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DVD Review: The British Empire in Color

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The British Empire In Color was originally broadcast as a three-part BBC television miniseries covering roughly the past 200 years in British world history. It is essentially a vivid recapitulation of these years, showing the glories as well as the ignominies of British rule. It shows the nation’s successes and failures with equal candor.

It also shines a 21st century light of political correctness on the British Empire, emphasizing more than once how British institutions such as the Church of England sided with the reigning government over the poorly-paid, cruelly treated working classes who had gone on strike on the homefront. It looks at the treatment of people of color throughout the Empire’s history, on up until recently, through racism, bigotry, and prejudice.

It stresses both the good and bad things that British sovereignty brought to its colonies. The positives such as technology, education, and the rule of law are shown in balance with the previously mentioned negatives. It also shows the end result of both sides of this equation, and the viewer is given a front row center position on the action.

The buildup of the empire is given the least amount of time, mainly recapping events and accomplishments, victories both military and political, and successes in general, a sort of short forethought before getting into the meat of the three parts, titled "Decline", "Fall", and "Legacy of the British Empire". Its coverage ranges from Canada to India, from Australia to Nigeria, from the Caribbean to South Africa, which was the length and breadth of the Empire at its grandest moment, when it held sovereignty over more than a third of the Earth’s human inhabitants.

From here on, the majority of the story and the footage concentrates on the deterioration of the Empire, with little coverage of other parts of history, such as the two world wars and the various insurgencies in other British colonies that are exhaustively covered elsewhere. The story revolves mainly around the broad picture of the dissolution of the Empire.

Most, if not all, of the footage shown was drawn from recently discovered film, all in original color, quite rare in the early days of filmmaking. The series begins in detail during the reign of King Edward VII, in the early 1900s, covering the circumstances which drew England into World War One, then shows the festivities celebrating the end of the war, along with a parade in Paris.

The great economic decline began immediately after the war ended, while many goods were still rationed and scarce, if not nonexistent. Many jobs were no longer needed due to the industrial drawdown, with an ambitious film journey covering the length and breadth of England and showing the industries in decline, particularly shipbuilding and its associated contributing manufacturers and suppliers, while at the same time employers were hiking required working hours and lowering pay. Particular emphasis was placed on the disparity between the elegant lives of the aristocracy, and the plight of the poor, which was a large part of the population. The beginnings of trade unions around this time helped the laborers somewhat, but the majority of the population was still at or below the poverty line.

Matters came to a head in May 1926, when the miners, long the most oppressed of the working classes, walked off the job. They were soon followed by the majority of the labor class, which brought the country nearly to a standstill. Reinforcing the hold that the aristocracy and the government had on the labor force, the Archbishop of the Church of England called the strike a sin “against the obedience owed to God,” and went on to say there was no moral justification for the walkout. In nine short days, the strike was broken, although the miners stayed on strike for another eight months before starvation drove them back to the pits. To emphasize its might, business forced the miners to accept even lower wages and longer hours in order to get their jobs back.

As books and movies have noted, India was the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, and a good part of the series covered this area of the world in greater detail, emphasizing how 100,000 British ruled over 300 million Indians. It showed the lifestyle of the aristocracy, including the tiger hunts, the parties, and how the officers and civilians in the occupying forces, as well as visiting dignitaries, were catered to in their every whim, including being carried in howdahs on the shoulders of human bearers.

A large portion of the series centered on the events leading up to, during, and following World War Two, which was when the Great Empire began to display its initial serious signs of crumbling. Indian activism had stepped up considerably since the turn of the 20th century, particularly after Mohandas Gandhi’s return to India in 1915. For the most part, the country rolled along pretty much as it had since the British assumed sovereignty, but with slow and steady growth in strength of the separatist movement.

The movement alternated between foundering and festering, based on Gandhi’s arrests and imprisonment, as well as political considerations, until England’s unilateral inclusion of India into World War Two. Matters progressed rapidly following the end of the war, and India was granted independence in 1947. For continuity’s sake, the film branched off to show the complete series of events that transpired in India, before reverting back to the political ramifications of World War Two as regards the remainder of the Empire, with only minor references to it.

In February 1942, the British defenses in the Far East collapsed, and Australia braced for invasion by the Japanese. Four days after the fall of Singapore, the Japanese bombed the northern city of Darwin, further widening the scope of the war.

Another area of dissent within the Empire at this time was Canada, whose general consensus of opinion was, “If they blundered into war, they can blunder out of it.” The government, however, supported the war, and Canada’s men entered the fray.

A short reversion back to the partition of India is covered, emphasizing that over 10 million people were displaced during the partition and creation of Pakistan. Emphasis was placed on the tragedy caused by the partition decision, and that more than one million people lost their lives because of it.

Other areas of the Empire quickly followed India’s suit, with a nine-year insurgency in Malaya, where the British pioneered the use of helicopters during the course of it, beginning in 1953. Malaya was granted independence only slightly more than fifty years ago, in 1957. Today, Malaya is one of the most modern areas in Southeast Asia, yet the footage shows the women topless, and the men in loincloths, some with bones in their noses.

During the Malayan insurgency, the Mau Mau were making life difficult and treacherous for the British colonials in Kenya in the 1950-51 timeframe. The Mau Mau grew rapidly in strength, causing a quick end for the British. This was quickly followed by Suez, where the British retreated in days. These were simply the first of a series of celebrations across Africa, and within a year, the former Gold Coast of Africa was declared independent, resulting in the creation of Ghana. Between 1957, which marked the end of the Malayan insurgency, and 1968, 12 more African colonies were declared independent.

Concurrently with the above events, back in England, the country was still reeling from the effects of World War Two, with rationing and shortages still in effect, and unemployment high. These conditions led to unrest in the population, with the brunt of their frustration beginning to have an effect on immigrants. Demonstrations began springing up, and in the ten years after the war, more than a half-million Britons emigrated to Australia and New Zealand. Another 400,000 went to Canada. Australia and New Zealand was so desperate for settlers that ship passage for the five-week trip was reduced to ten pounds for immigrants, who were put up in hostels and communal Quonset huts until they could find employment and housing. The fever was on, and masses of people were leaving the island nation. As native Britons were abandoning the nation, West Indians began filtering in. As the Britons left in search of a better life, the West Indians did the same. This added to tension in the country, and racism became more of an issue internally.

By 1962, more than 200,000 West Indians had emigrated to England, and the government was being pressured to enact legislative backlash. One of the first was an act which restricted immigration to British Commonwealth citizens. In 1968, a second act was legislated, with 74% of the population voting in favor of it.

In Australia and New Zealand, after the wave of English immigrants, the local government enacted several draconian laws promoting “White Australia.” While the immigrants were ecstatic with the employment and wages nearly triple what they’d been earning in England, mixed blood Aborigines were being forcibly removed from their families and handed over to white families or put into orphanages, and tens of thousands of children, both mixed blood and full blood, were institutionalized.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Indian Natives were getting their fair share of discrimination. Government figures showed that a third of Canadian Natives were dependent on welfare, infant mortality was double the national average, and their life expectancy was one of the lowest in the world. In Rhodesia, 220,000 whites still ruled over a population of four million, and more than 70% of the country’s best land was owned by whites. While Canada’s secession from British rule was peaceful, a 15-year civil war was waged in Rhodesia, resulting in more than 30,000 civilians killed, and 48,000 whites left the country. War was finally ended in April of 1980.

With Hong Kong’s reversion to China in 1997, the cycle was complete. England had lost all of her colonies, all in the 20th century, with the majority of them gone in just 20 years. Meanwhile, here it is some sixty years later, and India and Pakistan are still fighting over Kashmir. Mugabe, with his Hitler-wannabe mustache is still repressing Rhodesia, whites are undergoing wholesale massacre by his army, and their land is being confiscated. By 2002, 95% of white land had been seized.

While the grandeur, and pomp and circumstance of British colonialism were beautiful to those in power, it left a wake of death, starvation, and destruction, one from which the world has yet to recover.

There is an additional 26-minute segment that describes the making of the documentary, including its research and developmental stages.

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About Lou Novacheck

  • ira

    Nothing about ireland