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.
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 .