By John Newsinger
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The British crown—a reich royal history of racism, empire and cover-up

This article is over 3 years, 2 months old
John Newsinger, author of The Blood Never Dried, argues crown, empire and racism are deeply intertwined

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are part of a long tradition of royal racism and empire (Picture: Flickr/Scorpions and Centaurs)

When news of her father’s death reached Elizabeth Windsor on 6 February 1952, she was on holiday in Kenya. There is something richly symbolic in that fact. This was a white settler colony, where Britain had disposessed the African population by force and held it down by the same harsh methods.

Resistance had been building up in the years since the Second World War. First there was a militant nationalist trade union movement, which was crushed in the summer of 1950 after a general strike of over 100,000 workers. After that a secret underground revolutionary organisation, the Movement, had been covertly preparing for armed insurrection. 

This was the situation when Elizabeth Windsor arrived in the colony on 1 February. There were concerns about her security while she was in Kenya and Ian Henderson of the Kenyan Special Branch police was put in charge. She stayed at the Treetops Hotel and then went on to Sagana Lodge, where she first heard the news of her father George VI’s death and immediately returned to Britain. Her coronation took place on 2 June 1953. The event cost £1,570,000—or over £44 million in today’s money. By the time it took place, Britain had declared an “Emergency” in Kenya and unleashed one of the most brutal campaigns of repression in British colonial history. 

The Kenya Emergency was declared on 20 October 1952. It was accompanied by mass arrests and widespread summary executions. Within six months, no less than 430 people had been shot dead “while trying to escape”. Thousands of people were interned without trial—77,000 by the end of 1954 and over 160,000 by the time the Emergency was over. Even more people were imprisoned for violating the Emergency regulations, including over 34,000 women. 

Over a million Kikuyu people—men, women and children—had their homes and possessions destroyed before they were herded into 800 guarded villages, effectively imprisoned behind barbed wire. They were dumped in these barbed wire compounds and left to sleep in the open until they had built their own homes. For the Kikuyu and their allies, Kenya was one of the most brutal police states in the world. 

There was widespread use of torture. Security forces castrated men and raped women. Police, the military and white settler vigilantes routinely shot suspects. After a while the authorities more or less gave up any attempt to curb “excesses” and focussed instead on covering them up. Even more incredible was the unprecedented judicial massacre, with over 900 hanged by the end of 1954. And by the time the Emergency had ended, the number had reached 1,090. Of these 472 were hanged for possessing arms or ammunition, 210 for consorting with rebels and an incredible 62 for administering illegal oaths. 

The rebels fought on in the face of the most ferocious repression, and despite the fact that they had almost no firearms. Their struggle is one of the great heroic moments in the history of the British Empire.

The British finally crushed the rebellion, with perhaps as many as 50,000 rebels and their sympathisers killed. The number of British soldiers killed was 12 and the number of white settlers killed was 32, although the Treetop Hotel was burned down. A key figure in this great British success was Henderson. He was responsible for the capture of one of the most important of the rebel leaders, Dedan Kimathi, who was hanged on 18 February 1957. As for Henderson himself, after Kenya finally won its independence, he went on to become head of the General Directorate of State Security in British-ruled Bahrain in 1966. Here his methods earned him the title “the Butcher of Bahrain”. A grateful Elizabeth Windsor duly rewarded Henderson by installing him as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

The scale and severity of the repression in Kenya was unprecedented. What provoked this butchery and how did British government get away with it? Remember this was not the 1750s or the 1850s, but the 1950s. Both questions have the same answer. It was in defence of white supremacy and the victims were black. Public opinion in Britain was unmoved at methods which would have provoked outrage if they had been used in Aden or Cyprus or Northern Ireland. This was how the reign of Elizabeth Windsor started.

The empire was, of course, always close to the hearts of the Windsor family. Elizabeth Windsor’s father George VI demonstrated this when, as part of his coronation celebrations in the summer of 1937, he had a new wood planted in Windsor Park. He personally planted the first of sixty oak trees, his symbolising Britain. Representatives from all the colonies and dominions planted another 59 trees, carefully spaced so as to replicate the colonies’ position on the map relative to Britain. Apparently, when India won independence, he seriously considered having their tree chopped down. More important, the British Empire meant that they were a royal family presiding not over a small island off the European coast, but the greatest Empire in world history. Family pride in all this inevitably involves the suppression of much of the Empire’s history.

Queen Victoria, for example, should really be best remembered for the number of people under British rule who starved to death during her reign. The Great Famine in Ireland in the late 1840s is relatively well-known, after all Ireland was at the time part of the United Kingdom. A million people died of starvation, disease and exposure and another million fled the country, crossing over to Britain or shipping out to the US. This catastrophe earned her the title of the “Famine Queen” at the time. 

But the horrific mass starvation in Ireland is altogether surpassed by the recurring great famines in India that have been altogether forgotten. Under British rule, at a conservative estimate, some 35 million people starved to death or died of related causes such as disease and exposure. This began with the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 and ended with the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. The suffering and misery that the Indian poor went through over these years is impossible to get to grips with. 

The death toll is astonishing, one of the greatest crimes in world history, but it hardly ever figures in histories of the empire. The reason for this is obvious. If this horror is acknowledged then any idea of the British Empire as a benign institution becomes completely untenable. During the Orissa Famine of 1866, for example, which cost the lives of some million and a half people, India exported 200 million pounds of rice to Britain. Ten years later, the Great Famine of 1875-1876 cost the lives of over eight million people. British famine relief on this occasion saw the poor doing hard labour for less food than the inmates at Buchenwald camp received from the Nazis. Financial concerns took priority over saving the lives of millions of men, women and children. That was the reality of British imperial rule. Mass starvation as a feature of British rule in India climaxed as late as 1943-1944, with the wartime famine in Bengal that cost perhaps as many as five million lives altogether. 

This was pretty much written out of British history until quite recently when the work of Indian historians finally began to force it onto the agenda. It wasn’t just not discussed in histories of the British Raj. It was also written out of the biographies of the men running the British government at the time—Tory prime minister Winston Churchill and his Labour deputy Clement Attlee. Once again, the reason is obvious. A benign view of the British Empire is impossible to sustain if you have to acknowledge that over three million people starved to death or died of related causes as late as 1943-44. 

What makes the case worse is that Churchill did his best to sabotage efforts at famine relief. This was in stark contrast to the British government’s attitude when it was white Europeans in danger of starvation, in Holland, for example. Lord Wavell, who took over as British viceroy of India in the middle of the famine, was absolutely appalled by Churchill’s attitude. He complained in 1945  that when the Dutch need food “ships will of course be available, quite a different answer to the one we get whenever we ask for ships to bring food to India”. 

The case that the death toll in Bengal in 1943-44 was down to racism is overwhelming. Indeed, Churchill actually said on one occasion that “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks”—and, of course, Indians bred “like rabbits”. Wavell was absolutely right when he remarked that the famine “was one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule”. He thought it had done “incalculable harm” to Britain’s reputation. Obviously he completely underestimated the ability of generations of British historians to effectively suppress it. The Emperor of India throughout the Bengal Famine was, of course, Elizabeth Windsor’s father George VI.

Supporters of British Empire try to explain away death toll by saying famine has always been a feature of Indian life and that it merely continued under British rule. This just will not do. The fact is that the British pillage and exploitation of India was the main cause of the mass starvation under the Raj. And the lives of the Indian poor were just not considered important enough for any serious effort to be made to save them. There were always other priorities, whether financial or strategic, but they were always informed by racism.

Our current prime minister Boris Johnson publicly boasted that Britain had conquered or at least invaded 171 of the 193 UN member countries. He did, of course, seriously understate the scale of British military aggression because there are many countries that Britain has invaded more than once. China and Afghanistan come most immediately to mind. And Johnson also left out the brutal repression that was routinely unleashed when the population of any country Britain had conquered actually dared to revolt. While Johnson celebrated British militarism, he did at the same time point to a reality that once again British historians have done their best to play down. The British state is one of the most warlike in history. Indeed there is hardly a single year when British troops have not been killing foreigners somewhere. For Johnson this is a cause for celebration, but for many people it is positively shameful. In his appalling and yet best-selling 2014 biography of Churchill, The Churchill Factor, Johnson somehow overlooks the 1943-44 Bengal Famine. This isn’t because he did not know about it, but was rather because it would damage his hero’s reputation. So it was conveniently left out—one is tempted to say “cancelled”. 

One reason why these colonial wars and conquests have been so easily minimised is because they were fought by British armed forces that invariably had an overwhelming technological advantage. In effect, these wars were often little more than a succession of technological massacres. For example, the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, a battle in which Churchill participated, saw the British kill some 16,000 Sudanese while suffering only 48 fatalities themselves. And after the battle, British troops went around bayoneting and shooting the Sudanese prisoners and wounded.

One other practice of these colonial wars was the collection of body parts as trophies. After the brutal suppression of the Great Indian revolt in the 1850s, for example, one British officer brought back to Britain as a trophy the skull of Alum Bheg. He was a rebel who had been executed by being strapped to a cannon and blown to pieces. In the early 1960s, the skull ended up being put on display in the bar of the Lord Clyde pub in Kent. There is no way the skull of anyone who was white would have been considered as suitable for such treatment. Indeed, one can only imagine the self-righteous fury that would have erupted if the skull of a British soldier had been put on display in any of the many countries the British state has invaded.

Still the argument is sometimes put forward that British invasions were somehow humanitarian, for the good of the local population. This is so much nonsense. But let us briefly consider one example—the 1882 invasion and occupation of Egypt. Liberal leader William Gladstone had campaigned against the Conservative government’s military adventures, and then once in office proceeded to invade Egypt. 

The pretext was to remove Ahmed Urabi and the army from power and to restore the autocratic rule of the Khedive Tewfik. The real reason was that Egypt had an enormous foreign debt that was crippling the country and the army, taking a lead from the developing nationalist movement, was determined to cut payments. A substantial proportion of the British upper class had invested in this debt, including Gladstone himself.

The British attacked the country from the sea on 11 July 1882, bombarding forts and in the process destroying much of Alexandria. This exchange saw two British sailors killed along with hundreds of Egyptians, many of them civilians. A full-scale invasion followed, culminating in the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir on 13 September 1882. The British had 57 men killed, while the Egyptian dead numbered in their thousands. Gladstone was jubilant, while Queen Victoria demanded that Urabi should be hanged. 

What parliament was told was to be a short-lived occupation to restore the Khedive, turned into a protracted occupation that lasted until 1954. The Suez Canal was just too important to be left in Egyptian hands. Indeed it was so important that the British and the French both invaded the country in November 1956 in a secret alliance with the Israelis. All that prevented this from becoming another protracted occupation was that the US forced the aggressors to withdraw from a country it now considered to be within its sphere of influence. Elizabeth Windsor had been on the throne just four years at this time.

One last point concerns the Windsors’ ability to cover-up their past. The most dramatic example of this is provided by Edward VIII. His abdication is usually told as a love story with the king giving up his throne for the ordinary woman he loved. The truth is somewhat different. Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin was seriously concerned about both the king and Mrs Simpson’s Nazi sympathies— concerned enough to have their phones tapped as we now know. The marriage was really just a perfect opportunity to remove him. Edward, now the Duke of Windsor, remained sympathetic to the Nazis even once war broke out in September 1939 and engaged in treasonous contact with them while living in exile. His correspondence included advice to the Nazis to begin bombing Britain. His hope was that the Nazis would place him back on the throne. 

The Churchill government recognised him as a threat and shipped him off to spend the war as governor of the Bahamas, something he bitterly resented. A racist and antisemite, he regarded the population with complete contempt and considered it an insult to be put in charge of “a third class British colony”. 

At the end of the war, the government was concerned to prevent evidence of his treason becoming public and made securing his correspondence with the Nazis a priority. Amusingly, the man charged with doing this was Anthony Blunt, who was a Russian spy. If the correspondence had become public knowledge then there can be no real doubt that Edward, Elizabeth Windsor’s uncle, would have been hanged. Public opinion in Britain was not in a forgiving mood, indeed, even the son of a senior member of Churchill’s wartime government, John Amery, was hanged for treason in December 1945. Having worked for General Franco during the Spanish Civil War, he had tried to recruit a British SS unit for the Nazis during the Second World War. Blunt was successful in his search. The result was the British and Russian governments both knew of Edward Windsor’s treason, but the ordinary people were never told. 

The Windsors are part of a rich royal history of racism, empire and cover-up. 

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