Socialist Worker

British Empire: rule of terror

Some historians are pushing the myth of the British Empire as a civilising force for good. But, author Richard Gott tells John Newsinger, imperialism’s history is soaked in blood

Issue No. 2279

Richard Gott’s new book, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, could not be more timely.

British troops are still fighting in Afghanistan. This is the fourth Afghan war they have been involved in.

And hot on the heels of bombing Libya, David Cameron’s government is working with the US to draw up plans for an attack on Iran. There is a cross-party consensus on these imperial adventures.

This consensus is reflected in attitudes towards the British Empire. Senior politicians from all parties are united in celebrating the empire and regarding it as a force for good in the world.

The pro-imperialist historian Niall Ferguson is now advising the government on the history curriculum in schools.

A rehabilitation of empire that began under Tony Blair and New Labour is very much underway.

Challenging this is an uphill struggle. A virtual news blackout has greeted the publication of Richard’s book.

Compare that with the veritable jamboree that accompanied the publication of Jeremy Paxman’s potboiler Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British.

Richard’s book is a relentless chronicle of resistance to British rule and the brutality with which that resistance was suppressed.

This brutality involved massacres and mass murders that on occasions amounted to genocide.

In Tasmania, as Richard shows, aboriginal people were hunted down and killed. A handful of survivors were deported from their homeland to die in exile.


This caused some concern in London. In 1828, Sir George Murray worried that the extinction of “the whole race” was “very difficult to be reconciled with feelings of humanity”.

Murray feared that it would leave “an indelible stain on the character of the British government”.

He obviously underestimated the ability of later British historians to forget such episodes—and wash away apparently “indelible” stains.

Richard spoke to Socialist Worker about his new book. He explained that its primary focus was on the response of the people subjected to the rule of the British Empire.

“They for the most part did not welcome being conquered,” he said. “Their resistance and rebellion forms the basic subject matter of my book.

“I wanted to resurrect the stories of resistance and revolt—stories that are downplayed or ignored in most histories of the empire”.

His history covers the years from 1755 to 1857. “That period marked a century of military conquest,” he said. And it was “a time of massacre and violence”.

When Richard began the book ten years ago, he soon found “that there was a rebellion every year somewhere in the empire”. One of the centres of resistance was the first British colony—Ireland.

Whenever he turned to the British record in Ireland he found that “sure enough, in some forgotten and ignored part of Ireland, there would always be a group organising resistance to British rule”.

Ireland, he insists, “was also the place where the imperial power was able to try out tactics of control that were later used in the wider empire.

“A militarised police force was introduced into Ireland in the 1820s and the technique was then deployed all over the empire.”

Richard makes the point that “the growth and expansion of the empire played a significant part in the growth and expansion of racism”.

It was to “become more overt and respectable in the 19th century, partly as an explanation of and justification for the expansion of empire”.

A misreading of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution led to “the widespread belief that the theory of the survival of the fittest meant that many subject peoples, notably those in Africa as well as in Australia, were doomed to extinction”.


Slavery in the Caribbean was, Richard said, “a vital source of wealth to Britain in the 18th century”.

Indeed, slavery “was a significant part of imperial practice for centuries”.

Slavery was finally brought to an end in the 1830s. This is often seen as a reason for British self-congratulation.

But Richard insists that this ignores “the very real and important contribution made by slaves themselves” to their own liberation. Slaves “organised frequent and accelerating rebellions from the 1760s to the 1830s”.

Richard emphasises the crucial point that “the British ruled their empire through terror” from the 1750s through to the 1850s.

“For much of that time, the colonies were controlled under the fierce conditions of martial law.

“The great majority of British governors were military officers. In contemporary parlance, we would say that the empire was ruled as a military dictatorship.”

This aspect of British rule has been seriously neglected. It culminated in the suppression of the 1857 Great Rebellion in India where the British put revolt down with “genocidal violence”.

In Britain itself there was “always a thin but unwavering threat of opposition to empire from the middle of the 18th century onwards”.

Eventually this “small anti-imperialist movement found a home in the British Labour Party. But it was by no means dominant within the party”.

While there were always brave individuals who took a stand against the empire, both “the party and more

generally the working class were infected by the imperial bacillus that spread from the elite.

“A more consistent hostility to empire was to be found within the Independent Labour Party and the various Communist and Trotskyist groupings that arose from the 1920s onwards.”

Britain’s Empire is hopefully the first of two projected volumes. In this first volume, Richard says, “In spite of several significant victories, the story is mostly one of rebel failures or disaster.”

But he also insists, “Eventually the rebel tradition was successful. The British Empire was defeated.

“We should recognise and remember and celebrate the eventual triumph of the rebels.”

Britain’s mass murderers

June 1857 Lieutenant George Cracklow writes to his mother from India describing prisoners “blown” from the guns:

“The prisoners were marched up to the guns, their irons knocked off and lashed to the muzzles.

“I shut my eyes for half a second and the guns exploded with one report.

“I could hardly see for the smoke for about two seconds when down came something with a thud about five yards from me.

“It was the head and neck of one of the men. You can’t imagine such a horrible sight.”

August 1828 The Rev Stephen Kay describes a British attack on a San village in the Cape Colony, South Africa:

“While a great part of the people were still asleep, the rush of horses, the clashing of spears, and the roar of musketry thus poured in upon them on every side.

“When the troops returned to the point whence they started, the field presented a scene indescribably shocking—old decrepit men, with their bodies pierced and heads almost off; pregnant females ripped open, legs broken and hands severed from arms.”

Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt by Richard Gott is published by Verso, £25.

The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire by John Newsinger is published by Bookmarks, £11.99.

Both books are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.

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Tue 22 Nov 2011, 18:25 GMT
Issue No. 2279
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