Britain’s methods of colonial extraction during the imperial age laid the groundwork for inequalities in the legal and economic structures of today’s world, argues Kojo Koram in his analysis of the aftermath of empire. Review by Stephen Williams.
There have been a number of studies of the British Empire and its enduring legacies in recent years – long overdue and most welcome as we attempt to untangle the complexities of historic injustices.
A special mention must be made of Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera, the scion of a Punjabi Sikh family that settled in the English Midlands.
Kojo Koram, the author the book under review here – Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire – has a different background. His family were from Ghana, but like Sanghera he brilliantly exposes the ghastly reverberations of the influence of the British Empire – the largest empire in history, which held sway over much of the world’s surface area as well as the world’s oceans, and on which, proverbially, the sun never set.
The way Britain’s methods of colonial extraction during the era of empire laid the groundwork for corporatisation, offshore tax havens and state reliance on outsourcing in the present day is the crux of Koram’s book.
The narrative is fast paced and well structured. To begin with, Koram recalls his childhood and how his young mind tried to make sense of the perverse qualities of British society. His family had come to Britain from Ghana yet had retained familial connections to the West African country to which he returned for regular holidays.
He remembers how his British school friends had so little idea of Africa that they could not even locate Ghana on a map of the continent.
Nor did his peers have any idea of Ghana’s history of becoming the first colony in sub-Saharan Africa to attain independence. Under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana led the African resistance to colonialism.
But as Koram describes so brilliantly, Nkrumah was faced with a seemingly intractable problem, as Ghana’s independence did not in fact free the country, formerly known as the Gold Coast, from the vice-like grip of British capitalism.
“Taking sovereignty back from Westminster,” Koram writes, “only opened up new points of conflict this time with the multinational corporations to whom Britain had always outsourced much of the imperial project.”
Exploiting Iran’s oil
Koram does not limit his narrative to the British Empire in Africa. For example, he relates the history of BP in Iran.
At the turn of the 20th century, British businessman William Knox D’Arcy secured a contract from the Shah of Persia to explore for oil across 480,000 square miles for 60 years. In May 1908, he struck oil. As Koram puts it, it was “that day the great Middle Eastern oilfields were born – and the river of black gold has not stopped flowing since”.
However, the election of Mohammad Mosaddegh as Iran’s prime minister in the early 1950s presented a challenge to D’Arcy’s heirs in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
Mosaddegh was determined that Iranians should benefit from the resources of their land, and when negotiations with the company got nowhere, he decided to nationalise Iran’s oil. “His justification for this action,” Koram notes, “was that, if sovereignty was to mean anything in the new world of nations, then the oil produced within the sovereign state of Iran belonged first and foremost to the people of Iran.”
Predictably, this decision was met with horrified contempt in London, even by the progressive socialist government of Clement Atlee, “To the British, Iran nationalising the oilfields was theft of property, pure and simple, even if Mosaddegh had promised 25% of subsequent profits as compensation.”
Post-war Britain was in no position economically to launch a military campaign against Mosaddegh, but settled for working with the US on regime change.
The military coup that they engineered saw Mosaddegh thrown into prison and later put under house arrest until his death. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company morphed into British Petroleum, later to become BP and one of Britain’s largest corporations. This history illustrates that when commercial interests were threatened, the empire’s response was both swift and brutal.
Age of empire still not over
But surely the age of empire is over, many will argue. Not so, is Koram’s response. He argues that the world’s financial system is of a direct consequence of Britain’s exit from direct imperial rule and perpetuates wealth inequalities and injustice.
His narrative takes a long look at the history of Jamaica’s experience of independence after being ruled by the British since 1670. Just over 300 years later, in 1972, Michael Manley was elected as prime minister of this Caribbean island.
As Koram explains: “Upon taking office, [Manley] began implementing one of the most ambitious programmes of social reform that has been tried in a former British colony.”
Laws were passed to provide affordable housing and free education. And on the international stage, Manley inspired the concept of a “New International Economic Order” (NIEO).
Koram writes: “The demands of the NIEO were as simple but all-encompassing as the name suggests. These countries were asking for nothing less than a redrawing of the rules of global trade so all countries could enjoy economic as well as political independence.”
But just as Manley’s vision began to be accepted across the world, a new phenomenon was taking shape – neo-liberalism. Promoted by US President Ronald Reagan and UK PM Margaret Thatcher, neo-liberalism was a super-powerful headwind against the principles that Manley and his like-minded world leaders were advocating.
Offshore tax havens perpetuate system
By contrast with the progressive policies of Manley’s Jamaica, there were plenty of British Overseas Territories that were more than happy to decline sovereign independence for the many advantages of being an offshore tax haven.
The Cayman Islands are a case in point. Once a sub-region of the British colony of Jamaica, these islands chose to remain under the control of the British crown (although having a degree of self-government). Koram writes: “The new structure left the Cayman Islands in the perfect position to benefit from a pool of fast money that, unbeknown to the general public, was flowing into London in the post-war period.”
He clarifies that; “the Cayman Islands set the standard for how peripheral jurisdiction can attract huge amounts of money of foreign wealth in the post imperial era.” Indeed, US President Barack Obama spoke of a building in the Cayman Islands where more than 18,000 US companies were registered as residing. “Either it is the biggest building in the world,” the president commented, “ or it is the biggest tax scam in the world.”
And Koram’s point is that while Britain no longer exerts direct control over large areas of the world, many of the legal and economic structures put in place during the era of colonisation still facilitate the imperial system of wealth transfer that still drives our world.