The British Empire’s Worldwide Devastation

The British Empire’s Worldwide Devastation

Worldwide Devastation

The history of the British Empire’s violence.


In 2005, Britain’s then–Labour chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, chose the backdrop of Tanzania to make a dramatic statement about his nation’s unmatched record of imperial conquest and rule. “The time is long gone,” he said, “when Britain needs to apologize for its colonial history.” The choice of locale for such a proclamation was, to be charitable, curious. A braver stage would have been Kenya, to pick an African nation that had experienced horrific violence during its independence struggle from British colonial rule, or India or Malaya, where extreme and brutal measures to sustain imperial control had been carried out on an even greater scale. But here we were, nonetheless.

Brown’s speech reflected the slow and creaky rotation of the wheel not so much of history but of historiography. Mirroring 19th-century historians’ and politicians’ polished encomiums to a beneficent British Empire, the speech brought elite assessments of Britain’s unparalleled dominion over one quarter of the globe, and over a similar fraction of the human population, almost full circle. Back in the 19th century, the task of ruling over myriad darker-skinned peoples around the world had been depicted less as a matter of self-interest than of moral obligation. It was Britain’s unique vocation to spread progressive constitutional freedoms and the rule of law, along with free trade and free labor, among the less fortunate barbarians. As the Whig politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote of Britain’s empire: “It is to her peculiar glory, not that she has ruled so widely—not that she has conquered so splendidly—but that she has ruled only to bless, and conquered only to spare.”

To reach even this point required 19th-century Britons to erase much of the past as well as to ignore the present. When Macaulay’s History of England was published in 1848, the British had violently taken over nearly two-thirds of India and controlled recently acquired settler colonies in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. There was little that appeared blessed about British rule. Absent in Macaulay and his peers’ accounts was also most of the history of the transatlantic slave trade and, in particular, the British role in it. Beginning in the mid-17th century, Britain had become a leader in the brutal commerce of Africans, first in places like tiny Barbados in the 1640s and then on a far larger scale in Jamaica and throughout the West Indies. Only in 1833 did the British abolish slavery in most of the empire, a belated follow-up to the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which outlawed the commerce in slaves. But instead of attesting to this horror, Macaulay and his peers embraced what became the touch points of the so-called Whiggish school of history, which associated British liberalism and empire with progress and passed over their violence and dispossession. The famous quote by Sir John Seeley, about Britain’s having acquired its empire in a fit of absentmindedness, doesn’t even begin to capture the full scope and spirit of the denialism that persisted among famous scholars at Oxford and Cambridge well into the 20th century. In 1914, for example, the historian H.E. Egerton, the first occupant of the Beit Chair of Colonial History at Oxford, wrote that British power in Asia and Africa had come about due to the passively worded “downfall of the Moghul empire” and “the breaking up of the native tribal system and the resulting anarchy,” respectively. Much later, the distinguished historian Christopher Bayly would write that the unstated purpose of the Cambridge History of the British Empire, first published in 1929, “was to demonstrate how the English values of ‘justice,’ ‘benevolence,’ and ‘humanity’ were transformed into a universal ethos of free nations through the operation of ‘the rule of law and democratic government’” under British rule.

Such views remained fairly unchallenged until the 1960s, when space for more critical, revisionist accounts of the British Empire began to open up. Most famous among these were the histories by Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, whose co-authored essay “The Imperialism of Free Trade” helped launch the so-called Cambridge School of historiography, which argued that Britain had profited from empire through trade while avoiding extensive formal control over its colonies. According to the historian Richard Drayton, these new accounts stripped the traditional emphasis of “high moral purpose” from the British narrative, replacing it with a franker acknowledgment of self-interest and realpolitik. Yet by the 1990s and 2000s, conservative British academics, followed by Tory politicians, had begun to revise the revisionists, reprising the old claims that empire, at least in its British form, had been good for the world, and they succeeded to such an extent that even Labour politicians like Gordon Brown felt confident enough in these claims of British-led progress to reiterate them before an audience of Africans.

Against this backdrop, a new wave of revisionist reconsiderations of the British Empire has resulted in a number of popular and prizewinning books. In Empireland, Santham Sanghera recently documented the neglect of pre-20th-century history in British education, as well as the country’s nativist attitudes toward the brown-skinned immigrants who had been encouraged to migrate to Britain in the postwar years in order to boost its economy. In Slave Empire, Padraic X. Scanlan examined the role that the wealth acquired from sugar plantation slavery in the Caribbean played in Britain’s economic rise. And in The New Age of Empire, Kehinde Andrews asserted that Western empire has continued in a new guise through Western-led institutions like the World Bank and others that still exert control over the Global South.

With Legacy of Violence, Caroline Elkins has stepped firmly into this arena—or, rather, reentered it—offering a sweeping and detailed history of the violence and brutality of the British Empire. The book marks a return to the scene of a previous battle for Elkins, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning Imperial Reckoning (2005) documented Britain’s colonial atrocities in Kenya by mining the long-buried official archives with such thoroughness that the British government was obliged to issue an official statement of regret for its actions in the 1950s and ’60s.

Kenya appears in this book, too, where Elkins brings her accounting up to date, but compared with that earlier work, Legacy of Violence also represents a formidable escalation on her part. With its enormous breadth and ambition, it amounts to something approaching a one-volume history of imperial Britain’s use of force, torture, and deceit around the world. As devastating as the details of these tactics are, even more damning is Elkins’s account of what she argues has been the persistent and perverse misuse of law to cast a veneer of justice and respectability over the remorseless exploitation of others. For all of the bluster and proclaimed moral certainty of British politicians, Elkins argues, much of Britain’s zeal in clinging to its control over others, even as the Age of Empire seemed increasingly destined to end, was driven not by self-confidence but rather by insecurity over the rapid rise of rival Western powers. It was global empire alone that, in this view, had prevented England from becoming, say, just another Sweden. “There are not wanting those who say that in this Jubilee year our Empire has reached the heights of its glory and power, and that now we shall begin to decline, as Babylon, Carthage, Rome declined,” she quotes Churchill as saying in one 1897 exhortation. “Do not believe these croakers but give the lie to their dismal croaking by showing by our actions that the vigor and vitality of our race is unimpaired and that our determination is to uphold the Empire that we have inherited from our fathers as Englishmen.” As Elkins makes clear throughout Legacy of Violence, the racialized aspect of empire—meaning clear notions of Britain’s Anglo-Saxon superiority over its Black, brown, and so-called yellow subjects—has been present from the beginning.

As its title suggests, Elkins’s book argues that violence was not just an incidental feature of the British Empire, not simply its midwife, so to speak. Rather, it was foundational to the system itself, a fact borne out in considerable detail. To flesh out the central role of violence in British imperial rule, Elkins shifts from the Indian Mutiny of 1857 to Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, to India’s northwestern frontier and South Africa in the 1890s, to Ireland at the dawn of the 20th century, and on from there to a dizzying variety of more recent locales: Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden, among others.

Assembling so many examples spread widely across space and time allows Elkins to build an impressively damning account of the British Empire. But her most original argument lies not in the violence itself but rather in London’s use and abuse of the notion of the rule of law, much touted by Britain as an elevating feature of modern Western civilization and a pillar of democracy. In Elkins’s hands, the rule of law in Britain’s many colonies becomes something more akin to lawfare: a system under which the use of codified rules was wielded to curtail freedoms rather than expand them, to expropriate land and property from Indigenous peoples, and to guarantee a steady flow of low-paid or sometimes unpaid workers to colonial mines and plantations, all under a veneer of principled legitimacy. When the genteel-seeming laws proved insufficient for these purposes, the empire was more than happy to resort to states of emergency and martial law, which conferred extraordinary authority upon its far-flung colonial governors. This “legalized lawlessness,” as Elkins calls it, meant that Britain in effect became a recurrent conqueror of its subjects. States of emergency effectively turned organized resistance against the colonial regime itself into a forbidden or, at a minimum, highly circumscribed activity, and redefined people fighting for their freedom as criminals or terrorists. The forms of violence Britain employed in the enforcement of these writs, she continues, included “corporal punishments, deportations, detentions without trial, forced migrations, killings, sexual assaults, tortures, and accompanying psychological terror, humiliation, and loss.”

Elkins documents this well-organized use of violence throughout the history of British Empire, from India and Jamaica in the mid-19th century to the South African War, the Irish War of Independence, the Arab Revolt, the Caribbean strikes, the Zionist uprising, and the states of emergency in Malaya, Kenya, and Cyprus. Writing about these different historical episodes, Elkins convincingly demonstrates that during the imperial era—indeed, she would probably say, since the imperial era as well—violence has been inherent to liberalism. Although liberalism has promised virtuous-sounding ideals like freedom, modernity, reformism, and the rule of law, it has freely used these ideals, time and again, as justifications for wreaking devastation on the subject peoples caught in its grip.

This self-serving hypocrisy will be familiar to those American readers who recall an infamous episode from the Vietnam War, when after the bloody Battle of Bến Tre, which left hundreds of civilians dead and thousands of homes destroyed, a US Army major explained to Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” But for Elkins, it also demonstrates how liberalism’s willingness to ride roughshod over others has a long imperial pedigree that can be traced through a series of shockingly violent wars that are seldom recalled outside of the nations or regions in which they occurred.

As a result of Elkins’s resourcefulness in digging into the colonial archives, we can also see how Britain’s imperial project became a vast tentacular atelier, with elite public schools and universities serving as the training grounds for generations of colonial administrators who refined both the repressive techniques used against native populations and the legal arguments used as cover and justification. With a surprising degree of recurrence, England’s original subalterns, the Scottish and especially the Irish, emerge as indispensable military cadres and hands-on functionaries who cycle from place to place in Britain’s increasingly global colonial project as the scale of atrocity grows.

Hence we see how, in response to the Indian Mutiny of 1857, British officials began to experiment with mass confinement measures aimed at putting down the revolt. This led to the incarceration of 20,000 Indian subjects, who were swept up in aggressive, broad-brush campaigns of repression and then exiled to the Andaman Islands in the distant reaches of the Bay of Bengal. By the turn of the century, tactics like these were being applied on an even larger and more brutal scale to put down the rebellion in South Africa. There, Elkins writes, about 100 concentration camps were built, where Afrikaner rebels were confined, along with women and children, and where Black “undesirables” were herded into overcrowded detention centers by order of Lord Kitchener, in order to weaken them and “bring them to their senses.” Elkins notes that the campaign against the Afrikaners was “the first time a single ethnic group had been targeted for detention or deportation,” adding that 30,000 people, a disproportionate number of them children, died as a result. In the 64 camps reserved for Black South Africans, conditions were even worse: The emaciated and disease-ridden detainees “undertook forced labor for reduced rations, and their death rates climbed, conservatively, to over 10 percent of the camp populations.”

What may feel disorienting for anyone who has been conditioned to believe in human progress is that this history doesn’t get any better as time progresses, even as the British Empire pursued tactical reforms. Worried about the potential spread of communism via the Chinese immigrant communities in Malaya—which, together with another commodity powerhouse, Ghana, was a leading source of financial sustenance for London in the immediate aftermath of World War II—Britain sent colonial officers to Malaya who had just overseen a brutal repression in Palestine in order to snuff out this resistance to its rule. The Chinese population, which had been growing in Malaya since the turn of the century, was declared “alien” by the British, who then forcibly removed them from their villages, burning huts to the ground and salting the farmlands to prevent their return. The victims of this extrajudicial process were resettled in unfamiliar new areas, surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and kept under heavy surveillance. This resettlement campaign became what Elkins calls “the British Empire’s largest forced migration since the era of the trade in enslaved people,” with “573,000 people, nearly 90 percent of whom were Chinese…relocated into 480 resettlements.” This campaign would be carefully studied by the United States two decades later and became a prototype for its war in Vietnam as well as the inspiration for one of that war’s most famous phrases: “hearts and minds.” Elkins cites a top-secret British report from Malaya that argued that “successes against bandit gangs, though essential to security…is only in effect a ‘rap on the knuckles’” and added: “It is at the ‘heart’ that we must aim—to dominate the Chinese populated and squatter areas.”

Fittingly, Elkins’s book concludes where her original scholarly work began: with a return to Kenya. There, in the early 1950s, veterans of the British colonial schemes in Malaya, Palestine, and Greece converged in a bid to use emergency laws to thwart the rising political unrest in that East African colony. Following a familiar pattern, European settlers grabbed control of Kenya’s best farmlands to grow coffee and tea at great profit, separated the indigenous population by putative ethnic group, and relegated them to “native reserves.”

The Kikuyu, an ethnic group based in the coveted highlands and other areas of central Kenya, which boasted some of the richest soils on earth, were hardest hit by this relocation campaign, with many rendered illegal squatters or sharecroppers on their own land. Simultaneously, “pass laws” that required Africans to carry an ID showing their work history and current employer’s signature were imposed on the Indigenous population, as well as hut and poll taxes. Elkins says these taxes amounted to two months of a typical African’s wages. They fueled a stout resistance movement by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, which came to be known as the Mau Mau (a term that Tom Wolfe later trivialized and perverted when he introduced it into contemporary political usage with a clearly derogatory meaning that suggested out-of-control radical violence, usually by Black Americans). In their efforts to resist the sweeping taxation and the takeover of their lands, the Mau Mau rebels killed 32 European settlers during the emergency, triggering an enormous and often indiscriminate crackdown. In the space of 18 months, 1,040,899 Kikuyu were forcibly relocated into newly created reserves built on the Malayan model. By the end of 1955, Elkins writes, colonial authorities had penned up nearly the entire Kikuyu population, employing “the largest archipelago of detention and prison camps in the history of Britain’s empire.” One chilling paragraph gives the flavor:

White and Black agents of empire perpetrated horrific crimes in defense of British rule in Kenya. They used electric shock and hooked suspects up to car batteries. They tied suspects to vehicle bumpers with just enough rope to drag them to death. They employed burning cigarettes, fire, and hot coals. They thrust bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, sticks, and hot eggs up men’s rectums and into women’s vaginas. They crushed bones and teeth; sliced off fingers or their tips; and castrated men with specially designed instruments or by beating a suspect’s testicles “till the scrotum burst,” according to Anglican church officials. Some used kiboko, or a rhino whip, for beating; others used clubs, fists, and truncheons. “Bucket fatigue” was a routine practice, as were various forms of human excrement torture. Mau Mau suspects and detainees were forced to clean nightsoil buckets barehanded and run for hours around a compound holding a full nightsoil bucket aloft, which then spilled over, encrusting the person holding it with feces and urine. No Kikuyu—man, woman, or child—was safe.

Techniques of repression, policing, and dispossession were not the only things that were copied and refined as the British colonial officers moved from place to place within the empire; so, too, were stratagems for covering up the evidence. Elkins shows that what was already being done with no lack of efficiency in Malaya was improved on yet further in Kenya, where records of the kinds of tactics described above were systematically destroyed—showing, if nothing else, a deep consciousness of guilt. Within days of the signing of the treaty that paved the way for the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1956, colonial officials began “sorting, culling, transferring, and burning files.”

In 1958, Britain created a Public Records Act intended to preserve secret documents, including colonial records, and provide public access for all but the most sensitive after 50 years. The last chapter of Legacy of Violence describes Elkins’s search for evidence that the British hid or destroyed records pertaining to the suppression of the Mau Mau insurrection, which lasted from 1952 to 1963, when Kenya won its independence. Her research, as well as the documents produced by the British government in response to persistent disclosure requests lodged by plaintiffs in the 2009 Mau Mau case, which became key to proving the claims against London made by the Kenyan survivors of the colonial-era campaign to suppress the revolt.

Britain mounted a two-pronged defense: It asserted that the statute of limitations had expired for such claims, then said that the colonial Kenyan government had regardless acted independently with little British control. Working in collaboration with a British law firm, Elkins led a team of five Harvard student researchers in reviewing 30,000 pages of mostly previously uncatalogued files that would ultimately make this position untenable.

In June 2013, at the culmination of the case, hundreds of grizzled Mau Mau claimants gathered in downtown Nairobi’s Hilton Hotel to listen as Christian Turner, Britain’s high commissioner to Kenya, read a copy of the foreign secretary’s statement to the House of Commons:

I would like to make it clear now and for the first time on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government that we understand the pain and grievance felt by those who were involved in the events of the emergency in Kenya. The British Government recognise that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration. The British Government sincerely regret that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress towards independence. Torture and ill treatment are abhorrent violations of human dignity, which we unreservedly condemn.

Only eight years had passed since Gordon Brown claimed that the time was long gone when Britain needed to atone for anything it had done as a colonizer. On this day, though, at least in this corner of the former empire, for once there was an apology.

Editor’s note: This article originally stated that Gordon Brown was prime minister in 2005. It had been updated to reflect that he was chancellor of the exchequer that year.

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