Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886 | Wikimedia Commons
Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886 | Wikimedia Commons

Today there is neither agreement that the [colonial] empire produced hell nor agreement that protestations of good intentions are an inadequate excuse. Countless anticolonial thinkers and historians have proven the British Empire’s morally bankrupt foundation in racism, violence, extraction, expropriation, and exploitation. India’s anticolonial leader Mo- handas Gandhi adopted a nonviolent protest strategy as the empire’s opposite: “Let it be remembered,” he wrote in 1921, “that violence is the keystone of the Government edifice.” But the hold of this much-documented ugly reality remains slippery. According to a 2016 study, 43 percent of Britons believe the empire was a good thing, and 44 percent consider Britain’s colonial past a source of pride. A 2020 study showed that Britons are more likely than people in France, Germany, Japan, and other former colonial powers to say they would like their country to still have an empire. 

As Britain prepares for a new role in the international order after Brexit, a report on “Renewing UK Intervention Policy” commissioned by the Ministry of Defence explicitly invokes a nostalgic view of the empire to revive the case for intervention: “Because of its imperial past, Britain retains a tradition of global responsibility and the capability of projecting military power overseas.” Britons celebrate the virtuous heroism of the abolition movement that ended British participation in the slave trade in 1807, but often at the expense of remembering Britain’s central role in the slave trade until that point and the many forms of bonded labor it exploited thereafter. The record of British humanitarianism submerges the record of British inhumanity.

Ads code goes here

In public memory, redemptive myths about colonial upliftment persistently mask the empire’s abysmal history of looting and pillage, policy-driven famines, brutal crushing of rebellion, torture, concentration camps, aerial policing, and everyday racism and humiliation. Balance sheets attempt to show that the “pros”—trains, dams, the rule of law—outweighed the “cons”—occasional violent excesses, racism—despite the ambiguous impact of many alleged “pros” and the deeply flawed premise that we can judge an inherently illegitimate and immoral system by anything other than that illegitimacy and immorality. The end of empire, especially, is extolled as a peaceful, voluntary, and gentlemanly transfer of power. The former Labour prime minister Clement Atlee proclaimed in 1960, “There is only one empire where, without external pressure or weariness at the burden of ruling, the ruling people has voluntarily surrendered its hegemony over subject peoples and has given them their freedom.” In fact, decolonization of India, Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, and many other colonies entailed horrendous violence—none of which has been formally memorialized or regretted, unlike other modern crimes against humanity, such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima.


Also read: When India sent scores of prisoners to Iraq as sweepers during World War I


We have not arrived at this forgetting and the easy postimperial conscience it enables by accident. Public memory about the British Empire is hostage to myth partly because historians have not been able to explain how to hold well-meaning Britons involved in its construction accountable. But how can we rightfully gainsay the protests of earnest people confident in their moral soundness and in their incapacity for unjust behavior? “Hypocrisy” helps describe but does not help explain such human folly. No one thinks they are a hypocrite. And historical analysis framed as the unmasking of hypocrisy acquires a prosecutorial tone that vitiates understanding. Not all rationalizations are cynical and transparent. We have to take the ethical claims of historical actors seriously to understand how ordinary people acting in particular institutional and cultural frameworks can, despite good intentions, author appalling chapters of human history. The mystery here is genuine: How did Britons understand and manage the ethical dilemmas posed by imperialism? To be sure, there is a story about the “banality of evil” to be told—about the automatic, conformist ways in which ordinary people become complicit in inhumanity. But in the case of the British Empire, the bigger story is perhaps that of inhumanity perpetrated by individuals deeply concerned with their consciences, indeed actively interrogating their consciences. How did such avowedly “good” people live with doing bad things? If we can answer this question, we will be able to solve much of the mystery about the lack of bad conscience about empire among Britons today. 

The quip most frequently invoked to depict the empire in charmingly forgiving terms is the Victorian historian J. R. Seeley’s line that the British acquired it in “a fit of absence of mind,” that they were reluctant imperialists saddled, providentially, with the burden of global rule. But it was not through absence of mind so much as absence, or management, of conscience that Britain acquired and held its empire. What we call “good intentions” were often instances of conscience management—a kind of denial— necessary to the expansion of imperialism and industrial capitalism in the modern age. The focus on intentions presumes active, unmediated conscience. We might instead ask how conscience was managed, what enabled individuals engaged in such crimes to believe and claim that they were enacting good intentions. Britons did this in a manner that has made historical reckoning with imperialism more complicated than reckoning with, say, the obviously monstrous aims of Nazism. This is ironic given a long-standing diplomatic discourse about “Perfidious Albion”—the idea that the British are natively dishonorable, prone to betray promises (i.e. good intentions). But it was partly the burden of this stereotype that provoked loud protestations of good intentions, which many now credit more than the evidence of their destructive impact. The claim of “good intentions” that enabled the violent effects of empire cannot be invoked to re- deem them. It would be akin to arguing that greater discretion about their murderous intentions would have somewhat redeemed the Nazis. Nazi objectives were openly murderous—the “cleansing” of Europe—but the ideology of liberal empire required respectable cover, and lasted longer because of it. The real value of claims of good intentions lies in what they reveal about how Britons managed their own conscience about the iniquities of empire. 

Historians will continue to expose the hypocrisies of imperialism, but here I want to show how certain intellectual resources, especially a certain kind of historical sensibility, allowed and continue to allow many people to avoid perceiving their ethically inconsistent actions—their hypocrisy— in the modern period. Culture, in the form of particular imaginaries of time and change, shaped the practical unfolding of empire. This is a book about how the historical discipline helped make empire—by making it ethically thinkable—and how empire made and remade the historical discipline. We are looking at how the culture around narrating history shaped the way people participated in the making of history—that area of rich overlap created by the two meanings of “history”: what happened, and the narrative of what happened. Essentializing representations of other places and peoples laid the cultural foundation of empire, but historical thinking empowered Britons to act on them.  The cultural hold of a certain understanding of history and historical agency was not innocent but designedly complicit in the making of empire.


Also read: That Muslims enslaved Hindus for last 1000 yrs is historically unacceptable: Romila Thapar


I offer this narrative, not as an attack on the historical discipline (whose tools are what allow me to write this book), but to recall how it has figured in the making of our world and how the world it made changed it over time, and to defend its relevance to making new history in the present. Many scholars have tussled over the positive and negative impacts of Enlightenment values and the provincial and universal origins of those values. I want to look under the hood and see how certain notions of history nurtured during the Enlightenment “worked” in the real world and how successive generations have adapted those notions to the moral demands of their time. 

In key moments in the history of the British Empire covered in this book, Britons involved in the empire appeased and warded off guilty conscience by recourse to certain notions of history, especially those that spotlighted great men helpless before the will of “Providence.” This was not some amoral notion about the ends justifying the means. Machiavellianism is about political gain as its own end, without scruple. My protagonists were deeply concerned with ethical judgment but believed it was impossible without sufficient passage of time. Their understanding of conscience was grounded in different ways in notions of historical change. In the modern era, competing ideas about how such change happens shaped understandings of human agency and thus personal responsibility—the capacity, and thus complicity, of humans in shaping their world. 

Much of the “modernity” of the modern period lies in a new self-consciousness about conscience. I don’t mean to imply a secularization of thinking about conscience; in some instances, the historical sensibility informed, supplemented, complemented, or was grafted on to religiously based notions of conscience. (Nor is this a book about dissent or state protection of conscience.) The point is that people were thinking about and managing conscience by reference to proliferating discourses about human history—about how and why history evolves. 

For instance, liberal theories of history envisioned “progress” brought about by the will, usually, of great men (chosen and guided by Providence). Marxist theories instead attributed heroic agency to the proletariat (and, to be fair, the bourgeoisie). Both were imbued with certain presumptions about race and economic progress. Such theories of history, carried around in a nineteenth-century Briton’s mind, were motivating—galvanizing the exercise of agency—and exonerating insofar as they invoked higher ultimate ends or “context”—the way circumstances or the needs of history constrained agency and thus personal responsibility. My interest is in the cultural force of such notions; the neurological and philosophical understanding of intention and agency comprise a vast terrain of knowledge beyond this scope.


Also read: In European history, the World Wars are seen as monstrous aberrations. They were not


Of course, people also adapt their sense of history to the needs of conscience: an eighteenth-century plantation owner in Barbados might self-servingly celebrate his personal, entrepreneurial agency in transforming his land into an economic powerhouse, giving short shrift to the government policies and inherited wealth that in fact enabled his success. Fast- forward to 1836, after the end of slavery, and we might find his son equally self-servingly downplaying his personal capacity to ensure his continued prosperity without governmental reparations for his loss of property in slaves. The notion that change depended only on individual entrepreneurial prowess was now inconvenient. The vice of historical change in which he was caught did not stem his greed but did broaden his historical imagination so that he could perceive the role of circumstances more than his father could. 

I began to perceive the link between conscience management and the historical imagination with a sudden epiphany about the protagonist of my previous book, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution (2018). The most important eighteenth-century British gun- maker was Samuel Galton. He was a Quaker, perhaps the group most associated with questions of conscience in modern Britain. As I recounted in that book, he defended his business to his fellow Quakers in 1796 by arguing that there was nothing he could do in his time and place that would not in some way be related to war—that was the nature of the British economy at the time. I used this insight to assemble a new narrative of the industrial revolution: Galton was telling us that war drove industrial activity in the West Midlands in his time. But was it true that he actually could do nothing else? On later reflection, I realized that his thinking revealed the power of historical arguments in assuaging his conscience. He believed that he could do nothing else, given “the situation in which Providence” had placed him. A historically determined reality, in his mind, constrained his desire to fulfill his promises as a Quaker. As it turns out, his logic echoed emerging Enlightenment understandings of history as a system of ethical thought; Galton’s obligations as a Quaker forced him to reveal the workings of cultural notions that were increasingly pervasive. Indeed, they likely underwrote the Quaker sect’s own quiet acceptance of his family’s business for nearly a century until that point. So began my thinking about this book. 

This excerpt from Priya Satia’s book ‘Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire’ has been published with permission from Penguin Random House.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

44 COMMENTS

  1. Check with congressi, they will say Gandhi rule was best. While i do appreciate that time, but more should have done. we should look out for the improvement and npt stick to old mentality. Modi is the new rule for new India.

  2. Reading this encourages the urge to completely destroy Britain, no one even deserve to live, they have humiliated people of every continent, and they still want the discrimination to increase.

  3. I think today’s Brits are in delusion. The need to think pragmatically.u.k is a minor power today. With out the help of nato/ usa they are vulnerable.they are so helpless in dealing with china regarding hongkong issue.in fact individually we all are weak in front of china.internationally we have to collaborate to take on china hegemony.in this scenario who cares what today’s Brits think.

  4. My grandparents and greatgrandparents generation of elders in my family also though that British Rule as well as the Maharajas of India were the best rulers and democracy spoiled India. They always used to tell stories of kindness and justice shown by various Maharajas and British officials to poor and common Indians. Now of course it is a fashion to abuse Britishers in order to show one’s patriotism but the fact is that British as well as Maharajas enjoyed lot of support among common people of all religions and castes in India and if World War 2 would not have happened then the people would have chosen to continue with the same system.

  5. History is written by those who win wars.

    And if you are writing it now, you must have trampled on something to consider yourself worthy of defining something you actually know preciously little about.

    You may analyse, you may form opinions, yet believe you me, tomorrow shall see a new Victor, a new way of analysing things…new perspectives are born everyday.

    So read but make up your own mind – for you are the only victor in that landscape, or should be.

  6. Actually because it was a pretty good thing. Maybe the country wouldn’t have been United if they never came. Maybe there would’ve been a lot more difference of language with Portuguese in West, french in South etc. There are a lot of things that other comments have already pointed out. But being an Indian, I agree with those 43%.

  7. Amazing article. Let me assure you, what with the aristocracy and the bloodery as well as several instances of supposedly righteous punishment inflicted on the innocent of their own kin (witch trials under King James), it would not be a out of place thing to quote this here from “History Of The Christian Church (The Complete Eight Volumes In One)” by Philip Schaff – “More Christian blood has been shed by Christians than by heathens and Mohammedans.” However, I do agree with the other comments saying that we in India only proved that we were bad. I can only start naming our faults namely untouchability, caste system, Sati system etc. I daresay our political system, though not all of them, has rogues and knaves; even as Winston Churchill said in his (however out of place and improper) comments. I think British colonialism was pretty bad, though not as bad as it is claimed to be in India. We should move on from brooding over our unchangeable past, and look to our future. Even a small gesture of friendship, as when our PM wished the British PM speedy recovery when he had got Covid-19, would go a long way to forget the colonial past that haunts us.

  8. Amazing article. Let me assure you, what with the aristocracy and the bloodery as well as several instances of righteous punishment inflicted on the innocent of their own kin (witch trials under King James), it would not be a out of place thing to quote this here from “History Of The Christian Church (The Complete Eight Volumes In One)” by Philip Schaff –
    “More Christian blood has been shed by Christians than by heathens and Mohammedans.”
    However, I do agree with the other comments saying that we in India only proved that we were bad. I can only start naming our faults namely untouchability, caste system, Sati system etc. I daresay our political system, though not all of them, has rogues and knaves; even as Winston Churchill said in his (however out of place and improper) comments.
    I think British colonialism was pretty bad, though not as bad as it is claimed to be in India. We should move on from brooding over our unchangeable past, and look to our future. Even a small gesture of friendship, as when our PM wished the British PM speedy recovery when he had got Covid-19, would go a long way to forget the colonial past that haunts both us and the British.

  9. MoSh fooling R SS an whole India to benefits AmbaAdaNI. Encashing religion conflict and developing Guj and Gujju as..

  10. Check with Muslims in the sub-continent and you will get an even larger affirmation that the Islamic rule was good for India. While white people are at least willing to relook the horrors of colonial rule, no present day Muslim will ever admit exactly how genocidal was the Islamic rule for undivided India.

    • And after the so-called genocide and the 1000 years of Muslim rule India has 85% Hindu. Consult a dictionary to understand the meaning of the word ‘genocide’, before you blabber.

    • True. Their religion ITSELF is based on vandalism and and raids. Honestly the converts are more radical than the true muslims namely Turks and the arabs. Countries like Indonesia, Thailand, phillipines etc etc have immense muslim population and there have been multiple instances where other religious groups are damaged or forcibly converted in large numbers. The arabs and Turks have refined their religion as time passed making it less rampant and bloodthirsty. I wonder what will happen to us Hindus when political parties for vote bank politics would ignore us while supporting the rampant breeding of muslims hidden behind the pseudo-secular agenda and refusal to give right information during the census. There have been many instants when muslims themselves put fake hindu names so as to cover up their rise in population. I am not saying this because I hate muslims, i am saying this from experience. Converted muslims have turned countries into shithole like Pakistan. Their main agenda now only remains Gazwa a hind.

  11. British actually liberated native indian (SC st and OBC) from 2000years of hindus torture insult and all forms of attack British actually help native indian like blood brothers look like you one of those hindu terrorist those attack native indian

    • Your’re correct. They even abolished practices like Sati pratha and Female infanticide. Do you research and you’ll find out how arduously they abolished those horrible acts.

  12. While I like this post , I would like to ask the British people that if we ruled Britain for the next 300 years and in 2320 , 44% of Indians 50 times the population of Britain would say we liked it. How would the British feel.

  13. To the question why 43pc of British still think the colonial empire was a good thing and a source of pride, I say, why not? Why should they be ashamed about the fact that their forefathers created the largest empire ever in history, one where the Sun never set? They are rightly proud of the achievements of their forefathers. It is for us, the colonized, to ask ourselves, why our forefathers let us down by allowing a handful of Britons to subjugate vast lands and huge populations. I am an Indian and my blood boils over every time I think that crores – Indian word for 10 million – of Indians suffered almost 200 years of foreign rule, when there were not more than a lakh – Indian word for 100,000 or one-hundredth of a crore – Britons, both military and civilian, living in India at any given time. In fact, Swami Vivekananda had said that the pool of liquid created if all Indians were to spit together at one place would be sufficient to drown all Britons. Still we took 200 years to rid ourselves of it.

    • As an Indian, I must say that the colonisation was a boon and it unified our country. There are a lot of things that can be said about this and some comments are mentioning it too.

    • Please refer to any book of modern history of modern india,it will help you get your facts correct.
      By the end of 1700,mughal empire started crumbling under its own vastness and absence of a capable ruler,true British somehow helped a bit in uniting india; but to say that india would still be under mughal rule is factually incorrect.

  14. To the question “Why 43% of British still think the colonia empire was a good thing and a source of pride?”, I say, “Why not?” Why should they be ashamed about the fact that their forefathers created the largest empire ever in history, one where the Sun never set? They are rightly proud of the achievements of their forefathers. It is for us, the colonized, to ask ourselves, why our forefathers let us down by allowing a handful of Britons to subjugate vast lands and huge populations. I am an Indian and my blood boils over every time I think that crores (Indian word for 10 million) of Indians suffered almost 200 years of foreign rule, when there not more than a lakh (Indian word for 100,000 or one-hundredth of a crore) British, both military and civilian, living in India at any given time. In fact, Swami Vivekananda had said that the pool of liquid created if all Indians were to spit together at one place would be sufficient to drown all Britons! Still we took 200 years to rid ourselves of it.

  15. To the question “Why 43% of British still think the colonia empire was a good thing and a source of pride?”, I say, “Why not?” Why should they be ashamed about the fact that their forefathers created the largest empire ever in history, one where the Sun never set? They are rightly proud of the achievements of their forefathers. It is for us, the colonized, to ask ourselves, why our forefathers let us down by allowing a handful of Britons to subjugate vast lands and huge populations. I am an Indian and my blood boils over every time I think that crores (Indian word for 10 million) of Indians suffered almost 200 years of foreign rule, when there not more than a lakh (Indian word for 100,000 or one-hundredth of a crore) British, both military and civilian, living in India at any given time. In fact, Swami Vivekananda had said that the pool of liquid created if all Indians were to spit together at one place would be sufficient to drown all Britons! Still we took 200 years to rid ourselves of it.

  16. The Africans were making slaves of other Africans long before the white man turned up,..
    They were also capturing other Africans to sell to the slave traders, when the slavers got to Africa..
    Modern Africa is such a success story, isn’t it..?? Like rampant corruption, murder is epidemic, Ethnic cleansing…!!! They have made it so much better…what a joke… Modern India and the Middle East is no better,… Wanton slaying of other ethnic minority people…. You are all hypocritical… Grow up

  17. Only 43% of Britons?
    To be honest I’m sure 50-60 % of present day India believes that British rule was much better than the current regime.

  18. Yup and we all think hitler as most evil person to ever walk on earth but just because the allies stopped him we forget that if hitler was a demon then the allies were demon gods.

  19. Why only Britons many natives were satisfied with imperialism.The fore most was Mahtma Fule who was of opinion that Britishers should not leave india till social equality is established so we’re the reformers amongst the congress like Agarkar beleived that social reforms preceed the political reforms .But for the chatur baniya of gujrat who was in hurry of becoming martyr and Britons compulsion gave the freedom to india with lot of human massacre should be credited to the gujju baniya .And thepolitical illiteracy of the people turned the democracy in Banana republic.

  20. That fact that 43% want to do it again 44% find it something to be proud of clearly says it’s their culture to be that way.

  21. EVIL DISGUSTING ACTS OF DEMONS

    THOSE WHO THINK ITS OK AND JUSTIFIABLE

    LETS SEE HOW IT WOULD FEEL HAPPENING TO YOU…..THOUGH I NEVER WISH THIS DEMONIC WAYS

    THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN GOD STILL THINK ITS OK

    YOU FAILED GOD 100%

  22. The so called Christians who killed massacred tortured and raped INDIA ……. as with what was done to Native Indians, Aborigines, Africans……GOD wept at the scale of Demons and Devils in the guise of commerce and social improvement for Bharat.
    In fact the West are accountable for majority of crimes against humanity and the rape of resources of each country they were not invited to ….for a any religious group to think THE BRITISH EMPIRE was or is good are hypocritically against the tenets of Gods teaching of love and peace to all people. For those who love the Empire as akin to those who loved what Hitler did. The evil rulers of Bharat set up concentration camps..starved the people to death while exported foods back to England. They masaacred innocent peaceful protesters all over india….the truth is always denied by the west. Churchill called indians savages….forgetting the Hitlers that ruled india for nearly 200 years.

    Nelson Mandela was called a Terrorists by Thatcher cause he faught against racism ..THIS IS WHAT ENGLAND IS ABOUT !!!

    it is written that in all religions that the evil ones who kill harm abuse the innocent will go to Hell….

    And that will be true for those in History has shown the Devils Face !!!!

    Why dont the British honour Hilter or Stalin or Genhis Khan…..yet they honour the EVIL RULERS who indiscriminate massacred thousands of men women children.

    WOE TO YOU ALL

    • I am christian, as per the teachings of Christ i totally agree with you. He said “anyone who lives by the sword will die from it”, also many wolves will come in the guise of a sheep taking His name but spread evil and warned people of it.
      He, never forced even his own disciplines to stay with him, infact he had even asked the 12 if they too wish to leave Him.
      But the Portuguese, spainish were the worst of the lot.

  23. You and your inhuman twisted mentality. It’s better you just disappear from the face of earth. If you want to do something, do it on-or-to yourself. You have no rights to decide what others do unless it affects you. Once again please just let sensible people live in peace. If not possible, disappear from the face of earth

  24. I agree with you. The British Empire was fantastic. China should emulate it and later Africans should. However this time we will make the British whites the victims. I love the idea of historically organized violence, not the shambolic nonsense of the brown people. There should be Order and laws based on superiority of race. Thank God for China.

  25. I wholeheartedly agree with the comment above. This air brushing of history has to stop and the silent MAJORITY have to stand up to this appalling Orwellian political correctness before its too late.

  26. Intelligently written, however, scarcely intelligebly so. Imagine a Mirror reader switching to the Sun for clarity. Priya needs to understand what drove the Brexit/Trump wave…not add to excuses for it.

  27. Expressed views can be viewed only by what I understand and accept. Invasions and Expansion will always be there. Civilizations, Empires and Cultural units will come and go . With time the oppressed will fight back . Intellectual beings will analyze the past express and people will read , understand and react. There is no end to such expression. Views and counter views are must . LIFE IS IN LIVING.

  28. Africa was a land of murderous slave owning savages long before whitey turned up, they soon returned to type after they left as well.

  29. Agreed Patrick. I can sympathise 100% with those populations who were subject to the colonial yolk and yes trumpeting an Empire forged in blood and conquest is plainly moraly abhorrent but where is this all heading ? I can’t right the wrongs of my great great grandfather’s, nor am I or my children or grandchildren going to be forced to wear a hairshirt for the rest of our lives. Quoting percentages, its possible only 1% of the population profited from Empire, the same 1% who profit now from a flawed capitalist system. Call them to account and leave the rest of us to try and survive, as the working class have done since the days of Watt Tyler

  30. Only 43%? Clearly those asked had little knowledge or understanding of the history of the empire. Ask a group of people who know about the empire or non-Wokeist academics and the percentage would be higher. Orwellian judging and re-writing of the past according to current political fads is academic dishonesty. Imperialism and colonialism is a desire and an imperitive that is deeply engrained in human culture and civilization. Instead of wingeing on and on about the British empire, what about Islamic imperialism and colonialism? What of Chinese imperialism? What of the African empires that thrived on war and slavery long before any Europeans intervened? What of the almost genocidal imperialism of the Mongols? Oh, and the heart tearing imperialism of the Maya and Mexica of mesoamerica? It seems that imperialism and colonialism is OK when not persued by White skinned peoples.

    • Because everyone is wearing blinkers, Britain is an easy target and no one wants to look to closely at their past. An Italian who criticising Britain got upset when I mentioned how his grandparent generation actively shipped Jews to German gas chambers or used poison gas against abyssinian rebels against the Geneva Convention. This is only one example of the multitude of crimes the world has committed. Empires are bad things by their very nature to expand your own territory by violence there is no moral justification only acceptance of what has gone before but if u look what is happening in the South China Sea, Caucasus or Ethiopia this is a moot point.

Comments are closed.