By Chris Bambery
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Capital and Conquest

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Chris Bambery recalls the brutal history of the British empire.
Issue 271

On 2 September 1898 at a place called Omdurman, outside the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, 20,000 British and Egyptian troops under the command of Lord Kitchener faced 52,000 lightly armed cavalry and infantry. The latter proceeded to charge Kitchener’s lines. The new machine-gun created by the American Hiram Maxim opened fire and some 10,000 Sudanese were left dead on the battlefield. There were fewer than 400 casualties on the imperial side, with just 48 British soldiers being killed. In the terminology of the US today, it was a ‘turkey shoot’–as great a technological mismatch as the war George W Bush fought against the Taliban in Afghanistan over a 100 years later.

The campaign to reconquer Sudan for the British Empire was accompanied by headlines in the ‘Daily Mail’ about ‘mad mullahs’ and Islamic ‘barbarians’ which would not be out of place in the ‘Sun’ today. Accompanying Kitchener’s force as a war correspondent was the young Winston Churchill, who could not resist joining in the slaughter.

Why was Britain so keen to reoccupy Sudan, which had little or no economic value? The answer is that 13 years earlier an Islamic rebellion led by a religious leader dubbed ‘the Mad Mahdi’ by the British had wiped out a 10,000-strong colonial army, laid siege to Khartoum and on its capture hacked to death General Charles Gordon (who had defied orders to evacuate the city).

After the battle of Omdurman Kitchener ordered the Mahdi’s tomb to be destroyed, and the corpse to be dug up, and took his head home to England. After that the massed bands of the British regiments performed a concert on the site of the tomb. Even Churchill thought this was all too much.

The British prime minister who had ordered the expedition, the Tory Lord Salisbury, in words which could have come from today’s White House or Pentagon, warned of ‘the effect which the triumph of the Mahdi would have on our Muslim subjects’. In other words, a challenge to Britain’s power in Sudan threatened its control of India and Egypt. Others in Britain had an equal understanding of the reality of imperialism. Socialists William Morris and Eleanor Marx were among those who had opposed any reconquest of Sudan.

Niall Ferguson’s new television series, together with the accompanying book ‘Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World’, contains a graphic description of Omdurman. Yet the parallel between US imperial reach today and Britain’s just over a century ago seems to escape him. Indeed he argues that the British Empire was more humane than its contemporary counterpart. While accepting ‘the ugly side of empire’, Ferguson argues that ‘in economic terms it was a positive force. It encouraged global free trade, investment in underdeveloped countries, labour migration and non-corrupt governments.’ This is set within a contemporary context in which Ferguson sings the joys of capitalist globalisation.

British role in India

In a final flourish Ferguson tries to convince us that the British Empire stood up alone to the Nazi menace in 1940 at the ultimate cost of its own existence. The leader of Britain in the spring of 1940 when German tanks were just across the Channel was, of course, Winston Churchill. No other politician of the time was more committed to preserving the empire, and British rule in India. Churchill’s determination to fight Hitler stemmed from his understanding that German control of Europe threatened Britain’s imperial position. Prior to that he had lauded the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini and to a lesser extent Hitler.

Even as invasion threatened Britain, Churchill ordered a military build-up in Egypt to maintain control of the Mediterranean, Suez and the route to India. After the US joined the war and pressed for an invasion of France, Churchill was still pressing to prioritise the Mediterranean (meanwhile the Russians took on and defeated the vast bulk of Hitler’s armies).

Ferguson’s stress on the economic wonders of empire and the joys of democracy it bequeathed to its former subjects misses out one or two facts.

In 1800 India, China and Egypt (and probably many of the kingdoms of central Africa) were economically more developed than Britain. Indeed the British had nothing for sale that was of interest to the Indians or Chinese. A century afterwards a chasm had opened up between Britain (together with the other major capitalist countries) and India and China. Ferguson blames this on China’s rulers but, unable to do the same for India argues that Britain brought economic growth to the subcontinent. Britain did bring free trade to India and China. Today’s IMF has nothing on the makers of empire. By imposing free trade Britain destroyed the high quality textile industries of India by flooding it with cheap cotton exports from Lancashire. Imperial taxation forced a switch from growing foodstuffs to growing cash crops for export. The result was a series of disastrous famines that were as man-made as the one threatening Ethiopia once more today.

Meanwhile Indian taxes funded Britain’s Indian army, which was used to expand the empire into Africa and Asia and which made a major contribution to defending the same empire in two world wars–all at no cost to the ‘home’ country! Lord Salisbury said India ‘was an English barrack in the Oriental seas from which we may draw any number of troops without paying for them’.

Unable to sell anything to the Chinese, Britain sent in its gunboats, seizing Hong Kong and opening up a market for opium grown in India. The poppy growers of today’s Afghanistan have nothing on the drug pushers at the heart of the creation of empire.

China traded in silver, Britain in gold. Britain enforced a rigged rate of exchange that benefited gold. As a result China slipped into debt. Britain and then other powers used the debt weapon to enforce their control over the country (much like the IMF and World Bank uses debt today). They competed to seize seaboard territories. The age-old Chinese Empire collapsed into a welter of territories controlled by rival powers and warlords dependent on western (or Japanese) backing.

The slave trade

In Africa Britain placed itself at the heart of the slave trade which did so much to destroy African society. Later, having no further use for slavery, it waged a ‘humanitarian’ war on the slave trade which happened to involve seizing colonies on the continent’s west coast. Omdurman was also part of the late 19th century ‘scramble for Africa’ as Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Italy raced to seize swathes of the continent–unleashing a series of wars and massacres in which all were equally culpable.

Just take the question of corruption. According to the old imperial history books corruption began at Calais and worsened the further east you went. But let us look at the one British politician who might seem free from any allegations of corruption, the great 19th century Liberal prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. This was a man who opposed imperial expansion and wrung his hands over atrocities committed by rival empires like those of Turkey in Bulgaria. Yet despite opposing the annexation of Egypt by London in order to ensure control of the Suez Canal, Gladstone made a king’s fortune from the shares he just happened to own in the canal.

Ferguson does, to be fair, document some of the horrors committed by British imperialism, but this is enclosed within a Thatcherite hymn of praise to the free market. The simple reality is that the scars of British rule are deep. One part of the legacy is the divide and rule Britain perfected. Just think of a list of world trouble spots: virtually all were created by Britain to help divide the natives and shore up its rule–Ireland, Cyprus, Palestine and India-Pakistan are some that spring to mind.

Ferguson is a historian who lacks a sense of history. As a Scot he is proud of the role the Scottish upper classes played in creating and maintaining the empire. But he never explains that imperial take-off followed the creation of the United Kingdom state. Among the first victims of that state were its own citizens, the inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands. Their society was destroyed and their lands were cleared by the new British state, with Lowland Scots to the fore. The bourgeois revolution that underlay the creation of the UK created the capitalist dynamism that allowed Britain to defeat its rivals and gave it the rapacity to conquer superior civilisations in the search for profit.

Why Britain is disliked

Recently a ‘Guardian’ columnist asked readers if there was anywhere British people could go where they were not disliked. He had obviously had a bad break. But the question he should have asked is why Britain is so disliked (even though most people can make a distinction between British imperialism and ordinary Brits). Here are a few more suggestions.

In October 1865 former slaves in Morant Bay, Jamaica, rose against white rule and a system that denied them ownership of the land. Twenty whites died. The next day martial law was declared across the island. In just one month 200 people were executed, 200 flogged and 1,000 houses destroyed. Among those hanged was a black former magistrate dismissed by the Governor General, Edward Eyre, who regarded the man as a ‘troublemaker’. Despite taking no part in the rebellion he was the victim of a fixed trial. Eyre was dismissed, despite being defended by, among others, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle, but was allowed to retire to Devon with his pension.

In April 1919 the British faced a mass movement for independence which united Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs across India. Its centre was Punjab. A peaceful demonstration of 20,000 was held in the city of Amritsar. It was herded into an enclosed area with just one entrance and exit. Brigadier-General Dyer reported:

‘I entered the Jallianwala Bagh by a very narrow lane… On entering I saw a dense crowd [and] a man on a raised platform addressing the audience and making gesticulations with his hands. I realised my force was small and to hesitate might induce attack. I immediately opened fire and dispersed the mob. I estimated that between 200 and 300 of the crowd were killed. My party fired 1,650 rounds.’ In fact ten minutes of heavy fire killed 379 demonstrators and wounded 1,500.

The next day Dyer ordered the public flogging of prominent Indians and issued his ‘crawling order’–any Indian passing the spot where an Anglican missionary had been attacked had to get down on their hands and knees and crawl. Fifty were made to do so. Dyer stated he aimed ‘to strike terror into the whole of the Punjab’. He was never disciplined or even demoted, but was invalided out of the army to enjoy his pension.

In December 1948 Scots Guards killed 24 Chinese villagers at Batang Kali. This massacre was only revealed in 1970 by the People newspaper.

And if you are an Iraqi, a Jordanian, a Syrian, a Palestinian or Lebanese you will know that after the First World War Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, creating new states under their control. This was despite Britain helping to create an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire by promising them national freedom. And to add to the hurt Britain then encouraged Zionist immigration to Palestine in the hope of creating in the region a ‘loyal Ulster’ that could safeguard its interests.

Ferguson concludes by hoping the US will take up ‘the white man’s burden’ relinquished by Britain. As Bush prepares another Middle East occupation and carve-up, he seems to have learnt the lessons of empire well.

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