Caroline Elkins on the Gruesome Rule of the British Empire
This Week on Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon
Open Source is the world’s longest-running podcast. Christopher Lydon circles the big ideas in culture, the arts and politics with the smartest people in the world. It’s the kind of curious, critical, high-energy conversation we’re all missing nowadays.
George Orwell said, “It’s so easy to be witty about the British Empire.” As in the throwaway line that English people had conquered the world in a fit of absentmindedness. No big deal. But that empire was no joke. Boris Johnson, in the Prime Minister’s office today, says he can’t forget that his nation over the last 200 years “has directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries—that is: most of the members of the UN.”
Our guest, the historian and prodigious imperial researcher Caroline Elkins, has written a shocker of a big book about just how the English got to rule the world for two centuries, and it’s a gruesome story, all told. The title of her big book is Legacy of Violence, about the brutality of “thinking imperially” to this day.
Think of the British Empire in its day as a colossal trading company with the world’s number-one navy to police its traffic in pretty much everything—including about 3 million slaves to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, also a variety of notably addictive substances like opium and oil, then sugar and tobacco. It thought of itself as a distinctively liberal empire, civilizing the people it exploited, and everywhere spreading the language of Milton and Shakespeare, free speech and the rule of law. That is the imperial line that our guest Caroline Elkins set out to bury with the official records of a police state and its practice of terror that ruled half a billion people at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
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