Twenty years ago, when Tony Blair tried to restore something of the old militarism of empire, invading Afghanistan and Iraq with little understanding of what had once happened there, he did so with the words and music of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ echoing through his speeches. In like manner, the work of Niall Ferguson (Empire: How Britain made the Modern World, 2004) sought to revive the old imperial dream, and, for a moment, it seemed as though what was called ‘humanitarian intervention’ was going to usher in a new imperial era. Other distinguished historians were there to provide support: Lawrence Friedman, Andrew Roberts, Max Hastings – quite a cohort of armchair imperialists enjoyed a spring offensive.
Then, quite suddenly, the mood music began to change. The case of the tortured Kikuyu of Kenya from the 1950s had been moving through the British courts for some time, and the Foreign Office was forced to admit that it had mislaid a country-house full of documents from the period of decolonisation. Events finally came to a head when the high court agreed that three elderly Kenyan men had the right to sue for damages in Britain for the injuries they had sustained – beatings and torture – during the crushing of the Mau Mau resistance.
The spectre of other claims in other former colonies also began to hover over the debate about empire – claims about torture and murder from Malaysia, Cyprus, Aden and British Guiana – all to be revealed one day in the Foreign Office’s secret haul of imperial documents.
The legal action was given considerable momentum by the publication of two books about the Mau Mau period: one by a British professor, David Anderson, called Histories of the Hanged: the Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire; the other by an American academic, Caroline Elkins, called Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire. These uncompromising titles revealed a story of terror and brutality in the final years of the empire that had never been given such emphasis before. Everyone knew of a handful of exceptional stories in the distant past, but these recent tales of prolonged terror – during the lifetime of people still living – began to change the terms of the imperial debate. Even the apologists of empire were obliged to admit that it was sometimes a violent and brutal affair.
The empire, as it once had been, came to a formal close in the 1960s, yet its unhappy legacy is ever-present in today’s world, in the institutions and mentality of the British state. The pomp and expensive absurdity of the Royal Family is one such permanent reminder of the imperial past. Medals such as the OBE, the Order of the British Empire, are still handed out and gratefully received.
Historians and commentators have begun to understand that history must accommodate at least two imperial traditions: that of the conquerors and that of the conquered. Children in school cannot be endlessly taught the old triumphalist history of empire, for the descendants of the empire builders and its subject peoples now share the island in which they both live.
Catalogue of horrors
Today the argument needs to take a step further forward. It is not just that the territories of the empire were seized and ruled with great violence; it is important to understand that the rulers of the empire will one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the 20th century as the authors of crimes against humanity on an infamous scale. We need to associate empire with the holocaust and with genocide. We need to discredit the notion of medals called the ‘Order of the British Empire’. After all, we would not accept the Order of Auschwitz or the Order of Treblinka.
So how do we compare and contrast the evils of the Nazi holocaust, which took place over four years from 1941 to 1945, and those of the Soviet gulag system, which went on throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with the effects of Britain’s much longer-lasting imperial experience?
It is important to understand that the rulers of the empire will one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the 20th century as the authors of crimes against humanity
Britain’s empire was characterised by slavery and forced labour, by the occupation and the seizure of other people’s land, and by the extermination of indigenous populations. Subject peoples were kept under permanent control through martial law. This terrible catalogue of horrors lasted over several centuries. Hitler’s invasion and violent occupation of eastern Europe and Russia was much shorter and more intense, but it involved not only extermination camps but also the kind of settler colonialism that characterised many British colonies – the planting of settlers coupled with the eradication of the local population.
It was difficult for people in the imperial capitals, in the aftermath of the second world war, to imagine that their imperial experience might one day be considered in the same breath as the holocaust. How could the victors over the Nazis perceive themselves to be comparably responsible for crimes against humanity? Yet those who were victims of British rule encountered no difficulty in making this comparison.
Held in the Ahmadnagar Fort prison camp from 1942 to 1945, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian independence leader, wrote a famous history, The Discovery of India. He explained how, since the rise of Hitler, there had been much talk ‘about racialism and the Nazi theory of the Herrenvolk’. He pointed out that ‘we in India have known racialism in all its forms ever since the commencement of British rule. The whole ideology of this rule was that of the Herrenvolk and the master race… India as a nation and Indians as individuals were subjected to insult, humiliation, and contemptuous treatment.’
In recent years, as tales of the romance and splendour of empire have faded, a whole series of revisionist book titles have begun to carve out a new version of Britain’s colonial record. The new histories of Kenya have provided a fresh and unfamiliar account of the fierce repression of African resistance. Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis moved the imperial responsibility for famine to centre stage, a sentiment echoed in another context by The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth Century Spain, by Paul Preston. A book by John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, revived an apt quotation from the Chartist Ernest Jones in 1851: ‘On its colonies the sun never sets, but the blood never dries.’
The Hitler within
One early pioneer of this view was W E B Du Bois, who wrote in The World and Africa in 1947 that ‘there was no Nazi atrocity – concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women or ghastly blasphemy of childhood – which Christian civilisation or Europe had not long been practising against coloured folk in all parts of the world.’
Aimé Césaire, from Martinique, followed in Du Bois’s footsteps, writing that ‘it would be worthwhile to… reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the 20th century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him he is being inconsistent and that what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime itself, the crime against man, but the crime against the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “coolies” of India, and the “niggers” of Africa.’
Adolf Hitler himself, of course, had long been an admirer of the British empire, like many would-be German imperialists before him. Mark Mazower, the author of Hitler’s Empire, recalls how such German forerunners had emphasised ‘the character, energy and ruthlessness of the colonisers themselves’. The British takeover of India had depended upon the initiative of a small number of individuals. ‘Their domination of North America and Australia highlighted the importance of self-reliant bands of white settlers who had not shied away from expelling, enslaving or eradicating the “savages” they found living there in order to colonise the land for themselves. Even at the time, after all, these massacres had seemed inevitable, part of the march of progress…’
‘Killing native peoples seemed to be a price many Europeans were willing to pay to claim land overseas.’ Since 1948, writes Sven Lindqvist in Terra Nullius, his account of a journey through Australia’s murderous past, this practice has been known as ‘genocide’.
In the 19th century, no one paid much attention to statistics. There are no reliable figures for those slaughtered during the great Indian rebellion of 1857, though one Indian historian, Amaresh Misra, using figures from labour records, has suggested recently that ten million may have died during the Mutiny and its ten-year aftermath. Most historians think this to be an exaggeration, but if only half that figure was accurate it would line up with comparable deaths from famines in British India. Between five and eight million died in the famine of 1876 to 1878, and between two and four million in the Bengal famine of 1943.
The British had meted out similar treatment to the native Americans in the 18th century. There is a famous exchange between two British officers in 1763, who discuss how to get rid of the surviving Indians after the defeat of their rebellion led by Pontiac. ‘I wish we could make use of the Spanish method,’ one of them wrote, ‘to hunt them with British dogs, supported by Rangers and some light horse, who would, I think, effectually extirpate or remove that vermin.’ The senior British commander, General Jeffrey Amherst, agreed, but thought it might be difficult to ship dogs over from Britain (though later in the 1790s dogs were indeed shipped from Cuba to help crush a slave rebellion in Jamaica).
General Amherst had another idea: ‘You will do well,’ he wrote, ‘to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets [from the smallpox hospital], as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.’ ‘Extirpate’ was a very 18th-century word; in the 19th century it became ‘exterminate’, and in the early 20th century British politicians and diplomats talked about ‘frightfulness’ when they mentioned mass killings of natives, through machine-gun fire or aerial bombing, the widely-used weapons of the age.
Smallpox was one chosen weapon in America, and the bacillus was soon spread to Australia and later to Canada. In Australia, it arrived with the first settlers in the 1790s. ‘Shortly after the English landed,’ wrote one chronicler, ‘a fearful pestilence set in’ among the Aborigines, ‘and very many bodies were left unburied in the bush.’
This might be considered an accidental by-product of conquest, but the new settlers soon seized on arsenic and strychnine as their weapons of choice. Arsenic used in sheep-dipping was readily available and mixed with wheat flour in the making of damper, the locally-improvised bread in the outback, it could be presented as an apparent gift to the Aborigines. Alternatively, with a blind eye turned by successive governors, death squads were organised to gun down the indigenous inhabitants.
In Australia in the 1820s, barely 30 years after the arrival of the British, the extermination of the Aborigines was well under way, recorded by Christian missionaries. In the Caribbean and South Africa, as well as in Australia, such observers were well-informed about what was going on. A congregationalist minister in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, wrote in 1825 of the ‘sad havoc’ made on the tribes at Bathurst. ‘A large number were driven into a swamp, and mounted police rode round and round and shot them off indiscriminately, until they were all destroyed.’
The minister went on to quote the views of one prosperous rancher, speaking at a public meeting: ‘The best thing that could be done would be to shoot all the blacks and manure the ground with their carcasses, which was all the good they were fit for… the woman and children should especially be shot as the most certain method of getting rid of the race.’
A similar discussion went on in South Africa, where the same methods were in use. As early as 1812, extermination units were deployed against the Xhosa on the frontiers of the colony. ‘The only way of getting rid of them,’ declared one British officer, ‘is by depriving them of the means of subsistence and continually harassing them, for which purpose [my] whole force is constantly employed in destroying prodigious quantities of Indian corn and millet… and shooting every man who can be found.’
One additional aspect of empire – once unfamiliar but now exceptionally topical – was that its most zealous opponents were those that the British called ‘Mohammedans’, who wrapped their forces in the green flag of Islam. Traditional histories of empire have been reluctant to discuss the British conflict with Islam, yet in much of the empire, for much of the time, an undeclared struggle with Muslims formed part of the imperial backcloth. Siraj-ud Daula, the famous Nawab of Bengal who expelled the British from Calcutta in 1756, was a Muslim, as were the rulers of Mysore, Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan. The sultans of Java who resisted Stamford Raffles were also Muslims, as were the sea pirates on the waters off Singapore, and the famous Dost Mohammed of Afghanistan in the 1840s.
Islamic opposition in the Middle East and the Arab world was sparked off by Gladstone’s invasion of Egypt in 1882. Colonel Ahmed Arabi, the Egyptian leader, called for a jihad and although his call was ignored in Egypt itself, it was taken up repeatedly in the Muslim territories of the empire in the decades before the first world war: on India’s north-west frontier, in the Sudan, in Uganda, in Somaliland and in Nigeria.
Much of this Islamic resistance was caused by the empire’s militant Christianity, in open conflict with Muslim culture and traditions. In the 21st century, with this topic at the top of the international agenda, the British should be able to reflect on the fact that they have been here before, even if this permanent thread has never been adequately absorbed into official memory. For it sometimes seems as if the current enthusiasm for ‘human rights’ is little more than a 21st-century form of the muscular Christianity that played such a central imperial role in the 19th century.
Many contemporary conflicts take place in the former colonial territories, which is one of the reasons why the empire still provokes such harsh debate: if it made such a success of its colonies, why are so many of them still such major sources of violence and unrest? Is Britain ready to accept that being victorious against the Nazis does not absolve it of comparable crimes against humanity?
Richard Gott is a writer, historian and the author of Cuba: A New History, published by Yale University Press
This article first appeared in issue #232 ‘Rue Britannia’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media