In the post 9/11 frenzy of self congratulation about the west’s superiority, Tony Blair’s former foreign policy guru, Robert Cooper, and a host of Mainstream Media flag-wavers were urging us not to be ashamed of our empire.
Cooper insisted that empire was “as necessary now as it had been in the 19th century”. The British empire was, we were assured, a generally well-intentioned attempt to instil ideas of good government and ‘civilised’ behaviour into less well-favoured societies.
Is such a rosy view of British imperialism justified?
Have the British less blood on their hands than the French and the Belgians, for example?
Isn’t India not only a democracy now, but, thanks to the British, also one with great railways?
Perhaps there is a glimmer of truth in some of this, but there’s also much smugness. While the complex consequences of colonial economic policy require deeper analysis, it is possible to dispel more swiftly the myth that the British Empire, was innocent of atrocities.
It has become fashionable to portray Europe’s 20th century as the bloodiest in history and that all atrocities must be recorded and remembered by British society as a whole. But while a Black Book of Communism has been compiled and almost everybody is aware of the alleged horrors attributed to nazism, mainstream historians have been surprisingly non communicative regarding the darker side of the British Empire.
There are exceptions, such as Mike Davis’s powerful Late Victorian Holocausts, but much else still lies buried in the academic literature. Davis and others have estimated that there were between 12 and 33 million avoidable deaths by famine in India between 1876 and 1908, produced by a deadly combination of official callousness and free-market ideology.
But these were far from being a purely Victorian phenomenon. As late as 1943 around 4 million died in the Bengal famine, largely because of official policy.
No one has even attempted to quantify the casualties caused by state-backed forced labour on British-owned mines and plantations in India, Africa and Malaya. But we do know that tens of thousands of often conscripted Africans, Indians and Malays – men, women and children – were either killed or maimed constructing Britain’s imperial railways.
The numbers of civilian deaths caused by British aerial bombing and gassing of villages in Sudan, Iraq and Palestine in the 1920 and 1930s, cannot even begin to be estimated.
The hurried partition of the Indian subcontinent brought about a million deaths in the ensuing uncontrolled panic and violence. The brutal suppression of the Mau Mau and the detention of thousands of Kenyan peasants in concentration camps are barely remembered, as are the Aden killings of the 1960s.
The massacre of communist insurgents by the Scots Guard in Malaya in the 1950s, the decapitation of so-called bandits by the Royal Marine Commandos in Perak and the secret bombing of Malayan villages during the Emergency remain un investigated even today.
Were these the unfortunate consequences of the arrival of economic and political modernisation?
And does change have to come so brutally?
There are plenty of examples of wanton British cruelty that could even chill the blood of a hardened Horror Movie Buff.
Who, after all, invented the concentration camp but the British?
The scandalous conditions in British camps during the Boer war, where thousands of women and children died of disease and malnutrition, are relatively well known.
But who is still alive and old enough now to remember the Indian famine-relief-cum-work camps, where gentlemanly British officials conducted experiments to determine how few calories an Indian coolie could be fed and still perform hard labour?
The rations in these camps amounted to less than those at Buchenwald.
There is Churchill’s assiduous promotion of schemes to cut the costs of imperial defence in India and the Middle East by using aerial bombing, machine gunning and gassing for the control of rebellion, political protest, labour disputes and even non-payment of taxes!
There is the denial of free food to starving south Asians on the grounds that it would simply hasten a population explosion among India’s “feckless poor”.
There is also the extraordinary British justification for bombing Sudanese villages after the first world war:
“Nuer women were, British officials claimed, of less value to their community than cattle or rifles”.
These facts are not easily removed from textbooks on empire. We don’t have a dedicated museum of empire, but our nearest equivalent, the new Imperial War Museum North, could leave the visitor with the impression that Britain’s colonial subjects had been enthusiastic participants in its wartime crusades to rid the world of want and evil.
Does it matter that the British are smug about their imperial past, that British atrocities have been airbrushed from history?
One can’t help thinking that Jack Straw’s holier-than-thou missions to India to broker solutions to the Kashmir crisis might have more credibility if the British had the good grace to apologise for such imperial crimes as the Amritsar massacre.
But a more worrying symptom of this airbrushing of Britain’s imperial past is the re-emergence of a type of new, and sanitised defence of imperialism as a viable option in contemporary international relations.
Reminding people of Britain’s imperial crimes is not to trash our forefathers, but to remind our present rulers that even the best-run empires can be cruel and extremely violent.
Overwhelming power, coupled with a sense of arrogant superiority, will always produce atrocities -even among the supposedly ‘well intentioned’, but in fact what are politically motivated invasions of foreign lands, that we are still witnessing today.
Compiled from various sources