Ghosts of Empire – Part 2.


The Empire in parts of the world today

Writing in Fall 2014, news headlines refer to major stories in The Middle East, Africa, Russia, and China (Hong Kong and the South China Sea). What links Churchill’s empire (1875-1964) to each of these areas and events? When I started writing two weeks ago, Hong Kong was not in the news. Today it is. Where and when will the next major event occur?

The Middle East

The end of WW1 coincided with the demise of both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. With the British Empire still intact, and France one of the winning countries and a small empire of its own, these two, through the Sykes-Picot Agreement decided on the boundaries of Syria, Lebanon, and the countries which are today Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Gaza/West Bank. Currently violence reigns in this region.

A map of the world in 1900 and 2000 shows how the region – see – was divided up after WW1, leaving the Middle East as host to a series of countries with new borders in which resided different, and often hostile, ethnic groups. Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Kurds, Jews, Christians and various Arab tribes today reside together or apart in these countries. The mix has lead to unstable and violent situations.

As of October 2014, the area from Turkey south and east is in turmoil, especially in Syria and Iraq with ISIS/ISIL trying to establish an Islamic state from existing countries in the region. Iran is also involved, at one time of special interest to the Empire because of its oil resources, especially after the Royal Navy converted from coal to oil, at a time when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty.

England had also promised a homeland for the Jews which is part of the background to the current Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In addition, Great Britain needed to control Egypt because of the Suez connection to the east (the Indian subcontinent and Hong Kong) and to colonies in east Africa. For these and other reasons, the Middle East was important to the empire.

Moving east, Afghanistan is another hard to govern country. Three times, England invaded Afghanistan first in 1839 and twice more over the next 80 years, each time with disastrous consequences for the invaders. Its aim was to prevent Russia establishing a port in the Indian Ocean and threatening England’s trade with India and points east. William Dalrymple provides masterly coverage of these wars in Return of a King (Penguin 2012).

In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and withdrew in February 1989. The US with allies including the UK and Canada entered Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attack and have since withdrawn. So far no foreign country has been able to subdue the tribes which inhabit Afghanistan. No one would want to unless they caused trouble outside the country’s borders. But with modern technology that is what could happen and why Afghanistan along with Middle Eastern countries remain a threat to the West.

Indian subcontinent

Moving east to the Indian subcontinent of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, all of which were part of the British Empire and most of which remain members of the Commonwealth – Myanmar as Burma left in 1949 – conflict continues in the west of Pakistan as an extension of events in Afghanistan. India has established a stable democracy with a mix of cohabiting Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. British based institutions exist in its parliamentary and legal institutions. In some of the subcontinent, British influence prevailed and in others not so.

While the Suez Canal and coaling stations in Aden were important for England’s connection with India, the jewel in their crown, these have become less important with air transport and electronic communications. Further east, Malaya, now Malaysia and Singapore, and Hong Kong have strong imperial connections and traditions in both their political and legal institutions and the commercial institutions which still operate there. Trading companies such as The East India Company, Jardine Matheson, the Swire Group and British banks operate in these countries, or in regions of China as in the case of Hong Kong.

The lease on Hong Kong from China which ended in 1997 was originally established so that the British opium trade to China would continue as a means to provide payment for tea and spices from China. (Britain’s control over Hong Kong began in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking which ended the First Opium War). Parts of the empire thrived on the drug trade, as it did on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Empire, warts and all, are with us today. In the case of slavery, as a result of Ebola, the US is talking about banning visitors from West African countries, which marks a change in the earlier welcome of transatlantic flows of persons to America from Africa.

There are obviously imperial connections to be made with events in the Caribbean and Central and South American countries, but these can wait for a future posting. At this time happenings in Europe are noted.


Eastern Europe

Russia has fought with and against the Great Britain at various times. In WW1, Queen Victoria was head of state in England with two of her relatives being leading statesmen in her ally Russia and her enemy Germany. For a short time, in WW2, Russia allied with Germany against, France and, from 1941, with the US. When Germany invaded Russia, the latter became allies at least until 1945. The Cold War then broke out and lasted until 1989 and the Humpty-Dumpty demise of the Soviet Empire. Putin is now trying to glue these parts together again in the Ukraine and Crimea with threats towards Moldova, parts of Georgia and the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Finland may even be on Russian radar.

The British Empire has out of geographic necessity been concerned with developments in Western as well as Eastern Europe stretching into Russia. The UK became and remains a member of NATO which may get a new lease of life with the current threatening behavior of Russia. In earlier days, the Empire competed with European (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal) countries for colonies, especially in Africa at the end of the 1900s.


This journey started in the Middle East including Egypt which after the demise of the Ottoman Empire was in fact ruled by the British. Today there is violence in varying degrees in parts of Africa, going clockwise from Egypt to Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, the Sudan, Rwanda, Angola, Nigeria, The Congo, various locations in West Africa, Algeria, and Libya. Many of these countries were at one time part of the British and other European Empires. Their success in weathering the present unrest, and the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, may have some connection with their former colonial status. It’s too soon to know.

One of Churchill’s earliest books was My African Journey (Hodder and Stoughton, 1908). It contained an account of his time as a journalist both in Afghanistan and in South Africa during the Boer War. Richard Toye’s book, Churchill’s Empire, opens (p.ix,x) with the description of a 1954 meeting between Churchill and a white Kenyan settler, Michael Blundell. Their discussion concerns the then Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Churchill remarks that the Kikuyu rebels were “a happy, naked and charming people.” He goes on to say that the Kikuyu “were persons of considerable fibre and ability and steel, who could be brought to our side by just and wise treatment.” In fact, after independence, Kenya not only remained within the Commonwealth, but its first President, Jomo Kenyatta when released from prison by the British took no revenge on his captors. Many of the white settlers remained to farm coffee, tea, sisal and now cut flowers sold mostly in Europe. Currently, Kenyatta’s son is President, and the country is home to the father of President Obama. Has this President brought America back into the imperial fold? Churchill never forgot that he had an American mother and English father and thus his constant reference to the “English speaking people,” although more Americans may now be speaking Spanish.



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