By John Newsinger
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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

This article is over 14 years, 6 months old
At a time when Gordon Brown is cynically taking up the cause of Darfur in a vain attempt to find some moral high ground for New Labour to occupy, it is worth remembering the British Empire's record in the same region.
Issue 319

According to Piers Brendon in his new history of the empire, “British punitive expeditions in the Sudan were even more brutal than those in Kenya, at times amounting almost to genocide. Certainly, as one district officer acknowledged, they produced a crop of ‘regular Congo atrocities’.”

Brown is a strong, indeed passionate, believer in the good that the British Empire did. He would do well to read Brendon’s book, where he points out among other things that, “if Labour politicians were more apt to prate about principles than the Tories, they hardly differed from them in practice.”

Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire is to be welcomed. In a hefty 650 pages of text, he provides a narrative history of the empire since the 1780s, somewhat eccentrically dating its decline from the loss of the American colonies.

His account does not shrink from “dealing with the seamy side of the enterprise, especially as it is apt to be played down in the unhealthy neo-imperialist climate of today”. And this is, indeed, the book’s great strength. It provides a relentless catalogue of racist brutality, exploitation, aggression and massacre. Anyone needing evidence to counter the apologists of empire will find the book of enormous value.

His account of the crushing of the Great Rebellion in India in the 1850s brings out the full horror of British repression. The young officer Garnet Wolseley promised himself that he would shed “barrels and barrels of the filth which flows in these niggers’ veins”. This was not the raving of a lone psychopath, but a typical response, which was to be enthusiastically put into effect.

The fall of Delhi to the British, for example, was accompanied by the slaughter of thousands of civilians. One officer later confessed that his men “were very savage, treating those poor wretches like vermin. Some carried ropes on purpose to hang them with, which they did with great delight.” The killing was accompanied by an orgy of looting with many officers becoming rich men. Queen Victoria herself “acquired some prize articles, including the evanescent emperor’s jewelled hat and gilt chairs”.

Similarly, with his account of the suppression of the 1952-1960 Mau Mau Rebellion, Brendon pulls no punches. The white settlers “took the emergency as a licence to kill. They hunted down ‘Kikuyu trouble-makers’ like wild animals. They tortured them at will, sometimes castrating men and raping women. They exterminated them without mercy.”

The colony’s governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, “effectively legalised torture by approving his attorney general’s spurious distinction between ‘punitive force’ officially banned, and ‘compelling force’, which was permitted”. One police officer admitted to Labour MP Barbara Castle that conditions in the internment camps in Kenya “were worse than anything I experienced in my four and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese”. Her efforts at uncovering atrocities led the attorney general, Eric Griffith-Jones, to dismiss her as “that Castellated Bitch”.

While there is much that is of value in Brendon’s history, nevertheless there are important criticisms to be made. The book is uninformed by any theoretical understanding of the empire and imperialism. Indeed, he takes his inspiration not from Karl Marx, but, as he insists, from historian Edward Gibbon.

One consequence of this is that, while he certainly exposes the crimes of empire, he draws back from any full-blooded condemnation of the empire itself as a crime. His is a “great man” view of history with, once again as he freely admits, there being very little in the book “about the colonial masses”. But arguably more serious is the lack of any serious account of British relations with the US.

The part the US played in the downfall of the British Empire, and the British decision to become a junior partner in the US Empire, requires exploration. This is essential if we are to understand why British troops are killing and being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

John Newsinger

John Newsinger is the author of The Blood Never Dried. The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon is published by Jonathan Cape, £25.

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