Colin Wilson reviews a wide-ranging account of the British Empire’s bloody history, from the author of the much-acclaimed Britain’s Gulag, which exposed the full details of the suppression of Kenya’s independence struggle in the 1950s. This article includes descriptions of torture.

Workers clearing rubble on St Patrick’s Street in Cork on (or around) 14 December 1920 after the fires.

The history of the British Empire is now at the centre of political debate. In March, Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested that children be taught about its benefits and told ‘both sides of the story. Historian Niall Ferguson claims that the Empire brought the rule of law and ‘fairly non-corrupt government’ to the quarter of the world’s population over which it ruled. Many people disagree. Following the murder of George Floyd in the US, hundreds of Black Lives Matter protests took place in Britain, including the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol – for which four people were acquitted in January, to the horror of the government.

Caroline Elkins makes an important contribution to this debate with her book Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. This is a rigorous 700-page work by a Harvard professor with almost two hundred additional pages of notes and bibliography, yet it’s an engaging book which makes the barbarity of the empire in the twentieth century absolutely clear. One truly disturbing paragraph, for example, summarises the crimes committed against the Kikuyu people, a key force in the Kenyan independence struggle, by the colonial forces:

They used electric shock and hooked suspects up to car batteries. They tied suspects to vehicle bumpers with just enough rope to drag them to death. They employed burning cigarettes, fire and hot coals. They thrust bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, sticks and hot eggs up men’s rectums and into women’s vaginas. They crushed bones and teeth; sliced off fingers or their tips; and castrated men with specially designed instruments or by beating a suspect’s testicles “until the scrotum burst”, according to Anglican church officials. Some used a kiboko, or a rhino whip, for beating; others used clubs, fists and truncheons… No Kikuyu – man, woman, or child – was safe.

These atrocities were not exceptional, but all too typical of the violence that sustained the empire. Britain had established concentration camps during its war with the Boer settlers in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century: over a hundred thousand Afrikaners were imprisoned, as well as some hundred thousand black Africans, of whom some ten thousand died. In Amritsar in India’s Punjab, in April 1919, a British commander opened fire on a peaceful gathering of some 15,000 people using machine guns. The crowd was unable to escape from the walled park of Jallianwala Bagh, which had only one narrow entrance, and at least 1,200 were injured and almost 400 killed.

In November 1920, British paramilitary squads drove into a Gaelic football match in Dublin and opened fire into the crowd, killing fourteen people. The following month British security forces beat inhabitants of Cork, tore down houses and buildings, exploded bombs, and caused damage costing millions of pounds.

In 1924, responding to the last vestiges of the Iraqi revolt against British control, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris developed techniques of bombing and machine-gunning villages from the air. As he put it,

They now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within forty-five minutes a full-sized village… can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured…

When the worst famine for two centuries hit Bengal in 1943-44, Britain refused to send aid and three million died. In Malaya in 1949, the High Commissioner reported to the British Labour government that ‘the police and army are breaking the law every day’; over a million people were forcibly relocated. Cyprus in the 1950s saw independence fighters undergo water torture, genital mutilation, electrocution and more.

Back in Britain, all this was concealed by the government with the help of a compliant press. As colonial officials left, they burned incriminating documents – in New Delhi they used wheelbarrows to feed the bonfires, but the process still took weeks. Huge numbers of secret document still exist – in 2013 it was revealed that the Foreign Office possesses over a million files, enough to fill fifteen miles of floor-to-ceiling shelves.

Britain was the world’s leading power in the nineteenth century, but faced growing competition from the US as the twentieth began, and the empire was crucial to its efforts to remain on top. World War One saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a huge territory which covered much of the Middle East and which was divided between Britain and France. Britain’s ‘sphere of influence’ in the region – important because the Suez Canal was the key route to its Asian colonies, and increasingly because of the oil reserves there – allowed it to maintain its imperial power.

Again, after World War Two, when Britain owed the US enormous sums, colonies were vital – rubber from Malaya, for example, was sold for millions of dollars to try to pay off the debt. It was only with the Suez Crisis in 1956 that it became clear the empire was over, and only in the 1960s that many colonies gained independence.

No one loved the empire more than Winston Churchill – so adored by Boris Johnson – who first claimed under Queen Victoria that the empire brought peace and civilisation, and was still describing Egyptians as ‘degraded savages’ in the 1950s. Elizabeth II ruled as atrocities took place in Kenya and Cyprus. The 1945 Labour government, all too often seen as the high point of socialism in Britain, presided over the partition of India, in which up to 2 million people died. The government was keen that Indian independence in 1947 should not begin the break-up of the empire – Labour minister Herbert Morrison commented that giving the colonies independence would be like ‘giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shotgun’.

That racist paternalism, describing colonised people as children, was central to the justification of empire in a period when documents like the United Nations Charter made statements endorsing national self-determination. British governments claimed that they were merely holding their colonies in a ‘sacred trust’ for the day, infinitely postponed, when colonised people had developed the ability to rule themselves.

It suited US governments, which had developed a form of imperialism which mostly didn’t involve formal colonies, to feign concern for human rights when they wanted to undermine Britain. But overall, the US needed Britain as an ally – America benefited from Britain’s ‘sphere of influence’ as regards Middle Eastern oil, and needed Britain to support them against the Soviet Union – and so the US averted its eyes from British imperial atrocities much of the time.

Today, the legacy of empire remains. British rulers typically fostered divisions – religious or ethnic – in the colonies, which often remained after they had gone. Laws permitting repression in a ‘state of emergency’ remained, to be used by rulers after independence. There were no reparations for the vast plunder of natural resources or the work of colonised people – wealth still central to the international role of the City of London.

The legacy of empire also remains in the form of country houses, street names and statues – and continued racism against people of colour, often from the former colonies and their descendants. Elkins’ book is a hugely valuable resource as black and white people struggle together to uncover the truth about the past so we can erase the legacy of empire for good.

Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (London; Bodley Head), 896pp, £30.00.

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