The British Empire Was Much Worse Than You Realize

The world’s biggest colonial power prided itself on being a liberal democracy. But liberal imperialism gained resilience from its ability to absorb and neutralize objections. Was this part of the problem? Excerpts from Sunil Khilnani’s long read article in The New Yorker titled “Cruel Britannia”:

In the twentieth century’s hierarchy of state-sponsored violence, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Hirohito’s Japan typically take top spots. The actions of a few European empires have invited harsh scrutiny, too—Belgium’s conduct in Congo, France’s in Algeria, and Portugal’s in Angola and Mozambique. Britain is rarely seen as among the worst offenders, given a reputation for decency that the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins has spent more than two decades trying to undermine. Legacy of Violence” (Knopf), her astringent new history of the British Empire, brings detailed context to individual stories like Tudor’s. Visiting archives in a dozen countries over four continents, examining hundreds of oral histories, and drawing on the work of social historians and political theorists, Elkins traces the Empire’s arc across centuries and theaters of crisis. As the sole imperial power that remained a liberal democracy throughout the twentieth century, Britain claimed to be distinct from Europe’s colonial powers in its commitment to bringing rule of law, enlightened principles, and social progress to its colonies. Elkins contends that Britain’s use of systematic violence was no better than that of its rivals. The British were simply more skilled at hiding it.

A salutary methodological precept of Elkins’s is that, because official records can’t be trusted, historical sourcing must be broad and deep. So I was surprised to see such a shrewd scholar repeatedly minimize the impact of anti-colonial thinkers and actors. As she once again evoked her “arduous” struggle in Kenya, meanwhile skating over a colonized people’s greater struggle to bring their own history to light, I found myself reminded of the stirring hero tales of my childhood—tales that, as Elkins reminds us, should not always be taken whole. Like the historians she draws on, she has added important dimension to our still partial understanding of the British Empire’s sadism and hypocrisy, joining the novelists and the dramatists who, as she says, have reminded the world “that alternative narratives lie buried beneath the rubble of power.” Yet oversimplified theories are themselves prone to bury other histories. The ungainly truth is that liberal thought has been a resource for repression and resistance alike, and theories of imperial power impatient with this ambiguity may not withstand the scrutiny they deserve...

More than half a century after the British Empire entered its endgame, historians are nowhere near a full assessment of the carnage shrouded by its preacherly cant, and, later, by administrators’ bonfires of documents as they prepared for the last boat out. The richest sense we have of the damage inflicted on colonies tends to come in regional silos. Elkins doggedly links them, moving from South Africa to India, Ireland to Palestine, and on to Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden, revealing a pattern visible only in the long view. As military and police personnel crisscrossed the Empire, spreading techniques of repression far and wide, the higher-ups rarely checked such violence. Instead, over and again, they gave it the full force of law—sustaining more brutality still.

It’s startling to recall that, not so long ago, leading historians accepted the images of empire’s end that were projected in propagandistic newsreels—governors-general in plumed helmets and starched whites inviting grateful natives to the podium. “Next to no fighting,” concluded the Cambridge historian John Gallagher, one of the Old Guard whom Elkins has in her sights. She counters that the practice of blowing Indian sepoys from cannons after the 1857 uprising, the Maxim-gun slaughter of Mahdists in the eighteen-nineties, the use of concentration camps in the Boer wars, the massacre of peaceful protesters in Amritsar, reprisal killings and the sacking of civilian property in Ireland: all this state-inflicted savagery was just the British Empire warming up. In her account, the British paramilitary cadre, many of them trained by Tudor’s Toughs, became the basis of an increasingly violent ruling culture that sought to reassert control in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Empire needed colonial resources to rebuild a depleted economy and to bulk up a waning geopolitical status.

We misunderstand the end of empire, Elkins says, because the old liberal imperial historiography focussed more on high policy—the stratagems of what Gallagher and his cohort termed the “official mind”—than on the acts of get-it-done enforcers in the field. The striking thing, she suggests, is not how much the denizens of Whitehall didn’t grasp about the retail-level mayhem but, rather, how much they did. Elkins draws on the work of Uday Singh Mehta, Karuna Mantena, and other theorists who argue that British liberalism, for all its talk of universal freedoms, served the goals of empire by rationalizing its domination of other peoples. (Colonial pupils, in their political short pants, required firm instruction before they could be awarded their liberties.) Indeed, the main reason that the British Empire was able to sustain itself for more than two centuries, she maintains, was that the British model of state violence came wrapped in this “velvet glove” of liberal reform.

Add to its longevity an unrivaled global footprint, and the British Empire’s baneful legacy may well have been deeper and more diffuse than that of any other modern state. Was British liberal imperialism, given the extent of the damage it inflicted over generations, a more malevolent influence on world history than even Nazi Fascism? It’s a question that Elkins’s new book implicitly poses. And her first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Imperial Reckoning” (2005), is a lesson in not discounting her pointed inferences too swiftly.

When the British Trinidadian intellectual C. L. R. James reflected, in old age, on his standard-setting account of the Haitian Revolution against the French, he chided himself for an over reliance on white witnesses. Had he worked a little harder, he believed, he might have unearthed more Haitian perspectives. A vast amount of what is understood today about the experience of colonial subjects still comes through white, Western eyes, often those of ruling administrators, missionaries, and travelers. “Imperial Reckoning” did its part to rectify that great imbalance in the historiography of the British Empire.

It probed one of the grimmest periods in British colonial history: the suppression of a nineteen-fifties uprising of a clandestine Kenyan nationalist movement, the Mau Mau, whose name subsequently became a byword for native barbarity. Elkins, working in British and Kenyan archives as a young scholar, noticed gaps in the record-keeping from this period which suggested that the British had culled the files. Some incriminating documents had survived, though, and she started gathering evidence that the British had detained far more than the eighty thousand Kenyans they had previously acknowledged, and that among the tactics the Empire used against the Mau Mau was outright torture. (“With possibly a few exceptions,” read one report she uncovered, the detainees “are of the type which understands and reacts to violence.”) Thus began what she termed an “odyssey” of research, including field work in rural Kenya—potholed roads, battered Subaru—which ultimately brought to light the harrowing accounts of some three hundred survivors of the campaign against the Mau Mau.

In “Imperial Reckoning,” Elkins moved deftly between oral and archival histories to describe a British strategy of detention, beatings, starvation, torture, forced hard labor, rape, and castration, designed to break the resistance of a people, the Kikuyu, who, having been dispossessed by the British and then, during the Second World War, enlisted to fight for them, had plenty of reason to resist. In 1957, a British colonial governor informed his superiors in London that “violent shock” was the only way to break down hard-core adherents, justifying a brutal campaign called Operation Progress. More than a million men, women, and children were forced into barbed-wire village compounds and concentration camps for reëducation in circumstances that the colony’s attorney general at the time called “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.”

When Elkins’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, some scholars raised an eyebrow; they suggested that she had libeled the British by printing undersubstantiated claims. Other critics questioned her tally of the Mau Mau dead and missing: up to three hundred thousand, she said, with scant evidence. But aspects of her argument were vindicated in 2011, six years after publication, when her research helped make history.

That year, London barristers representing the Kenya Human Rights Commission and seeking damages for elderly Kenyan survivors of torture introduced Elkins as an expert witness, along with the British historians David Anderson and Huw Bennett. During the discovery process, the British government was pressed to explain a memo detailing the airlift of documents from Nairobi. After decades of denial, the government acknowledged spiriting masses of files out of Kenya—and, it emerged, out of thirty-six other former colonies. The files had been stashed in a high-security storage facility, in Hanslope Park, that the Foreign Office shared with British intelligence agencies. Documents were now unearthed which confirmed key aspects of both Elkins’s account and that of the Mau Mau survivors. In a landmark reparations case, fifty-two hundred Kenyans who were brutalized during the insurrection were each awarded around thirty-eight hundred pounds, and the U.K. government publicly acknowledged using torture in controlling its empire.

“Legacy of Violence,” like Elkins’s earlier book, shuttles between horrific details and historical and thematic contexts. And it, too, relies occasionally on questionable statistics—for instance, an outdated finding that nearly two-thirds of the British public take pride in the British Empire. (By 2020, as Elkins’s own source indicates, that proportion had declined to less than a third.) Yet some of what she recounts is devastating, including the story of how British dark arts were distilled in interwar Palestine, propelling the grisliness of liberal imperialism to another level.

By the late nineteen-thirties, a revolt was under way in Palestine, ignited by radical populist movements that had sprung up in the towns and cities. Dispossessed rural Arabs flocked to these urban areas as Zionist colonies rapidly expanded to accommodate Jewish refugees from Europe. To quash the uprising, the policing apparatus that Hughie Tudor had helped build grew to twenty-five thousand men, including two Army divisions. (Tudor himself, fearful of continued I.R.A. death threats, had decided on a quieter life as a fish trader in Newfoundland.) Elkins, building on recent work by Laleh Khalili, Georgina Sinclair, and other historians, shows how imperial tactics converged in that fighting force.

From Ireland had come paramilitary techniques and the use of armored cars; from Mesopotamia, expertise in aerial bombing and the strafing of villages; from South Africa, the use of Dobermans for tracking and attacking suspects; from India, interrogation methods and the systematic use of solitary confinement; and, from the Raj’s North-West Frontier, the use of human shields to clear land mines. As one soldier recalled about the deployment of Arab prisoners, “If there was any land mines it was them that hit them. Rather a dirty trick, but we enjoyed it.” Other practices seem to have been homegrown by the British in Palestine: night raids on suspect communities, oil-soaked sand stuffed down native throats, open-air cages for holding villagers, mass demolitions of houses. While perfecting such tactics on the Palestinians, Elkins suggests, officers were gaining skills that were put to use when they were later dispatched to Aden (in the south of present-day Yemen), to the Gold Coast, to Northern Rhodesia, to Kenya, and to Cyprus. Palestine was, in short, the Empire’s leading atelier of coercive repression.

To legitimate the control machine in Palestine, the British raked their empire again, this time for ways of securing legal impunity. Emergency codes were imported from Ireland, to permit collective reprisals, detention, and the destruction of property, and from India, to authorize censorship and deportation. Although military officials sought martial law in the Mandate, the Attorney and Solicitor Generals in London denied the request. They worried about the precedent of the Crown ceding power to the military, and, besides, Palestinian courts might well object that no state of war existed. A more elegant solution was to augment the power of the civilian executive. A 1937 order conferred on him the right to make whatever regulations “appear to him in his unfettered discretion to be necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, the defense of Palestine, the maintenance of public order and the suppression of mutiny, rebellion and riot, and for maintaining supplies and services essential to the life of the community.” British troops and police were thus free to operate “virtually without restraint or fear of prosecution,” Elkins writes. Just as with the repertoire of torture and suppression, these guides to imperial impunity would become models for future campaigns.

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Defenders of empire like the historian Niall Ferguson insist that the rule of law proved Britain’s most important gift to its colonies when, in time, they achieved independence. In Elkins’s view, the emergency provisions that abrogated the rule of law were the vital legacy. Insecure local leaders, some handpicked in Whitehall, struggled to govern polities in which colonial policy had sharpened social divisions. To stifle political opposition, they readily turned to colonial emergency codes and legal sleights. Helping them enact the templates were “Security Liaison Officers”: M.I.5 agents, embedded in the former colonies, who would steward the incoming nationalist cadres into the methods of intelligence gathering, interrogation, and domestic security. Ghanaian leaders, shortly after their country became independent, in 1957, cribbed from British preventive-detention laws the right to detain citizens for five years without trial. In the nineteen-sixties, Malaysian officials, building on British models, enacted laws permitting suspects to be detained indefinitely. In the seventies, Indian leaders used colonial emergency powers embedded into their constitution to censor the press, jail political opposition, clear urban slums and even sterilize their residents.

But it was in post-Mandate Palestine that the legacy of imperial violence was most enduring. The British had secured their hold on the territory by issuing promissory notes to multiple claimants: Arab élites were offered the prospect of an independent kingdom or nation; Zionists, the prospect of a national home; European allies, the prospect of a carve-up. With the land thrice promised and its peoples played against one another by shifting British policies, the cycles of violence and repression ahead had been underwritten. Not long after a 1947 United Nations vote divided the Mandate into Jewish and Arab states, Israeli security forces began emulating British methods, from killing civilians to flattening whole villages. In 1952, a British-controlled concern that excavated potash and other Dead Sea minerals—the immense value of which Hughie Tudor had extolled to Churchill—passed quietly into the control of the Israeli government. In 1969, when Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir asserted that “there was no such thing as Palestinians,” she was, in a way, asserting an erasure of recognition and rights which the British Empire had set in motion half a century before.

Yet “Legacy of Violence” goes further than detailing the depravities of empire; it has a larger thesis to advance, concerning liberal imperialism’s extraordinary resilience. The test of that thesis must be its ability to explain not only how the Empire endured but also how it ended. And it’s here that Elkins’s account runs into trouble.

I grew up in the post-colonial states of Kenya, Senegal, and India, and one constant was hearing stirring stories about “fathers of the nation” on the state-run radio. Later, encountering scholarship that reflected Gallagher’s argument that decolonization was “not usually a victory won by freedom-fighters,” I came to view nationalist mythmaking with a cooler eye. A cooler eye, but never quite a cold one: Was what Gallagher had called the great, wave-tossed ship of empire really so imperturbable, I wondered, that it went down “without agony” at its own command? Did the doings of those local heroes amount to nothing?

So I sat up when Elkins, in her opening pages, says that the story of liberal imperialism is “also a story of demands from below.” One lively chapter centers on C. L. R. James, George Padmore, and other Black anti-colonial radicals of the nineteen-thirties and forties, who called out the hypocrisies of empire in lacerating prose. She also follows Cypriot activists of the nineteen-fifties as they partnered with Greek lawyers and the London-based Movement for Colonial Freedom to bring a British campaign of murder and torture to international attention. But Elkins rules that, ultimately, these and other nonviolent challenges by colonial subjects and their allies around the world “did little to alter coercion’s grip on the empire.”

For her, all such efforts were bound to be impotent because she is convinced of liberal imperialism’s ability to absorb and neutralize criticism—something that more brittle ideologies like Nazi Lebensraum could not do. Britain’s colonial subjects protested, questions were raised in Parliament, inquiries were commissioned, reports were printed and shelved, and, in the end, repressive capacities emerged with tempered strength. Liberal imperialism, in Elkins’s telling, was thus a self-repairing, ever-expanding web. When her theory corners her into an account of the final unraveling of empire couched largely in terms of high-policy calculations about when to forgo power and instead pursue influence, it’s as if the ghosts of imperial history that she set out to vanquish had returned to inhabit her book.

The story of the British Empire in the twentieth century is also a story of forced retraction. Unfortunately, the forensic skill that Elkins applies to empire’s incarnadine claws is less in evidence when it comes to the nationalist tactics that, decade by decade, helped loosen their grip. As Lee Kuan Yew, who worked to throw off the British in Singapore, famously noted, one way for the weaker to defy the more powerful was to become a poisonous shrimp: “they sting.” In 1930, Gandhi launched the Salt Satyagraha with a twenty-five-day march protesting a tax imposed by the British salt monopoly—a brilliant bit of counter-propaganda theater that goes unmentioned in this book. In the wake of that nonviolent mass mobilization, with the international press watching, the British were limited in the violence they could deploy in India.

As Elkins has it, Gandhian approaches were ineffectual because the only language empire really understood was violence. She details at length how Zionists like Menachem Begin and his Irgun, having been schooled by Tudor’s legatees in the deployment of terror, used attacks and assassinations to expel the British. Colonized peoples in Africa and elsewhere wrote off nonviolence less quickly. Regardless of how incremental or indirect the progress could seem in the moment, empire’s financial or reputational costs could still be ratcheted up beyond what was supportable.

Although Elkins nods from time to time at empire’s variety and “kaleidoscopic processes,” her quest for a unifying theory sends her gliding over significant distinctions in the governance of wildly different colonial territories—some crowded treaty ports, some sparse hinterlands, some with settler populations, some holdings acquired in the eighteenth century and others in the twentieth. She posits the presence of a “colonial state”—enforcer of order and dispenser of violence across the various jurisdictions of empire—and yet the capacity to deliver and control violence was hardly uniform. In the late nineteen-thirties, as the Arab revolt in the Mandate was under way, plantation and factory workers rose up in Jamaica, whose bananas and sugar were more immediately valuable than even the potash of Palestine. Initially, true to form, the British killed resisters, but when protests intensified the Empire didn’t unleash the Dobermans and quell the workers. Instead, Britain started making concessions. Six years later, the Jamaicans had gained universal suffrage, becoming one of the first British colonies to be fully enfranchised. Hughie Tudor was one face of empire; it had others.

Just as the nature of colonial governance varied across time and space, so did liberalism, whose “perfidiousness” is as much a bête noire of Elkins’s book as empire is. Strains of liberalism embraced or accommodated paternalism, racism, and authoritarianism, helping provide intellectual cover for unimaginable cruelty. Yet liberal philosophies also elaborated ideas of autonomy, individuality, and collective self-rule that, in turn, seeded principles about legitimacy that anti-colonial thinkers and activists enlisted to their cause. Amid colonial condescension about their peoples’ civilizational adequacy, they sought to teach their Western liberal counterparts to imagine politics in genuinely universalist terms.

In Elkins’s book, however, the contributions of intellectuals like Tagore and Yeats are notable only as “accounts of suffering and resilience,” just as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Josiah Mwangi Kariuki are valued for their “firsthand accounts of suffering.” Ingrained presumptions can be hard for even self-described “revisionist” historians of empire to shake off, and one such presumption involves the division of intellectual labor. The judgment about whose ideas and actions counted in the making of history is taken as the prerogative of the professional historian, usually Western. The primary job of colonial subjects, for these historians, is to have borne witness: their task, in Elkins’s account, is to pen “wrenching indictments” that leave “a trail of evidence” for her and her colleagues to follow.

Near the end of “Legacy of Violence,” Elkins revisits the campaign to bring justice to the Mau Mau victims in the London courts, describing a climactic moment when, after her work in the Kenyan uplands to recover the survivors’ stories, she helped expose “liberal imperialism’s underbelly” to the world. To underline what she was up against in that recovery effort, she invokes, as she often does, a line from Kenya’s first leader, Jomo Kenyatta: “Let us agree that we shall never refer to the past.” Curiously, though, she fails to acknowledge that, shortly after those words were spoken, government officials and private citizens in Kenya embarked on a decades-long effort to surmount British stonewalling and reconstruct the nation’s colonial history. Remembering wasn’t just the white man’s burden. Mau Mau veterans and former detainees, too, were piecing together their past, bridling at being cast as mere spectators to how their history was shaped. Although the movement was long banned by the government, a study by the historian Wunyabari O. Maloba noted that, by the mid-nineteen-eighties, former members were gathering evidence to counter the narratives being produced by scholars. Soon, there were nearly two hundred groups of lay historians. Assisting them were renegade British ex-colonial officers like John Nottingham, who had married the sister of a Mau Mau general, helped Kariuki write his memoir, and been working to connect movement activists to professional historians, Elkins included.

Read all of it on the web edition here. Published in the print edition of the April 4, 2022, issue of The New Yorker, with the headline “Cruel Britannia.”