The Guardian • Issue #2078

Colonial powers give “regrets” – not apologies

Colonial Africa – 1913.

Recently the imperialist nations of Britain, Spain, and Germany, have expressed “regrets” for the atrocities they committed, but failed to acknowledge that the true horror was colonisation. Imperialism was built upon the exploitation and enslavement of subject peoples and nations in South America, Africa, and Asia. The colonial powers need to apologise for their crimes against humanity, return stolen cultural objects d’art and human remains and offer reparations for the injustices committed upon their former colonies.

Massive reparations are unlikely as the ruling classes defend their colonial past and the way they accumulated their vast wealth and power. Different forms of reparations have been suggested, none have been implemented. In the UK, arguments that colonisation wasn’t all bad are often aired, echoed in recent comments in Australia during the Indigenous Voice campaign.

In 1984 Jeremy Corbyn urged a boycott of Apartheid South Africa. In 2019, on the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in the Indian city of Amritsar, where 379 unarmed demonstrators were killed, Corbyn, by then Leader of the Labour Party, requested a formal apology for the massacre. PM Theresa May replied, “we deeply regret what happened.”

In June 2013, the high commissioner to Kenya, William Hague, said that the British government expressed its “sincere regret” for the abuses committed by Britain and announced the paltry payment of £2600  [AU$4980] to each of 5200 vetted claimants of British oppression.

Following World War II, the nationalist Jomo Kenyatta of the Kenya African Union (KAU) demanded improved political rights and land reforms from the British government. In 1952 the Mau Mau rebellion, mainly of the Kikuyu ethnic group, rose up against the white settlers on their tribal lands. Thousands were tortured in concentration camps across the country. An estimated 25,000 people were killed. Kenya attained independence from Britain on 12 December 1963.

Charles Windsor visited Kenya in October 2023 to mark the 60th anniversary of its independence. In a speech at a state banquet in Nairobi, the king admitted to the “wrongdoings” of Britain’s colonial past and had the “greatest sorrow and regret” for its behaviour. Britain had committed “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence” against Kenyans during their fight for independence. There was “no excuse.” The king told his audience: “It matters greatly to me that I should deepen my own understanding of these wrongs.” Human rights groups had demanded a formal apology, but none was given.

In 2019 the Mexican president, López Obrador, sent a letter to King Felipe VI of Spain requesting that Spain apologise for the abuses committed by the Spanish conquistadores 500 years ago. The king rejected Mexico’s request and the Spanish government replied, “We emphatically reject the arguments contained in the letter. Both nations have a common past and Mexico should not resort to anger.” No apology was given.

It is only recently that Germany has acknowledged its colonial-era atrocities in Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and Namibia.  On 11 August 1904, the German colonial army decimated Herero rebels at the Battle of Waterberg in Namibia. The German campaign of collective punishment from 1904 to 1908 is recognised as the 20th century’s first act of genocide. Nearly 65,000 Herero died, out of a population of 80,000, and half the population of the Nama were killed. In 1985, the United Nations’ Whitaker Report classified the killings as a genocide.

In 2021, Germany officially admitted to committing genocide during its rule of Namibia, announcing financial aid of €1.1 billion (AU$1.8 billion).

In the Maji Maji Rebellion in Tanzania, German armed forces killed 300,000 people, in one of the bloodiest anti-colonial uprisings in Africa. While Germany lost its African colonies under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, thousands of human remains, brought from the German colonies as war “trophies” and for “Scientific Racism” research, still lie in Germany’s universities, museum and institutions. These are the remains of the victims of German Imperialism.

On 1 November 2023 German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaking at Songea in Tanzania said: “I would like to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to your ancestors here. What happened here is our shared history, the history of your ancestors and the history of our ancestors in Germany.” He hoped both countries could work towards “communal processing” of the past.

There was no official apology.

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