IN 1897, 46,000 plumed and scrubbed troops marched through London to mark Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee. They were drawn from an empire that included over a quarter of the world's people. There was a camel corps from India, the Dyak police from Borneo, Muslim zaptiehs in their red fezzes, soldiers from Fiji, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Zanzibar and many more.
The correspondent of the French newspaper Figaro wrote, 'Rome has been equalled, if not surpassed by the power which in Canada, Australia, India, in the China Seas, in Egypt, Central and Southern Africa, in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean rules the peoples and governs their interests.' This was the empire 'on which the sun never set'-and on which the blood never dried.
At the start of the 20th century there was arrogant confidence that Britain would always rule. Lord Curzon believed that it was 'carved in granite and hewn in the Rock of Doom that the noble work of governing India had been placed by inscrutable providence on the shoulders of the British race.'
As the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes boasted, 'To be born British was to draw a winning ticket in life's lottery.' Yet just 65 years after Victoria's parade almost all the empire territories had gone from British rule and were governed by their own peoples. India became independent in 1947, Burma in 1948, Ghana and Malaya in 1957, and Nigeria in 1960.
The British Empire did not really reach its high point until the 1850s, with the conquest of the whole of northern India and the 1890s when it extended its rule right through Africa. So the empire lasted a mere 100 years. The Roman Empire lasted four times as long.
Britain had secured its territory through murder, bribery and terror. Machine-guns gave the imperialists military superiority over the 'natives' in Africa and elsewhere. At the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 the British lost 48 men, while 11,000 Sudanese were slaughtered and another 14,000 died later from their wounds.
Winston Churchill, later to be prime minister, described how 'this kind of war was full of fascinating thrills. Nobody expected to be killed. To the great mass of those who took part in the little wars of Britain in those vanished light-hearted days, this was only a sporting element in a splendid game.' This 'game' involved episodes like the burning of Benin City in 1897, with some 20,000 people killed.
There were successive famines in India from the 1880s to the 1940s, when the British allowed more than 12 million people to starve to death while food stocks were exported. There was also the near extinction of the indigenous populations of Tasmania, New Zealand and Australia.
The conquered territories provided rich pickings. British firms were able to plunder raw materials and labour, make profitable investments and sell their products. The empire also poured human material into the British war machine. India sent a million men to fight for Britain in the 1914-18 war, and a further two million in the 1939-45 war.
Britain started to come under economic pressure from its rivals at the end of the 20th century. Both Germany and the US were beating Britain in terms of manufacturing output by 1913. But the key factor in ending the empire was a series of colonial revolts. In 1916-21 there was a succession of rebellions in Ireland. In 1919 there was a near uprising in India and Egypt. In the 1930s there were revolts in the West Indies and Palestine.
In 1942 the Quit India movement shook the subcontinent. Winston Churchill commented that he had not become prime minister 'to preside over the dismemberment of the empire'. But the heroic resistance meant that a few years after the Second World War most of the British ruling class grudgingly recognised that they could not hang on to the empire indefinitely.
Britain was finally forced out of India in 1947 after a naval mutiny, demonstrations and strikes. But some of the evil of empire lived on. Two of the great flashpoints in the modern world have their roots in what the British rulers did as they left. They partitioned India into two countries-India and Pakistan. This led to the forced migration of some 17 million people and the slaughter of around one million in the communal fighting that followed. In Palestine the Israeli settler state grabbed nearly 78 percent of the land from the Palestinians.
Neither Labour nor Tory governments were prepared to give up control of the heart of the empire. Herbert Morrison, Labour's deputy leader, used racist language to justify hanging on to Africa.
He said that to grant African colonies independence would be 'like giving a child of ten a latchkey, a bank account and a shotgun'. Malaya was the most profitable part of the empire. The British had imported rubber plants to Malaya in 1877. They dragooned locals and imported labour to clear the jungle for plantations.
By the 1940s and 50s Malaya provided a third of the world's natural rubber and tin. To hang on to this prize for as long as possible the British used the utmost brutality against the independence movement. Some 24 Chinese villagers were murdered by Scots Guards at Batang Kali in December 1948. The British systematically covered up the truth about these killings for 22 years.
Around 250,000 British and Commonwealth troops were sent to Malaya to smash the freedom fighters, who numbered about 5,000. But they could not quell the resistance. Eventually a compliant ruler was found and elections were rushed through. The British allowed this ruler to institutionalise ethnic privileges for one section of society which led to bitter tension.
In Kenya in 1945 some 3,000 European settlers owned 43,000 square kilometres of the most fertile land. They only bothered to cultivate 6 percent of it while the 5.25 million African population were reduced to poverty. The whites lived a life of opulent ease, pampered by servants and worried only by which party to attend next.
Members of the Kikuyu group formed an organisation called the Land Freedom Association dedicated to taking back their land. It became known as the Mau Mau. The British tried to crush the movement by creating zones where any African could be shot on sight. Rewards were offered to the units that produced the largest number of corpses. Vast numbers of people were taken from their land and either penned in closed concentration camps or put in 'protected villages' where their movements were severely restricted. But again the revolt triumphed.
The British were forced to release their detainees after an outcry at the appalling treatment. Within three years Jomo Kenyatta was leader of an independent Kenya.
The last attempt by the British to maintain their empire was in Suez in 1956-an attack upon Egypt. The failure of that military adventure announced the abandonment of the rest of the empire. It was the feeling that the era of empire had passed which led Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan to tell the South African apartheid parliament in 1960:
'The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like it or not the growth of national consciousness is a political fact.' By the 1980s only Hong Kong, Northern Ireland and a scattering of small islands remained.
Brutality was the true face of that empire. Far from being a helping hand to the people it ruled, the British Empire held them back and dispensed routine bloodshed. Its demise was a great victory for freedom everywhere. What had seemed all powerful was defeated-that should give us hope against imperialism today.