I was born as the sun was setting on the British Empire and so had to endure the older people around me, who regularly reminded me how great our Empire was and a media machine in denial, which tried to carry on as if nothing was changing. I must admit there were times when having a British passport did have its advantages; but times have changed because some of the once welcoming ex-commonwealth countries are become a little cooler towards us. Fresh in my mind was a recent trip to Sri-Lanka, where I had to travel half a day and then queue the other half before they would extend my visa so I could stay in their country a little longer. The other country was India, another place we ruled and plundered for a few hundred years before leaving it in such a rush, the shameful chaos and death that resulted from Partition became almost inevitable.
The UK is not the only European power whose citizens are sometimes expected to shoulder the guilt of an often shameful colonial past that occurred decades or even centuries before they were born. Until the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 the citizens of Germany born after 1945 had endured almost half a century, trying to be extra nice and as none-confrontational as possible because they knew that most of the population of Europe, indeed the whole World despised them because of what Hitler did. Although we have never been asked to feel such a degree of shame for the things our forefathers did in our more distant colonial lands. Slavery, Aboriginal genocide in Australia, the Irish Potato Famine and countless atrocities committed in the name of progress in Africa.
Instead of shame successive governments seemed to pride themselves with the mantra – at least we left them with a functioning government and a cast iron set of administrative systems to build on. This is partially true because France, the Netherlands and Portugal have an even worse record of just abandoning former possessions, with little or no help given to those charged with sorting out the disarray left behind. The deadly conflicts in Vietnam, The Congo, and Angola are just 3 examples of the cost of not consulting the people before running away.
The Falklands War of 1982, now regarded as the death rattle of the British Empire, allowed the UK to briefly re-invented itself as a caring, listening and benevolent motherland, wanting the best for the peoples of its remaining protectorates. This was simply not true because before the Argentineans invaded the Falkland Islands, the place had been forgotten as little more than a strategic bargaining chip, which would allow the UK a seat at the table on the inevitable day, when the Antarctic and its mineral wealth was finally carved up. The people of the Falklands had little more rights than the peoples of any of the other UK administered Atlantic Islands such as St Helena, Tristan de Cuna or Ascension Island. London couldn’t have cared less what the people of these places wanted until Margaret Thatcher needed a stronger excuse than mineral rights to win the propaganda war and justify the islands re-capture and so bestowed on the Islanders the previously only dreamed of right of Self-Determination.
Thirty years on the people living on another Atlantic Island, Ascension, are being threatened by a different form of invasion, which may soon see them removed. The UK are now actively encouraging those companies with permission to operate on the island, to outsource as many jobs as possible to people from the UK, despite many of these jobs formerly being carried out by the indigenous St Helenians, or Saints as they are known there, some whose families have lived and worked on the Island for over a hundred years. Those Saints who have hung onto their jobs, have gradually been put onto short term contracts, which can be terminated at any moment and make the person vulnerable to a recent, but now strictly applied law that says you cannot stay on the Island if you are retired or are over 18 and unemployed – a crime for which you and your family could be swiftly deported to the sister island of St Helena, even if you have lived on Ascension all your life.
It is all about money and back-scratching of course because the main reason the UK wants to clear the Island is so it can lease this strategic island to the USA for use as an airbase, just like they did with the Indian Ocean Islands of Diego Garcia forty years ago, once they had forcibly removed the last native occupants and condemned them to a miserable exile elsewhere.
The UK government had hoped that it could quietly get on with this insidious form of ethnic cleansing without too many people noticing or even caring about it. But we all should care for the rights of the voiceless peoples of the world and not just when we need an excuse to do something like in the Falklands. I also care because I gained an intimate knowledge of Ascension Island and its people, when I worked there a few years ago. Then, as now I was appalled by their lack of rights and the fact that nobody ever seemed to be prepared to fight their corner. My time there is a dominant theme of my recent book: Tales of the South Atlantic. You will find a link to the book on the right, where you will be able to read more, but here is my first impression of them:
At the time I had no way of knowing that my affection for this disparate, hard-working group of stevedores would stay with me long after I had forgotten most of the other faces and voices from that place. Their wonderful sense of humour and fun somehow underlined an unpolluted innocence that had come from their years of isolation… The pressures and cynicism of the modern world had seemingly just passed them by.
In the 21st Century former colonial powers should not be allowed to simply get away with using, abusing or ethnically cleansing the peoples who remain in their territories. They should care what the world thinks of them. I care and if you do too please forward this to someone you believe might; or tweet if you can or simply re-tweet the link that brought you here. Thank you.
For more details on this sad case please read this report from the Guardian.