By Ken Olende
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Legacy of Violence—A history of the British Empire review

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Legacy of Violence is beautifully written book for anyone who wants to understand and argue against the idealisation of the British Empire, writes Ken Olende
Issue 2826
Black, whit and red book cover for A Legacy of Violence: A history of the British Empire Caroline Elkins

Legacy of Violence—A history of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins

Our rulers present the British Empire as somehow being a fairer, nicer sort of conquest. At its height, its advocates praised it for providing justice and the rule of law to all of its subjects. Unfortunately, they would occasionally add, many of these subjects were not civilised enough to cope with such rights. And so rule by law was often put aside. US historian Caroline Elkins’s new book graphically shows how “exceptional state-directed violence” was used repeatedly, and then “exonerated” by the authorities.

The British air ministry—a government department once responsible for the RAF—circulated a “Forms of Frightfulness” memo when it faced revolt in Iraq in the 1920s. This discussed controlling peasant villagers with “smoke bombs, aerial darts, tear gas, phosphorus bombs, war rockets, long-delay ‘action’ bombs, tracer ammunition, man-killing shrapnel bombs, ‘liquid’ fire [the precursor to napalm] and crude oil to pollute water supplies… A year earlier, Churchill had said that he was ‘ready to authorise the construction of [gas] bombs at once’.”

Winston Churchill is a recurring figure in this book, from youthful journalist to revered politician, always promoting the empire.

John Newsinger’s wide-ranging book The Blood Never Dried—A people’s history of the British Empire gives a clear Marxist understanding of what imperialism is and how Britain’s acquisition of the largest empire the world has ever seen was far from the “fortuitous accident” loved by the right. Newsinger describes the twin drives of the exploitation of colonised peoples and competition between the big powers, which resulted in two world wars and the Cold War.

But Elkins’s book adds something new and valuable, partly because she starts from a different place. This is an exploration of “liberal imperialism”. Roughly speaking—how the empire’s rulers justified their actions to themselves. One reason the book is nearly 700 pages long is because Elkins prefers to give them enough rope to hang themselves.

Here is a young Churchill singing the praises of dumdum bullets, “causing wounds that in the body must be generally mortal and in any limb necessitate amputation”. The British thought such bullets were important in colonial wars and blocked measures to ban them.

Elkins explains, “Concepts of ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ informed British logic—one senior army medical officer emphasised how conventional bullets often pass through the body. ‘As a rule when a white man is wounded… he has had enough, and is quite ready to drop out of the ranks and go to the rear; but the savage, like the tiger, is not so impressionable and will go on fighting even when desperately wounded.”

In 1896 the British War Office—a government department once responsible for the army—published its handbook, Small Wars, on how to fight in the colonies. Its author, Colonel Charles Callwell, was blunt that this was about unleashing havoc to achieve what he called “moral effect” on colonial civilians, and that “regular troops are forced to resort to cattle lifting and village burning and… the war assumes an aspect which may shock the humanitarian”.

Despite this reality, Britain’s leaders saw their own grasping, expansive behaviour as entirely noble. For instance, they justified the Boer War in South Africa “not in self-interested economic terms but rather as a conflict against a xenophobic and racist Boer Republic”.

When he became prime minister in 1940 Churchill told parliament that defeat for Britain in the war would mean “no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal”. Here, he casually identifies the empire with freedom and all that is good in humanity—something that would come as a surprise to the millions who had no say in how it was run or how their countries were exploited.

Elkins made a stir with her previous book, Imperial Reckoning—The untold story of Britain’s gulag in Kenya. It illustrates the Mau Mau independence struggle in the east African colony during the 1950s. Conservative historians have argued that her findings cannot be taken seriously because much of her information came from interviews with black Africans who supported the rebellion. Where was the written evidence? Elkins appeared as an expert witness in a 2011 case at the high court in London where several Kenyan victims of torture demanded compensation.

The Foreign Office had denied the existence of any documents that might clarify the British state’s role in the atrocities. But just as the case opened, it “discovered” 300 boxes of files “at Hanslope Park, the highly secure government facility… At the time of decolonization, colonial officials had packed up these newly discovered Kenyan files and spirited them away from Africa”.

The victims won their compensation, but Elkins was fascinated by the fact that this newly revealed archive contained embarrassing documents from across the empire, far beyond Kenya. This sparked her wider study. 

Elkins is very good at showing the messy joins between lofty imperial rhetoric and the reality on the ground. She weaves from the brutality of the suppression of the 1857 Indian Rebellion to the Amritsar Massacre, to Ireland and on to the suppression of the Arab revolt.

Many names pop up again and again in different areas. Douglas Duff was the former head of the savage Black and Tans militia that tried to crush the independence movement in Ireland. He was sent on to use the same methods in Palestine. Elkins says his systematic beating of prisoners led to the phrase “duff them up”.

What’s more, she shows how the rulers’ view of subject peoples evolved not only from their contemptuous treatment of the slaves—whose pitiless exploitation funded Britain’s emergence as the workshop of the world—but also Britain’s own “native” workers.

Elkins writes, “The Poor Law of 1834 and the Habitual Criminals Act of 1869 created social categories of Britons who, like the empire’s subjects, were part of liberalism’s underbelly.” And the liberals in charge believed these “threats to society” must be reformed through “hard physical labour, thus rendering them more rational and civilised”. Variations of these laws emerged across the empire, such as India’s Criminal Tribes Act.

British commander Colonel Reginald Dyer explained why he ordered his troops to open fire on a peaceful demonstration at Amritsar in India in 1919, massacring as many as 1,500 people. “I consider this the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce… not only on those who were present but more specifically throughout the Punjab.”

As the atrocity was debated in the British parliament, a lord said, “One of the mainstays of our empire has been the feeling that every officer whose duty it was to take action in times of difficulty might rely, so long as he acted honestly and in the discharge of his duty, upon his superiors standing by him.” And this was taken as gospel truth—always assume British troops are right, to the extent that there is no point in investigating.

When prime minister Benjamin Disraeli proclaimed queen Victoria the Empress of India in 1877 it was part of an ideological redefinition of empire, away from images of trade and exploitation to those of family. This not only made Victoria a supposed mother figure for the whole empire, but also positioned her above political squabbles and, coincidentally, allowed her to be seen as a racial figurehead for the “superior” Anglo-Saxon breed. 

This illusion of being above politics and head of a family with common interests has, if anything, grown in the intervening century and a half. So, in 1947 the late queen, then Princess Elizabeth, declared that her life would be “devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family”.

Often this idea of a commonwealth or family was achieved by a kind of doublethink that justified barbarism by saying it was a vital part of bringing civilisation. So, at one point Elkins focuses on the fact that Nazi Germany’s project of imperial expansion was largely in Europe. Before this, human rights thinking “remained on the periphery until Germany brought colonial counterinsurgency methods to Europe… and unleashing genocidal practices whose impact rippled through the international community”.

Even before the new horror of the Holocaust, the barbaric treatment of people regarded as lesser races brought into question the whole attitude that had built colonial empires for Britain, France and the other imperial powers.

After 1945 Britain’s Colonial Office complained that parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “may be extremely difficult to reconcile” in the empire.

The Second World War marked a turning point in the views of both rulers and ruled. Elkins notes, “most British officials believed the Japanese were tiny, weak men… and hardly a worthy enemy for their military.” The idea of white superiority was severely damaged by Japanese victories in Malaya and Singapore. Beyond this the cost of the fighting left the country heavily in debt to the US.

The economist John Keynes travelled to the US to negotiate Britain’s dire financial position and was outraged to discover they wanted to “pick out the eyes of the British Empire”. This outrage is based on an acceptance of the fantasy that Britain was somehow morally different and better than any other imperial project. This was despite the fact that Britain was actively rebuilding other colonial empires, notably those of the French and the Dutch, partly by retaking territory liberated by nationalist rebels from the Japanese.

Britain’s newly elected post-war Labour government hoped to go back to extracting wealth from the colonised countries. It thought a resurgence of empire at a higher rate of exploitation could repair the shattered imperial economy. However, it was faced with increasing numbers of people across the world rising up to free themselves from colonial occupation.

The costs required to keep the empire together undermined its profitability. “Military costs were 20 percent of total public expenditure, or nearly 8 percent of GDP, versus the United States’ 5 percent, but they could not be cut without imperilling the very policies on which recovery rested.” Eventually this burden forced Britain to let go. But the ruling strata’s self-image has never recovered, which is why the empire has become such a non-discussed presence.

Given this excellent book’s documentary power, it’s a pity there are a few minor errors, often associated with the introduction of background colour. To take two instances. First, England’s rulers did not oppress the Irish for their Catholicism from Norman times onwards—England was itself Catholic for 350 years after the invasion. Second, the city of Kano in Nigeria did not raise £10m for a Spitfire fighter, though the province of Kano did raise £10,000 to pay for two Spitfires.

There are also a couple of moments of political uncertainty, such as missing Cedric Robinson’s argument that all of capitalism is “racial”, not just certain exceptional states. However, none of these points undermine her central argument or research.

Legacy of Violence is beautifully written and follows through on its arguments doggedly. It concludes by looking at how the policies of liberal imperialism underlie much of current establishment thinking in Britain. Elkins does not shy away from talking directly about the hostile environment that attempts to blame immigrants for austerity or the Prevent Duty that penalises Muslims.

This is an important book that deserves to be read by everyone who wants to understand and argue against the current attempt to reinvigorate the romance of the British Empire. A knowledge of its contents will really help with arguments over what is the true history of Britain, where its wealth came from and the reality of empire.

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