Cover Image

Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

The Legacy of Colonialism: Why Colonial Powers Must Apologize

Instead of focusing solely on imperialism’s most heinous crimes and reducing centuries of criminality to the misdeeds of a few depraved individuals, colonial powers must face the horrors of their past and apologize for imperialism itself.

Dec 7, 2019

It is not often that one can accuse Jeremy Corbyn of unnecessary pragmatism. From urging a boycott of Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s to his ambitious domestic plans for the United Kingdom in 2019, the Labour leader has distinguished himself as a radical. However when the Labour Manifesto included the promise of a formal apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, one could not help but feel underwhelmed.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre refers to the 1919 incident where, by conservative accounts, 379 unarmed men, women and children were shot dead for daring to peacefully assemble at a park in the Indian city of Amritsar in a bloodbath orchestrated by British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. In its sheer cruelty, the massacre came to symbolize the brutality of British rule on the Indian subcontinent.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre has long been a tricky subject for British politicians, as a succession of Prime Ministers performed verbal gymnastics to avoid issuing a formal apology. David Cameron visited the site and described the massacre as a “deeply shameful event”. On the 100th anniversary of the massacre earlier this year, Cameron’s successor Theresa May could only bring herself to say, “we deeply regret what happened.” In comparison to such cowardice, the sight of a British politician formally apologizing for Jallianwala Bagh should be welcomed.
But to praise Corbyn for his gesture would be to set the bar ridiculously low. It does not take much moral courage to apologize for a massacre as heinous as Jallianwala Bagh. Indeed, Corbyn’s proposal fits into a wider tradition of leaders of former colonial powers who apologized for the worst excesses of their imperialist predecessors. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel apologized for the kidnapping of thousands of mixed-race children during colonial rule in Burundi, Congo and Rwanda. Even the United Kingdom has apologized for abuses during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, when thousands were tortured in concentration camps across the country.
The problem with such statements, and Corbyn’s proposal, is that they separate imperialism’s most heinous crimes from the very act of colonizing. They reduce centuries of criminality to the misdeeds of a few depraved individuals. The most abhorrent crime of colonialism was not a specific atrocity, but rather the notion that it was morally acceptable for one group of people to subjugate and enslave another group of people. Once this ‘White Man’s Burden’ was accepted, then atrocities like Jallianwala Bagh or the Mau Mau camps were natural and inevitable outcomes. If former colonial powers truly want to face the horrors of their own history, then they should stop apologizing for specific incidents and start apologizing for imperialism itself.
Such an apology would help bring closure and finally force former colonial powers to recognize their heinous past. After all, acceptance of the repugnance of imperialism should not be a controversial issue. Nonetheless, the ruling elite of countries like Great Britain continue to defend their imperialist past.
When defending his decision not to issue a formal apology for Jallianwala Bagh, David Cameron stated that “there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for. But of course there were bad events as well as good events. The bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate.”
Such dastardly equivocation is sadly not limited to cowardly politicians like Cameron. The historian Niall Ferguson has built a career by defending and denying the horrors of colonialism with arguments so divorced from historical reality that they could be seen as history’s own version of climate change denial.
A formal apology from countries like Great Britain for the very act of imperialism would help end the delusions of individuals like Cameron and Ferguson. It would finally delegitimize the perception that there is anything to celebrate about the enslavement, economic deprivation and systematic subjugation of millions of people.
Some like to suggest that colonialism is a matter of the past and that it is time to move on from the horrors of history. What such an argument ignores is the fact that the horrific legacy of colonialism continues to live on until this very day. It lives in the stories of LGBTQ+ Nigerians, denied their basic rights because of a colonial-era law that ended a tradition of sexual tolerance. It lives inside ordinary Guadolopeans denied their African heritage by French enslavement. It lives in South Asia, where the ghosts of a horribly implemented partition continue to flourish. It lives throughout the Middle East, where colonial apathy has led to decades of conflict. It lives in Kashmir, where the Government of India plagiarizes from the colonial playbook to implement its own colonial project. And most importantly, the legacy of colonialism survives in countries like the United Kingdom, where every modern institution was built on the blood, sweat and tears of the colonized.
Indeed, an apology may be more necessary for the colonizers than the colonized. Even in the 21st century, the United Kingdom continues to be trapped by the delusions of its own false history. British participation in the invasion of Iraq was essentially an imperialist adventure; an attempt by Tony Blair to rediscover the glory of empire. Similarly, the Brexit campaign was rooted in the imperial fantasies of a country that has failed to accept its lowly place in the world. The only way to remove such delusions is to acknowledge that the supposedly glorious British Empire was, in fact, one of history’s most cruel and barbaric states.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Features Editor. Email him at
gazelle logo