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Cruel Britannia—the bloody truth about the British Empire

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Isabel Ringrose tells the terrible truth about the British Empire that Boris Johnson expects us to salute
Issue 2720
Songs like Land of Hope and Glory hide the bloody reality of Britains empire
Songs like Land of Hope and Glory hide the bloody reality of Britain’s empire (Pic: Socialist Worker)

America and the Caribbean – How Britain profited from barbarism

The songs Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia will be played without lyrics at the BBC Proms this year. This led Boris Johnson to call for an end to a “bout of self recrimination and wetness” about British history.

The bloody legacy of the British Empire is not something to be proud of. Through vicious military conquest, it used enslavement, massacres, famines and partitions to create profit.

It was the largest empire ever known, covering a quarter of the world and colonising hundreds of millions of people. The Union flag represents its barbarity.

Its first colonies were established in Jamestown, north America, in 1607. Upon arrival, the British convinced the chief of the local Powhatan tribe that his people should be put to work supplying the colonisers with food.

The Powhatans rose up in revenge, but were butchered. Their numbers fell from 8,000 to under 1,000.

Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all those transported across the Atlantic.

The most profitable West Indian colonies were part of the Empire. Some, such as Barbados and Jamaica, had vicious slave codes to deter rebellions.

Plantations grew cotton, tobacco and sugar cane. By 1750, sugar made up a fifth of all European imports. Slave merchants pocketed £12 million on the sale of African people.

Between 1761 and 1807 British ports banked £60 million—around £8 billion today—from slave sales.

Britain’s rulers viewed slaves as subhuman. Slavers killed over 130 slaves on the Zong ship in 1781—just so they could claim insurance.

Life on plantations was brutal. A third of newly-imported slaves died within three years.

Africa and the Middle East – Control built on divide and conquer

The Empire forced African economies to depend on Britain for trade. Colonisation was brutal—but there was resistance.

British took over Kenya in 1890. In 1952, Kenyans demanded independence and waged the Mau Mau rebellion.

The British castrated people, sliced off ears, flogged, executed and burnt those fighting for independence.

The British Empire exhibition in 1924 put a good spin on Britains plunder

The British Empire exhibition in 1924 put a good spin on Britain’s plunder

They herded them into concentration camps that have become known as “Britain’s Gulag” and killed up to 100,000 people.

Britain also wanted to control Egypt and southern Africa to secure trade routes to India.

The Empire grabbed the Cape Colony in South Africa in 1806 and settlers pushed out the Boers. Its attempts to snatch gold and diamond industries in South Africa led in 1899 to the Second Boer War.

At least 25,000 Afrikaners died, mostly in concentration camps set up by the British. The black people who died weren’t even counted.

Between 1880 and 1900 Britain ruled 30 percent of Africa’s people.

Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and began a long obsession with control of the Middle East. The Suez Canal opened not long after—and soon Britain owned 44 percent of it.

The rush for oil grew after the First World War, when imperial powers vied for control of the oil-rich lands that Britain dominated.

Divide and conquer became the Empire’s unofficial motto. It set ethnic and religious groups against each other.

In 1917 the British signed a declaration supporting the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine—knowing this would mean the expulsion of Palestinians.

Asia and Australasia – Plunder, riches and genocide

India became known as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire mostly because of the extent to which it was plundered.

The British East India company started by trading in textiles and spices in 1600. But by the 1750s it was snatching control of ports and cities, and shipping its captured wealth back home.

The equivalent of billions of pounds of India’s wealth was pocketed by Empire.

Anger at colonialism fuelled the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Thousands of Indian troops stopped serving the British and instead turned their guns on them.

In reprisal, the British invented new ways of killing rebels—including blowing them from cannons.

After the Mutiny, the Crown took direct control and announced that queen Victoria was now “Empress of India”.

The economic chaos that Empire had created led to repeated famines. Millions of people died while the British continued to export food from India.

A map showing how much of India Britain had stolen by 1909. The pink areas were directly run by Britain

A map showing how much of India Britain had stolen by 1909. The pink areas were directly run by Britain

Resistance forced Britain to finally quit India in 1947—but not before it had slashed the country in two with Partition, creating India and Pakistan.

Indigenous Australians had inhabited the continent for around 65,000 years prior to arrival of the British in the early 17th century.

But in the 150 years that followed, indigenous numbers plummeted.

Between 1788 and 1934, at least 40,000 Indigenous Australians were murdered by settlers in 270 frontier massacres.

These were state‑sanctioned attempts to eradicate Aboriginal people.

Between 1910 and 1970, one in three Indigenous Australian children were forcibly taken from their homes.


British colonial rule oversaw the Irish Famine of 1845-1849.

One million people died and a further million were forced to emigrate.

In 1846, the British government claimed the free market would solve the problem. But it meant most people couldn’t afford food.

During the famine’s worst year in 1847, 4,000 vessels took food to England. Meanwhile 400,000 Irish people starved to death.


Britain twice waged war on China to force it to buy the highly addictive, and profitable, opium that Britain stole from India.

The British Navy bombared China in 1840 and 1856. The wars saw the massacre of Chinese troops and mass looting.

The army eventually stormed Beijing to force the Chinese to keep taking Britain’s drugs.

Silence the songs of Empire

Rule Britannia is a callous song celebrating the horrors of the empire.

“Britons never will be slaves” is a boast about how Britain profited from slavery. The song rejoices that Britain “rules the waves”.

Yet it used this to mercilessly transport those it enslaved across them. And Britain is not a “Land of Hope and Glory”.

By 1901 when the song was written, Britain had assumed ownership of over 400 million people worldwide. And it had instilled terror among people across its empire.

Neither can Britain be described as the “mother of the free” after colonising a quarter of the world.

Patriotism—a toxic idea that’s rooted in Empire

The British Empire is gone, but its horrible legacy is kept alive in patriotism.

Patriotism is the claim that there is something special about Britain. So it follows that British people, whether billionaires or the working class, have a common set of interests and values. This goes hand in glove with painting people from other countries as an “other”.

The British ruling class used patriotism to build popular support for Empire in the 19th century. It presented colonial subjects as racially inferior, and encouraged working class people to think they had a stake in subjugating them.

That empire came to an end thanks to changes in capitalism and victorious national liberation struggles that spelt an end for colonialism in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 60s.


Despite Tories’ imperial delusions of “global Britain”, they run a clapped out, fourth rate power that has been in decline since the end of the Second World War.

But the end of Empire didn’t mean a decline in patriotism and nationalism. Precisely because Britain no longer has an empire, right wing politicians pump out nationalist nonsense about how important and special Britain is and scapegoat “the foreigner” for decline.

And the racism of empire still lives on in how people from the former colonies are treated in the immigration system.

Sometimes this process is overt. Politicians and pundits have, for instance, routinely described refugees trying to make it across the English Channel as an “invasion”.

They also imply that those who support refugees are unpatriotic. Just last week the Home Office released a chilling video promising more deportations of refugees who have used their legal right to claim asylum in Britain.

The problem, said the video, was “activist lawyers” who “abuse” the system.


By claiming we all have something in common, patriotism deflects blame away from the Tories, bankers and bosses who attack working class people.

Despite this many liberals and left wingers argue it’s possible to have a British patriotism that’s inclusive or even “progressive”.

The far right may wave the Union flag or St George’s Cross as racist symbols.

But, it’s argued, instead of the British Empire, you can be patriotic about multiculturalism, the NHS, or the struggles of the Suffragettes and Chartists.

Yet there’s nothing particularly “British” about these values or institutions. Attempts at “progressive patriotism” just reinforce regular racist patriotism.

How the sun set on the British empire
How the sun set on the British empire
  Read More

It encourages the idea that there’s something that unites everyone in Britain across class divides. And this is something the ruling class can co-opt.

They respond to the widespread popularity of reforms won through working class struggles, such as the NHS, by trying to adopt them as “national symbols”.

This in turn bolsters right wing ideas. So when restricting migrants’ right to use the NHS, Tories often say it’s a “national health service not an international health service”.

Really the history we should be proud of is one of working class struggles and mass movements that clashed with the establishment. Far from being united, workers and the British ruling class were bitter enemies.

Even if presented as harmless, patriotism leads away from class politics to class peace.

Tomáš Tengely-Evans

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