The only imperialists in the village
03 August 2012 | wILLIAM SAUNDERSON MEYER
And so, too, with the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, themed “Isles of Wonder”.
The British media hailed the ceremony variously as “breathtaking … brilliant … delightfully, barmily British”. That, too, was the line echoed dutifully in most Anglophone newspapers worldwide.
But although spectacular in parts, the opening wasn’t wondrous at all. It was self-indulgent, historically misshapen and politically correct to the point of absurdity. Really, how many black captains of industry were there during the industrial revolution? Danny Boyle, creator of the extravaganza, would have us believe about 20%.
And let’s add that to the non-Anglophone viewer it was obscure to the point of incomprehensibility. Brunel, tunnel engineer, as the major historical figure? There was a plethora of statesmen, libertarians and outstanding scientific and medical innovators Boyle had to choose among but ignored.
That, though, is to quibble about minor issues. What was unforgivable about the London Olympic ceremony was its massive intellectual dishonesty, its pretence that Britain’s most abiding legacy to many of the billions around the world who watched the spectacle – that is the legacy of exploration, annexation and empire – didn’t happen.
The Chinese glossed over the unattractive, repressive, parts of their history in 2008’s Beijing ceremony, over which many, especially the British media, were correctly scathing. It makes the lack of critical media interrogation regarding London all the more pathetic.
At its heyday the British Empire, the largest ever, covered a quarter of the world’s land mass and included a quarter of its people. And when one includes the US, which shrugged off the British embrace, as well as countries like Sudan and China, which eluded it, the effect that the British have had on the modern world becomes apparent.
British imperialism was not exactly a benign experience for those at the sharp end of it. The British were enthusiastic slavers and it was also they who against the Boers invented the concentration camp and a scorched earth policy, coming close to ethnic cleansing.
Nor was that nastiness a historical blip. These were techniques that the British used half a century later in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection, when almost 1,5-million Kikuyu were detained in fortified camps and villages. Thousands were beaten to death, or died of malnutrition and disease.
That is presumably why Boyle stuck with safe laughs in the form of an over-long slot for comic Rowan Atkinson and a parachuting Queen.
A pity. For though the past is past, it is fruitless to pretend it never happened. Despite British excesses, there is much to salute.
It was the British who first turned their backs on slavery. It was a Brit, Emily Hobhouse, supported by Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who exposed the atrocities of lords Kitchener and Milner in the SA veld.
It was Brits who most backed the anti-apartheid struggle. And it was British lawyers who fought the system for the right of three elderly Kenyans last week to stand in a London court, to sue the Crown for damages done to them and their people half a century back.
London’s opening celebration was oh, so correct and cosy. More Little Britain than Great Britain.
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