In watching our recent troubles, both economically and on the world stage, I was reminded of another great power that often had to come to grips with its legacy.
I found this incredible documentary, The British Empire in Colour, which gives a sweeping account of the climax, then slow decline, of one of the most influential colonial empires on Earth. Most importantly, it explores the legacy, both glorious and tragic, of the British colonial experience as it stands in former dominions such as Canada, Australia, former Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Jamaica.
Starting with the Roanoke and Jamestown experiments in North America in the late 16th-early 17th century, Great Britain amassed an empire over the course of two centuries that spread over three-fourths of the globe. The empire was solidified on the unshakeable belief that the British nation–the white European British nation–had a divine destiny in spreading its culture, its language, its institutions to a world “mired in darkness”, to use a phrase of the time.
Yet even though many of these colonial possessions–Canada, Australia, India–are enjoying success as independent nations, the negative aspects of colonialism have left their deepest and most cruel mark on these former colonies.
Starting with the “dominions of settlement,” the settler colonies such as Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Rhodesia, a systematic marginalization and destruction of native populations has wreaked havoc on once-proud local cultures. The carving of African colonies in the 1880s and 1890s has exacerbated religious, ethnic and tribal tensions still to be resolved today. Furthermore, these same colonial subjects, especially from India and Jamaica, had found that the reality of living in the British homeland–a reality rife with racism and economic turmoil–was a far cry from the idyllic descriptions in their imperial educations.
Share this video with your students, especially those studying Global Studies for their Regents exams. It will give you an excellent glimpse at the twilight of a great power–and the consequences of those left behind.
This Day in History 5/31: Treaty of Vereeniging ends the Boer War
The end of the Britsh Empire began on May 31, 1902.
On that day, the Treaty of Vereeniging ended the three-year long disaster known as the Boer War. It began as a dispute over mining rights and sovereignty of the Boer Republics of South Africa, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. It ended as one of the darkest chapters in British history.
The war was technically “over” in 1900, when the British occupied the Transvaal capital of Pretoria. However, the remaining Boer commandos of the Orange Free State and the Northern Transvaal continued a war of attrition for another two years. It would see unspeakable atrocities on both sides. It would see “scorched-Earth” tactics and concentration camps that would result in the deaths of thousands. It would also see continued and violent repression, mutilation and torture of the majority African native population–a situation not really rectified until almost a century later.
Finally, the Boer War would see British people start to question the need for a colonial empire. Though a victory, the war cost thousands of lives and millions of British pounds. Britons would then start questioning the use of British troops, the entanglement in colonial affairs–even questioning the need for an empire in the first place.
Attached is a nice 5-part synopsis of the Boer War and other African conflicts of the time. It is very even handed, and its short length is perfect for the classroom.
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