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Last updated - Tuesday, 08-Feb-2005 11:16:29 EST

Few of the horrors which the British visited upon the captive peoples of empire had not already been tried and tested at home; or at least within the British Isles. Indeed, much of the imperial adventure was a projection abroad of policies and practices of which the people of Britain were the first victims. The British global extractive mission later benefited the poor of Britain, but not before the people had been the object of social and economic experiments, the 'success' of which caused them to be carried eventually into the remote corners of empire.

Whether it was evictions of the poor, the enclosure of common resources, the political uses of famine in Ireland, the destruction of cultures ( the clan system in Scotland), the outlawing of dissent (the bloody penal code, the Six Acts and the Combination Laws), the criminalizing of dissidents, and the use of the gallows, or transportation as deterrents or forms of social cleansing, a story emerges that was to be repeated across the world with the passing of time.

In 1746, after the Jacobite rising (the last attempt to restore the House of Stuart to the English and Scottish throne) was crushed at Culloden in Scotland, the English soldiery set out across the Highlands, looting and killing, leaving a trail of devastation wherever they went. Not content with removing the threat to the throne, they laid waste the landscape, scattered the people and prepared the way for the total destruction of the old Highland clan system. In other words, they destroyed a culture which they perceived as barbaric, backward and brutal. In order to ensure the annihilation of the way of life, the government in London enacted vengeful legislation which struck at the heart of the vanquished culture. A law was passed against the wearing of Highland dress, the tartan plaid and kilt were banned. The skills of weaving the patterns and making dyes from the herbs on the hills fell into disuse. John Prebble states 'The clans were no longer, their true identity had gone with the broadsword and their chiefs…The banning of their dress took from the clans their pride and their sense of belonging to a unique people. The abolition of the hereditary jurisdictions of their chiefs, which followed, destroyed the political and social system that had held them together.' The Act of Proscription of 1747 banned the wearing of the tartan, the teaching of Gaelic, the right of Highlanders to their ceremonial gatherings and the playing of bagpipes in Scotland.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, the Highlands were subjected to further violence. The landlords of the lands and estates in the Highlands systematically drove out the local people from their homes in order to replace them with more profitable sheep. These 'clearances' drove people from their ancestral lands to emigration ships bound for the colonies, or sent them to settle into rocky coastal areas. The 'crofters', of the Highlands were small cultivators, with a little arable land and pastures with cows. They were proud of their independence. The most brutal evictions occurred in Sutherland in the northernmost part of Scotland. Ships of emigrants sailed to North America. Many of the reluctant migrants suffered from typhus and cholera, and never reached their destination.

Since Elizabethan times, former common and 'waste' land had been enclosed (privatised), and in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this process accelerated. Although its ostensible purpose was improvements in agriculture, it also applied to the creation of parks and hunting lands for the aristocracy. In the process, many poor villagers who had subsisted as labourers, ekeing out a living by keeping a cow or some pigs and using common lands for grazing, gathering wild fruits and nuts and hunting rabbits and birds, lost access to resources which made the difference between bare sufficiency and hunger.

I have a book of memoirs of rural poverty published in 1904, which is an account of the life of rural labourers in the early 19th century: but for the difference in climate and nature of the crops, it could well be a vivid evocation of the condition of the poor in India or Brazil 200 years on. 'I was born in 1804, and worked early as a ploughboy, with my mother's boots tied to my feet with string. My first engagement was with a farmer, who, in return for my labour, gave me free food and no wages.' 'I've done all sorts of work in my time, moving about from place to place, just where I could get most. I used to go cow-minding and bird-minding for threepence a day. I used to go digging stones; that was when I was married and had three children. I was working for the parish then, and all they allowed me was five shillings a week. My wife used to go out in the fields, weeding and stone-picking; or she'd go gleaning in harvest time and pick up perhaps a bushel of corn and take it to the mill where they'd change it for a little flour. We were nigh starved sometimes, and if it wasn't for the rabbits and hares running about the hills, and a rabbit now and again, I don't know where we'd 've been. We didn't see tea in them days. We couldn't afford it. We used to toast a bit of bread at the fire till it was black as coal, and put it in the teapot and pour water on it, that was all the tea we got.' 'Seven till five in the night I worked as a lad, and lived mostly on crammings (flour mixed with the husks of corn). I went to work for a penny a day, and that rose to twopence when I was ten years old. When I got to twelve they gave me one shilling and fourpence a week'. 'I'd very little schooling, and when I first went out to work I'd get a penny for carrying water..I worked for threepence a day spreading the manure and picking stones.' 'You'd see the children come out in the streets and pick up a bit of bread, and even potato peelings'.

During the 18th century draconian laws, mostly relating to property, made more and more offences punishable by death. Robert Hughes, in his account of the convict colonies in Australia, states 'The most notorious of these laws, passed in the 1720s, and known as the Waltham black Act, 'passed by the Commons without a murmur of dissent, prescribed the gallows for over two hundred possible offences in various permutations. One could be hanged for burning a house or a hut, a standing rick of corn, or an insignificant pile of straw; for poaching a rabbit, for braking down the 'head or mound' of a fishpond, or even cutting down an ornamental shrub; or for appearing on a high road with a sooty face.' Public hangings were festivals of death, which the ruling classes believed would serve as deterrent spectacle to potential wrongdoers, even though the ceremonial route from Newgate prison to Tyburn gallows often turned into a macabre fair, where the crowds expressed their sympathies with the condemned. However repressive the legislation, crime continued to increase; and criminals were detained in 'the hulks', disused ships lying off-shore near the great seaports. Even these became inadequate to hold their cargo of misery, and it was this that led to the introduction of transportation: between 1788 and 1868 at least 160,000 'felons' were consigned to the dungeons of memory at the other end of the world.

Transportation encompassed a wide range of political 'criminals'. The first convict ship to carry political prisoners was from Ireland in 1795, members of the Society of United Irishmen, and many more in the wake of the Rebellion of 1798. Hundreds arrested during the agricultural riots of the 1830s, including the Dorsetshire 'Tolpuddle Martyrs', guilty of an attempt to set up an agricultural trade union in 1834, were also part of the enforced exile. Agricultural unrest was in part a response to mechanisation, but it was also created by the slump in agriculture in the 1830s. 481 people involved in what came to be known as the last Agricultural Labourers' Revolt were shipped to Australia. Transportation failed to abate crime or to suppress radicalism - facts which did not interfere with the imperial way with exiling, criminalizing or jailing dissenters, freedom-fighters and other threats to British rule in the wider world.

When Cobbett undertook his Rural Rides in the 1820s, and described the condition of the labouring poor, he might also have been describing the Adivasis of India, who found themselves excluded from the forests upon which they had depended on for sustenance even longer than the peasantry of England. Cobbett denounced the enclosures of common lands, 'from the skirts of which the labourers have been banished.' 'In this beautiful island every inch of land is appropriated by the rich. No hedges, no ditches, no commons, no grassy lanes: a country divided into great farms; a few trees surround the great farmhouse. All the rest is bare of trees; and the wretched labourer has not a stick of wood, and has no place for a pig or cow to graze or even to lie down upon.'

Cobbett describes a fertile valley in Wiltshire, and calculates the value of its annual produce, which, he estimates, is ten times what is available to the producers. 'The infernal system causes it all to be carried away. Not a bit of good beef, or mutton or veal, and scarcely a bit of bacon is left for those who raise all this food and wool. The labourers here look as if they were half-starved…I really am ashamed to ride a fat horse, to have a full belly, and to have a clean shirt upon my back, while I look at these wretched countrymen of mine; while I actually see them reeling with weakness; when I see their poor faces present me with nothing but skin and bone, while they are toiling to get the wheat and meat ready to be carried away and devoured by the tax-eaters.'

During the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s, Cecil Woodham-Smith writes 'The influence of laissez-faire on the treatment of Ireland during the famine is impossible to exaggerate. Almost without exception the high officials and politicians responsible for Ireland were fervent believers in non-interference by Government, and the behaviour of the British authorities only becomes explicable when their fanatical belief in private enterprise and their suspicions of any action which might be considered Government intervention are borne in mind.

'The loss of the potato crop was therefore to be made good, without Government interference, by the operations of private enterprise and private firms, using the normal channels of commerce. The Government was not to appear in food markets as a buyer, there was to be 'no disturbance' of the ordinary course of trade' and 'no complaint from private traders' on account of Government competition. This ferocious commitment to an ideology of non-interference by government in economic activity led to or unnecessarily exacerbated the successive famines in India; while even as late as the 1980s, during the time of the Ethiopian famine, fresh vegetables grown in Ethiopia were still being exported to the supermarkets of Europe.

In The Making of the English Working Class, E.P.Thompson describes how the condition of the handloom weavers reduced them from prosperity to extremes of destitution within a generation. Attracted by machine-spun yarn, weavers prospered in Lancashire in the last years of the 18th century, and many small farmers turned to a livelihood from weaving. From the early 19th century, and weaving became - together with general labouring - the resource of the northern unemployed. The existence of spinning-mills attracted thousands of outworkers. Their isolation and lack of organisation led to declining income and the need to work longer hours for less money. The handloom weavers were not just a residual group: E.P. Thompson states that for hundreds of years, they had been the largest single group of industrial workers in Britain. With the growth of the factory system and development of power-looms, the condition of the handloom weavers deteriorated further. They - or their children - were starved into entering the factory system.

Thompson quotes evidence from the Select Committee on Emigration (1827) of conditions in some parts of Lancashire 'Mrs Hulton and myself, in visiting the poor, were asked by a person almost starving to go into a house. We there found on one side of the fire a very old man, apparently dying, on the other side, a young man about eighteen with a child on his knee whose mother had just died and been buried. We were going away from that house, when the woman said 'Sir, you have not seen all.' We went up stairs, and, under some rags, we found another young man, the widower; and on turning down the rags, which he was unable to remove himself, we found another man who was dying, and who did die in the course of the day. I have no doubt that the family were actually starving art the time.'

The colonisation of the people of these islands preceded what was inflicted upon the wider empire. These practices served as model and inspiration to those who subsequently controlled large tracts of the earth. Many of the acts of cruelty inflicted on the people in the British Isles were inflicted in their turn on others by their victims - the people who had served their time in the carceral lands of Australia and Tasmania set upon the indigenous peoples there, with the same kind of vindictive fury with which they themselves had been pursued.

The story of imperialism began at home. It is a great historical irony that the way in which the beaten and brutalised people of industrial society became reconciled to a system that had dispossessed them was by the export of that system to the countries and peoples of empire. This ought, in theory, to have created great sympathy between the poor of Britain and the subject peoples abroad; and indeed, there was considerable talk in the radical movements of 19th century Britain of the 'white slaves' of the industrial system, who saw their fate mirrored in the wider practice of slavery and subordination in the world. But on the whole, the experience of the poor at home and their counterparts abroad increasingly diverged, as the people in Britain came to identify their interests within industrial society.

The reason for this is scarcely a mystery. The small consolations of the poor of Britain were won precisely at the expense of the subjugation of the people abroad, forced and indentured and bonded labour, the annexation of their fruitful lands, the theft of their wealth. From the early years of empire, the victims of slavery and colonialism supplied sugar, tea, coffee, cocoa, cloves, rice, nutmeg, tobacco, snuff, laudanum (an opium derivative) which dulled pain and sent infants to sleep; later, canned tropical fruit and chilled meat. These modest comforts were wrested from the peoples of empire on an even greater scale than the security, common land and freedom of the people of Britain had been alienated from them. In the process, cultures were destroyed, peoples uprooted, the free gifts of nature enclosed, ancient ways of life were laid waste and sustainable societies ruined. If that was the price of the betterment of the hungry and wanting at home, so be it. They felt they had served their time in the exile of poverty and insufficiency. It was there turn to enjoy some of the fruits of empire which had been repatriated in such spectacular but unfair abundance.

So the people of the islands did indeed, benefit at last from the plunder and exploitation of empire; and this is how they came to identify with their rulers who brought them these 'benefits'. Their acquiescence was gained: they became complicit in processes which had dispossessed them. Ironically, this impoverishment was visited upon distant others; and it permitted over time the restoration to a life of more or less sufficiency, from which they had themselves originally been evicted; but it was an industrialised sufficiency, created by violence, piracy and the rape of the riches and raw materials of the whole world.

Nothing that was done in the most distant corners of empire was not practised at home first; and the reconciliation of the people of Britain came from the export of this model of expropriation, perhaps the most productive export ever known.

That the processes initiated then continue today scarcely needs to be restated. The dismantling of empire, and its perpetuation by economic as well as military instruments is well-known. But that it was constructed on a thoroughgoing colonisation of the people of Britain is less readily acknowledged. It is important to do so. It isn't only those who aspire to the liberation of their countries in the South who have still to reclaim their history, it is also - possibly even more so - the captive of imperial privilege. That is a long and arduous journey, and it has scarcely begun.

Jeremy Seabrook
3 Springfield Avenue
Muswell Hill
London n10 3SU
July 2003