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India shined at the Commonwealth Games, but is it just a reminder of a tragic past?12 min read

August 10, 2022 8 min read


India shined at the Commonwealth Games, but is it just a reminder of a tragic past?12 min read

Reading Time: 8 minutes

India performed exceptionally at the recently-concluded Commonwealth Games 2022 (CWG). Winning four gold medals on the final day of the Games, India finished 4th on the overall medals tally.

PV Sindhu holds up her gold medal after winning against Canada’s Michelle Li in the women’s singles final. Photo: AP

Stunning performances by athletes such as PV Sindhu (badminton), Lakshya Sen (badminton), Achanta Sharath Kamal (table tennis) and the men’s doubles badminton duo, helped bring India’s total medal tally to 61! That’s a lot — 22 gold medals, 16 silver medals and 23 bronze ones!

India beat New Zealand by two golds and Scotland with 10, so as to secure its place as fourth runner-up in terms of both golds, and overall medals won this year.

This definitely is a brilliant feat by Indian athletes, and everyone back home watching the action in Birmingham, England, where the Games were taking place, were proud of their countryfolk.

The flag of the Commonwealth. Photo: Wiki Images

But what are these games all about? Why and when do they happen? What does ‘commonwealth’ mean? Do we really need a massive sporting event that ties us to the British after decades of colonial atrocities? Some of these big questions come to mind every four years when this event is organised.

And some of these questions, dear readers, are what we will be dissecting and breaking down through this article. So, pay close attention.

What are the Commonwealth Games all about?

Let’s start with the basic — what is CWG and how and when did it start? What comes to mind when you see the word ‘commonwealth’? Something that is shared, united and for the benefit of all, we would think.

The Commonwealth is an association of countries across the world. Although historically connected to the British Empire, any country can apply to be a member of the Commonwealth, regardless of its intersection with Britain’s colonial past

Well, this name has changed over the years since 1930. The first event called the Commonwealth Games took place in the Canadian city of Edmonton in 1978. But this was a re-branding of an older event that has always been closely tied to the political, cultural, and economic structures of British power.

So, the real starting point of the Games was 1930, when Hamilton in Canada hosted the inaugural British Empire Games. They have taken place every four years since then.

In 1954, as the dissolution of the empire was gaining pace, they became the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. The word ‘empire’ was dropped in 1970, and the British Commonwealth Games finally became the Commonwealth Games in 1978.

What is the significance of dropping the word ‘empire’ from the name?

Which countries fall under the ‘Commonwealth’?

The Commonwealth comprises 56 countries, across all inhabited continents. The members have a combined population of 2.4 billion people, almost a third of the world population, with 1.4 billion living in India, and 94% living in either Asia or Africa. So you can imagine the sheer number of people and places under the rule of the British Empire!

When India was undivided — as India and Pakistan — and under British rule, it participated in the 1934 and 1938 Games as one team. After India’s partition in 1947, India and Pakistan participated as separate teams in 1954.

The rise and fall of the British Empire

In the 16th Century, Britain began to build its empire – spreading the country’s rule and power beyond its borders through a process called ‘imperialism‘. This brought huge changes to societies, industries, cultures and the lives of people all around the world.

The British Empire is a term used to describe all the places around the world that were once ruled by Britain. Built over many years, it grew to include large areas of North AmericaAustraliaNew ZealandAsia and Africa, as well as small parts of Central and South America, too. 

England, in what is now Britain, wanted more land overseas where it could build new communities, known as colonies. These colonies would provide England with valuable materials, like metalssugar and tobacco, which they could also sell to other countries.

The first English colonies were in North America. Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, England gained major colonies in North America and further south in the West Indies, today known as the Caribbean Islands. Here, the climate was perfect for growing crops like sugar and tobacco, so they set up farms known as plantations.

Workers toil away at a plantation owned by the British. Photo: Wiki Media

Trading settlements were also created in India by a company called the East India Company. This company became so powerful, it allowed England to control of the trade of luxury goods like spices, cottonsilk and tea from India and China, and it even influenced politics.

The years 1775-1783 were a turning point in British history, as the nation lost a huge part of its empire in the American War of Independence. With the help of SpainFrance and the Netherlands, they won the war, and gained independence, becoming the United States of America. This marked the end of what is now called the ‘First British Empire’. 

Although Britain had lost a huge part of its North American territories, it claimed new lands in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, forming the ‘Second British Empire‘. Colonies were founded in parts of Australia, and later Trinidad and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Singapore and Hong Kong (China) as well as other parts of Asia.

From 1881 to 1902, Britain competed with other European empire-builders in what became known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. By the early 1900s, huge parts of Africa – including EgyptKenyaNigeria and large areas of southern Africa – all came under British rule.

During the Second World War, India suffered some of the worst famines in human history, partly caused by the British government taking vital supplies away from the Indian people to support the war effort elsewhere – causing the death of millions.

Indigenous peoples in Africa were affected in their millions. The British took valuable materials like goldsalt and ivory out of Africa and sent it back to Britain, and elsewhere. The British were also heavily involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade in West Africa.

African slaves being held captive as part of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Photo: Britannica

Many indigenous peoples, including Indigenous Australians, lost not just their land, food and possessions, but their traditions, too. When British settlers arrived, they forcibly replaced the beliefs, language and traditions of indigenous populations with their own, removing their cultural identities.

One of the most horrific parts of the history of the British Empire was its involvement in the trade of enslaved people – people who were made the property of others and forced to obey their owners’ demands.

Throughout history, slavery has existed on all continents and in many societies, but when the European imperialists arrived in Africa in the 15th Century, they began the most organised slave operation the world had ever seen – the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Britain banned the trading of enslaved people in its empire in 1807, (known as Abolition) but it was a further 26 years until it outlawed slavery altogether. Although, even when ‘free’, former enslaved people continued to suffer in racist societies. People considered them less important than white people, and used these beliefs to help them justify the former trading of enslaved people.

Why did the British Empire collapse?

The 20th century saw Britain’s empire break down in stages. After the First World War (1914-1918) there was a feeling of ‘nationalism’ sweeping the globe, whereby countries should have the right to be independent and rule themselves. In 1926, CanadaAustraliaNew Zealand and South Africa became independent, meaning they were no longer under British control.

Over the next decades, however, the remaining colonies continued to push for independence. After the Second World War, Britain no longer had the wealth or strength to manage an empire overseas. Many colonies had fought for the British during the war, and were making their own plans for independence.

An old newspaper clipping of the day after India gained independence from the British.
Photo: National History Centre

In 1947, India won its independence, and from the 1950s to 1980s, African colonies also fought for and won their independence. The last significant British colony, Hong Kong, was returned to China in 1997. What had taken hundreds of years to build, was broken down far quicker!

However, there are some small fragments of the British Empire that still exist today, known as ‘British Overseas Territories’. These are mainly self-governing countries separate to the United Kingdom, that continue to share a bond with Britain. They include Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Monserrat, Pitcairn Islands, St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands.

The rise of the Commonwealth!

Countries part of the Commonwealth. Photo: Wiki Media

As the British Empire began to fall, it was replaced by what is today called The Commonwealth (or The Commonwealth of Nations) – an organisation that countries can choose to join, or leave. It began in 1931, when the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa formed the British Commonwealth of Nations. Today, it is made up of over 50 countries who work and trade together. They also share a common set of values, including fair political elections, the respect of human rights and working towards international peace. 

What is the aim of the CWG?

Phew, that was a lot of history to take in! Now, however, we have some idea as to how horrific life under British rule was. So, after reading this, what do you think is the purpose of the CWG?

According to the official website of the CWG, the core values of this event are humanity, equality and destiny, the Games aim to unite the Commonwealth family through a glorious festival of sport. Often referred to as the ‘Friendly Games’, the event is renowned for inspiring athletes to compete in the spirit of friendship and fair play.

The Commonwealth Games serve as a gateway to podium performances at the Olympic Games. Athletes are able to assess how they are they are progressing while also comparing how they measure up to their competitors while taking part in a mega sporting event.

The important questions

Here, readers, we will pose some questions that we need your help to answer.

  1. In a time when people are tearing down statues of slave traders, when Barbados has become a republic and Jamaica is pressing the case for damages of the slave trade, what’s the role of a Commonwealth Games?
  2. Are the Games really a celebration of common values with the nations that were once exploited?
  3. The website of the CWG mentions “historic injustice” of the British empire. Do these words have any value?
  4. One newspaper in Birmingham — where the Games were hosted this year — called it the “Plantation Games” — is this fair or justified?
  5. Should the games continue when athletes have much bigger platforms already to compete on?