Brexit, a Splendid Isolation? Why Britain Should Remain in the European Union


‘The Last of England’ by Ford Madox Brown (1855)

Standing on the side-lines of Britain’s ongoing EU referendum debate makes for a peculiar and a rather worrying spectacle. It is probably the single most important political decision this country will make in a generation; a decision that will echo for decades and have grave economic and political consequences not only for Britain, but for the future of a continent. Yet, the voting public is presented with a string of misinformation to base this seminal decision upon that would make any propagandist blush. As the story goes: should Britain leave the union a veritable Arcadia awaits this ‘sceptred isle’ – a renaissance akin to a third British Empire where international trade links would be forged and ‘Britishness’ saved for posterity. Whilst remaining in would inexorably mean the advent of an ‘Asiatic horde’ descending upon Stevenage and Wellingborough alike, local pubs replaced by Polski skleps, chippys into döner kebab shops and the death of English as a language.

A Nation of Emigrants

It is an odd mix of arrogant British exceptionalism combined with a fear of ‘the other’ – a familiar refrain in xenophobic political discourse from the Athenian and Roman notion of the foreign ‘barbarian’ to Australia’s ‘yellow peril’. Quite predictably then, the ‘Leave’ side base their campaign on the emotionally evocative issue of immigration, conveniently forgetting the backdrop of globalisation or indeed Britain’s centuries-long role in forging, fomenting and benefiting from this very process. Has Britain’s own waves of mass emigration in the 19th-20th centuries already been forgotten? Have the 11 million men, women and children that left these shores for the New World, the antipodean Dominions or the settler colonies in Southern, Central or Eastern Africa all been erased from Britain’s collective memory? Or is it simply overlooked that Britain, a nation of emigrants since Tudor times, maintained negative net-migration figures until the early 1980s? For anyone believing the mantra that British culture is somehow under siege, or that this slippery concept of ‘Britishness’ is on the verge of extinction in the face of mass overseas migration, then ask yourself what is the most commonly understood and spoken language in the world, who is the world’s most famous living person or what country is best known for its bad food and dry humour? I think you will find the answers are English, the Queen and Britain respectively. A simplistic line of reasoning warrants an equally simplistic retort, although it belies the hypocrisy of British anti-immigration rhetoric amid global Anglo-phone cultural dominance.

The second component to the Little Englander set of arguments pertains to sovereignty – that is, when the issue is not simply an underhand way of referring to immigration policy. In similarity with ‘Britishness’, the concept of sovereignty is an elusive one. In an ever increasingly interconnected world, the very notion of national sovereignty is becoming an anachronism. Even at the height of British imperial might, Britain depended upon a system of informal international agreements and understandings with continental powers. ‘Splendid isolation’ was never more than a caricature that even Conservative Lord Salisbury (ascribed to Salisbury despite being one of Otto von Bismarck’s closest partners) thought to be dangerous. Perhaps counter-intuitive, but in today’s global economy it is membership of a regional trading bloc that acts as the guarantor of a population’s political and economic agency, i.e. ‘national sovereignty’. Whereas societies of the early-modern world might have been usefully atomised within the confines of a nation-state, these political structures are inadequate to meet the challenges of the globalised twenty-first century – a time where environmental, political and economic concerns have little respect for national frontiers and much less can be addressed by one state in isolation. Outside these great political and economic constellations, a small or medium sized nation-state will find itself the victim of the classic imperial strategy of divide and rule, as indeed Britain, of all countries, ought to know. A British retreat from the EU would in any respect represent a Pyrrhic victory for these self-professed champions of national sovereignty. Should the United Kingdom want access to the internal market it would find itself in the unenviable position of Norway (minus the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, an advanced welfare state and a progressive political culture). It would have to comply with all the existing EU legislation (including free movement of people) whilst renouncing any influence over policy-making. In other words Britain would choose to become an EU satellite state. Perhaps not an unacceptable proposition for a country of five million such as Norway, but for a former world power with over 60 million inhabitants it seems a peculiar, self-destructive sort of choice to make.

If Britain instead renounces this political subservience and its access to the internal market, the country would face an economic malaise, unknown both in scale and scope. Whilst a recession is a near certainty in the short-term, the longer-term prospects, indeed perhaps for several decades, would likely see Britain experiencing markedly slower economic growth than if it had remained in the free-trading zone, an income loss far outweighing the £136m weekly ‘subscription’ charge. One does not need to be an economist to understand that a tariff barrier imposed by a potentially hostile EU, eager to set an example to deter other potential leavers, would impact negatively upon the British economy (as of 2014 the United Kingdom exported 44.4% of its goods and services to the European Union). Unlike its position in the nineteenth century, contemporary Britain does not enjoy many absolute or comparative advantages over other leading economies. To retain competitiveness outside the European common market would mean the reduction of wages and a general weakening of the employment conditions of British workers.  In other words, competitive advantages could only be gained through a set of beggar-thy-neighbour policies – a race to the bottom Adam Smith warned against in his Wealth of Nations. Rather than a Singapore or Hong Kong, who enjoys commercial access to their hinterlands,  this post-EU Britain would likely assume the characteristics of an offshore tax-haven: a libertarian casino economy under the auspices of a ‘corporate-friendly’ night-watchman state, complete with the negative consequences that usually follows for such polities’ ordinary citizens. Little wonder then that it is the Tory hard-right who are Brexit’s staunchest proponents, manipulating the misinformed working-classes to support their cause, akin to turkeys voting for Christmas.

The European Union and the Pax Europaea

Despite what impression you might get from the Brexit-fevered British tabloid press, the European Union is not only about trade or the prosaic straight cucumber. The Union is principally a project of peace, a sharing of sovereignty to the mutual benefit of all member-states. Perhaps an obvious observation to make for any ‘continental’ of the older generation, but an argument that is at best whispered, at worst mocked on the north side of the English Channel. Viewing the history of Europe over the past two millennia, there are two periods that stands out for their relative internal stability, one is famously called the Pax Romana (27 BC to 180 AD) the other, less famously so, the Pax Europaea (1945-today). The latter achievement is largely credited to the creation of what is now the European Union and garnered the supra-national organisation a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. There is an interesting inverted parallel between the two periods. Whilst peace within the Roman Empire was in part forged through the use or threat of military coercion from the imperial centre, what Tacitus famously observed as: ‘they create a desolation and call it peace’, its contemporary equivalent is ensured by a framework of institutions created through an unprecedented voluntary pooling of sovereignty. It is these structures, despite all their flaws and foibles, that prevents radical agency from disrupting stability and, in the long-term, acts to all member-states’ mutual benefit.

The other inverted parallel can be drawn between the population movements that eventually led to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and indeed contemporary debates over Brexit. Whilst Rome was overrun on account of its inability to vanquish or integrate the external hostile populations into its empire, a similar problem faces the EU today with regards to how it assimilates the ‘other’. Whilst Rome was perceived an imperial conqueror, the EU is surrounded by countries that are sympathetic to its cause and who want to join. This alone is testament to the EU’s perceived economic and political advantages. The challenge, therefore, is not the population movements of peoples’ per se, but individual member states’ reaction to migration. Existing member states can either view immigration as an opportunity, and rationally take heed of academic studies showing that migration has an overall positive impact on EU economies, or they can choose the emotional xenophobic response that view immigration, skilled or unskilled, as a threat. Apart from the historical analogies, there is something deeply immoral about undermining a system of international relations that maintains dialogue and co-existence over instability and war. One needn’t look further back than to the breakdown of the Concert of Europe in 1914 or the League of Nations in 1933-9 to witness their potential disastrous results.

A Distraction from Domestic Political Failings

With regard to immigration it is worth noting that Britain is not a party to the Schengen Agreement and as such would not directly be affected by illegal migration within the zone of free movement. This, however, does not prevent populist politicians from invoking that old favourite of distracting the public with an external threat – in this case the EU – in order to avert the voters’ gaze from domestic political failings. The vast majority of challenges facing Britain’s population today such as housing shortages, unemployment, spending cuts and rising inequality are the result of Westminster’s neo-liberal consensus, a Conservative policy package more commonly known under the epithet of austerity. That the same home-grown Tory politicians responsible for these policies have the audacity to blame the European Union and remain largely unchallenged, is testament to a partisan British press that has failed in offering informed and reasonably objective journalism to its readers.

Regardless of the EU referendum’s outcome, the debates are from a historical point of view interesting as they offer such a clear demonstration that imperial ideologies often long outlive their empires. As Professor Danny Dorling pointed out in his excellent article, one of the main reasons behind Britain’s uneasy relationship with the EU is its imperial nostalgia. Particularly Britons of the older generation still, to a degree, perceive their society’s identity through the prism of a global empire, rather than as a medium-sized state that principally belongs within the geographical, economic and political sphere of Europe. In this way, the referendum might prove the ultimate end to the British Empire, imagined or otherwise, particularly if Scotland should seek to leave the United Kingdom following an English leave and Scottish remain vote. This said, Britain has left an important historical legacy in Europe and the wider world which would naturally be left unaffected by any result. However should Britain decide to cancel its membership it would lose not only a substantial amount of its political influence in Europe, but by extension in the Extra-European world as well. This is due to the multiplying effect of each member state’s power through working in solidarity as one great bloc, very much akin to the improved negotiating power of individual workers who organise themselves in trade unions. Hence, it is the very act of relinquishing sovereignty that ensures the nation-state’s agency in this highly globalised world – to paraphrase the late Professor Alan Milward’s thesis in ‘The European Rescue of the Nation-State‘ (1992). Isolationist Britain would, in this ‘Leave’ scenario, not only be positioned on the geographical fringe of Europe, but in a political and economic no-mans-land between the two great trading blocs of North America and Europe: ‘splendid’ isolation indeed.

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Back to the future for economic inequality

Apart from global warming, it is arguably the rise in economic inequality witnessed over the past forty years that constitutes the most significant threat to our democratic social order. Unlike pandemics or acts of terrorism, inequality develops insidiously during which it transforms social institutions and indeed the very way in which we think. It moves us away from fundamental ethical principles enshrined in the golden rule to accept vast greed and inequalities as a universal certainty. Like an intellectual virus it moulds political philosophies so as to make us rationalise its negative social effects post facto as inevitable and even desirable.

US income inequality 1910-2010

Source: Kunal Jasty, A Piketty Primer: “Capital” in 10 Graphs (

The same ideology that made the slave-holder believe his position unquestionable in the early 19th century is what makes the CEO of today think her salary in multiples of hundreds over the average worker as fairly earned. Or why the heirs and heiresses look down upon the striving poor convinced that their ‘birth right’ was inevitable. Indeed it is the same grounds upon which the poorest in society often also votes for the most conservative party in elections. Why – because right-wing thought appeals to the most primitive, yet powerful aspect of the human intellect, our ego. Although recognising that the odds for winning the lottery is infinitesimally slight, millions still play it because they are convinced that just they might win. The ego which persuades us that we are special and will one day ‘make it’ also renders us almost incapable of defining ourselves as victims of an unjust system no matter our socio-economic status.

As the recently published Credit Suisse report found, the richest 1% of the world’s population now owns 48.2% of all wealth; indeed the poorest half owns less than 1%. But the bank’s findings were hardly ground-breaking; they merely serve to further confirm Thomas Piketty’s findings. The latter’s great academic achievement was to demonstrate the inherent flaw in the capitalist socio-economic model, namely that over time the return on capital is substantially greater than the rate of economic growth. Left to itself without any mechanism of wealth redistribution, this model will over time concentrate capital onto fewer and fewer hands. It was only due to the extreme shocks of the two world wars and the great depression that made the first post-war decades so remarkable in their egalitarian wealth distribution. It was this period of Western history Paul Krugman termed the ‘great compression;’ a period in which a majority middle-class ensured high economic growth rates and the institutional development of a welfare state. Unfortunately, neo-liberal economic orthodoxy has since succeeded in rolling back the progress made in the three decades after WW2 – today we are instead witnessing the return to normalcy, the great divergence has managed to recreate the levels of economic inequality of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But aside from the negative moral reflections that can be made about the imbalances in wealth distribution, it is a trend that both impedes total economic growth and undermines democratic rights. As Joseph Stiglitz has argued, high levels of economic inequality reduce aggregate demand, encourage rent-seeking rather than innovation and undermines trust. They constitute a holy trinity of rational economic arguments in favour of putting in place redistribution mechanisms so as to ensure greater prosperity for all in society, including the wealthiest one percent.

Unfortunately the global economy is instead headed down a well-trodden path. The two major routes to financial success in the 18th and 19th century world were not through hard work or innovation, but rather through birth or marriage; you were either an heir or you married one. In a society determined by inheritance and class you will also find a much-reduced rate of intellectual utilisation since fewer people have access to education and capital is allocated on a non-meritocratic principle. Consequently the society’s competitiveness is reduced and its internal democratic debates are stifled. Wealthy individuals can translate their financial muscle into policymaking: either directly by funding political parties and lobbying activities, or indirectly through the funding of political think-tanks and of professorial chairs at academic institutions. All these tactics has been successfully employed in particular the US and Britain since the early 1980s. Over time this strategy has served to frame the political debates in both countries, whilst also co-opting the political, and parts of the intellectual, elite to the cause of the wealthy – namely laissez faire policies.

It is this political import from imperial China that must bear the brunt of the blame for today’s level of economic inequality. As Britain emerged as the world’s industrial powerhouse in the late 18th century, it also adopted the doctrine of free trade as an axiomatic prerequisite for not only economic, but civilizational development. Over the 19th and early 20th centuries the doctrine was employed not only as the pillar of domestic fiscal policy, but it formed the principal objective of foreign policy as well. Such was the unwavering belief in the transformational power of free trade that it was the tool of choice even in Britain’s struggle against the African slave trade. English national identity is still very much tied up with this concept – that of the free market as a one stop shop cure-all, neglecting the fact that the absence of capital leaves you disenfranchised in such a system. However since Britain no longer enjoys many absolute or comparative economic advantages, the continued insistence upon the doctrine in this age of globalisation only serves to undermine the employment rate and earning capacity of its low-and medium skilled workers.

The ‘big bang’ deregulation of the financial markets by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and the doctrinaire continuation of this privatisation agenda affecting all sectors of the economy by John Major, New Labour and David Cameron in the decades since have only served to increase economic inequality. Real wages for the majority have remained stagnant since the early 2000s whilst the richest 1% has amassed as much as the bottom 55%. Britain truly is the odd one out in Europe in more ways than through its left-hand side driving or absence of mixing taps. But contrary to what followers of classic liberal economic thought might have theorised, the trickle of economic benefit has not dripped down upon the hapless hoi polloi. It has rather trickled up to further inflate the offshore bank accounts of the rent-seeking hoi oligoi of the City. The rising tide has indeed lifted all the luxury yachts to dizzying heights, whilst in a tsunami-like fashion it has sunk the majority of the light craft moored in the British marina.

The question really is why, in this information age, in which an unprecedented proportion of society has benefited from an education, there is such complacency with regard to the radical rise in economic inequality. To find an answer to this (particularly if you are an historian of 19th century East Africa) one must look to the history of East African slavery. Slaves on the Island of Pemba in the Sultanate of Zanzibar constituted in the 1880-90s approximately 95% of the population, in contrast the slave-owning Omani elite numbered only around 2.5%. Despite their numerical inferiority they managed to control the slave population and avoid revolts. To place the statistics in an international perspective: the slave population in revolutionary Haiti constituted 88% (in 1789) and in the not so revolutionary slave-holding states of the US around 32% (in 1860). Frederick Cooper, the leading scholar of East African plantation slavery, hypothesised that despite the Zanzibar slaves having had every opportunity to successfully rebel they refrained from doing so because they had internalised the ideology of slavery. This was the way of things and who were they to challenge the existing order. Perhaps it is time for us to recognise that the existing state of affairs is not in our common interest and to adopt a socio-economic model that benefits all of society rather than just a very small minority.

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Eunuchs for the Sultan of Zanzibar

In the autumn of 1884 the British Consul at Zanzibar reported to the Liberal Foreign Secretary Earl Granville that the Sultan Barghash had imported ten slave-women and nine boy eunuchs to his harem. Although a violation of the Anti-Slave Trade treaty of 1873, the British authorities turned a blind-eye, as any interference would prejudice his co-operation in suppressing the East African slave trade. This was particularly acute in 1884 as the drought on the mainland led to a substantial increase in slave trafficking since famine-stricken parents pawned their children to slave dealers. The Sultanate itself was declared a British protectorate in 1890. There are no further mentions of such consignments after 1884, thus it is likely that it was the last such ‘shipment’ received by the harems of Zanzibar before abolition.

A Street Scene in Zanzibar (The Graphic, 1873)

‘Slave-Dealers and Slaves – A Street Scene in Zanzibar (The Graphic, 1873)

My Lord,

I HAVE the honour to report the arrival of the Sultan’s steam-vessel “Malacca,” regarding which your Lordship telegraphed on the 28th November.

This vessel has landed here for the Sultan’s harem ten Georgian women and nine boy eunuchs.

The agent for these purchases is one Abdullah bin Salim El Hemri, who sailed some months ago by mail-steamer. At the time he left it was understood by those familiar with such things here that a fresh consignment of women might be expected, and since the Sultan has taken to running Pilgrim ships a season never passes without this agent visiting Europe.

The women were sent in the Austrian Lloyd’s steamer to Jeddah, to join the “Malacca;” the eunuchs purchased in the Hejas.

The difficulty of dealing with the case of such women is, that being brought up from childhood to look forward to harem life, they think when taken up by a Sovereign Prince that they have drawn the highest prize in the lottery of life; and in cases of this sort, with which we have before attempted to deal, it has been found impossible to do anything, owing to the determination of the women themselves to reach their destination.

The case of eunuchs is different; once reduced to that state it is difficult to say what else, out of Europe, they are fit for; but surely the mutilation of boys for the Oriental market ought to be treated as a capital crime.

                                                                                    I have, &c.

(Signed)             JOHN KIRK.

Kirk to Granville, 20 December 1884, FO 881/5366, The National Archives.

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Israel – The Last of the Settler Colonies

Rewind the clock more or less than a century and you will find a world teeming with settler colonies engaged in battle with ‘unruly natives.’ Today only one remains; Israel is the last of a dying breed, the last of the settler colonies.

American Progress by John Gast (1872)

“American Progress” by John Gast (1872)

The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is often described as unique – as a conflict with no historical precedent. But viewed through the eyes of an imperial historian it is on the contrary reassuringly, or rather, depressingly familiar. In a largely post-colonial world, colonial conflicts are certainly harder to spot. But there are also less savoury grounds for not recognising the events of today’s Middle East as analogous with those who took place in America, Africa and Australia in the age of imperialism: simply because the treatment of the indigenous peoples of these continents have been universally brandished as immoral and any comparison would reflect unfavourably upon Israel. Apart from the moral aspects, settler colonialism is also negatively perceived due to the dangerous precedent it sets within the sphere of international relations, since it affords legitimacy to ‘might is right’ realpolitik over any system of international law.

Settler Colonialism

History offers a reservoir of vicarious experience, and tapping into it presents a framework with which to analyse the dynamics between the two sides of the current conflict, namely that of settler colonialism. This particular mode of imperialism is hallmarked by the dispossession of land and the creation of a new state in which the original population is alienated of their rights by the incoming settlers. The indigenous people are cast as ‘others’ and dehumanised, written out of the settler state’s creation myth. Full citizen rights are commonly only the preserve of a particular ethnicity, namely that of the settlers themselves and their kin across the world which are welcomed into their new ethnically homogeneous polity. Secure in their just cause as the harbingers of civilisation and progress the settlers and their state will casually resort to the use of disproportional violence to quell opposition and indigenous resistance is simply branded mindless terrorism. This is often demonstrated when the state employs tactics of ethnic cleansing to expand territorially on land it has declared terra nullius. If demography is on their side it results in the creation of ‘successful’ settler states such as the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand where the native population is largely marginalised. But if the settlers are greatly outnumbered, there follows protracted and violent conflicts such as in French Algeria, Southern Rhodesia or indeed South Africa.

Critics of the settler colonialist analogy with regard to Israel point to the fact that it lacks a metropole, that Israel is not directed or controlled from an imperial centre that has transplanted its population onto foreign soil. Whilst this in a strict legal sense is true, America’s carte blanche military, economic and political support of Israel since the late 1960s would for all intents and purposes qualify. Whether a metropole is required at all for classifying settler colonialism is also doubtful. Although the African-Americans that settled Liberia and subjugated the local population between 1847 and 1980 did not have an imperial metropole, they were still settlers engaged in settler colonialism. Likewise with the Boer population in South Africa, after the Cape Colony had passed to Britain in 1806 and the Afrikaaners had been severed from their Dutch metropole. Even Algeria, the locus classicus of settler colonialism, which was settled by almost one million Europeans since the conquest in 1830, would not fit this metropole criterion. France defined the three northernmost provinces as integral departments of metropolitan France – hence the periphery was in constitutional terms also the metropole, although the distinction is purely semantic.

Another objection raised by skeptics to the analogy is that the motives of the Zionist settlers were markedly different from those of other settler colonies. In particular that the the Jewish immigrants to Palestine were motivated by a desire for protection in a national homeland, rather than economic gain – as were the case in many of the white settler colonies. But neither this is relevant for whether or not to classify the actions of a group as settler colonialism. The motives of settler colonists, either derived from nationalism, greed or any other reason, does not detract from or alter the basic components of this phenomenon: the dispossession of the indigenous population’s land and rights by a new population. Put in simple terms: whether you steal someone’s property due to your own property having been stolen, or simply for economic gain does not change the fact that you have engaged in theft.

Liberia proves an interesting parallel to Israel in regard to both motives and the righteousness of the settlers’ cause. Settled by the American Colonization Society (part of the ‘Back-to-Africa Movement’) in the early decades of the 19th century, one could easily conclude that the formerly enslaved African-Americans were a persecuted minority in the US. As apart from outright racial discrimination, millions of their ethnic group still suffered slavery in most states of the union. Courtesy of the slave trade the African-Americans, in similarity with the Jews, constituted an diaspora with arguably as many territorial rights to a portion of the continent from which they originally came as any Zionist claim to Palestine or ‘the holy land.’ Likewise they were not motivated by greed, but rather liberty (hence the name Liberia) and security from persecution in their own, new homeland. Also in parallel to the Jewish people, the African-American freedmen of the early 19th century had either themselves or their ancestors suffered through atrocities comparable in scope and brutality to the Nazi Holocaust – the Atlantic slave trade is estimated to have displaced more than 11 million people between the 16th and 19th centuries and killed, only on board ship, an estimated 1.5 million. Certainly the figures would be higher if those who died upon capture or during work as slaves would be included. This is obviously no competition in suffering, but it does offer a historical precedent. But could this suffering be invoked to legitimise the oppression of the native population that inhabited the territory which would form modern-day Liberia? And regardless of motives and ‘claims’ to African land, were the African-Americans not also settler colonists engaged in settler colonialism, creators of a settler state in which the indigenous population were alienated of their rights?

Settler Colonist Movements

The Zionist Movement, the precursor and basis of modern Israel, led by the Austrian atheist Theodor Herzl, was far from either God-given or particularly unique. It was simply one of the many settler colonist movements that grew out of the late-Victorian imperialist zeitgeist. In the 1880-90s it seemed like almost everyone had some sort of colonial scheme for Africa or any part of the world deemed suitable for European colonisation. Croydon’s great son, Verney Lovett Cameron, wanted to set up an abolitionist colony in modern-day Zambia, whilst Harry Johnston, on a mission for Kew Gardens to collect botanical specimens at Mount Kilimanjaro, also came home with signed treaty forms. A gentleman named Carl Peters, fresh history PhD in hand, found inspiration when looking through British colonial files during a visit to the Public Record Office to secure Germany a ‘place in the sun’ – so he founded German East Africa, modern-day Tanzania. Even a group of socialists couldn’t resist the bandwagon and set up the British Freeland Association in order to settle in British East Africa. But today only Herzl has a mountain named after him; the other colonial ventures were never as successful in the long term of alienating the rights of the indigenous population.

Desperate to make British East Africa remunerative with exports of cash crops grown by European settlers, the Balfour government offered in 1903 the Zionist movement a patch of land in the Rift Valley on the border between Kenya and Uganda. This so-called ‘New Palestine’ was to be a Jewish settlement had it not been refused at the last hurdle in 1905 by the World Zionist Organisation. Even then reservations were made by British authorities: ‘It is not likely that non-Jews will much frequent the Jewish settlement, but their rights should be carefully reserved. When circumstances permit the persecuted to become persecutors, they are apt to find the change very enjoyable…’ Sadly Sir Charles Eliot’s words still ring true over a century later.

A Victorian witnessing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza would doubtlessly have deemed it a ‘pacifying mission’ instituted in order to ‘teach the natives a lesson.’ Because to precisely describe this conflict a vocabulary from a more imperial age is required. The Germans present in 1880s East Africa were all too familiar with the use of excessive force or ‘wholesome severity’ in order to impose their will upon the perceived troublesome natives. In one incident reported in 1888, a German soldier had been fired upon, to which the Germans in retaliation burned the offending village and killed most of its inhabitants. To add insult to injury the Germans labelled those who resisted both ‘fanatical and stranger-hating.’ The parallel to the current Israeli tactics and rhetoric regarding Palestinian resistance is striking. Although most people today would snigger at the assertion that the native East Africans resisting German encroachment were simply fanatical and xenophobic. Strangely few would question the similar Israeli designation of the Palestinian resistance movement, not akin to South Africa’s ANC or Algeria’s FLN, but as ‘worshippers of a death cult.’

Israel’s Kith and Kin

Another striking parallel is the support settler colonists received from metropolitan public opinion – what were deemed their ‘kith and kin.’ Despite the concept’s banality, people have a preference for people who resemble themselves. British supporters of the white settlers in both Kenya and Southern Rhodesia invoked this argument. And no matter the atrocities committed by the pied noir in Algeria, the French could find no fault in the actions of their countrymen (although most were Spanish, Italian or Maltese). That is to say until Charles De Gaulle finally had had enough and pulled out after uttering the now famously ambiguous words ‘I have understood you!’ to the settler population in 1958. A peculiar example of this clan-mentality came with the Boer Wars, since suddenly the white Boers were cast as natives by the British and ‘Germanic Europe’ were in an uproar – once the ‘indigenous’ population were white they were also valued as equals or indeed ‘real people,’ the courtesy did however not extend to the coloured tribes of Africa.

Israel’s kith and kin are the American public, largely uninformed and subject to the hasbara spin of Israeli public diplomacy, right-wingers, evangelicals and other pro-Israeli groups and media-outlets. Its trump card is the fervent Christian religiosity of Americans, which ensures divine sanction for Israel’s oppressive policies in contravention of international law. Incredibly, the campaign has been so successful that it has managed to clad a simple land grab in the guise of a ‘timeless’ civilisational war between Judeo-Christianity and Islam.  As long as this support is forthcoming then Israel can pursue its policies with impunity however atrocious they may be. But sadly for settler colonies, change rarely comes from within. History has shown that the only ways in which to stop a settler state from pursuing oppressive policies against its indigenous population is either through abandonment by the metropole combined with international isolation or successful indigenous resistance.

But even when support for the settlers fade, as happened in Southern Rhodesia, the settlers continue their imperialist project – in this particular case with the unilateral declaration of independence and the creation of a white minority ruled state. This hawkishness is yet another hallmark; the settler colonists usually have a far more expansionist and reactionary agenda than their metropolitan supporters which also find its parallel with US-Israel relations today – the Israeli pit bull tugging on old Uncle Sam’s leash.

From its inception Israel sought to remove the native Palestinians and build upon all their land a settler state, an Eretz Israel. In 1937 the secular and left-leaning leader of the Jewish state-in-waiting David Ben-Gurion had revealed his plans to his son Amos: ‘We must expel Arabs and take their place.’ His vision has now in large part been realised, but the Palestinians remain in their bantustans. However as the late Professor Tony Judt suggested in 2006, there will likely come a day when Israel cannot rely on the unquestioning support of the US, when Israel becomes a strategic liability rather than an asset. When the horrors of the Holocaust cannot be invoked to justify atrocities committed against a different people in a different time and at a different place. Or when the ad hominem ‘anti-Semitic’ cannot be invoked in an attempt to invalidate legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. There will come a day when a US President also will utter those ambiguous words of non-support.

Israel’s position today is more analogous to Apartheid South Africa or French Algeria than it is to its settler state counterparts the United States or Australia. Although the Palestinians are oppressed they are still present on their native land. Their struggle for the right of self-determination is a just cause, and if equality is not granted them the conflict is likely to carry on undiminished. If Israel wants to avoid walking in the footsteps of the pied noir or indeed the white minority regimes in Kenya, Southern Rhodesia or South Africa, it should decolonise the West Bank, remove its blockade of Gaza and grant the right of return to Palestinian refugees. Israel should either earnestly support a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with the Palestinian people or adopt a one-state solution in which both Israelis and Palestinians enjoy equal civil rights within a consociational model of governance – these are the only ways in which to ensure an equitable and lasting peace for both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian.

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Vice-Consul Haggard’s Report

Sir John Kirk, the British Consul to the Sultan of Zanzibar, received in 1884 a report from his Vice-Consul John G. (Jack) Haggard. The brother of Victorian writer H. Rider Haggard  had summarised his adventurous journey from his station on the Island of Lamu to the rebellious Simba, Sultan of Witu. As the Vice-Consul’s more famous brother never visited East Africa, it might be speculated that reports such as this acted as inspiration for his long list of publications from 1885 onwards.

Vice-Consul Haggard to Sir J. Kirk

Lamu, East Coast of Africa, August 25, 1884.


I have the honour to inform you that I left this place in my boat at daylight on Monday, the 12thAugust for Kolumbi, with the intention of visiting the rebel Chief, Ahmet-bin-Sultan Komloot, commonly known as “Simba” (the Lion), who now resides in the fortified village of Witu, about four days’ easy journey to the southward of Lamu.

Lamu Fort

Simba, who is now a very old man and a cripple, is of the Wagunia race of Nelhani-Arab descent, and was formerly King of the island of Patta, about 15 miles to the northward of Lamu. After many years’ fighting and heavy slaughter he was driven from there, about fifteen years ago, by the then Sultan of Zanzibar, who took his island, and Simba fled to Kau on the river Ozy, where he settled, and began to collect round him a new tribe in the place of the one which he had annihilated. After living for a few years at Kau he was again driven abroad by the same power, and this time he migrated to the wilderness and settled at a place called Witu, where he has practically been since undisturbed, and his following, which is composed chiefly of all the malcontents, bankrupts, and felons of the surrounding country, and very largely also of runaway slaves, has, in consequence, become numerous, powerful, and dreaded. These people are now best known by the name of “Watoro,” or runaways, but they call themselves “Watawitu,” with the exception of the inhabitants of a few of the more northern villages, who call themselves “Wakengi,” or the “Restless people,” which is a very good name for them.

Of late years all these people have lived chiefly by plundering the neighbouring Swahili villages, and by selling the captured inhabitants as slaves to the Somalis in exchange for cattle, or not unfrequently back to the Swahilis themselves, from whom they again invariably take the earliest opportunity of restealing them.

H. Rider Haggard

Of course, these raids have been productive of much bloodshed and distress, and as the Watoro have grown more and more powerful, so their depredations and enormities have become more and more frequent, and the sense of insecurity experienced by the neighbouring Swahilis shows itself in the fact that less and less land is cultivated every year, for no man now dare work alone in his own field if only a few hundred yards away from his village. The hands of the Watoro are now against almost every man, and almost every man’s hand is against them. Although they live not far from the sea they have but one port open to them, and that is the village of Kipini at the mouth of the River Ozy, the Governor of which place is afraid to deny them entrance.

Some of my objects in visiting Simba were to point out to him the advantages of legitimate trade, and of checking his people’s marauding tastes, and to ask permission for a trader to settle in Witu: having found a Hindi merchant with sufficient courage to attempt it, this man I took with me.

Some four months ago I had written to Simba to propose this visit, but circumstances had prevented me from making the journey until now.

I arrived at Kolumbi at 8 p.m. of the 12th August, after a difficult passage, and finding the small-pox was raging with great virulence there made my whole party sleep in the boat.

To show the disturbed state of the country, on this very day a man and a boy left Kolumbi to go to Harura, a Swahili village contiguous to the Watoro districts; near Harura they approached a fire they saw burning to warm themselves, but round which, unfortunately for the Swahilis, six Wakengi were stretched: they jumped up to seize the Swahilis, and one man captured the boy, holding him by the left wrist, whilst he watched the remainder pursuing the man unsuccessfully. The lad suddenly drew his captor’s knife and stabbed the man twice in the stomach, killing him: the remainder of the party coming up at that moment the boy was stabbed in the back, but somehow he managed to et away then, to die in Kolumbi a few hours later.

Witu as a German Protectorate in 1890 prior to the Anglo-German Zanzibar-Heligoland Treaty (1890)

On the following morning, the 13th August, I started for Mpecatoni, as early as possible to visit the Headman of Kolumbi in his village, and there saw many poor wretches crawling about in all stages of the disease; the Headman himself had just lost one son from small-pox, he had another one sick, and was himself only then recovering from the illness.

I may remark here that this dreadful malady is creating great havoc in Lamu and all the surrounding districts; in places there is not a house where there is not one dead, and at the little town of Siyu, on the Island of Patta, it is reported that no less than 1,400 people have died during the epidemic.

I arrived at Mpecatoni in four hours and a-half, and that afternoon was seized with fever. On the following morning at daylight, although weak and trembling, I was compelled to start for Kipini, where I arrived in seven hours, feeling comparatively well, having walked through the fever. On the march we met a party of Somalis who attempted to stop my porters, but upon seeing an armed party following they desisted. The distance between Mpecatoni and Kipini is from 20 to 25 miles.

That evening I succeeded in dispatching a messenger to Simba to tell him I had come to see him, and to ask for porters, as I could obtain none, every one being afraid to go to Witu.

Kipini is a small village on the northern side of the mouth of the River Ozy. It is stockaded to protect it from the Watoro, but the defences are in wretched order. The River Ozy at its mouth is about a mile wide, and very shallow at low water, a man being able to walk across. Outside there is a reef right across the entrance of the river, which in the south-west monsoon forms a very bad bar. They say there is a passage in the reef through which small dhows pass in the north-east monsoon, but I could not distinguish it by the eye, even when the sea was comparatively calm.

Contemporary Lamu-Kipini-Witu

The plantations round Kipini seemed to be cultivated with more care and better result than those nearer Lamu; this I attribute to the freedom from molestation by the Watoro, it being obviously to the advantage of those people to keep on good terms with the inhabitants of their only port, Kipini. In the centre of every field is a high platform, upon which stands a slave with a pile of stones at his feet and a sling in his hand, the missiles from which must do much more harm to the grain than the birds the man is there to frighten away.

On the 15th August I visited a large ruined town about a mile and a-half to the northwards of Kipini. It must once have been a place of considerable importance, well built of stone, and covering a large area. It is said it was deserted sixty years ago in consequence of repeated attacks from the Galla tribes, who then inhabited the immediate neighbourhood, but I should think the more probable reason was the sudden silting up of the good harbour upon whose shores it was built: what, not so long ago, was a deep and well-protected haven, is now, at low water, an extensive dry sand-bank.

In this ruined town is the interesting tomb of Fumo Liongo, a great Swahili hero and poet, of whom there are most romantic stories extant, and whose exploits are still sung in his own verses, the language of which is written and recited in the ancient classical Swahili tongue, nowadays understood by very few people, if any. There is a story told of Fumo Liongo, something similar to the legend of Achilles and his heel. Fumo Liongo, from his wonderful escapes in battle, was also said to be invulnerable but in one place, and that was his navel. He was supposed to be invulnerable there also, unless stabbed by a blood relation with a copper needle. Some conspirators prevailed upon Fumo Liongo’s son, Sali, to try the experiment, promising him the Chieftainship as his reward if successful. Sali thereupon stabbed his father whilst asleep, but he was immediately himself killed by the conspirators for his cruelty. Fumo Liongo’s grave is still visited by pilgrims.

On the afternoon of Friday, 16th August, a party of twenty-nine men arrived from Witu in answer to my letter to Simbha, viz., twenty porters and nine armed men. These people amused themselves in the evening dancing and singing. Their war dances were very savage, but their singing was most melodious and pleasing, and the time they kept wonderfully correct, the whole performance being entirely different from anything I have seen amongst the neighbouring people, and far superior.

Somali War Dance

I left Kipini at daylight on 17th August for Witu, and passed through a more or less open country, with numerous valleys of fresh water, some of which become dry in the dry season and some do not. On the march we disturbed a large lion right in our path; the spoor of these animals was to be seen everywhere. Witu has been visited once or twice by white men, but not for several years. The soil around is rich and productive, and underneath at various depths is ancient coral rock. Witu lies in low ground, and adjacent to the town is a large valley of very salt water, which curiously enough is full of fresh water fish and none other. I should imagine that all the country in the immediate vicinity of Witu was very unhealthy.

The town itself is in the centre of the densest bush I have seen, about three or four miles round; so dense and so impervious is it, that it gives you the impression of having been artificially planted for defence, and I consider there is little doubt but what it has been so planted. It is strongly stockaded with trunks of trees, but the bush has grown over all the stockade so as to quite conceal it, except at the gates, which are very massive, and can only open wide enough for one man to pass at a time. These gates are always kept strongly secured. When I arrived at 11 a.m. I still found them shut, and it took over a quarter-of-an-hour to remove the obstructions. On entering the town I walked at once to Simba’s stone house, and found him ready at the door to receive me, splendidly dressed; with him were his two sons, Fum Bakari and Mku, and his brother-in-law, a light-coloured Swahili or Arab, called Monyi-bi-Abdallah. After a few minutes’ conversation I withdrew to the house prepared for me. At 2·35 p.m. I returned to Simba, and, reading from notes of the object of my visit, had a long interview. I told him –

1. That I was an officer sent to Lamu and its neighbouring districts by Her majesty the Queen of England to protect British subjects and to encourage trade, with the hopes that the stimulation of the legitimate trade would in time, by making the people more wealthy, tend to check petty wars and disturbances and to encourage agriculture.

2. That I had come to Witu, in obedience to orders, to ask him, in the name of Her Majesty the Queen, to protect British subjects, traders, and travellers, and to help them in their legitimate enterprise by his power and influence.

3. If at any time he had cause for complaint against any British subjects, I asked him to send them or their names to me at Lamu, but not to take the law into his own hands, or to allow his people to do so either.

4. On the other hand, I asked him, if British subjects were injured by his people, that he would see them righted.

5. I asked him not to permit British subjects, in aby way, direct or indirect, to embark in the Slave Trade, and begged that he would inform me of any such attempt.

6. I spoke about trade generally, specifying different articles, and recommended peace and agriculture as the greatest sources of wealth.

Simba promised to attend to all I had asked him, and also remarked he wished me to beg you (Sir John Kirk) to tell the Sultan of Zanzibar that he (Simba) was an old man now, and wished to live and die at peace with all men; and he asked me to do if he could guarantee that his people should commit no further enormities or depredations; this he said he would do.

I then withdrew.

Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar

From what passed at this interview I was inclined to think that Simba was sincere in his desire for peace and quiet; but from events which subsequently occurred I imagine he is more or less playing a double game. The common gossip is that Simba is sincere for peace, but that it is his son, Fum Bakari, who is the firebrand. I am inclined to think that, although undoubtedly Fum Bakari is a great rascal, he is more or less made a scapegoat to conceal his father’s and Monyi-bin-Abdallah’s designs.

That evening after dark Simba’s brother-in-law and chief adviser, Monyi-bin-Abdallah, called on me, and asked for a private interview, which I granted.

To my amazement he commenced what he had to say by threatening me.

The burthen of his communications were words or innuendos to this effect:-

1. That I had written four months previously to propose a visit to Simba, and had not come until now; consequently I had insulted Simba, and my conduct merited punishment.

2. That the English had assisted His Highness the Sultan of Zanzibar in taking prisoner some Chief or other at a place called Makelli, through whom until then Simba had been in the habit of obtaining his guns and ammunition, and now that I was in their power retaliation upon me was perfectly just; but, however, there was a loophole by which I might escape, if I myself would consent to run guns and powder for them from Lamu, but if I declined the consequences might be unpleasant. In reply, I expressed with some warmth my indignation at my non-arrival in Witu before now being made a grievance. As for the Chief at Makelli, I declared I had never even heard of the man, and did not know what he alluded; and in reply to his suggestion, that I should run guns, I point-blank refused to do anything of the kind. At that moment happily we were interrupted, and Monyi-bin-Abdallah flew out of my hut in a passion. The man’s manner towards me was so threatening, sinister, and ferocious, that I could not but feel uneasy at my helpless position, in a town full of savages so securely walled that a cat could not escape from it; and I plainly saw from the drift of his remarks that the rumour is not unfounded, that Simba is about to join Mbaruk (the rebel Chief against the Sultan residing near Mombasa), and that the idea had suggested itself to Simba to make a prisoner of me to play me off against any attacks made upon them by His Highness the Sultan of Zanzibar.

I may remark here that Simba can bring about 3,000 men into the field, but not all armed with guns. That night and the following day I had a rather serious return of fever, and in my stifling mud-room, with no ventilation or light, and swarming with rats and every description of vermin that feeds on man, my sufferings were considerable. On the morning of Sunday, the 18th August, I was visited by Monyi-bin-Abdallah, and I positively declining to renew the conversation of the previous evening, he suddenly informed me I could have porters to leave Witu when I chose, so I at once settled to leave on the following morning at daylight.

Sir John Kirk

At 4 p.m. I went to take leave of Simba, whose manner was cold, and I then received his permission for a Hindi trader to settle in Witu. Simba also informed me he should send for my interpreter in the evening to make a communication. My interpreter accordingly went after dark, and Simba then repeated to him, without the threats, all that Monyi-bin-Abdallah had said to me the previous night.

Simba also told my interpreter to ask me, in the event of my still refusing to smuggle guns for him, to beg you (Sir John Kirk) to undertake the business. I have not the least doubt that Simba had ordered Monyi-bin-Abdallah to try and frighten me into compliance, but that failing, for some reason or other he determined to let the matter drop, and appeared in a hurry to get rid of me.

I may remark here that punishment from His Highness the Sultan of Zanzibar sooner or later, seems to be very generally anticipated at Witu, and I consider it would be wise not to dissapoint them, but to destroy the whole colony as soon as possible, and capture their leaders, or, with their rapidly increasing strength, they may very possibly attack him somewhere. Anyhow, if unmolested much longer, the Watoro will succeed in completing the ruin and destruction of this fine country.

Slaves are numerous at Witu, Simba alone possessing 600. The plantations are extensive and fruitful, the soil being very productive; a peculiarly large species of coconut is grown in them, of a superior kind to any I have seen in Zanzibar, Lamu or elsewhere. In addition to Witu there are six principal villages in the vicinity under Simba, the inhabitants of which call themselves “Watoro Witu,” namely, Hassad, Mohonde, Mawasi, Chaoja, Gowgowi, and Mominfoi,; the inhabitants of these seven villages together number nearly 5,000 souls. A little to the northward are several more villages, whose inhabitants call themselves “Wakengi.” The most important of these are Balana, Katana, Balo, and Mtangamakondo. These Wakengi are partially independent of Simba, but he commands them in most things, and only the other day put some of their Headmen in prison for disobeying his orders.

I left Witu on the morning of the 20th before daylight, and arrived at Kipini in five hours.

On the 21st August, after endless trouble in obtaining porters, I started my return journey to Lamu, arriving at Kolumbi on the 22nd. Having loaded my boat I dropped down the creek in the evening, intending to anchor somewhere near its entrance, but a fine breeze springing up I pushed straight on through the night to Lamu, arriving there safely without incident.

I have, &c.

(Signed) John G. Haggard.

Source: Haggard to Kirk, 25th August 1884, FO 403/93, TNA

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Deciphering Livingstone’s 1871 Field Diary

A year after the great African explorer Dr David Livingstone’s death in 1873, his friend Horace Waller published an edited version of his diaries. In his introduction to ‘The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to his Death’ Mr Waller remarks ‘Whilst in the Manyema country he ran out of note-books, ink, and pencils, and had to resort to shift which at first made it a very debateable point whether the most diligent attempt at deciphering would succeed after all.’

Unprocessed and Illegible Livingstone 1871 Field Diary

In fact Mr Waller and his team transcribed only a third of his field diary written on the 24th November 1869 edition of The Standard newspaper. Dr Livingstone had at this time resorted to using ink made from pigment derived from the seeds of a local plant. Legibility was further reduced by the newspaper print over which Dr Livingstone had written at a 90-degree angle.

It was not until 2011 that this ‘very debatable point’ would be resolved when a team comprised of among others Dr Keith Knox, Dr Adrian Wisnicki and Mr Michael Toth using spectral analysis was able to both suppress the newsprint and enhance the diary text, making the 1871 Field Diary legible for the first time in 140 years.

Processed and Legible Livingstone 1871 Field Diary

The importance of the transcribed document is enhanced by the fact that it contains Dr Livingstone’s original diary entries made during the infamous Nyangwe Massacre of 15th July 1871. The slaughter of an estimated 4-500 local villagers by Arab slave traders exacerbated Britain’s anti slave-trade policy in East Africa and would have contributed to the Sir Bartle Frere Mission to Zanzibar of 1872, whereby Britain signed a new Anti-Slavery Treaty with the Sultan Barghash. Accounts of the atrocities was passed to Henry Morton Stanley during his meeting with Dr Livingstone in Ujiji, but the original Field Diary which was received together with the explorer’s other documents in 1873 was illegible upon arrival.

Presenting the team’s findings at Birkbeck 5th November 2011 Dr Wisnicki held that the newly transcribed diary renders Dr Livingstone as ‘more complex and not so uni-dimensional as portrayed in posthumous edited diaries.’ The diary suggests that witnessing the massacre horrified Dr Livingstone and that he afforded great importance in recording the atrocities for a global audience. Although he normally made daily entries, he changed to hourly reporting during this time. The spectral imaging also reveals that he changed from using the plant pigment to his remaining supply of more permanent iron gall ink.

Dr Adrian Wisnicki Presenting the Spectral Analysis Team’s Findings at Birkbeck 5th November 2011

The team have published the diary together with the edited versions to enable scholars to easily compare the texts. The differences between them held Dr Wisnicki to be ‘astounding and almost completely different.’ The results of the spectral imaging of Dr Livingstone’s 1871 Field Diary and other details about the project can be accessed by any interested party from this link:’s-1871-field-diary/#more-1424 


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US Income Distribution



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