Shelley Angelie Saggar reviews Priyamvada Gopal’s impressive new book on the British Empire.

Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso, 2019), 607pp.

Impressive in its scope and rigour, Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent offers an expansive account of organised opposition to the British Empire and its shaping of a tradition of resistance at home. Whilst other contributions on this topic have tended to focus on the influence and reception in Britain of individual movements and/or actors, Gopal’s insistence on the synergy between dissenters in Britain and insurgents abroad stresses the need for anticolonialism to be understood as a core part of British history. 

Tracing the developing perspectives of key actors in the period spanning the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 and the series of Kenyan uprisings in the 1960s that came to be known as “Mau Mau,” Gopal reviews the evolution in British society of political solidarity with those resisting imperial rule. Gopal’s critique of paternalism focuses on how exoticised fascinations with the seductive violence of resistance and liberal imaginings of preparing “natives” for self-government were unlearnt through dialectical exchanges with anticolonial insurgents. Through a detailed series of comparative studies, she is persuasive in undermining the mythology of imperial tutelage that still underscores popular representations of the British Empire today. Showing clearly that “the language of freedom was not English alone,” Insurgent Empire refutes the idea that democracy was a concept that the British were burdened to bring to their colonies, instead demonstrating through careful linguistic and historical analysis that those fighting for freedom were drawing as much on indigenous societal structures as Western philosophical traditions.

The opening case studies consider India (that ”fairest of our possessions” in the words of positivist lawyer Frederic Harrison), charting the evolution of reformist sympathies to the drive for independence from colonial rule. Whilst Gopal acknowledges that the events of 1857 did not undermine the overall project of empire in the minds of most, her contrasting of individual sympathies to democratisation reveal the tremors that were beginning to shape the era of decolonisation. The second chapter, which takes stock of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, argues that “black agency – and what was to be done with it” characterised both the rebellion itself and the controversy sparked in Britain by the hanging of one George William Gordon, a mixed-race Jamaican who was sympathetic to the conditions of his fellow countrymen. Coming in the wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the “reality of black self-assertion” exhibited at Morant Bay elicited sympathy in Britain – a sympathy that would grow into profound solidarity in some corners of the metropole. Gopal goes on to consider the transformative role that travel to the colonies played in the case of Wilfrid Blunt, a nineteenth-century Orientalist who developed a proto-anticolonial politics through his relationships with Egyptians during the Urabi Rebellion in the 1880s and with Indians during his later sojourns in the subcontinent. Blunt’s sympathies sometimes over-romanticised resistance but are indicative of the ways in which the paternalist instinct could (and still can be) unlearnt.

Later sections of the book undertake a careful study of the British Labour Party’s approach to and understanding of empire. These tell the story of a conflicted approach to internationalism on the British left – a legacy that ripples on to this day. Gopal’s elevation of Black and Asian leftist voices like C.L.R. James, George Padmore and Shapurji Saklatvala sharply critiques the argument that the cause of British labour should be prioritised over international solidarity. This is particularly potent in the wake of the party’s recent electoral defeat under Jeremy Corbyn, and at a time when “progressive patriotism” and the need to win back a mythologised “traditional Labour voter” is being proposed rather uncritically as an attractive alternative for the left. Insurgent Empire’s real strengths lie in these sections, and the contemporary comparisons they inevitably point us towards.

Whilst Gopal’s project seeks to address the historical silences that allow the mythology of a benevolent empire to flourish, no real study is made of the ways in which these archival elisions were, and still are, propagated. Rather, the references to invisible histories are left to those with experience of British curriculums, museums and clickbait media stories to fully understand. In particular, the chapter on Mau Mau would have benefited from discussion of the National Archives’ “misplacement” of relevant documentation and how this is part of a continuum of obfuscation (The Guardian). Gopal does discuss the global “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign and her own appearances on adversarial television programmes that pass for public discussion of imperial history. However, it would have been interesting to recount these absences in more detail so as to unpack the depth of Britain’s denialism and assess just how far there is to go to rectify these absences. 

On the whole, Insurgent Empire is an important challenge to those that would rather uncritically accept the myth of a benevolent imperial power than work to celebrate radicalism and resistance as part of a national history. Gopal calmly presents a thoroughly researched and clearly presented counter to the almost obsessive nostalgia for a benevolent empire that was never universally embraced. Through this analysis, Insurgent Empire allows us a more nuanced understanding of the contours of imperial history as constituted through mutual resistance. It is up to us as readers and resistors then, to “lay claim to a different, more challenging history” that Insurgent Empire calls us towards.

Shelley Angelie Saggar is an independent researcher and museum practitioner looking into culturally sensitive items in the historical collections of Sir Henry Wellcome, held on long-term loan at the Science Museum. Some of her research interests include the representation of museum spaces in postcolonial film and literature, museum repatriation policy and practice and Indigenous heritage practices. She is on Twitter @j4lebi