social pile. Their values were at odds to the ones I had regarded as given truths. Like many others I have never regarded myself as a true member of the society I live in, and have always felt myself an exile from the land of my childhood.

Ronald Land

I am Scottish, but my mother was born in Argentina to an Australian father who had emigrated there and a South African mother whose family had fled there as a result of British brutality in the Boer War. My mother had to learn Afrikaans as well as English and Spanish as her mother refused to speak English. Three of my mother's Australian uncles served voluntarily with British forces in WWI, one of them died. One of her aunts was a military nurse in France from 1915 and again in the Falklands in 1939. They all seemed to think of themselves as sort of British although Australian-born. My mother got a British passport because her father was Australian. I stayed in lodgings for a while in the Fort William area in the 1960's run by a man who had taken part in the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, and in all honesty I have to report that he was totally unrepentant.

Roger Loving

My family is one of the few Anglo-Indian families still around a member of the family having emigrated there in 1802. My father and his brothers and Sister together with my older cousin were the last to be born in India. due to the violence they were faced with after independence they left India in 1953. They found things little better here since Anglo-Indians were scorned in both countries despite being the product of both.

Andrew Morris Moodie

This is an introduction to an account of a weeks work of an Assistant District Officer in the Colonial Administrative Service in 1948.It is inspired by the fact that I met a lady born in 1965 who asked me what my first job was. When I said that I had joined the Colonial Service this meant nothing to her- she was quite unaware of the thousands of administrators, educationalists, foresters, engineers, lawyers, agriculturalists and doctors who had given their lives between the wars, and later, to work in places all over the world, a process of recruitment which was greatly expanded in the period just after the second world war. Many of those recruited served in the Forces; some had joined the Forces from school. others from the Forces and university.Some of those in Administration (younger ones of around 22 or 23 ) had attended a Colonial Office course for a year or so covering Criminal Law, Tort, Contract, Evidence, Anthropology, Local Government, Colonial History, Native Language, Geography and the crops of the area. The ethos of the course at the time centred on a training which would provide scaffolding within which democracy, government and local government services could gradually be constructed.For most of this post-war group, including myself, there was no life-long career but a highly satisfactory wothwhile experience of no more than ten to fifteen years. We left to find new jobs and new careers but with some regrets that on Independence we left with our work unfinished, especially when elementary but rapid progress was being made in terms of our ideals.

Makinder Suri

My grandfather moved to Kenya in1899 at the age of 11 to join his brother who had been recruited in Lahore as a skilled carpenter involved in the manufacture of the woodwork found in carriages (he was not an indentured labourer).

Geraldine Taylor-Thomas

My grandfather was posted to India in the late 1800s as a bandsman with the British army. He married my grandmother, a girl from Goa of mixed English, Portuguese and Indian descent, at St Mary's, West Ridge, Rawalpindi in 1902, and moved on to work with the railways, travelling around a great deal. My mother was born in Rawalpindi, her sister in Lahore and her brother in Saharanpur. All three boarded at The Lawrence School, Sanawar. I'd guess there were few mixed-race kids then - my uncle was known affectionately as "darkie". Ties with India were severed before partition and the family returned to England. They called it "home" even though they had never been there.

Bronwyn Austin

All my grandparents/great grandparents arrived in Australia from England as free settlers. I still consider myself English. Schooling during the 50's we had our Headmistress and majority of other teachers come out from 'the old Country' or 'home' . We certainly were taught all about the Empire in our History lessons. Empire Day on 24th May was celebrated with traditional folk songs and a fireworks display in the evening.


rob | June 16, 2006

"I regret coming on at the last minute. As an academic with serious interests in the matter, I thought I'd be participating in a real discussion, not a book plug, a sham and an apologia for the past." From Priya Gopal's letter of complaint.

exitr | June 17, 2006

Ferguson is such a git.

Ikram | June 19, 2006

The BBC interactive map re-fights the war of 1812 and shows Canada's southern border at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Apparently, Chicagoans are still subjects of the Queen.

thabet | June 20, 2006

Niall Ferguson has also been involved in a public spat with the Indy columnist Johann Hari recently, over the British Empire in India. Ferguson responded, in the Indy, to a Hari article, "There can be no excuse for Empire". NF was backed up by Lawrence James, writing in the Sunday Times. Hari, for his part, is not letting it lie.

Ostrich Looking for Sand This Spectred Isle | June 22, 2006

[...] Chapatimystery blogs on the BBC program [...]

Fadzilah | June 22, 2006

May I know why you call it This Spectred Isle instead of This Sceptred Isle?

sepoy | June 22, 2006

Some silly pun on ghosts of empires past...

Sadly, No! Dumbing-Down The Word | April 29, 2008

[...] Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, [...]

Margaret Penfold | October 31, 2008

I am intrigued to find myself quoted here especially as I was under the impression that the quote came from Channel 4's site, Empire's Children, not the BBC. I must admit I have not watched 'Sceptred Isle'. Do you know if it is on DVD? Is it OK to plug my book 'Struggling Free' here, the only novel I know of in English to be set in the British Mandate during WW2 and centring on three women, one Arabic, one Jewiish and one British. If not of course you will erase it and I will understand!