Shattering the myth of benign British colonialism

The twentieth century saw the decline of the colonial empires that had controlled much of the world over the previous centuries. Especially following the end of the Second World War, the rise of independence movements led to the colonial powers being forced to hand over power to the people of the countries they once ruled. When we look at the history of colonial rule, somehow British rule has escaped much of the harsh censure that was leveled at the other powers, with some even going to the extent of viewing the British rule as benign, with them largely peacefully handing overpower. They even like to portray themselves as a civilizing influence, brining modernity to backward nations.

That is a myth. What distinguished British colonial rule from that of the others was the great effort that they put into suppressing the brutality and cruelty of their rule by destroying and suppressing all the records of their actions and using their propaganda apparatus to create a mythical story that puts them in a very favorable light, at least in the western world. As they prepared to leave the countries, they put into action a systematic effort to either destroy evidence of their brutal rule or ship the rest of the documents to a tightly guarded facility in the UK so that almost no one even knew the existence of them.

The mask began to be ripped off in the last two decades or so as scholars discovered the existence of these documents and forced the government to reveal at least some of them. They showed how awful British colonial rule was. Some of the pioneering work in this discovery of hidden history was by Caroline Elkins who, while doing field work in Kenya as a student, stumbled across the story of the Mau Mau nationalist movement and rebellion and how it had been misleadingly portrayed by the British.

Sunil Khilnani reviews the work of Elkins and others about what British imperialism was really like.

In the twentieth century’s hierarchy of state-sponsored violence, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Hirohito’s Japan typically take top spots. The actions of a few European empires have invited harsh scrutiny, too—Belgium’s conduct in Congo, France’s in Algeria, and Portugal’s in Angola and Mozambique. Britain is rarely seen as among the worst offenders, given a reputation for decency that the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins has spent more than two decades trying to undermine. “Legacy of Violence” (Knopf), her astringent new history of the British Empire, brings detailed context to individual stories like Tudor’s. Visiting archives in a dozen countries over four continents, examining hundreds of oral histories, and drawing on the work of social historians and political theorists, Elkins traces the Empire’s arc across centuries and theatres of crisis. As the sole imperial power that remained a liberal democracy throughout the twentieth century, Britain claimed to be distinct from Europe’s colonial powers in its commitment to bringing rule of law, enlightened principles, and social progress to its colonies. Elkins contends that Britain’s use of systematic violence was no better than that of its rivals. The British were simply more skilled at hiding it.

More than half a century after the British Empire entered its endgame, historians are nowhere near a full assessment of the carnage shrouded by its preacherly cant, and, later, by administrators’ bonfires of documents as they prepared for the last boat out.

It’s startling to recall that, not so long ago, leading historians accepted the images of empire’s end that were projected in propagandistic newsreels—governors-general in plumed helmets and starched whites inviting grateful natives to the podium. “Next to no fighting,” concluded the Cambridge historian John Gallagher, one of the Old Guard whom Elkins has in her sights. She counters that the practice of blowing Indian sepoys from cannons after the 1857 uprising, the Maxim-gun slaughter of Mahdists in the eighteen-nineties, the use of concentration camps in the Boer wars, the massacre of peaceful protesters in Amritsar, reprisal killings and the sacking of civilian property in Ireland: all this state-inflicted savagery was just the British Empire warming up.

In “Imperial Reckoning,” Elkins moved deftly between oral and archival histories to describe a British strategy of detention, beatings, starvation, torture, forced hard labor, rape, and castration, designed to break the resistance of a people, the Kikuyu, who, having been dispossessed by the British and then, during the Second World War, enlisted to fight for them, had plenty of reason to resist. In 1957, a British colonial governor informed his superiors in London that “violent shock” was the only way to break down hard-core adherents, justifying a brutal campaign called Operation Progress. More than a million men, women, and children were forced into barbed-wire village compounds and concentration camps for reëducation in circumstances that the colony’s attorney general at the time called “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.”

The British used tactics learned from their brutality from all over the world to suppress the Arabs in Palestine and elsewhere that laid the foundations for the violence that permeates that region to this day.

From Ireland had come paramilitary techniques and the use of armored cars; from Mesopotamia, expertise in aerial bombing and the strafing of villages; from South Africa, the use of Dobermans for tracking and attacking suspects; from India, interrogation methods and the systematic use of solitary confinement; and, from the Raj’s North-West Frontier, the use of human shields to clear land mines. As one soldier recalled about the deployment of Arab prisoners, “If there was any land mines it was them that hit them. Rather a dirty trick, but we enjoyed it.” Other practices seem to have been homegrown by the British in Palestine: night raids on suspect communities, oil-soaked sand stuffed down native throats, open-air cages for holding villagers, mass demolitions of houses. While perfecting such tactics on the Palestinians, Elkins suggests, officers were gaining skills that were put to use when they were later dispatched to Aden (in the south of present-day Yemen), to the Gold Coast, to Northern Rhodesia, to Kenya, and to Cyprus. Palestine was, in short, the Empire’s leading atelier of coercive repression.

Not long after a 1947 United Nations vote divided the Mandate into Jewish and Arab states, Israeli security forces began emulating British methods, from killing civilians to flattening whole villages. In 1952, a British-controlled concern that excavated potash and other Dead Sea minerals—the immense value of which Hughie Tudor had extolled to Churchill—passed quietly into the control of the Israeli government. In 1969, when Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir asserted that “there was no such thing as Palestinians,” she was, in a way, asserting an erasure of recognition and rights which the British Empire had set in motion half a century before.
liberal imperialism.

The radio program Radiloab had an episode that dealt with how the British hid and sanitized their awful colonial history and focused partly on the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya

In the program, they play a clip from a BBC documentary where the narrator describes some of the things that the British did to their victims. It is reminiscent of the torture techniques used by the US around the world in places like Abu Ghraib.

He told me how naked, tied by his feet to the bars, he was brutally beaten on the testicle with a stick.

Then they seared his eyes with hot coals. They kept him there for eight days. 

One of the men was made to put his head into a bucket of water. Then the white officer held one of the prisoner’s legs aloft, while a guard held the other. And another guard brought some sand, which they started to push into the detainee’s anus with a stick. They kept on doing this, alternatively putting in sand and water, all the while pushing the mixture in with the stick. That act still gives me nightmares to this day. Because that was something that should never be done to a human being.

A historian says that when you look at the actual numbers in Kenya, it belies the British story of who was the more brutal.

By the time it was done, nearly the entire Kikuyu population of a million and a half people were detained, tortured, murdered, systematized force labor. And you have to look at scale and if you weigh the balance sheet of this, is how many Europeans died. 32.

Even I recall hearing as a child vague stories of how terrible the Mau Mau were. Even their name conjured up terrifying evil. Such is the power of propaganda, that it can persuade the people of a former colony that those fighting for their independence in another colony were monstrous barbarians .


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Not mentioned here: Malaysia, where the Brits introduced the “strategic hamlet” relocation system implemented (much less successfully) by the US against Vietnam.

    Nonetheless, we should remember Gandhi’s remark that his nonviolence techniques, which required a conscience of sorts on the part of the oppressors, would not have worked against the Nazis, but did work upon the English.

  2. Jazzlet says

    Yet people like William Rees Mogg MP think any reassessment of our history in relation to empire is “woke nonsense”. He and other like-minded people attacked the National Trust (a charity) for introducing factual information like where the wealth to pay for the great houses in their care came from (too often slavery despite the aristocracy supposedly disdaining trade). For showing the conditions the workers in the historical factories under their care or talking about the conditions in whatever part of the empire the raw material for those factories came from. Telling the truth about the British empire is still considered too dangerous to the national culture to be permited, it might upset people (sound familiar?). Fortunately the members of the National Trust -- over a million -- disagreed in sufficient numbers, and voted against those holding that position so they weren’t able to take over the NT board as they had hoped.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Such is the power of propaganda, that it can persuade the people of a former colony that those fighting for their independence in another colony were monstrous barbarians .

    The brutality of British Imperialism is a story which has to be told and remembered, and Brits have committed war crimes on almost every continent (not sure about Antarctica). But propaganda can cut both ways. The Mau Mau weren’t just freedom fighters.

    Aside from the Lari massacres, Kikuyu were also tortured, mutilated and murdered by Mau Mau [mostly Kikuyus themselves] on many other occasions.[104] Mau Mau racked up 1,819 murders of their fellow native Kenyans, though again this number excludes the many additional hundreds who ‘disappeared’, whose bodies were never found. Anderson estimates the true number to be around a 5,000

  4. cartomancer says

    Jazzlet, #2,

    I think you mean Jacob Rees-Mogg. William was his father, a former editor of the Times. Though it is an entire family of simpering, uber-Tory arseholes and the correction I make is purely on technical, rather than moral, grounds.

  5. Deepak Shetty says

    with some even going to the extent of viewing the British rule as benign, with them largely peacefully handing overpower.

    Im assuming the “some” arent actual people who lived or who had ancestors in these colonies. Most Indians will cite Jalianwala Bagh massacre and consider this argument closed. For quite awhile I think my friends and I would say that all the long festering conflicts in the world usually have a British hand in them (till America decided to don that role)

    @Pierce Butler

    Gandhi’s remark that his nonviolence techniques, which required a conscience of sorts on the part of the oppressors, would not have worked against the Nazis, but did work upon the English.

    This is debated within the people in India , atleast in the generations after the actual freedom struggle. Quite a few believe that without world war 2 we might not have earned freedom so whether “non violence” worked . I do believe in non violent struggle but Im not sure about its effectiveness.

  6. gedjcj says

    I have to say that “brining modernity to backward nations” is an absolutely poetic typo.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Deepak Shetty @ # 5: … Jalianwala Bagh massacre …

    I haven’t read much on satyagraha theory, but it seems Gandhian non-violent resistance in practice essentially needs a highly visible atrocity, or several, to work.

    Quite a few believe that without world war 2 we might not have earned freedom …

    Also, I’ve heard, a widespread belief across Africa -- and probably true, though untestable.

  8. Jazzlet says

    cartomancer @#4

    You are of course entirely correct, and your description of the family is both pithy and precise.

    I think there is a lot to be said for the “if not for WWII we wouldn’t have got our independance” analysis, Britain turned inwards, concentrating on reparing the damge to it’s cities, building the NHS and the rest of the welfare state etc etc. Also I think many soldiers came home after seeing different parts of the world … bother I’m having trouble wording this … maybe I feel that as well as the big political stuff I’ve already mentioned, they wanted to concentrate on making everything good that ‘home’ had meant to them when they were so far away a reality on a personal level too. I don’t think there was the appetite for doing their bit maintaining the empire that there had been at one point, and the loss of lives along with the huge needs of the construction industry mean finding the kind of job in the UK that would support a family had become easier than it was before the war. Probably a load of cobblers , but there we are.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Jazzlet @8: I don’t think it’s a load of cobblers. WWII brought mass destruction home. Any destruction was supposed to be somewhere else, far far away.

  10. Deepak Shetty says

    @Pierce Butler

    but it seems Gandhian non-violent resistance in practice essentially needs a highly visible atrocity, or several, to work

    Well -- you could react like Gandhi or you could react like Bhagat Singh to the visible atrocity.

  11. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 Deepak Shetty

    Quite a few believe that without world war 2 we might not have earned freedom

    I am going from a vague memory so could be totally wrong but I think I remember reading that the plan, absent WWII, was that India was to have Dominion status by 1945. Could this be possible?

  12. Deepak Shetty says

    Ah.. as far as I remember some form of self governance was always discussed in the lead up to the war -- I believe dominion status was also discussed prior to the war but nothing was ever agreed on. And atleast all the textbooks we learnt from were all about How the British would promise items and then renege or betray India (but yeah books written and approved by the at that time Indian Congress party)

  13. KG says

    I haven’t read Elkins, but recommend Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal. Its focus is on how British liberals/radicals/socialists/anti-imperialists were educated by resistors and resistance in the colonies, over the period from the so-called “Indian Mutiny” in 1857 (which was much more than a “mutiny”) to the post-WW2 period including the cover-up of British atrocities in Kenya and elsewhere by the systematic destruction of documents.

    As for Indian independence, one reason for not resisting it after WW2 was a matter of financial accounting. Pre-WW2, the Indian government “owed” large debts to that of the UK, and the interest payments were substantial. As a result of the war, this situation was reversed: the UK government owed large debts to the government of India. Holding on to the country was no longer profitable, particularly considering the costs that suppressing the independence movement would have incurred. Nevertheless, if the Tories had won the 1945 election, Churchill would certainly have tried to do so. By that date, the educative process Gopal documents had reached far enough to shift Labour policy from the racist “liberal imperialism” it had held to earlier in the 20th century to more-or-less immediate independence for India -- although not at that point for colonies in Africa, the Arabian peninsula, or the Caribbean.

    For the broader study of the British Empire, I recommend P.J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins British Imperialism 1688-2015.

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