Book review: Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins (2022)

It used to be said that the sun never set on the British empire, so widespread was its extent over the globe. This book takes a sweeping look at the practices of that empire and recounts the widespread brutality with which the British ruled its colonies, with massacres, torture, large internment camps, population displacement, starvation, solitary confinement, and other forms of oppression, to subdue the native populations in their many colonies in the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and also Ireland.

While the goal of such conquests was rapacious exploitation of the resources and people of the colonies to enrich the British back home, especially the elites, in order to gain public support it was dressed up in the soothing language of ‘liberal imperialism’, that the British were bringing civilization to the benighted people over whom they ruled. This led to the infamous idea of the ‘white mans’s burden’, promulgated by noted English writers and poets, that the British were actually paying a price in order to improve the lot of the people in the countries they ruled. The policy was riddled through and through with racist attitudes towards the colonial peoples, treating them as ‘savages’ who needed the ‘civilizing influence’ of the British to ‘bring them up’ to acceptable standards. These racist attitudes were not just based on color. For example, the people of Ireland were victims as well, violently put down when they tried to gain their independence.

This kind of propaganda, coupled with the fact that the exploitation of the colonies enabled the British to raise their own standard of living, allowed the general public to conveniently ignore the atrocities that were being done in their name and think that their government was actually acting with moral rectitude. Whenever reports emerged of the British colonial government and forces having to use massive force to put down uprisings, those reports were heavily sanitized and the rebels were invariably portrayed as ‘terrorists’ who had no regard for laws and human lives.

This massive tome of nearly 700 pages is impossible to adequately summarize, so vast is its scope. It uses archival material recently unearthed to expose the lie that the British empire was largely benevolent, unlike those of its rival colonial powers like the Belgians, French, Portuguese, and Dutch. That lie was deliberately created using a propaganda machine that carefully created ‘laws’ and regulations that legalized all the crimes that British officials committed, something Elkins labels as ‘legalized lawlessness’. The British government went to great lengths to stifle those few voices back in England who wanted to expose the injustices and insure accountability and bring those officials who committed atrocities back to the UK for trial. As a result, almost none of the offenders suffered for their actions. Indeed, they were often promoted.

(Note added later: There were some calls in the UK for the British governor of Jamaica Edward Eyre to be brought back to England and tried for murder for the way they summarily executed people for the Morant Bay rebellion in 1865. Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, and Herbert Spencer, incidentally all evolution supporters, were among those who demanded such a trial. Charles Dickens was among those who opposed it, saying that. harsh treatment of the ‘natives’ was a necessary part of the civilization process. Given Dickens’s highlighting of abuses in the UK, this was surprising.)

Many of those officials who practiced torture developed and honed their skills in one country and then went to other countries to develop and spread them. They created many of the types of torture that have now become widespread, such as waterboarding that we now associate with the US using in the Middle East. Those people and the colonial government officials who shielded them were honored with the various kinds of medals that the British government bestows to those who advance its interests. The vicious Official Secrets Act was used to threaten with severe punishments anyone who might seek to be a whistleblower and expose all the crimes and managed to thus stifle any attempt at revealing what was actually happening.

Furthermore, following World War II and the rise of anti-colonial movements around the globe, when it came time for the British to leave a country, that was preceded by weeks of the extensive and careful destruction of documents that might incriminate them and show how brutal their actions actually were. Some of the documents were sent back to England and secured in a secret facility in Hanslope Park, their existence unknown to all but a few people. It was only when in 2011 some victims of the British actions against the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya sued the British government for reparations that the existence of these documents came to light and enabled historians to shed more light on what actually happened.

This book was a sobering read because Elkins piles on detail after horrifying detail in so many countries so as to convince the reader that these were not isolated abuses. To see how how systematically the British used, over and over again in nearly all its colonies, all the tools of oppression that it developed is to disabuse oneself of the carefully cultivated image that if there were any abuses at all, it was due to the actions of a few rogue elements who went against official policy. They were in fact faithfully executing their government’s policy.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    I don’t think anyone who’s been paying attention would find anything here surprising.

    One quibble:

    They created many of the types of torture that have now become widespread, such as waterboarding…

    Waterboarding (I’d guess pretty much any torture you could think of) had been around since long before the Brits went off a-conquering. The Spanish Inquisition used it.

  2. Venkataraman Amarnath says

    Around 1700 god appears before me and says, “I have a bad news. India is going to be colonized by a European country.” He adds, “but you can choose which country.”
    I choose the British and I thank god.

  3. Dunc says

    It used to be said that the sun never set on the British empire…

    … because even God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark.

  4. Deepak Shetty says

    @Venkataraman Amarnath
    Im puzzled by this comment -- is it meant to indicate that the British were the least brutal among the other possibilities ?

  5. Holms says

    Does the book also mention those times, rare though they might be (I don’t know), when British rule was less burdensome than the indigenous government? Or those times when a custom genuinely needed to be extinguished? I only say this as it has become popular to replace an old lie (that western colonial rule was a wholly benevolent civilising force) with a new (western colonial rule was wholly malevolent and introduced nothing beneficial). Seems a 700 page review of colonialism should have room for that nuance.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    @#7 Holms
    Did you not read Mano’s entire post? Because you are merely recapitulating the “White Man’s Burden”.

    As a USAian, I have a lot of problems with how our government works. For example, I think our 2nd Amendment needs a serious rewrite. But if some foreign power sailed warships into our ports and rolled tanks onto our land and said, “We are here to help you develop a sane gun control policy”, I would not be okay with that. And if they started carting off our natural resources and goods to pay for their unasked-for intervention, I would be seriously pissed. How is it that you can’t empathize with that?

  7. moarscienceplz says

    “These racist attitudes were not just based on color. For example, the people of Ireland were victims as well, violently put down when they tried to gain their independence.”
    Well, that was because those drunken ignorant Irish louts refused to shake off their Papist shackles and embrace the One True Faith: the Church of England:

    “And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon England’s mountains green?
    And was the holy Lamb of God
    On England’s pleasant pastures seen?”

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    moarscienceplz @9: Don’t drag Blake into this. He was anti-organized religion (definitely anti-CofE), anti-slavery, anti-imperialist. It’s hilarious that jingoes sing his words, since they include the phrase “dark Satanic Mills” (i.e. the drivers and beneficiaries of imperialism).

    He also wrote these words;

    I went to the Garden of Love,
    And saw what I never had seen:
    A Chapel was built in the midst,
    Where I used to play on the green.

    And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
    And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
    So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
    That so many sweet flowers bore.

    And I saw it was filled with graves,
    And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
    And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
    And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

  9. file thirteen says

    Holms #11:

    Ah, but Holms the internet isn’t about finding meaning, it’s all about scoring insult points!!

    Did you not read Mano’s entire post?

    Aha, good start, that’s one

    Because you are merely recapitulating the “White Man’s Burden”.

    Excellent, two, great inclusion of “merely” there

    How is it that you can’t empathize with that?

    Oho, nice finish! Three points to moarscienceplz. Well done, you have achieved a rating of “dickwad”. Go back to Mano’s anti-abortionist post if you want to see the real masters at work.

  10. aashiq says

    It seems that the English approach to colonization continues. Is not the current genocide in Gaza also just a civilizing process for the Arabs?

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