Empires strike back

As an integral part of the current project within western society, and particularly academia, to construct a utopian world state free of -isms, -phobias and weather, one of the great bogeys is “imperialism.”

This “imperophobia” probably only exists because we have recently put into the past (aka “the bad old days”) a period of European imperialism that resulted in two world wars (though Far-Eastern Japanese imperialism, recent Islamist imperialism, and the more long-lasting Russian and Chinese Communist imperialism are often forgotten, except by those who lived under them). Be that as it may, “empires” are out of fashion, whereas paradoxically globalism, in which an international financial and economic √©lite gets to rule the world through bureaucracy and propaganda, is all the rage.

But the hatred of empires also seems to involve the loss of national self-confidence in the United States (a common symptom of Empires in decline). America was never a classical imperialist power, its world domination coming primarily economically and culturally, its military aspect being largely mediated through proxy governments, it seems. From another viewpoint, and perhaps a fairer one, America has been at the forefront of international bodies for international co-operation like the UN and NATO, of which it has, as the richest and most committed nation, been the one least unwilling to put its money where its mouth is. Both aspects are probably true, and demonstrate what I want to discuss today – the ambiguity of empires.

You can study the evils of empires in courses like “colonial studies,” but the same one-sided ideas are reflected in the stuff “thinking people” read in the broadsheets. That message is that empires are intrinsically, and entirely, evil and exploitative (throwing in words like “racist” and “supremacist” helps). And of course, there is a great deal of truth in that. It is hard to read of the way that Leopold of Belgium organised the Congo as his personal milk-cow in the nineteenth century, and fail to see how the “heart of darkness” has persisted in that region to this day.

But the Japanese expansionism of the first part of the last century shows that Europeans are not the only perpetrators: only last weekend I met a lady raised in a Japanese internment camp in occupied North China (she knew my former working partner there, and also Eric Liddell, the Chariots of Fire hero, who died there from lack of medical care). One of my patients carried the mental scars and parasitic diseases of working on the Burma railway as a Japanese POW to his death in this century. But he survived, and most didn’t.

The national self-recrimination of America is probably most echoed here in Britain (well, we get much of our present culture second-hand from the USA). When I was a kid people still loosely talked about the British Empire as an existing entity, even as it had already partially dismantled itself through granting independence to its largest colonies. I knew a lot of people who’d served in those places, and felt they’d done a useful job. One of my Christian mentors was in the colonial service in northern Nigeria, where my father had also lived, convalescing whilst serving in the RAF, in the Second World War. There were far fewer Islamist massacres in Maiduguri then.

But now almost the only mention of the British Empire in mainstream media is about racism, exploitation, atrocities, and, of course, the slave trade. All these things did occur at various times. But although the British example may not be a particularly good one, because it is too recent for historical perspective, it does demonstrate to those with a broader historical perspective that life is more complicated than that.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade did indeed coincide with the rise of British (and Spanish, and Portugese, and Dutch) imperial expansion between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. In this it was, historically speaking, unremarkable, as the Muslim Ottoman Empire had been trading slaves from Africa, and from Europe, for centuries. The first transatlantic slaves were Europeans, such as Irish and English criminals and paupers with rather loosely-enforced indentured labour arrangements that tended to become permanent in distant pioneer settlements.

Blacks, at first, were often held under similar indenture arrangements, so that from early periods there were freed blacks who themselves came to own slaves, many of them white.

You may not appreciate that in the apparently jingoistic song Rule Britannia, the celebration of British naval power in the line “Britons never shall be slaves” was written within recent memory of the cruel enslavement of entire communities, sometimes numbering hundreds, on England’s south-west coast, as well as Scotland and Ireland, by raiding Barbary pirates. Some were ransomed at Algiers by rich benefactors, but otherwise the men became labourers and galley-slaves (sometimes castrated), and the women sex-slaves. The Scots Reformer John Knox spent years chained to his oar in the Muslim galleys.

The unusual thing about the British Empire, then, was not the slavery. That was practised by most of the world. But it was the fact that it was the first political power in history to work to abolish slavery. Once it embraced abolition, it enforced it across its sphere of influence via, especially, the Royal Navy (which gave Rule Britannia a universal application). One of the “imperial heroes” of my youth, General Gordon of Khartoum, was only in Sudan, to be speared to death, as part of the British Empire’s struggle against Arab slaving.

I guess one good response to the refusal to engage in nuanced thought on imperialism is this famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

“What have the Romans Ever Done for Us?” became the title of an archaeological TV series explaining all they did do for us. What should not be forgotten, though, is that the satire of the film scene is actually about trendy socialist revolutionaries and the British Empire. That should certainly be remembered in the present US context.


I guess one thing that prompts these thoughts in me is that my church historian friend Nick, who has written an entire series on the spread of Christianity, once told me that most of its growth came because of empires. And it’s true.

The Bible has very harsh things to say about the Roman Empire whose powers, together with the Jewish leadership, both crucified Christ and persecuted the church. Anyone who has studied Revelation will know that, but equally readers of Daniel in the Old Testament will find the same opposition (and final destruction of the Roman Empire) expressed prophetically.

Yet one reason that, to quote Paul, Jesus was sent “just at the right time” was because the Pax Romana provided a unique opportunity for the gospel to spread quickly and widely within the first century, as far as Britain to the northwest, and Goa in India to the southeast.

But the previous empire on Daniel’s list, Greece, was also essential. Alexander the Great’s successors, especially Antiochus Epiphanes, caused immense suffering to the Jewish nation. But the net result from that, and the previous Babylonian exile come to that, was the worldwide diaspora of Jews. These dispora Jews came to form the first outposts of Christianity. The Hellenistic Empire also made koine Greek a lingua franca facilitating that early spread, including the opportunity for the dissemination of the New Testament Documents.

In fact, even the initial establishment of the nation of Israel, between the time of Moses and the Davidic Kingdom, was highly dependant on the balance of power between Egypt to the south, and various empires to the north and east.

We can see wider cultural contexts than the religious for these benefits from unjust and self-aggrandizing empires, though. Israel gained new insights, as well as humiliating losses interpreted by Scripture as God’s judgements, for the Babylonian empire. But the world as a whole also gained from the influence of its mathematics and astronomy, for example, which passed via the Medo-Persian Empire to the emergent Hellenistic one. Arguably its writing system was only adapted to form, ultimately, today’s alphabets because of the First Babylonian Empire’s impact on Phoenician and Canaanite traders.

Later on, the legacy of the Roman Empire, preserved very largely through the monastic movement from the ravages of the barbarians, included a new intellectual lingua franca, Latin, which enabled a continent-wide body of academic knowledge to develop. Our universities are the direct result of this, as is our international science.

England’s participation in this culture, following the destruction of our own Roman legacy by the pagan Saxons, was renewed through the influence of what was left of Rome (such as the evangelisation by St Augustine of Canterbury), but subsequently through the Norman invasion, which Britons often forget was the annexation of our island to a continental power-base that, in the time of the Plantagenet kings, became the Angevin Empire.


It remains to be seen what net benefits will result from some of the less celebrated modern empires, such as the Soviet regime – but history suggests there will be some, just as there have been from the British Empire, and long before them the Romans and all the rest.

As for America, we are stil sorting the good from the bad. But whilst Americans may be having unwarranted doubts about their democratic institutions, especially their constitution, the world would at least be significantly worse off without jazz, blues and rock-and-roll, the Hollywood musical, nuclear power, space research, electric light, mass-production, etc, etc. Maybe baseball and American football have travelled less well than soccer, cricket and lawn tennis, but each empire has made its own positive contributions to the world, as well as perpetrating the usual evils associated with concentrated political and economic power. Like humanity itself, colonialism is a mixed bag of good and evil.

The point is well made in the aforementioned Book of Daniel. This describes the succession of world empires in terms of the struggles of “powers and principalities” against what will finally defeat them all – the heavenly kingdom of Christ. “Powers and principalities,” viewed mainly negatively, are also a bigger New Testament theme than we often realise in our overly-individualistic understanding of faith.

Yet in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, seen as the destroyer of the sinful kingdom of Judah, is not solely seen as evil, nor even as solely raised up to punish Israel. God’s dealings with the king are,through Daniel, surprisingly sympathetic. True, he judges Nebuchdnezzar for his arrogance – but he also reminds him that he, the Lord, is the one who has, for now, given him power over the nations to bless them. And he has done it, we must conclude, for the good of the world, as well as for its judgement. Empires have not been permitted by God merely show that the Colonial Studies guys are right, and that the constant flux of empires we have seen over the millennia is a sign that we must abolish them, together with nation-states, and build some new, utopian, world order instead.

For the only permanent world order is the one that Christ will establish in his own good time (and may it be soon!). Meanwhile governments are necessary, but inordinately prone to evil because of the powers they wield or which, perhaps, wield them. I would suggest that great empires are just one part of this morally equivocal, but presently inevitable, state of things. Just as when we look at our heroes and villains, we should recognise both their good and bad aspects. This prevents us from seeing good guys through rose-tinted spectacles, and bad guys as demons.

Thus we can appreciate the good, whilst avoiding the evil – we pray for the Emperor, more than one NT writer tells us, and not generally for his removal. How hard it is for us anti-authoritarian moderns to apply this to actual leaders (insert your own national leader’s name here…)

The dangerous alternative, whether looking at individuals or empires (or anything in between) is to think that they they, or we in opposing them, can build a utopia. But as Peter Hitchens wisely says, utopias are never reached, and always lie across a sea of blood.

Slaves rescued from Arabic slave traders off Zanzibar coast by HMS Daphne, 1868.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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