OPINION: It’s time to apologize for colonial atrocities

CW: mentions of war, violence, death, rape

A century ago, on April 13, 1919, the British army fired on thousands of unarmed men, women and children in Amritsar, India who had gathered to celebrate a festival. Official records put the death toll at 379 but other estimates are closer to 1,000, according to The Guardian

On the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar massacre, the British high commissioner to India expressed deep regret for “the suffering caused,” but did not apologize. 

Individuals surely cannot be held responsible for the acts of past generations. As a Brit, it isn’t my fault that my country’s massive empire once spanned a fifth of the world’s population. It isn’t my fault that, 80 years before I was born, Colonel Reginald Dyer told his troops to fire in Amritsar.

The British government tried this argument, or a variation of it, in court. The government argued that it could not be held responsible for the actions of a past colonial administration, according to The Independent, a British newspaper

It was defending itself against claims brought by Kenyan Mau Mau victims dating back to the 1950s, when Britain responded to an uprising through systematic torture, violence and rape. The suppression of resistance led to the torture, maiming or execution of as many as 90,000 Kenyans.

While individuals aren’t responsible for historical atrocities, nations must acknowledge and apologize for them, instead of sweeping them under the rug.

Most Brits, including myself, are more than happy to take part in a national pride that celebrates Britain’s historical successes: fighting fascism in World War II, for example, or winning the World Cup in 1966. 

But we shouldn’t claim these highlights as our cultural heritage if we refuse to also acknowledge the dark parts of our country’s past. British people cannot decide that they’re part of the national ‘we’ when it comes to D-Day but not when it comes to colonial atrocities. 

In 2013, the British High Court ordered the UK government to pay £13.9 million to be shared among 5,228 Mau Mau veterans, The Independent reported. Many veterans were in their 80s by the time the verdict was reached. They were able to receive compensation in part because the atrocities they faced came at the very end of the British Empire. 

It’s far too late to offer reparations for most victims of colonialism, who are now long deceased. But apologizing is still important, not just because it acknowledges the pain and suffering of victims, but because it also acknowledges the responsibility of Britain, as a nation, for that suffering. 

I don’t remember learning about colonialism in school. On a specially themed “Victorian Day,” I remember shading in a map of the British Empire and feeling proud of my country’s past greatness. We didn’t deconstruct or discuss the exploitation that lay behind that massive empire.

Last year, Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn proposed that all British children should learn about colonialism in school. Conservative member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg responded in an interview with the LBC show that “the British Empire had good and bad bits like all sorts of things.” This year, Rees-Mogg published a history book called “The Victorians,” which has been heavily criticized by academics for the way it whitewashes colonial atrocities, according to The Guardian. Rees-Mogg has been dubbed “the honourable member for the 18thcentury” for his outmoded views, including his stance against gay marriage and abortion

His view on the empire, however, is scarily in line with that of the British public. A 2014 YouGov survey found that 59 percent of Brits think that the British Empire is more something to be proud of than ashamed of, including 48 percent of 18 to 24 year olds. 

In the same poll, 34 percent of Brits said that they would like it if Britain still had an empire. The “good old days” — the days when Britain was a global superpower at the heart of a powerful empire — have a powerful nostalgic appeal for Brits. Everyone wants to think they belong to a country to be proud of, but national nostalgia can be dangerous if, in its search for a palatable national image, it conceals horrific atrocities.  

Here in the U.S., things aren’t much better. 

An “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States” was tucked away on page 45 of a 67-page 2010 spending bill. The bill “apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect.” The apology was never publicly acknowledged by then-President Barack Obama. 

As the executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center Robert T. Coulter asked, “What kind of an apology is it when they don’t tell the people they are apologizing to?” A stand-alone Native American Apology Resolution has never been passed, despite efforts by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND to do so since 2004, according to Thoughtco, an information website. 

The problem of whether to apologize for past brutalities is not unique to the UK. If we are to properly understand our national pasts, we have to look unflinchingly at the bad as well as the good. As nations, we have to come to terms with historical atrocities. That means acknowledging them publicly, openly and truthfully. That means apologizing. 

Ellie Woodward-Webster is a Pitzer College exchange student who is a literature major on exchange from England. Her favorite things about California so far are the weather, mountains and tater tots.


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