And the blood never dried…


Statues are always political. Maintaining them standing requires resources and commitment, just as taking them down does.

Guardian reporter Ian Cobain argues that uncertainty about the imperial mission contributed to  the celebration of early “heroes” of empire – including that of Edward Colston – in the late Victorian era to inspire future adventurers and imperialists.

And John Newsinger’s splendid account The Blood Never Dried, A People’s History of the British Empire (first publ 2006; rev ed 2013) deserves a wide circulation today.

It’s title derives from Chartist Leader Ernest Jones’s riposte to those who boasted that the sun never set on the British Empire – “and the blood never dried”.

We repost some extracts below


The earliest English-language use of the term concentration camp was in the Anglo-Boer war (the term was first used in the Spanish war against the rebels in the Cuban War of Independence in 1896). The image shows Afrikaner children in Nylstroom Camp, 1901 .Photo: LSE Library


Lying about our history? Now that’s something Britain excels at

Ian Cobain

Protesters may be toppling statues, but millions of records about the end of empire and the slave trade were destroyed by the state

Thu 18 Jun 2020

Members of the Devon Regiment assisting police in searching homes for Mau Mau rebels, Karoibangi, Kenya, circa 1954. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

It was inevitable that some would insist that ripping the statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth and disposing of it in a harbour in Bristol was an act of historical revisionism; that others would argue that its removal was long overdue, and that the act itself was history in the making. After more statues were removed across the United States and Europe, Boris Johnson weighed in, arguing that “to tear [these statues] down would be to lie about our history”.

But lying about our history – and particularly about our late-colonial history – has been a habit of the British state for decades.

In 2013 I discovered that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had been unlawfully concealing 1.2m historical files at a highly secure government compound at Hanslope Park, north of London.

Those files contained millions upon millions of pages of records stretching back to 1662, spanning the slave trade, the Boer wars, two world wars, the cold war and the UK’s entry into the European Common Market. More than 20,000 files concerned the withdrawal from empire.

There were so many of them that they took up 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving at a specially built repository that a Foreign Office minister had opened in a private ceremony in 1992. Their retention was in breach of the Public Records Acts, and they had effectively been held beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

The FCO was not alone: at two warehouses in the English midlands, the UK’s Ministry of Defence was at the same time unlawfully hoarding 66,000 historical files, including many about the conflict in Northern Ireland.

When the files concerned with the withdrawal from empire began to be transferred to the UK’s National Archives – where they should have been for years, and where historians and members of the public could finally examine them – it became clear that enormous amounts of documentation had been destroyed during the process of decolonisation.

Helpfully perhaps, colonial officials had completed “destruction certificates”, in which they declared that they had disposed of sensitive papers, and many of these certificates had survived within the secret archive.

Beginning in India in 1947, government officials had incinerated material that would in any way embarrass Her Majesty’s government, her armed forces, or her colonial civil servants. At the end of that year, an Observer correspondent noted large palls of smoke appearing over government offices in Jerusalem.

As decolonisation gathered pace, British officials developed a series of parallel file registries in the colonies: one that was to be handed over to post-independence governments, and one that contained papers that were to be steadily destroyed or flown back to London.

As a consequence, newly independent governments found themselves attempting to administer their territories on the basis of an incomplete record of what had happened before.

In Uganda in March 1961, colonial officials gave this process a new name: Operation Legacy. Before long the term spread to neighbouring colonies, where only “British subjects of European descent” were to be involved in the weeding and destruction of documents, a process that was overseen by police special branch officers. A new security classification, the “W” or “Watch series”, was introduced, and sensitive papers were stamped with a red letter W.

Subsequently, there was the “Guard series” of papers stamped with a letter “G”. These could be shared with officials from Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, but whenever this happened “the information should be accompanied by an oral warning that it must not be communicated to the Americans”. The Americans, it seems to have been assumed, were likely to be less forgiving of the sins of empire.

In May that year the colonial secretary, Iain Macleod, issued instructions that the documents to be destroyed or smuggled back to London should include anything that might embarrass HMG; embarrass her military, police or public servants; that might compromise sources of intelligence; or which could be used “unethically” by post-independence governments.

By “unethically”, Macleod appears to mean that he did not wish to see the governments of newly independent nations expose, or threaten to expose, some of the more challenging aspects of the end of empire. There was certainly plenty to hide: the torture and murder of rebels in Kenya; the brutal suppression of insurgencies in Cyprus and later Aden; massacres in Malaya; the toppling of a democratically elected government in British Guiana.

Instructions were also issued on the means by which papers should be destroyed: when they were burned, “the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up”. In Kenya, officials were informed that “it is permissible, as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to packed in weighed crates and dumped in very deep and current-free waters at maximum practicable distance from the coast”.

Operation Legacy was, as one colonial official admitted, “an orgy of destruction”, and it was carried out across the globe between the late 1940s and the early 70s.

The operation – and its attempts to conceal and manipulate history in an attempt to sculpt an official narrative – speaks of a certain jitteriness on the part of the British state, as if it feared that interpretations of the past that were based upon its own records would find it difficult to celebrate the “greatness” of British history.

It seems likely that uncertainty about the imperial mission also played a part in the commissioning of Colston’s statue. It was erected in 1895, a full 174 years after his death, at a time when the British were anxious about their rapidly expanded empire. The first Boer war had ended badly for them, exposing the physical weakness of soldiers recruited from urban slums; the United States was emerging as an industrial force; and Germany appeared to be challenging the Royal Navy’s maritime dominance.

The answer, it seems, was the erection of statues, up and down the United Kingdom, of early “heroes” of empire – even slave traders – as an inspiring example to the adventurers and imperialists to come.

Now that’s an act of historical revisionism.

  • Ian Cobain, a former senior reporter for The Guardian, is the author of The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation


John Newsinger’s ‘The Blood Never Dried, A People’s History of the British Empire‘.

The book is on sale at Bookmarks


1 Jamaica:

‘British participation in the Atlantic slave trade is arguably the worst crime in British history. Estimates of the numbers shipped to the Americas by all the slave-trading countries range from a low of 10 million people up to as many as 15 million. Whatever the figure for those shipped, some 2 million is a conservative estimate for those who  died while making the voyage whether from illness, violence, starvation, suicide or whatever.

In October 1736 a slave conspiracy was discovered on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Altogether 88 slaves were to be executed for their part in what the judges described as ‘that unparalleled hellish plot.’

An 1811 manual on the management of slaves made the point that ‘where slavery is established, and the population of slaves outnumbers their masters ten to one, terror must operate to keep them in subjection, and terror can only be produced by occasional examples of severity.’

The Zong affair probably demonstrates the callous horror of the trade most graphically. The Liverpool-owned slave ship was carrying 470 slaves from West Africa to Jamaica in 1781. So that the owners could claim for the loss of sick slaves on their insurance, the captain, Luke Collingwood, decided to throw them overboard. On 29 November the first batch of 54  were drowned, the next day another 42, and on the third day another 26. At the trial, in May 1783, the Solicitor General, John Lee, went out of his way to insist that ‘the blacks were property,’ and consequently no murder had taken place.

In 1811 a planter, Arthur Hodge, was hanged for having tortured and murdered perhaps as many as 60 of his slaves – men, women and children ‘ on Tortola in the Virgin Islands. The white community rallied to his support, outraged that one of their members should be executed for killing slaves.

The most serious 18th century slave revolt in Jamaica was Tacky’s revolt, which broke out on 7 April, 1760. By the time the revolt had been finally crushed some 60 whites had been killed, over 400 rebels had been killed, another hundred had been executed, many of them tortured to death.

2 Ireland:

Potato blight first appeared in Ireland in 1843 when it destroyed between 30 and 40 per cent of Ireland’s potato crop. The potato was the staple food of the poor and the blight caused great hardship. The following year the blight ruined almost the whole crop and great hardship became terrible famine. This was Western Europe’s worst modern peacetime catastrophe, with a million people  dying of starvation, disease and exposure, and another million fleeing their homes as refugees.

If the famine had occurred in part of England there can be no doubt that the British government would have taken whatever measures necessary to prevent mass starvation regardless of cherished economic principles. The threat to the social and political order would have been too freat for any other course to have been contemplated. Mass starvation in Ireland, however, was just not important enough to shift the conventional wisdom. Moreover, Ireland was already perceived as a hotbed of disaffection and, if anything, famine was to actually help preserve British rule rather than pose a threat to it.

Poor Law inspector, Captain Edmond Wynne: ‘Although a man not easily moved, I confess myself unmanned by the extent and intensity of the suffering that I witnessed, more especially among the women and children, crowds of whom were to be seen scattered over the turnip fields, like of flock of famishing crows, devouring raw turnips, mothers half-naked, shivering in the snow and sleet, uttering exclamations of despair, whilst their children were screaming with hunger.’

Irish Nationalist MP, William Smith O’Brien: ‘If there were a rebellion in Ireland tomorrow, they would cheerfully vote 10 or 20 millions to put it down, but what they would do to destroy life, they would not do to save it.’

Lord Palmerston’s biographer: ‘The summer and autumn of 1847 nine ships arrived at Quebec and St John carring a total of two thousand of Palmerston’s tenants from Sligo. The Canadians were shocked at the conditions of the immigrants who arrived in a state of complete destitution. No representative was there to meet them with any assistance, and they were left to be in the snow, barefood and in rags, during their first Canadian winter.’

Republican John Mitchell: ‘How families, when all eaten up and no hope left, took their last look at the sun, built up their cottage doors, that none might see them die or her their groans, and were found weeks afterwards skeletons on their hearths. How every one of those years, ’46, ’47 and ’48, Ireland was exporting to England food to the value of 15 million pounds sterling.’

He accused the British government of deliberately starving the Irish people, of making use of the potato blight to ‘thin out these multitudinous Celts.’ While the potato crop might have failed, there was, Mitchell insisted, still more than enough grain, cereals and live-stock in the country to have fed the population, but it was exported to England.

‘Insane mothers began to eat their young who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England.’

3 China:

The British Empire was the largest drug pusher the world had ever seen. By the 1830s the smuggling of opium into China was a source of huge profits and these profits played a crucial role in the financing of British rule in India.

In the 1760s some 1000 chests of opium (each weighing 140 lbs) were smuggled into China, and this figure gradually increased to around 4000 chests in 1800. Expansion only really began after 1820 so that by 1824 over 12000 chests were being smuggled into China, rising to 19000 in 1830, to 30,000 in 1835 and 40,000 chests in 1838.

By the 1830s the scale of problems caused by the trade forced the government to respond. The country was being drained of silver to pay for the opium, its administration was being corrupted and the extent of addiction (estimates of the number of addicts go as high as 12 million) was seen as a threat to both state and society.

As one British officer observed, ‘The poor Chinese had two choices, either they must sumbit  to be poisoned, or must be massacred by the thousands, for supporting their own laws in their own land.’

The British capture of the port of Jinhai in early October 1841 provides a useful example of the character of the conflict. The port was bombared by the Wellesley, the Conway and the Alligator, the Cruiser and the Algerine, and another dozen smaller vessels.  In nine minutes they fired 15 broadsides into the effectively defenseless town before landing troops to storm the ruins. With the bombardment of the town still underway, the troops moved in to rape and pillage. It was during this war that the Hindi word ‘lut’ entered the English language as the word ‘loot.’ The taking of Jinhai cost the British three men killed, while the number of Chinese dead was over 2000.

The Third Opium War: On 21 August 1860 the British attacked the northermost fort. After a ferocious bombardment the fort was stormed with at least 2000 Chinese killed. Reverend RJL M’Ghee:  ‘It was indeed an awful sight, limbs blown away, bodies literally burst asunder, one black and livid mess of blood and wounds.’ He could only be thankful that ‘since there were such weapons in existence, they were in our hands – ours, who would use them to preserve the peace of the world than ever to make an aggressive or unjust war.’

Crushing the Taiping Rebels: Even while British troops were fighting against the Manchus, they were also fighting on their behalf against the Taipings. What they did not want  was a revolutionary Taipang government that among other things would prohibit the opium trade.

Charles Gorden eventually succeeded to command of the force and became a popular hero in Britain where he was celebrated as ‘Chinese Gordon.’ In his account of the Taipings, Lindley described how Gordon  captured the town of Taitsan in May 1863 and promptly handed it over to the Manchus, who proceeded to massacre the population.

Gordon’s reputation did suffer some damage when he negotiated the surrender of Suzhou in December 1863. Despite his hanving guaranteed the safety of the garrison, the Manchu troops carried out their usual massacre. Perhaps as many as 30,000 people were slaughtered.

By the 1860s the British were exporting 60,000 chests of opium to China annually, rising to 100,000 chests in the 1880s. The British opium trade with China did not finally come to an end until 1917.

4 India:

‘The English threw aside the mask of civilization and engaged in a war of such ferocity that a reasonable parallel can be seen in our times with the Nazi occupation of Europe.”

These wars involved countryside laid waste, cities sacked, civilians robbed, raped and murdered, and tens of thousands of soldiers killed and mutilated. The wars with the Sikhs were particularly bloody affairs. “Seldom or never in any part of the world has a city been exposed to such a terrific shelling as the doomed city of Multan.”

“You will find that we have been incomparably the most sanguinary (bloodthirsty) nation on earth.” Whether it was in “China, in Burma, in India, New Zealand, the Cape, Syria, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc.” The Burmese had no chance against our 64 pound red-shot shot and other infernal improvements in the art of war.

“Searing with hot irons . . . dipping in wells and rivers till the victim half suffocated . . . squeezing testicles . . . putting peppers and red chillies in the eyes or introducing them into the private parts of men and women . . . prevention of sleep . . . nipping the flesh with pincers . . . suspension from the branches of a tree . . . imprisonment in a room used for storing lime . . . ” This everyday abuse and violence continued until the end of the British Raj.

The Great Rebellion: The fear that the cartridges were greased with cattle and pig fat was justified, showing a disregard for caste sensitivies that is astonishing. In February 1857 troops at Berhampur and at Barrackpur had refused to use the cartridges.

One disarmed regiment, the 26th, mutineed, broke out of camp and fled with their families. They were hunted down with 150 of them killed in the process and another 282 handed over to Frederick Cooper, the deputy commissoner of Amritsar. He proceeded to excecute them in batches. Another 40 were eventually rounded up and sent to Lahore where they were blown from guns. Within 48 hours nearly 500 men had been executed and the entire regiment had been destroyed.

Elsewhere things were not so civlized. Hundreds of people were hanged. “Troops carried the terror into the surrounding countryside, burning villages and hanging ‘niggers.’ By the time this terror had exhausted itself some 6000 men, women and children had been killed.”

Another officer wrote of “Hundreds of sepoys dead or dying, many on fire . . .a suffocating, burning, smouldering mass.” He saw 64 prisoners lined up and ‘bayoneted.”

This was a war of unnumerable horrors: prisoners blown from the guns, mass hangings, and the merciless sack and pillage of ancient cities. “Fathers are shot with all their womenkind clinging to them, and begging for their lives, but content the next moment to lie in their blood howling. Unarmed cowherds were mercilessly pistoled together . . .”

The rebel leader Nazir Khan was hanged. He was surrounded by “soldiers who were stuffing him with pork . . . well flogged and his person exposed, which he fought against manfully. He died game . . . One of the most remarkable sights I ever in my life beheld: no less than 20 men all hanging naked on one tree . . . A number of women killed while clinging to and trying to hide their delinquent husbands. Other women died when they refused to leave a house that was set on fire.”

The East India Company collected taxes by the use of torture. If you could not pay, they “hung you up with your heads downward in the burning sun, lashed you, tortured you, tied scorpions to the breasts of your women, committed every atrocity and crime.”

5 Egypt & Sudan:

A series of crop failures produced famine in Upper Egypt in 1878 during which thousands starved to death. At the very same time the exactions of the tax collectors, whip in hand, were stepped up in order to continue the payment to the bondholders’ interest. These means were flogging, torture and imprisonment. The salaries of 1300 Europeans, overwhelmingly British and French, swallowed a twentieth of Egyptian revenue.

Popular anger finally burst onto the streets of Alexandria on 11 June. The assault was provoked by resentment at the privileged position of the Europeans and their racist arrogance, and by fury at the continued intimidatory presence of the Anglo-French war ships.

Egyptian improvements to their coastal forts at Alexandria were siezed on as a suitable pretext for military action. After a relentless ten hour bombardment the Egyptian guns fell silent. The Brtitish had five men killed and 28 wounded, while the Egyptian casaulties were in the region of 2000 killed or wounded.

The bombardment of Alexandria did not end the crisis. The Egyptian army was decisively defeated at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir on 13 September 1882. The British overwhelmed their defences in a surprise attack just before dawn and carried out a textbook massacre. Estimates of the Egyptian dead, as is the way with colonial wars, range from 2000 to 10,000. No one counted. According to one British officer the Egyptians had put up a brave but hopeless defence. There was, he felt, no glory in this sort of one-sided encounter.

Queen Victoria was, of course, absolutely delighted. Gladstone benefited financially from the invasion of Egypt. He had a substantial investment in the Egyptian debt and this appreciated in value once the country had been occupied.

Sudan, Battle of Omdurman, September 1898: On this occasion the Sudanese conveniently launched a frontal assault on the invading army and were massacred in a display of overwhelming firepower. Modern rifles, machine guns and artillery destroyed the Sudanese army before it even got close enough to the British to begin inflicting casualties. One NCO described the slaughter as ‘dreadful.’

The aftermath of the battle saw prisoners and wounded being shot and bayoneted  out of hand. The troops were ordered to ‘bayonet and shoot everyone we saw.’ The young Winston Churchill, a participant in the battle, wrote home that the victory was ‘disgraced by the inhuman slaughter of the wounded,’ for which he blamed Kichener.

6 Post World War I:

The most terrible conflict in human history had been fought not for democracy, liberty or freedom, but to protect the British Empire from its powerful German rival. To this end, millions of lives had been sacrificed.

Celebration was short-lived, however. Almost immediately the empire was plunged into crisis. The British found themselves confronting revolutionary outbreaks in Ireland, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia and China.

Ireland: A Gaelic football match at Croke Park was cordoned off by police and troops, who proceeded to fire randomly into the crowd. Eleven spectators and one player were killed. Later that evening two IRA officers Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, together with an unfortunate civilian, Conor Clune, arrested with them, were tortured and summarily executed in Dublic Castle. This was ‘Bloody Sunday,’ 1921.

Egypt: Crowds were machine gunned and bombed from the air and heavily armed mobile columns were despatched to ‘pacify’ the countryside, shooting anyone who resisted, burning villages and flogging suspects (in one village every man was publically flogged). By the end of April the revolt had been put down with 1000 Egyptians killed, over 1500 imprisoned and hanged.

India: Protesters decided to proceed with an anti-Rowlatt rally on the afternoon of 13 April at the Jalianwalla Bagh, an enclosed space. The meeting was banned but they decided to defy it. General Reginald Dwyer decided to make an example of them. He marched a detachment of Gurkhas to the rally any without any warning opened fire on 20 to 25 thousand people peacefully listening to speeches. The troops continued firing for over ten minutes. By the time they finished the bodies were piled ten to 12 deep around the exits. Elsewhere in Punjab there was ‘violent brutal repression’ with shootings and floggings, villages bombed from the air and the imposition of collective punishments.

Iraq: The rebels waged a mobile guerilla was that, at least initially, the British had no answer to. Punitive columns were despatched throughout the countryside, burning villages, shooting rebels and seizing livestock, and rebel strongholds and concentrations were shelled and bombed from the air. The British used gas shells in quantity. Rebel fatalities were official 8,450, but a figure of over 10,000 is more realistic. Bombing had played an important part in the suppression of the revolt with the RAF dropping 1000 tons of bombs.

China: General strikes were called in Canton and Hong Kong. When demonstrators approached the Shameen concession area of Canton they were machined gunned by British troops, with over 50 people killed.

7 Palestine:

The Palestinian Arabs, Christian and Muslim, despite being an overwhelming majority of the population (93%), found themselves relegated to the status of ‘existing non-Jewish communities,’  and their civil rights did not include being consulted about their country being given away.

One British official, Ernest Richmond, wrote home that the Arabs were starting ‘to regard the goverment as Jewish camouflaged as English. They will not accept Jewish rule. We deny them all the representative institutions which they enjoyed under the Turks . . . ‘

George Antonius, one of the leading Arab intellectuals of the day, made the pertinent point in 1938 that ‘To place the burden upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole civilized world. It is also morally outrageous. No code of morals can justify the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another. The cure for the eviction of the Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of Arabs from their homeland, and the relief of Jewish distress many not be accomplished at the cost of inflicting corresponding distress upon an innocent and peaceful population.’

On 27 October 1933 a demonstration against Jewish settlers was dispersed by police gunfire that left 15 protestors dead. A general strike was called that was accompanied by demostrations and protests that left another ten people dead.

The routine brutality of colonial rule is brought out in David Smiley’s account of his experiences as a young officer in Palestine: ‘The first man was seized by two Arab policemen and held upside down while his feet were placed between a rifle and its sling. He was then kept in this position while policemen took it in turns to beat the soles of his feet with a leather belt. The second man talked after the the application of a lighted cigarette to his testicles, but the third seemed to be the leader and was more truculent. In a flash the Arab segeant flew at him and hit him in the face until both his eyes were closed, blood flowing, and a number of teeth were spewed out onto the floor.’

The letters home of another young British policeman, Sydney Burr, provide further insight into the reality of British rule. After a bomb attack, he described how the police had ‘descended on the sook and thrashed every Arab we saw, smashed all shops and cafes and created havoc and bloodshed.’

From 1938 into 1939 the Great Rebellion was relentlessly ground down. Villages were bombed. One RAF squadron alone dropped 768 20lb and 29 112lb bombs and fired over 62,000 rounds in operations against rebel targets. Thousands of Palestinians were interned without trial, harsh collective punishments were imposed on whole communities, routine use was made of Arab hostages as human shields, and ID cards were introduced.

After the shooting of an assistant distict commissioner in Jenin in August 1938, much of the town was blown up as a reprisal. Much of the village of Kafr Yasif was burned down. When neighbouring villages came to help put out the fires, they were machine gunned, and nine of them killed. Suspects were kept in the open for five days with hardly any water as a punishment. At the end of the five days many of them had collapsed and five were dead.

The British were, of course, able to call on the assistance of the Zionists in their efforts to crush the revolt. The Special Night Squads, Jewish volunteers under British officers, were what today would be called ‘death squads,’ torturing and summararily executing prisoners. The Irgun carried out a series of terrorist bombings of Palestinian targets. A bomb killed 21 Arabs in a market in Haifa. Ten Arabs were killed by a bomb in Jerusalem. Another market bombing in Haifa killed 39 Arabs. A bomb in Jaffa killed 24 Arabs.

The British had succesffuly defeated the Great Revolt by the spring of 1939. By the end of the conflict some 5000 rebels had been killed. The Zionists proceeded to establish the state of Israel, driving out some 700,000 Palestinians in the process. .

8 Quit India:

‘In complete silence the Ghandi men drew up and halted a hundred yards from the stockade. At a word of command, scores of native policemen rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-clod lathis. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off blows. They went down like ninepins. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing with fractured skulls or broken shoulders.’

Elsewhere, in the city of Sholapur, news of Gandhi’s arrest provoked a general strike on 7 May. In clashes the following day, the police killed 25 protestors. Order was not restored until 16 May when a brutal martial law regime was introduced, accompanied by the merciless flogging of the workers. The leaders of the Sholapur uprising were all put on trial for their lives. They were hanged on 12 July, 1931.

On 30 October 1928 Lajpat Raj led a peaceful demonstration in Lahore that was attacked by the police. He was personally beaten by a British police officer and never recovered from his injuries, dying just over two weeks later. ‘The foremost and popular man in the Punjab’ could be beaten and killed with impunity. A veteran 63 year old Congress leader, the first president of the All India Trade Union Congress, was beaten to death by a British policeman.

Winston Churchill led the way: ‘It is alarming  and also nauseating to see Mr Ghandi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the regal palace . . . to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King Emperor.’ This combination of racism and ignorance was to characterise Churchill’s attitude to India and Indians.

In a number of areas revolutionary governments were established. This was a massive popular uprising, centred in Bihar and the eastern United Provinces. The British deployed over 30,000 troops to crush it. The confrontatins were terribly one-sided, however, with rebel crowds without firearms battling against heavily armed troops supported where necessary by air attack. Resistance was broken by shootings, beatings, mass arrest, house burnings and collective fines. The Contai district, for example, was subjected to a reign of  terror with 12,000 arrests, 956 houses burned down, and hundreds of incidents of rape by police and troops.

On another occasion 19 men were arrested when they were found ‘near the railway’ by a military patrol. Without any other evidence than suspicion, they were sentenced to 30 stripes with the whip and seven years imprisonment. By the time the revolt was finally crushed over 90,000 people had been arrested. There were prisoners ‘who died through beating and ill-treatment.’ The official figure for the number of rebels killed by troops and police during the suppression of the revolt was 1060. Nehru gave a figure of 10,000 killed but other estimates go as high as 25,000.

India still had to face the greatest disaster to befall the country in the 20th century, the Bengal famine of 1943-44. This was the product of food shortages brought about by the war. The British administration responded with ‘a callous disregard of its duties in handling the famine.’ The result was a terrible death toll from starvation and disease in 1943-44 that totalled more than 3.5 million men, women and children.

When presented with details of the crisis in Bengal, Churchill commented on ‘Indians breeding like rabbits.’  Churchill’s attitude was quite explicitly racist. He told Amery, ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ Amery, on one occasion said, ‘I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.’ And it was not just to Amery that Churchill made his feelings clear. He told his private secretary that ‘the Hindus were a foul race . . . and he wished Bert Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.’

17 August 1947 was settled on as the date for independence. The British, in reality, had been thrown out. The best assessment was provided by General Hastings Ismay. ‘India in March 1947 was a ship on fire in mid-ocean with ammunition in the hold. By then it was a question of putting out the fire before it actually reached the ammunition. There was in fact no option before us but to do what we did.’

9 Iran:

Although only part of Britain’s informal empire, there was a clear understanding that whatever else might be going on, Iranian governments were expected to allow the British controlled AIOC, today’s BP, to exploit the country’s rsources without interference. Iran’s oil was there for the benefit of the British Empire, not for the benefit of Iran.

On 7 March 1951 the pro-British prime minister General Ali Razmara was assassinated to great popular delight. Confronted with a militant nationalist movement and fearful for his throne, the Shah reluctantly bowed to popular pressure and on April 29 appointed Mussadiq as prime minister. On 1 May 1951 Mussadiq signed a bill nationalising the oil industry.

As Emanuel Shinwell, the minister of defence, put it when advocating a military response: ‘We must in no circumstances throw up the sponge not only because of the direct consequences of the loss of Persian oil, but because of the effect which a diplomatic defeat in Persia would have on our prestige and on our whole position through the Middle East. The next thing might be an attempt to nationalise the Suez Canal.”

What prevented it was not any great principled objection of an act of imperialist aggression on the part of members of the government, but American hostility. ‘It was a general view of the cabinet that, in light of the United States’ attitude, force could not be used to hold the refinery and maintain employees of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Abadan.’

The coup d’etat that finally overthrew Mussadiq in August 1953 was organised by the CIA with Britain’s M16 very much in a supporting role. The Shah’s new dictatorship rewarded its American sponsors with a renegotiated division of the oil spoils. The Shah’s government received 50% of the profits. The AIOC had a 40% share in this consortium. Royal Shell had 14% and the French state oil company a 6% share.

This represented a massive shift in the relative position of the British and US oil interests, reducing the British owned share of Middle Eastern oil from 53% to 24% and increasing the American share from 44% to 58%. The brutality of the Shah’s dictatorship was a small price to pay for the security of Western oil.

10 Suez Canal:

On 21 February 1945 British troops in Cairo opened fire on demonstrators, killing more than 20 people. This provoked protests and demonstrations throughout the country. In Alexandria there were serious clashes that left two British soldiers and 17 Egyptians dead.

As far as the British were concerned, the military bases in the Canal Zone were of vital importance. The scale of the commitment was enormous. The network of bases occupied 750 square miles between the Nile Delta and the west bank of the Canal.

The British commander General George Erskine ordered most of the village of Kfr Abdu levelled because it was being used by snipers to harass the Suez water filtration plant. Some 80 houses were bulldozed and the inhabitants evicted. Violence escalated with the British shelling Egyptian villages in response to increase guerilla attacks.

A large British force surrounded the police station in Ismalia and demanded its surrender. The police refused and, to the surprise of the British, mounted a fierce resistance.  Centurion tanks were brought in to shell the buildings. The police finally surrendered after more than 40 of their number had been killed.

Eden entered into secret discussions with the French and Israelis that eventually resulted in the Sevres protocol of 24 October 1956. Israel would attack Egypt, whereupon Britain and France, posing as peacemakers, would demand that both sides withdraw from the Suez Canal area. In response to the Egyptian refusal, an Anglo-French force would invade, ostensibly to separate the two sides, but in reality to overthrow Nasser.

The Israelis launched their surprise attack on Egyptian positions in Sinai on 29 October. French collusion was hardly disguised with French aircraft supporting the attack from Israeli airfields from day one. The Anglo-French ultimatum was presented to both sides the followng day. The Egyptians rejected the ultimatum and the British bombers began their attacks. The actual invasion began on 5 November with paratroop landings followed by a seaborne assault on Port Said. The following day the British and the French agreed to a ceasefire.

The decisive factor in defeating the Israeli-Franco-British attack on Egypt was the hostile stance adopted by the United States. The Americans were not prepared to tolerate independent action on this scale on the part of the British. Not only did they not want a revival of British power and influence in the Middle East, but they were afraid that Britain’s old fashioned imperialism would play into the hands of the Russians.

11 Kenya:

The British had established their East African protectorate in 1895 primarily for strategic reasons, but subsequently decided to open up the territory for white settlement. To persuade the African population to accept this required their large-scale slaughter by a succession of punitive expeditions.

An expedition against the Kisii in 1905 inevitably involved large-scale loss of African life. A British officer described the decisive encounter: ‘The machine gun was kept in action so long during this sharp engagement that it became almost red hot to the touch. Before the Kisii warriors were repulsed, they left several hundred dead and wounded spearmen outside the square of bayonets. This was not so much a battle as a massacre.’

The Mau Mau revolt: The revolt was largely the work of the Kikuyu tribe for whom the white settlemen had been a complete disaster. They were penned in by the settlers. By 1948 one and a quarter million Kikuyu were restricted to landholding in 2000 square miles of tribal reserve, while the 30,000 white settlers held 12,000 square miles, including most of the best farmland.

The revolutionary movement originated in the reserves and on the white farms, a product of Kikuyu land grievances. It is a testimony to the success of British propaganda that it is known as the ‘Mau Mau,’ the bastardised name given to it by the British and their collaborators. To the rebels themselves it was known at the time as the ‘Muingi’ or the ‘Movement…’

The Mau Mau revolt did not extend to the whole of Kenya. It was largely confined to the Kikuyu, Embru and Meru, and geographically restricted to the Central Province. Nevertheless, the revolutionary cause had the support of the overwhelming majority of the Kikuyu.

On 24 April 1954 Operation Anvil was launched. Some 25,000 troops and police cordoned off the city and proceeded to screen its population.  An incredible 27,000 men and women were interned without trial. There can be little doubt this blanket use of internment was only possible because the victims were black, so that the violation of their civil liberties caused little concern back in Britain.

By the end of 1954 there were 77,000 people interned without trial including thousands of women and children as young as 12. This was accompanied, once again, by the mass deportation of the Kikuyu back to the reserves. Over a million Kikuyu had their homes and pessessions destroyed and were herded into over 800 guarded villages.

The reality was that in Kenya flogging, torture, mutilation, rape and summarary execution of the suspects and prisoners were everyday occurrences. The extent of the violence was successfully covered up at the time.

‘If a question was not answered to the interrogators satisfaction, the subject was beaten and kicked. If that did not lead to the desired confession, and it rarely did, more force was applied. Electric shock was widely used, and so was fire. Women were choked and held under water, gun barrels, beer bottles and even knives were thrust into their vaginas. Men had beer bottles thrust up their rectums, were dragged behind Land Rovers, whipped, burned and bayoneted. Some police officers did not bother with more time-consuming forms of torture; they simply shot any suspects who refuced to answer, then told the next suspect, who had been forced to watch the cold-blooded execution, to dig his own grave.’

As far as the settlers were concerned there was open season on the Kikuyu. Anyone thought suspicious could be flooged, tortured and, if necessary, killed with virtual impunity. They described the torture they had carried out with as much concern as they talked about the weather: ‘By the time I cut his balls off he had no ears and his eyeball, the right one, I think was hanging out of its socket. He died before we got much out of him.’

As well as the tens of thousands interned without trial (the best estimate is that over 160,000 people were interned during the course of the emergency), even more were imprisoned for emergency offences. Between 1952 and 1958 over 34,000 women were imprisoned for Mau Mau offences, and the number of men imprisoned was probably ten times that figure. ‘At least one in four Kikuyu adult males was imprisoned or detained by the British colonial administration.’

Between the declaration of the emergency and November 1954, 756 rebels were hanged. By the end of 1954 the number was over 900 and by the end of the emergency it had reached 1090. A mobile gallows was specially built so prisoners could be hanged in their home districts to provide an example. At one point they were being hanged at a rate of 50 a month.

The official British figure for rebels killed in action was 11,503, but the real number was much higher. Some estimates go as high as 50,000, and this is much closer to the truth. Only 12 European soldiers and 51 European police were killed. This disparity is a product of the overwhelming superiority in firepower that the British possessed and their readiness to use it.

How was it that British governments headed by such respectable figures as Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan were able to preside over the Kenya scandal without British public opinion calling them to account? Certainly racism was an important factor. The savagery of the repression of Kenya was possible because the victims were black.

12 Zimbabwe:

What was to become southern Rhodesia had been conquered in 1893 by Cecil Rhodes’ British South African Company. The conquest of the Ndebele was accompanied with little British loss and much slaughter.

At Shangani on 24 October 1893 a Ndebele attack was routed by machine gun and artillery fire and a few days later at Imbembesi another attack was beaten off. As Frederick Courtney Selous observed, the Ndebele ‘were in each case driven off with heavy loss by the fire of the Maxim guns.’ The conquest ‘will ever be remembered as one of the most brilliant episodes in the history of British colonisation in Southern Africa.’

Rhodes, a thief and a murderer, who was really only a gangster who stole countries rather than knocked over banks, was made a privy councillor. When Rhodes and Jameson tried to seize the Transvaal in 1895, stripping Matabeleland of troops, the Nbele seized the opportunity to revolt.

The British response was ferocious. Rhodes ordered no quarter and insisted on personally counting the African dead. ‘Wipe them all out . . . everything black,’ urged one British officer.  Robert Baden-Powell, the future founder of the Boy Scouts, acknowledged the ‘extraordinary bloodthirsty rage of our men.’

‘Don’t infer from these remarks that I am a regular nigger-hater, for I am not. But however good they may be, they must, as a people, be ruled by a hand of iron in a velvet glove. In the present instance they have been rash enough to pull off the glove for themselves and were now beginning to find out what the hand was made of.’

The Ndebele and Shona revolts of 1896-1897, known as the first Chimurenga, were put down with considerable brutality and bloodshed. Settler rule was successfully imposed on the country. In the end, the black majority in Rhodesia were left to overthrow settler rule themselves in a protracted guerilla war, the second Chimurenga, that only finally came to an end in 1979.

13 South East Asia:

Winston Churchill described the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese army on 15 February 1942 as ‘the worst and largest capitulation in British history.’ For Churchill, the surrender was more than a reverse. It was, he feared, ‘a portent’ of the loss of the empire. Certainly it dealt a shattering blow to the mystique of racial superiority with which the British had surrounded their rule in the Far East.

The Japanese surrender created a vacuum in Indo-China that the Communist-led Viet Minh resistance moved to fill. The French seized power in Saigon, taking over its city hall and arresting large numbers of Vietnamese.

‘The days immediately after the coup saw much sporadic fighting in which the British-Indian troops fought off desperate nationalist attacks all over the city. In the early stages the Vietnamese casualties were fairly high.’

By the end of December 1945 the British began their withdrawal, handing Saigon and the South over to the French. They had fought a short but bloody campaign. By the middle of January 1946 the British had suffered 40 men killed while they claimed to have killed some 600 Viet Minh. The actual numbers were considerably higher.

Indonesia: In the Dutch East Indies nationalists had proclaimed the republic of Indonesia as early as 17 August 1945. With the Japanese collapse, the nationalists proceeded to take control over much of the main island of Java.  A republican government was established. The first British fatalities occurred on 11 October when two British officers were killed. The British response provoked heavy fighting. Jakarta was successfully brought under control, although sniping and sporadic attacks continued.

The British proceeded to pour reinforcements into Surabaya. Against ferocious opposition, British and Indian troops fought their way into the city. They were assisted by a tremendous artillery and naval bombardment that devastated large areas and killed many civilians. Two cruisers and three destroyers shelled the city. Bodies of men, horses, cats and dogs, lay in the gutter.

The battle for Surabaya had cost the nationalists at least 10,000 casualties. It unleashed a nationalist uprising that spread throughout Java and threatened to engulf the British. The battle of Surabaya is still celebrated in Indonesia every year on ‘Heroes Day.’ Indonesian casualties have been estimated as some 20,000 killed. The whole episode is simply written out of the historical record. The battle of Surabaya, so important in Indonesia, is almost completely unknown in Britian.

Malaysia: In Malaya the British had cooperated with the Malayan Communist Party and with the Communist-led resistance movement during the Japanese occupation. One important question that has to be considered is why it was that the Labour government set out to smash the left in Malaya.

The simple reason for this was that the Labour government was determined to incrase the exploitation of Malaya. Malayan rubber was the British Empire’s biggest dollar earner, bringing in 200 million dollars. By 1950 Malayan tin and rubber were earning 350 million dollars.

The British launched a wave of repression against the left. By the end of August 1948 well over 4000 men and women had been detained. In June 1950  a massive resettlement programme was launched. By the beginning of 1952 over 400,000 Chinese had been resettled in new villages, surrounded by barbed wire, heavily policed, and effectively deprived of all civil rights.

While British military prowess in Borneo has been widely celebrated in recent years, much less attention has been given to the covert war that Britian waged. While Sukarno was left in place as a figurehead president, the army under General Suharto effectively took power and launched a general massacre of the left.

Even while the Confrontation was still under way, the British collaborated with the generals in a massacre that cost the lives of over 500,000 men, women and children, many of them slaughtered with the utmost bruality. Harold Wilson’s Labour government was complicit in what has been described as ‘one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.

14 Britain & America:

British participation in the Korean War made the Labour government and its Conservative successor party to a terrible conflict that left Korea effectively laid waste. It was in fact waged with little restraint as far as the Korean people were concerned. General MacArthur confessed: ‘I have never seen such devastation.’

Whole cities and small hamlets were bombed out of existence in one of the worst crimes of the post-1945 era. The war cost the lives of between 500,000 and 1 million South Korean civilians and of 1.5 million North Korean soldiers and civilians. British governments stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with their American ally throughout the slaughter.

In their bombing of Vietnam (North and South), Laos and Cambodia, the Americans: ‘dropped over 8 million tons of explosives. This was roughly three times the weight of bombs dropped by all sides in World War Two, and the explosive force was equal to 640 of the atom bombs used on Hiroshima. There are no precise counts of the number of dead Vietcong and civilians. The best estimate is between 1.5 and 2 million, though the Vietnamese estimates are higher. Hundreds of thousands more people died in both Laos and Cambodia. That puts the total dead at roughly 3 million, most of them from the air war.

There was hardly a war crime that the United States did not commit in Vietnam (the torture and killing of prisoners, the massacre of civilians, indiscriminate shelling and bombing, chemical warfare, even medical experiments on prisoners), but the Labour government continued to champion America’s cause.

British Guiana: Once given the go-ahead, the CIA poured money and agents into the colony, financing Jagan’s opponents, deliberately fostering racial coflict and communal violent that cost hundreds of lives. The Americans hoped that the disorder and violence they had orchestrated would provide the British with a pretext to remove Jagan.

In the December 1964 general election the PPP increased its share of the vote. But a combination of proportional representation, massive American financial subsidies and electoral fraud brought the US client Forbes Burnham to power. Forbes Burnham subsequently maintained himself in power by corruption, electroal fraud on a massive scale, gangster violence and the encouragement of race hatred.

Iraq: In December 1998 when Clinton launched the punitive air raids against Iraq, British aircraft took part in the attacks that hit 250 targets. The government supported UN sanctions that by 1996 were estimated to have killed some half a million Iraqi children. On one occasion a shipment of vaccines to protect children against diphtheria and yellow fever was blocked.

The most dangerous terrorist organisation in the post-world war has not been Al-Qaida but the American CIA. The CIA has assassinated and tortured people across the world, sponsored covert wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and overthrown democratically elected governments. A CIA sponsored coup actually took place on an earlier 11 September in 1973 in Chile, overthrowing the elected president Salvador Allende and installing the brutal Pinochet dictatorship.

The CIA, needless to say, is welcome in Britain, where it maintains a substantial secret establishment completely outside any parliamentary scrutiny. The new Labour government effectively condones the CIA used of torture, including incredibly enough, the torture of British prisoners held at the Guantanamo concentration camp.

Iraq, which had had no involvement with the 11 September attacks whatsoever, was to be invaded and occupied as part of the war on terror.  The suicide bombings in London on 7 July 2003 were a response to the invasion of Iraq and would never have taken place but for Blair’s participation in America’s war.

The Bush administration took the decision to invade Iraq early in 2002 and Blair committed himself to support the attack in April of that year. The fact was that, if Iraq had actually possessed the weapons of mass destruction they were accused of having, there would have been no invasion. To this end the British people were told a pack of lies.

The BBC Today programme broadcast a report by Andrew Gilligan revealing that Alistair Campbell had ‘sexed up’ the September 2002 dossier. This was the story of the decade. It was to cost Gilligan his job, led to the resignations of both Greg Dyke, the director general of the BBC, and Gavyn Davies, the chairs of the BBC’s board of governers, and drove the government scientist David Kelly to suicide.

Greg Dyke himself noticed similarities with Watergate. He wrote of how Campbell had ‘turned Downing Street into a place similar to Nixon’s White House. You were either for them or against them. I was quite shocked by these similarities between the Nixon White House and Blair’s Downing Street.’

The American political system, however reluctantly and belatedly, called Nixon to account. The British political system has signally failed with regard to Blair.  The invasion of Iraq began on March 2003. Its catastrophic consequences for the Middle East have been well documented.


Comments (5)

  • RC says:

    In the proposed revision of British history teaching, this essay would be a very useful staple. In responding to the admittedly vague notion of “decolonizing the curriculum” we could hardly start better than to ensure that this features as a piece for discussion in history, social studies, and broader cultural , philosophical and even religious discussion and research. Obviously other perspectives should be made available. Serious historical teaching should include the development of capitalism in England in the first instance (the interstitial capitalism of the Italian municipalities should wait until a later educational stage, as perhaps should that of the Netherlands), with a focus on controversies between ‘internalist’ (Hilton, if my memory serves me) and ”externalist ” (Eg Sweezy and perhaps World Systems Theorists (Wallerstein)) theories about the relation of early English capitalism and the developing world market. Pupils and students could thus develop a grasp of the development of imperialism.

    They could compare and contrast the place of external trading in slaves, drugs (tobacco, alcohol, sugar, opium), textiles etc, and agriculture – the destruction of the English peasantry, the role of other forms of petty commodity production in English capitalist development. Other forms of social struggle, again, could be compared and contrasted: the creation of the modern English capitalist state in C17, slave and proletarian struggles…A rich context for the popular masses to learn about their history. To pass rapidly to the other end of the curricular spectrum, religious defender of the British Empire and advocates of its military policies such as Prof Nigel Biggar of Oxford could be studied. This man created a stir with his proposal for a seminarian the moral evaluation of (mainly British) imperialism; he was in effect no-platformed by students and many of his colleagues. This was a display of moral and political feebleness on their part; why should they not debate both the virtues’ and the ‘vices’ of that and other empires, and indeed whether religious and moral principles are of much political use in understanding great social and economic questions?

    I look forward to reading constructive comments and criticisms from other JVL comrades. It might even be productive to ask Zionists to participate in these debates – we should not be afraid of the open expression even of racist views, since surely we have confidence in our ability both to explain and to defeat them. This might even include debates in the LP, as resort to repression and censorship is an open confession of moral, political and intellectual bankruptcy.

  • Barry M Jones says:

    Thank you at last someone is telling the truth (other than the Daily Worker)

  • TM says:

    These two articles make me feel I’d like to assist in the pulling down of statues so offensive to so many. Then I’d like to assist, as a sculptor, in constructing a history commemorating both the blood that never dries and those who struggled in our history for the oppressed against the few.

  • Hugo Taljaard says:

    At last British imperialism is exposed.
    The shocking treatment of The Boers’ families has been glossed over however.
    The British policy of burning the South African veld and placing Boer women and children in concentration camps has never been fully condemned particularly by the left, unless I am remiss in my research.
    I believe that the atrocities committed against the Afrikaaners were cleansed from history because of another human rights violation by name of apartheid a policy introduced by the children of Boer victims

  • RC says:

    HT touches a sore point, but it is unclear what ‘full condemnation’ would mean. Trials of Salisbury, Balfour, Chamberlain, Rhodes? A tasty idea, but would have required a revolutionary destruction of the British imperial capitalist state. Vigorous condemnation of the genocidal policy did take place during the war (the most important time) as well as after it. The Liberal Party was thoroughly split: the leader, Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman denounced ‘methods of barbarism’ , I believe in the HoC, and Lloyd George spoke against the “Boer War” (zwijde Vryheidsoorlog, I believe, in Afrikaans); he suffered some physical attacks by jingoes, as did many British ‘proBoers’ The latter included J.A.Hobson (praised by St Blair – good – and by Corbyn – allegedly conclusive proof of antisemitic wickedness). The Fabians were in favour of crushing the Afrikaners -but conceded the military effectiveness of their militia. The ‘civilised world’ as a whole – ie the imperialist powers or ‘international community ‘ overwhelmingly condemned the British Empire (eg the Kaiser’s telegram to Kruger).
    But one must recognise the overall context: the Afrikaner struggle was aimed at freeing themselves to exploit or expel native Africans without restraint (a point the British warmongers used in debate) – very much as the Zionists fought the British in order freely to expel , confine, or murder the native Palestinians – as they still do.
    The complexities of the issue, which demand a thorough historical materialist analysis, are perhaps summed up in the fact that the CPSA supported the Rand miners’ strike in 1920 (against which Smuts used not only tanks but aeroplanes – a truly Churchillian employers’ tactic) with the slogan:”workers of the world, unite and fight for a white South Africa ” (even the Histadrut ‘trade union’ could hardly compete such an irony)…

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