There are two arguments against teaching the history of the British Empire in our schools. The first, better-known one, is that our country’s long record of invading other places is not something to boast about, an argument I suspect will still be raging when Britain goes the way of the Roman empire. The second is that if we taught schoolkids about every country we’d ever invaded, there’d be no time to learn about anything else.
That, certainly, is the impression one gets from the new study by historian Stuart Laycock, who decided to count just how many countries Britain had invaded after being asked that very question by his 11-year-old son. The result apparently surprised even Mr Laycock. Of nearly 200 countries worldwide, Britain had invaded 90 per cent of them, either by colonisation, war or an armed presence of some sort. Indeed, it was easier to sum up by listing the few nations we hadn’t touched – mainly the likes of Chad, Tajikistan and other places that colonial powers either weren’t bothered about having, or perhaps simply never realised were there. (I couldn’t tell you, for example, where the Marshall Islands or Sao Tome and Principe are, and I am supposed to be a foreign specialist).
Indeed, Mr Laycock’s study gives scope for a whole new history class to be taught, along the lines of “Wars we forgot we fought”. Who still knew, for example, that in World War II, well before the Cod Wars, we sent a force of Marines to Iceland, apparently because they wanted to stay neutral rather than join the allies’ side? Likewise, we staged our very own “Bay of Pigs” in Cuba in 1741, when a force landed at Guantanamo Bay and then withdrew under heavy attack from locals. And two decades before the US campaign in Vietnam, Britain fought its own “Nam”, with a campaign against the communists from 1945-46. The list goes on and on.
Mr Laycock’s study echoes my own experience of travelling around the world, in which I seldom visit anywhere that doesn’t have some British legacy, be it a fort, port, or legal system. In Ghana, for example, I remember the old British-run slave fort in the city of Cape Coast, where a statue of Queen Victoria still stands in a ramshackle public garden. In the Burmese capital, Rangoon, I remember being surprised at how much of the downtown area consists of crumbling old British colonial buildings, which will no doubt make some property developer a pile now that investors are coming back into the country.
Then there are the war memorials and cemeteries for British and Commonwealth soldiers, which can be found in some 153 countries worldwide, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Once in the desert outside Basra in southern Iraq, I came across such a memorial dedicated to those who died in Britain’s Mesopotamian campaign in the First World War. Many people, I suspect, would not even be aware that Britain fought a campaign there at that time. Yet the memorial commemorates some 40,500 names, which puts the 179 fatalities of the modern Basra campaign into perspective somewhat.
True, in many of these countries, the memories are somewhat bitter, and revenge is exacted to this day. The Iranians, for example, took great pleasure back in the 1980s in re-naming a street right next to the British embassy in honour of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (there was also a Bobby Sands burger bar elsewhere in Tehran, the irony of which seems to have escaped its owner). The Burmese military junta, meanwhile, has long been accused of letting the beautiful old colonial buildings go to rot in Rangoon’s humid climes rather than restoring them.
Yet it’s fair to say that not all the memories are bad. Once in Nigeria, for example, I was asked by an internet cafe boss whether my surname made me a relation of Birch Freeman, a Victorian era missionary and colonial official. I told him (with some relief) that I wasn’t, but braced myself nonetheless for a long lecture on the evils of colonialism. Instead, the cafe boss began to sing Birch Freeman’s praises. “He brought education to the people”, he told me. “Without those missionaries, where would we be now?”
Indeed, the question of Britain’s colonial past is often a touchier subject with the Brits than it is with those they have conquered. On another occasion in Basra, I watched a British Army squirming with embarrassment when an Iraqi community leader informed him that “you British are so much better at running things than we are, just like you did a hundred years ago”.
Of course, the fact that some countries have a few fond memories of Empire does not mean that they wish to be subjected to rule from London again. Overall, though, they often seem to regard Britain rather like one might remember a tough-but-fair former school teacher: not much fun at the time, but worthy, perhaps, of some grudging respect in hindsight.
Of course, with Britain now out of Iraq, winding down in Afghanistan, and doing its best not to get involved militarily in the likes of Syria, it may be that our days of military adventures are over, for the foreseeable future at least, and that Mr Laycock may have no new countries to add to his list. But his study remains a compelling reminder of our past. Indeed, had we really wanted to remind people at the Olympics opening ceremony of just how influential we have been, we could have just said: “Right, could anyone here who’s NOT ever been invaded by Britain please stand up?”