The English Empire

A note

Herman Moll's map of England and Wales, 1732. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)
Herman Moll's map of England and Wales, 1732. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)


Here is my mom in a nutshell. I say the words Great Britain, and she says there is no such thing, there is neither Great nor Britain. How great is an empire, she says, that tried to clear Ireland of the Irish, that did its best to destroy Irish culture, that enslaved its neighbor? How great is an empire that watched passively as many millions of Indians starved to death? And what exactly is Britain? Did Scotland and Wales and Ireland volunteer to join forces with England? They did not. They were hauled into the empire through acres of their own blood. Empires are built for money. Anyone who says that the English Empire was relatively enlightened as empires go is a dolt. All empires are cruel and cold and do not care about death. See the Romans, the Ottomans, the Spaniards. The American empire is no different, much as we would like it to be. We can apologize for the past, but we are still in it, are we not? Do we exert control, blunt or subtle, on many countries, because our profits are endangered otherwise? Of course we do. Let’s not be liars about what is actually happening, she says. Similarly let’s not lie about how one small island, England, once a remote colony of the merciless Roman Empire, grew into an empire on which famously the sun never set; but it was a blood-red sun, wasn’t it? Read your history. Read about Ceylon or Kenya. The facts are patient. They will wait for you to find them eventually. Read about how the English forbade the Irish to speak their language, practice their religion, own their own homes or lands, school their children, play the music they loved, dance the dances they loved, or raise their children in the manner of their people in that place for thousands of years. Think of that whenever someone airily says Great Britain. There is no such thing as Britain, and there was nothing great about it other than the stunning amount of money it made from the labor of its millions of slaves. And slaves they were, the Indians and the Irish, the Kenyans and the Ceylonese, dying by the millions in fetid mines and steaming fields as they were worked to death by their grim overlords, who sent vast treasures home to England, to erect a fantastic fiction believed by simpletons to this day—a canard called Great Britain, to which fools still pay tribute, though now empty windy words instead of blood money raked in from every corner of the earth. When I was born, 94 years ago, England still owned all of India, half of Africa, all of Canada and Australia and New Zealand, and so many other properties that I doubt the king knew all their names. Today England is once again a small wet island like it used to be, its empire dissolved, its ambition so small that it has to beg Scotland not to abandon it. It would be easy to crow at its downfall, and to note with grim amusement that it was America that saved England from annihilation at Hitler’s bloody hands; but to enjoy its discomfiture, to revel in its collapse, to savor its ignominy, would be to share the same mean energy that fuels empires. So we will do this, son, in this family, as long as I am alive, and I hope for centuries afterwards: We will remember what England did to our people, and that will be our silent prayer for those who were starved and beaten and raped and murdered not only in Ireland but in lands all over the world where the flag of imperial England flew. Not the flag of Great Britain, for there is no such thing, and there never was, and anyone who says so is deliberately and consciously and willfully forgetting the bloody facts. And they are free to do so. But we will not forget.


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Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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