I’d just like to start with an apology for non-political people. Sorry. This is going to get political!
Yesterday, I had a brief discussion about the cause of the Troubles in Ireland with a client. He asked me what it had stemmed from and a bit about my take on it. As far as I can see, English landowners bought up or were given huge tracts of Ireland and some of them treated the Irish worse than slaves. By this, I mean if you own slaves, they are your possessions and it’s good sense to look after them, unless you see them as an expendable labour force – a death from starvation here and there is nothing to you – so you feed them, house them and so on, like you would with working animals (what a terrible image) because it’s in your best interest to do so. With a hired peasant workforce, you have no such obligation. You can pay them terribly, leave them to fend for themselves and know that if they don’t like it, there are millions of others you can employ for a wage that won’t cover the food and lodgings they need. Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal”, written in 1729, sums up many people’s views of the Irish at the time – and not necessarily satirical views at all! He proposes we eat the children of Irish beggars, “a child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends” and perhaps, most biting of all: “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”
He brings to the forefront that this argument is as much about ‘papists’ as it is about Irish, and that many more children are born nine months after Lent (and as a teacher, I can tell you there are a surprising number of children born in September, 9 months after Christmas revels. So much for planned pregnancies!) He also says it will give the parents a saleable commodity, their ‘corn and cattle’ having already been seized by the landlords. And this is part of the problem to me. Multiply all the Irish resentment by 400 years and is it any wonder we have bombs in Omagh? In fact, English landlords and tenant farming is precisely the problem in Zimbabwe, is it not? Such treatment of the indigenous people where they feel (rightly or wrongly) that their lands have been removed from them by foreign colonists leads to leaders like Mugabe.
So… when David Cameron tells the Pakistani people that Kashmir is partly an English problem, he has a point. I know his critics are saying he shouldn’t apologise for our colonial past, but if we expect the Japanese to apologise for war crimes, shouldn’t we apologise for our crimes against humanity too? And, he has a very valid point.
What’s the problem in Afghanistan? Is it really Bin Laden and the Taliban? The Taliban rise off the back of the Mujaheddin, coming from the battle of a native people trying to defend their country from more powerful allies, be they English, American, Russian or Chinese. Here sits Afghanistan, a pivotal point on the global maps of the past – a cross-roads, a pawn that every major country wanted to control. And here sits Afghanistan in 2011, a wreck because of its unfortunate position and the fierce resistance of the people who want to run it how they want. I’m not going to judge the Taliban because it’s not my place. And neither can I judge British involvement in wars over 200 years in the area. But both are facts. The Taliban exist. And Britain used Afghanistan as a pawn against many things: the Iron Curtain, Chinese expansion, Russian expansion, control in the Opium Wars…
What’s the problem in Iraq and Libya and Egypt and Yemen? Western and European involvement in politics that are nothing to do with us because we’ve got a vested interest politically in whatever is produced in that area, or in keeping them ‘on side’ in wars against other nations? It’s not that simple, of course. As my A level English teacher said, I have a tendency to make sweeping generalisations. But I’m a fan of ‘the bottom line’. Ignore all the other little by-products and we have many countries who have reared up against the Empire and pitted us as Darth Vader against their freedom-fighting Luke Skywalkers. America was no different.
And England aren’t alone. France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal – even Russia and China – we all have our roles in colonising countries who had very little say in the matter, and we all had problems at home that maybe we should have dealt with first. Riddled with moral issues of our own, we gallantly went around the emerging continents – Africa, the Americas, Australia, Oceania, Asia, colonising everything we can get our grubby little hands on.
And when we’re not colonising, we’re cutting up countries to apportion. Israel, India, Kashmir… some noble British or American cartographer comes along, draws an arbitrary line down a map and it’s settled. Pakistan and India. African nations (check out anywhere there’s a neat line on a map and you can see the work of sweaty little cartographers of the past cutting up countries like cake) Yes, I know there’s more to it than that, but when you get down to it, that’s essentially what happened.
This is why Heart of Darkness is a great novel, and even its progeny, Apocalypse Now. It raises the problems of colonisation – that you do it for perhaps noble reasons, or perhaps just a smash-and-grab for whatever resources lie untapped – but whatever noble reasons you might do it for are lost in the fact that what you are doing is essentially raping and pillaging with violence and menaces.
And no, the Romans, the Vikings – they were little better. Maybe someone should resurrect Caesar and Alexander to apologise for riding rough-shod over Europe, North Africa and the Near East?
So… as for David Cameron’s comments – no, they’re not out of place. He’s right to accept some responsibility and face up to our ignoble past. However, we aren’t alone. Most of our countries, our home nations, have done atrocious things in forming the boundaries that exist today. Indigenous people’s rights have been stamped on and thwarted. Countries have been torn apart and stitched back together in arbitrary fashions. Borders have been drawn where none should exist. None of our nations are above taking a little responsibility that somewhere along the lines we’ve violated someone else’s rights. And if we all start apologising, it’ll take a long time before the global hand-wringing is all over. Maybe we should have a global amnesty on responsibility for the past and look forward to finding real solutions that come without riots, without wars, without extremist governments, without meddling rooted in preserving the resource connections we seek to pillage, without little short French dudes getting out their planes to sort out North Africa to – some would cynically say – ensure an election victory as Thatcher did with the Falklands.
And so, Marlow was right when he said:
“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force– nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind–as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea–something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . .”
Kurtz – played of course by Brando – embodies the nobility at first of that idea – to civilise, to bring order, to bring humanity. Do any of us English doubt what the Romans did for us? Not if we’ve seen The Life of Brian… but I can’t say there is a solution to Kashmir, to Afghanistan, to Zimbabwe, to Israel unless we can all agree to stop meddling and getting involved in other people’s politics for whatever reason, be it humanitarian or a desire to protect a resource we esteem. And that in itself brings many other problems as we then have to allow the real citizens to form a government that works for them. That can be bloody, violent and horrific – and then we feel we want to intervene as some kind of global referee.
It’s no wonder political actions are so problematic. But, for me… it’s a good thing that DC has done. It doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it acceptable. It doesn’t solve anything to apologise for the past. But when we accept our mistakes of the past, maybe it’ll make us think twice about making them in the future. And, like parents who’ve made mistakes themselves, you have to let your children make their own mistakes. Unfortunately, it’s the only way we learn, as people individually, or as a collective of nations.