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Legacy of Violence: Imperial realities that Britain would prefer to ignore

British nostalgia for its empire is built on the idea that it was a civilising, liberal project. The truth is a lot more bloody and brutal


Resistance movement: Mau Mau detainees are rounded up by police outside a camp in Manyani, Kenya in 1955. Photo by Authenticated News/Getty

Resistance movement: Mau Mau detainees are rounded up by police outside a camp in Manyani, Kenya in 1955. Photo by Authenticated News/Getty

Legacy of Violence by Caroline Elkins

Legacy of Violence by Caroline Elkins


Resistance movement: Mau Mau detainees are rounded up by police outside a camp in Manyani, Kenya in 1955. Photo by Authenticated News/Getty

Winston Churchill said that history would judge him kindly because he intended to write it. He was deadly serious. He published 43 book-length works in 72 volumes, which mostly emphasised how “civilised” Anglo-Saxon ideals saved mankind from barbarity during World War II.

Britain and its empire were at the heart of the Churchillian propaganda machine. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953, the Swedish academy praised his flowery prose for its “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

Many revisionist historians argue that his imperialist vision no longer has any moral credibility. They point out he was a Social Darwinist, who casually referred to Africans as ‘n****rs’, Chinese as ‘pigtails’, and Indians as ‘baboos’.

Churchill’s name pops up numerous times in Legacy of Violence, largely for encouraging blatant racism and violence across Britain’s colonies whenever its interests were threatened.

Others disagree. In How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), bestselling Scottish historian Niall Ferguson claimed the British empire “acted as an agency for imposing free markets, investor protection and relatively incorrupt government on roughly a quarter of the world”.

Caroline Elkins, a professor of history and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, tells a different story. If the largest empire the world has ever known was reformist in its claims, it was brutal and bloodthirsty nonetheless, the Pulitzer prize-winning author writes.

Meticulously researched, and beautifully written, the book centres on two main ideas: liberalism and the rule of law. Both were intrinsic to a vision of governance that Britain’s ruling elite encouraged across its empire.

In the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Britain moved away from sectarian civil wars at home to embrace economic freedom and free trade abroad instead. That’s the diluted version of history that many Britons still believe, at least. Elkins tells a more brutal truth.

Good government in empire “was liberalism’s fever dream”, as she puts it. Much of it, from the 18th century onwards, was inspired by the writings of political theorists and economists such as Adam Smith, Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill. “Barbarians”, as Stuart Mill described what he believed to be a lesser breed of humans, were malleable subjects that colonial rulers should be given free reign to beat into submission.

The British empire always had the law on its side because security personnel in exile were able to impose martial law and states of emergency, which granted extraordinary power to the military. Colonial officials codified racial difference and curtailed freedoms, enabling them to expropriate land and property. The empire had a good PR strategy: marketing itself to the world as a purveyor of liberal imperial ideals. In practice, it dominated its colonial subjects through force and coercion, while exploiting their economic resources and cheap labour, which benefited Britain’s domestic economy. “Violence was a means and an end for as long as the British empire remained alive,” Elkins writes.

She makes a stark distinction between Britain’s two empires. The first (between 1497 and 1763) was concentrated in the west: in the Americas and the Caribbean. It was mostly composed of free whites, enslaved black labourers and indigenous dispossessed of land.

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After the revolt of the American colonies towards the end of the 18th century, British imperialist interests turned east. By the 19th century, the second empire had acquired colonies in Australia, Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and numerous other Asian countries. Elkins concentrates on the latter period.

This book stresses that semantics matter in any conversation about imperial history. Nationalists and freedom fighters throughout the colonies had legitimate concerns about human dignity and issues of sovereignty. But this was of little concern to pen-pushers in the offices of Whitehall and Westminster. To them, anyone who defied their imperial overlords was deemed a terrorist or criminal.

We read how “food denial” became a way to starve villagers into submission in postwar colonial outposts such as Malaya and Kenya. One hundred detention camps were set up in the latter country in the early 1950s against a resistance movement known as Mau Mau. By the spring of 1957, 12,000 “hardcore black” detainees refusing to co-operate with local colonial authorities were sent to “works camps”, locked behind barbed wire in subhuman conditions.

It wasn’t the first time British-imposed law was used to intern people in concentration camps. This book documents numerous other examples of human rights abuses, including violent struggles in places as diverse as South Africa, India, Cyprus, Ireland (both the War of Independence and the Troubles in Northern Ireland) and Palestine.

Yet the majority of Britons today are still convinced that, on balance, the empire was a civilising force for good.

Elkins points to a 2014 poll in the UK, where 59pc of respondents said they thought Britain’s imperial legacy was something to be proud of. A similar poll in 2020 indicated 27pc of the British population wished the UK still had its empire.

“How many Britons really know about their nation’s past and the role their heroes played in trying to manipulate how [British] history would be written?” Elkins asks.

Not many. Even today, it seems. Perhaps if they read this brilliant book they might not view their imperialist past with such nostalgia.


Legacy of Violence by Caroline Elkins

Legacy of Violence by Caroline Elkins

Legacy of Violence by Caroline Elkins

History: Legacy of ­Violence by Caroline Elkins
Bodley Head, 896 pages, hardcover €38.50; e-book £12.99

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