This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
“From the Indian Emperors who contained the nefarious ambitions of the East India Company, to the West African kings who resisted British demands and set the terms of the trade in enslaved people … this book retells the history of early Empire from the all too familiar story of conquest to one of empowering defiance and resistance.”
This extract comes from the publisher’s blurb of David Veevers’ ambitious and wide-ranging new book, The Great Defiance: How the World Took On the British Empire. To be sure, competing for shares of the market for slaves against European traders qualifies, at least technically, as “resistance” — but is that really of the “empowering” sort? Empowering to whom? Could a modern and progressive historian really write in praise of African slave-traders for being better at slave-trading than their European competitors?
The answer is yes, and with relish. In a memorable chapter, Veevers recounts how King Agaja of Dahomey resisted European domination by cutting out middlemen and setting up his own slave plantations, conquering the neighbouring kingdom of Ouida to monopolise the slave trade, and charging higher prices for slaves, thereby ensuring his “economic as well as political dominance”.
In addition to enthusiastic descriptions of Dahomey’s military prowess, expressed through burning down cities and enslaving its inhabitants (Agaja “was able to surround two of his palaces with walls made from skulls”) and his wealth (he gifted 40 slaves to George I and wore a lot of silk), Veevers credits Agaja with forging “a powerful kingdom capable of seizing control of the trade in enslaved people for their own benefit”. Good for him, one supposes.
Only in the chapter’s last paragraph does Veevers note, almost as an afterthought, that Dahomey’s neighbours, “who suffered conquest and enslavement”, were not exactly thrilled by all of this. That is beside the point, though. The book is, after all, meant to be “a celebration of the power wielded by those who took on the British Empire and defied its expansion”, including King Agaja and his ilk.
Later, in the book’s conclusion, Veevers wonders out loud: “What does a history of the British trade in enslaved people look like when we acknowledge that West Africans were not only victims, but could also act from positions of power?” If his chapter on Dahomey is anything to go by, it would involve a lot of gushing about the cool cities built on the profits of slavery, provided that their owners were of the right race.
To rewrite the history of the expansion of the British empire from the point of view of those who fought against it is an interesting conceit, though far from original. The true innovation of Veevers’ book lies in his having written it in the high-jingo style of imperialist literature that would have made many a Victorian colonial enthusiast blush — but from the point of view of the soon-to-be colonised.
The task is accomplished with all the rhetorical subtlety of a particularly lurid issue of the Boy’s Own Paper. The book’s pages overflow with partisan adjectives: the English (and later the British) are described as “pathetic”, “weak” or “powerless”, “inconsequential at best” and “a rather impoverished and dreary kingdom”. Whatever non-Western people did was heroic; whatever the British did was “heroic”, between sarcastic quotation marks.
Non-Western polities are invariably described as powerful and sophisticated, which rather raises the question of why so many of them were conquered by a few thousand people from a pathetic little island. The role of local collaborators, indispensable to the establishment and maintenance of imperial rule, is notably absent. It would have spoiled the narrative.
The many atrocities of the era are described in the most purple of prose, but they are only condemned when committed by Europeans. In a striking passage, Veevers patiently explains that when the English cut off the heads of their enemies, it was for “humiliation” and “deterrence”. When the Dahomians did it, it is matter-of-factly justified as “expressing the king’s spiritual power over the people”.
Even the bloody local warfare that blighted West Africa is blamed on European merchants providing its inhabitants with modern firearms, thus creating “the conditions for mass violence”, rather than on those who made the decision to go to war or pull the triggers.
When Japanese shoguns massacred Christian converts, forbade their subjects from travelling abroad and expelled foreigners, they were merely, according to Veevers, removing “the more corrosive European forces that elsewhere in Asia had paved the way for full-on colonisation” to create “an oasis of peace and prosperity within a maelstrom of violent Western imperialism”.
By refusing to make any negative judgement about the actions of his non-Western protagonists, blaming others for the atrocities they committed, and indeed by praising their worst actions, Veevers is effectively dismissing them as moral agents. The non-Western peoples in Veevers’ book can kill, conquer, exploit and sell slaves; what they cannot do is be bad. In other words, they have all the moral valence of a large rock.
Of the 500-odd titles in his bibliography, all but five are written in English
Of all the British villains in Veevers’ account, there is no one whose inclusion is more surprising than that of Sir Penderel Moon — a mild-mannered colonial civil servant and historian. His magnum opus, The British Conquest and Dominion of India (1989), was devoured by Veevers as an undergraduate. Now that he has achieved intellectual enlightenment, he condemns Moon for committing “a gross erasure of the people of India from his story”, relying on a quotation which does not reflect what Moon actually wrote.
It is useful to contrast the two authors. Moon spoke several Indian languages well enough to administer justice in the vernacular as a district officer in the Punjab, a skill required of all officers of the Indian Civil Service. For all Veevers’ claims of “reach[ing] beyond a British perspective to understand the histories and actions of the people who encountered them”, of the 500-odd titles in his bibliography, all but five are written in English. Not a single one is written in a non-European language.
Despite the impression of imperial eccentricity conjured by his name, Moon was a sober observer of the British dominion in India. He thought it had done some good and some bad things, and that its eventual demise was long overdue. Dismissed by the British government for being too sympathetic toward Indian nationalists, he later spent 14 years holding important positions within the government of independent India at the invitation of its new rulers. Despite having many reasons to do so, they did not hate British people such as Moon anywhere near so much as Veevers seems to.
In his conclusion, after reassuring his readers that he does not advocate “for the British role in the history of this period to be erased” (albeit after minimising it over 400 pages), Veevers adds mournfully that through its colonial expansion, “Britain ‘Unmade the World’”. Yet, Britain (and other Western powers) did make the world. The central fact of modernity is the astounding success of European — and later American — powers in their campaigns of global expansion, a fact that no amount of rewriting of “Anglocentric histories of the early modern period” can change.
If I am writing this in English, it is partly because generations of Britons took the view that “there is no land unhabitable nor sea innavigable” and sailed forth from these islands to trade and to conquer. This does not mean that the experiences of the non-Western world should be ignored, far from it. To the extent that Veevers has tried to make an unfamiliar part of their histories more accessible to a lay audience, he is to be commended.
Countering the triumphalist narratives of earlier histories by simply rewriting them from the perspective of the eventual losers, though, whilst stripping them of moral agency in the process, is simply to replace one set of prejudices with another.
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