Insurgency and Dissent on the Home Front

Documenting the men and women who took a stand against the imperial tide.

The 2nd Dragoon Guards, the Queen's Bays, routing the Lucknow mutineers near the Hyderabad road, Orlando Norie, 1859. Brown University Library/Wiki Commons.

The debate about the British Empire can often fall into moral binarism. It was either good or bad, or some uneven admixture of the two. Even exemplary accounts of notable atrocities, such as the Amritsar Massacre, risk reducing the subjects of colonial rule to victimhood. Imperial sympathisers, of course, insist that the very same subjects were the grateful beneficiaries of imperial governance.

Priyamvada Gopal’s new book slices through the vacuous ‘good or bad thing’ squabble to restore, in vividly human terms, the men and women who took a stand against the imperial tide. Her cast of characters includes native – by which I mean British – opponents of imperialism, such as Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Keir Hardie, Sylvia Pankhurst, Fenner Brockway, Nancy Cunard, the ‘Red Vicar’ Father Conrad Noel and others.

Gopal’s canvas of insurgency and dissent opens with the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the sanguinary revenge taken by the British. This eruption of violence by agents of the Crown triggered fierce debate among radical circles in Britain who recognised that the uprising heralded a ‘frightening new historical era’. For dissidents like the Chartist Ernest Jones, the Rebellion inspired not only abhorrence of the imperial project but a revitalisation of domestic dissent. Jones wrote in the People’s Paper: ‘Those who aim at higher morals … should not be silent.’ A few years later in 1865, the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica and the hanging of opposition politician George W. Gordon on the orders of the governor John Eyre proved equally divisive. Many 19th-century critics of empire recognised that the radical anticolonial cause in India, Africa and the West Indies had lessons for the labour movement at home. As Jones put it: ‘If it is un-English to be on the side of the Hindhu, it is more un English to be on the side of tyranny, cruelty, oppression and invasion.’ This ‘reverse tutelage’, as Gopal terms it, had a powerful impact on radical movements in Britain.

The significant achievement of Insurgent Empire is to excavate the long-muted voices of our native critics of empire. Gopal perhaps overrates the radicalism of Blunt, who denounced the British occupation of Egypt in the aftermath of the ‘Urabi Rebellion’ – after all, his closest political associates were Randolph and Winston Churchill – but there is no denying the fervent skein of protest that inspired the establishment of the League Against Imperialism in 1927.

Gopal’s narrative reaches a violent climax in Kenya when the savage repression of the Mau Mau revolt led the British MP Barbara Castle to investigate British atrocities and inspired the Daily Mirror to deplore: ‘The gunboat. The bomb, the prison compound. This is what the monocle-flashing warriors of the Empah mean when they speak of determination. Will the sun never set on these bristling blimps?’ In our own time, when the Blimps seem to have taken back control, Gopal reminds us of the ‘Movement for Colonial Freedom’, which proclaimed: ‘Imperialism can only be ended by the British and colonial people struggling jointly against the common enemy.’

Gopal’s book is an important and original contribution, but it is a shame that her insights must sometimes be read through a cloud of academic jargon. The decayed vestiges of a faded imperialism continue to shape attitudes and debates in modern Britain. Insurgent Empire deserves to be widely read.

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent
Priyamvada Gopal
Verso 624pp £25


Christopher Hale is the author of Deception: How the Nazis Tricked the Last Jews of Europe (The History Press, 2019).