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Insurgent Empire

Insurgent Empire

Insurgent Empire - Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent: A Review

Dr. Muiereann O'Dwyer

Priyamvada Gopal’s new book, Insurgent Empire, tells the story of the British Empire. Or, rather, it tells a story of the British Empire. Because what this book really shows us is the multiplicity of that history – through bringing to the fore previously obscured and erased stories and actors, it shows how narrow the mainstream narrative is. The focus of this impressive book is the development of resistance and anti-empire movements, and it shows both the prevalence and influence of such resistance. The book shows how resistance within Britain itself was deeply influenced by that of the colonies themselves.

The book manages the delicate balancing act between the grand claim and impressive detail. Through careful selection of key actors and events, Gopal is able to develop a nuanced account that doesn’t obscure the contradictions and complications of real life, while still adding all of these up to a bigger argument about how empire influenced the norms and ideas that shape our world today. This makes the book highly readable, with the detail of each chapter drawing the reader in, and allowing the argument to be built up. This approach turns around one of the key myths surrounding the end of Empire, that tells a story of an enlightened Britain spreading values of freedom and self-determination. In Gopal’s telling, we can see how those very ideas were shaped and developed within the colonies themselves, and that their use and meaning in Britain was deeply influenced by anti-colonial resistance more broadly.

The language of anti-colonial demands

In one excellent example of the move from the particular to the broad, Gopal discusses the language of anti-colonial demands, showing how these claims moved from requesting justice to demanding an end to injustice. So, rather than asking for freedom and self-determination to be granted, these demands emphasised a call for oppression to be ended. This emphasis reflects an underlying viewing of rights to freedom as pre-existing, as already due, and their lack of application a question of justice subverted. This view of such rights as existing even before they were formally granted by the empire has shaped our contemporary understandings of them as rights – as something due to people regardless of political decisions to grant them. Moreover, this view of the development of ideas of freedom directly contradicts the common understanding of freedom as developing through the capitalist expansion of ‘free’ markets. Instead, we can see the true origins of such ideas in anti-colonial resistance, that centred ideas of self-determination in political rather than economic contexts, and indeed, that often were explicit about identifying the role of capitalism in the injustice being critiqued.

This book offers a “different, more challenging history” (pg 448), and it is one that has an important place in any attempt to understand the history of empire, and its continued consequences. Against attempts to portray empire as something distant and past, or as something benevolent and enlightened, approaches such as this one are essential.

owdyer Dr Muireann O'Dwyer is a Teaching Fellow in British and EU Politics at the University of Warwick.

Her work explores the role of gender in European economic governance, feminist approaches to integration theory, and the intersectional politics of authority and legitimacy

Follow her @mergito