Gopal’s focus, however, isn’t on the ways colonial subjects negotiated, resisted and reclaimed the empire, so much as on the ways in which imperial crisis awakened dissent at the metropolitan centre. She mounts a powerful challenge to the notion that anticolonial resistance was born of an education in British notions of liberty. The ‘well-worn “Caliban” model’, as she puts it, in which the slave denounces slavery in the master’s language, reinforces a Whig history in which the British Empire can claim credit for its own dissolution. This myth ‘choked and stifled’ British politics, C.L.R. James argued. The possibility of remaking imperial relations was constantly thwarted by the inability of the colonial class to imagine that anything that happened in the colonies could ‘instruct or inspire the peoples of the advanced countries in their own management of their own affairs’.
This is an important book. Some narratives are told for the first time, others are retold in a different register. Gopal is particularly astute at specifying links between calls for colonial independence overseas and workers’ movements back in Britain, connections that older studies have struggled to show. Polemic there is, but her battles with the empire denial lobby come in the opening pages and towards the close, and do not detract from a rigorous, persuasive revisionist history.