A century ago the eminent Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood to the viceroy of India. The “time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation”, Tagore wrote in outrage as scores of peaceful protesters were massacred in Jallianwala Bagh. He would now “stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of my countrymen”.
In accepting the knighthood, Tagore had been unfairly accused of being a colonial flunkey, partly because he had expressed justifiable reservations about aspects of Indian nationalism. The 1919 atrocities in Amritsar jolted the Nobel laureate into accepting that that his Knight Commander of the British Empire (the KBE still in use today) could not be treated as unconnected to the bloodied realities of that empire’s operations.
The belief that titles such as Officer, Dame Commander or Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire can be treated as purely symbolic, untainted by the gross brutalities of the imperial project, appear more plausible today, with historical distance. Accepting his Order of the British Empire, the public historian David Olusoga, who has a Nigerian father, has insisted defensively that while “the empire was an extractive, exploitative, racist and violent institution”, the fact that “there isn’t an empire any more” changes things completely.
The E-word is now a slightly retro empty term – a little bit distasteful, for sure, but happily emancipated from any historical reference. However, Olusoga’s comforting thought runs counter to the British establishment’s own adamantine but honest refusal, despite official criticism of the word as “anachronistic” and “insensitive”, to substitute “empire” in these titles with something less divisive and racially charged. It also ignores the extent to which aspirations to a resurgent imperial global grandeur have resurfaced, so explicitly and harmfully in the case for Brexit. Is the empire really over, or has it remained a virus-like sleeper cell in the British political imagination?
The black scholar Paul Gilroy suggests that Britain’s refusal to accept the loss of empire has produced “deluded patterns of historical reflection and self‑understanding”. Surely it is the task of black and Asian Britons to undo, not pander to, these delusions.
The most eloquent case for descendants of the enslaved, the indentured and the colonised to refuse honours that exalt the British empire was made by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah in this paper. He linked his own rejection of an OBE in 2003 not just to past atrocities or a “betrayal” of enslaved ancestors but to the very real afterlife of empire: racism, police brutality, privatisation, militarism, ongoing economic dispossession and the retention of the spoils of empire. One is either “profoundly anti-empire” or one accepts its many self-serving fictions along with the honour, including the notion that despite a few mishaps, it was a largely benevolent enterprise.
Zephaniah’s choice was based on clear principles, from a long and often forgotten tradition of black and Asian resistance to the global harm inflicted by empire, and the understanding that imperial and domestic rule were maintained by paternalism, buying loyalties heading off dissenters at the pass and ensuring that criticism was toned down. In the 1930s, the fiercely anti-colonial black British newspaper International African Opinion identified “the judicious management of the black intelligentsia, giving them jobs, OBEs and even knighthoods” as a key tactic for diffusing confrontation.
Bestowing knighthoods on African chiefs (indirect rule) and Indian princes elicited their assistance in controlling the colonised masses, though this was not always possible given widespread resistance. A select class of non-white leaders could be upheld as exemplars of a just system even as the large majority continued to face widespread discrimination and inequality.
Olusoga suggests that, by acknowledging the “incredible achievements of black and Asian Britons”, OBEs can be seen as a defeat of racism. Apart from the ways in which tokenism usually enables hierarchical and exclusionary systems to continue business as usual, the more vital question is whether OBEs actually facilitate what Olusoga correctly describes as the “need to confront” not celebrate the history of empire. The role of an officer of the empire is hardly calculated to induce that much-needed confrontation.
The British establishment, utterly reliant on fictions of imperial glory and benevolence, is not so naive as to facilitate its own undoing. Olusoga and others are fully entitled to their personal choices and private compromises. What is more questionable is the presentation of these personal decisions as politically sound choices made selflessly in the name of all black Britons.
Does having a few black names with OBE after them really signify that the British establishment acknowledges the profound historical contributions of black and Asian people to this nation, not least through producing much of its wealth? Beyond exceptional individual achievement, non-white Britons have also collectively organised for rights, fought racism challenged the empire, lobbied for legislation, run for political office, led demonstrations, produced community newspapers, and engaged in radical political education. So no: the “only options on the table” are not “to accept or decline” a seat at it. The real task is to bring this country to an understanding of what empire was, did and continues to do – and to question how a genuinely democratic decolonisation can be achieved in future.