On the Hypocrisies and Violent Legacies of British Imperialism
Caroline Elkins on the Endurance of Imperial Nationalism
“I think there is only one ideal that the British Empire can set before itself in this regard,” Winston Churchill declared to the 1921 Imperial Conference, “and that is there should be no barriers of race, colour, or creed which should prevent any man by merit from reaching any station if he is fitted for it… But such a principle has to be very carefully and gradually applied because intense local feelings are excited.”
Empire’s top-hatted and self-assured white representatives had gathered behind heavy wooden doors and undrawn draperies in London to deliberate the empire’s policies. At the table were two brown-skinned and turbaned delegates, Sir Khengarji III, King of India’s Princely State of Kutch and former aide-de-camp to Queen-Empress Victoria, and V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, an Indian statesman. They were shining examples of native potential in an empire tormented by violence.
The conference’s summer swelter of imperial debate turned to “trusteeship,” the sacred trust between paternalistic rulers and their subjects. It was a topic that would bedevil other imperial conferences in the years ahead as trusteeship expanded beyond its 18th-century British origin. It had informed policy for Africa when European delegates met in Berlin in 1884 and 1885 to divvy up the continent. They agreed “to regulate the conditions most favourable to the development of trade and civilization… [and] to watch over the preservation of the native tribes, and to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being.”
After the Great War, League of Nations members divided up the former German and Ottoman empires. The Treaty of Versailles called the war’s territorial spoils “mandates” that were “inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world,” and it consecrated “the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation.”
The Second World War signaled the mandate system’s demise, though the Versailles Treaty’s emphasis on “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves” survived. To secure an Anglo-American alliance, Britain maneuvered through American anti-imperialist demands by replacing outdated ideas with new reform efforts. Trusteeship became “partnership,” and Britain granted more local political participation in the empire.
Churchill’s wartime government announced the Colonial Development and Welfare Act, committing £55 million in grants and loans for its subjects’ material improvements. But universal rights and self-rule were still not in the offing to an empire that had carried Britain through the war and guaranteed the tiny island nation’s claims to Big Three status when the fighting was over. Churchill met Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin in the winter of 1945 on Crimea’s frigid shores, where peacetime talks veered away from Britain’s empire. A few months later delegates from fifty Allied nations gathered in San Francisco to hash out the UN charter.
Despite vociferous protests from non-Western nations and interest groups, the international organization’s founding document affirmed imperialism’s place in the new world order. The charter referred to Europe’s colonies as “non-self-governing territories” and outlined the “progressive development” of their “peoples and their varying stages of advancement.” Colonizing powers also guaranteed “just treatment” and “protection against abuses,” pledging to maintain a “sacred trust” that recognized “the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount . . . within the system of international peace and security.”
Words on paper were hollow, particularly when they collided with the postwar Labour government’s imperial resurgence strategy. In theory, closer partnership with the empire would rescue Britain’s embattled economy and ensure its superpower status, even if it meant boots on the ground. Abiding tensions between universal rights and racial differences exploded. The empire began to unravel, but the practice and language of liberal reform was always part of imperial conflicts.
Britain even cast the postwar empire’s most draconian system of violence—the detention camps and villages of Malaya and Kenya—as redemptive. States of emergency were not wars but campaigns for British subjects’ “hearts and minds.” So-called terrorists and their supporters could be reformed. Behind barbed wires of detention, civics and home craft lessons would liberate them, as would forced labor’s sweat and toil and torture’s unfathomable pain. Britain had a new name for this, too. No longer called the “moral effect,” it was now “rehabilitation.” The empire’s lexicon also had other expressions for it. “Mwiteithia Niateithagio”—“Abandon hope all ye who enter here”—hung over the entrance to one of Kenya’s most notorious detention camps.
By the late 1950s, atrocities in Kenya exposed liberalism’s perfidiousness, and Britain had to publicly account for itself to the empire’s critics at home and abroad. This 20th-century scandal was not the first one. There had been others, including those in South Africa, India, Ireland, Palestine, Malaya, and Cyprus. Each instance brought new debates, and somehow Britain always managed to reconcile the logic of necessary violence with its civilizing mission. But the accretion of these scandals eroded Britain’s defenses and legitimacy. They also raised questions about the empire’s economic toll. Was Britain’s postwar imperial resurgence strategy a wise one? Had nationalism gotten in the way of fiscal logic?
Recurring and drawn-out empire wars cost taxpayers millions of pounds sterling. There were also opportunity costs. Soldiers were economically productive at home, and perhaps Britain would be better off with an informal empire, much like that of the 19th century? Retooled as the British Commonwealth of Nations, white dominions like Canada and Australia, together with colonies ready to stand on their own, formed a political and cultural community that owed allegiance to the queen. The Commonwealth would be the triumphant coda to the greatest empire in world history.
“Ne vous inquiétez pas. Compared to the French in Algeria, you are angels of mercy,” Henri Junod told a British colonial officer when touring Kenya’s detention system in 1957. A delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Junod was not alone in rendering such a comparison. A few years earlier, the world-renowned political theorist Hannah Arendt had published The Origins of Totalitarianism, a treatise built on the works of Hobbes and other philosophers. Arendt was quick to point out that Leviathan’s author had said “nothing of modern race doctrines. . . . But Hobbes at least provided political thought with the prerequisite for all race doctrines, that is, the exclusion in principle of the idea of humanity which constitutes the sole regulating idea of international law. . . . Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization.”
While Arendt believed that in empire “Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into ‘white men,’ ” she also cleaved to British exceptionalism. “The [French] enterprise was a particularly brutal exploitation of overseas possessions for the sake of the nation,” she wrote. “Compared with this blind desperate nationalism, British imperialists . . . looked like guardians of the self-determination of peoples.” Some historians contributing to the recent imperial history wars concur: “French wars were always bloodier than those of the British.” “Just as the scale of France’s wars of decolonisation was far larger than Britain’s, so abuses by security forces were also more numerous and perhaps more systematic.” The French Empire is not their only reference point: “Faced with similar disturbances [to those Britain encountered], other imperial powers responded much more harshly than the British did. . . . This does not excuse British abuses . . . but it provides some comparative context.” In the twentieth century, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Belgium all ruled over colonized populations, though when held up against these other European nations, France has always been Britain’s bête noire.
Turning to history’s balance sheet to determine which European empire was more or less brutal than others can be an invidious exercise. Historians usher objective data to make their case: body counts, number of soldiers on the ground, official reports. But all evidence is subjective, particularly that which is mediated through state bureaucracies. Junod is a case in point. He privately told Kenya’s governor that detainees needed a “violent shock”—it “was the price to be paid for” their acquiescence and reform. This “violent shock” was called the “dilution technique,” though Junod made no mention of it in his final report, which is catalogued in an official archive. Truth telling can’t be found in numbers either. Governments routinely massaged them, under- or overreporting their counts to suit political needs.
What we do know is that all empires were violent. Coercion was central to initial acts of conquest and to the maintenance of rule over nonconsenting populations. How this violence was systematized, enacted, and understood varied. For instance, there was nothing reformist about Belgian king Leopold II’s bloody rule in the Congo. He took control of a massive swath of Africa’s interior in 1885 and for two decades enabled concession companies to force Africans to labor, using horrific methods, in order to extract rubber.
In South West Africa, Germany’s military descended into “dysfunctional extremes of violence,” nearly wiping out the Herero and Nama peoples, as the historian Isabel V. Hull tells us. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s constitution isolated the army from external oversight and critique, and its militarism snowballed in Germany’s empire and informed fascism’s advance. Arendt called this the “boomerang effect,” and it was not isolated to Hitler’s rise. She looked at Europe’s race thinking and “wild murdering” and “terrible massacres” in the colonies and saw in them the origins of European totalitarianism. “When the European mob discovered what a ‘lovely virtue’ a white skin could be in Africa, when the English conqueror in India became an administrator,” Arendt wrote, “convinced of his own innate capacity to rule and dominate, when the dragon-slayers turned into either ‘white men’ of ‘higher breeds’ or into bureaucrats and spies… the stage seemed to be set for all possible horrors. Lying under anybody’s nose were many of the elements which gathered together could create a totalitarian government on the basis of racism.”
The British Empire and totalitarian regimes were not the same thing, even if some eyewitnesses reported striking similarities. In fact, Britain’s empire looked most like France’s. They both wrestled with liberal ideals and racial difference, and their reformism included an end to empire even if their ruling structures and colonial cultures differed. “France is not a country of forty millions; she is a country of one hundred millions,” Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré famously announced in 1923.
The French Empire was incorporated into the nation’s political structure, as dark-skinned delegates from the colonies took seats in the French parliament and Algeria became a department of France. Yet fraternité and ideas of a common French civilization rested uncomfortably with race, subjecthood, and French demands for empire’s economic and military manpower. In Britain’s case, colonial subjects wouldn’t have representation in London, except the Irish for a time. No matter how rational and civilized subjects became, they would never be British. Violence was endemic in both empires, yet it was Britain’s that became metonymic with imperial exception. This was no accident. “The legend of the British Empire,” Arendt tells us, “has little to do with the realities of British imperialism… No political structure could have been more evocative of legendary tales and justifications than the British Empire.”What we do know is that all empires were violent. Coercion was central to initial acts of conquest and to the maintenance of rule over nonconsenting populations.
My interest resides with the British Empire because it took on a particular configuration that became increasingly violent over time while extolling liberalism’s virtues in such a way that it could legitimate episodes of extreme coercion as unfortunate exceptions to modernity’s evolutionary triumph. It was not, of course, the only nation that spoke of a civilizing mission and rule of law’s virtues. France in particular did this too. But Britain was the nation boasting history’s largest empire, whose heroes and justifications led many astray.
The legacies Britain’s empire left behind have had significant bearings on a quarter of the world’s landmass where nations were born out of a cauldron of violence. It is a world where the colonial state rarely had the recognition of legitimate sovereignty from its subjects. Instead, the social contract was forced upon them, and the nationalism and independent states that colonial subjects created would go on to include many of liberalism’s contradictions. Delivering a potent colonial critique in The Wretched of the Earth, the French West Indian political philosopher Frantz Fanon insisted that formerly colonized people would never free themselves until they moved beyond the liberal nation-state and its paradoxes. This question is also percolating in contemporary Britain and other Western democracies.
At a time when some Britons are demanding an imperial reckoning, however, the nation’s majority is embracing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Empire 2.0. Britain’s imperial nationalism has endured and is underwriting Britain’s belief that the tiny island nation is a giant ready to stake its historically informed claim to the world. In no other contemporary nation-state does imperial nationalism endure with such explicit social, political, and economic consequences. This endurance begs explanation.
Excerpted from Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. Copyright © 2022 by Caroline Elkins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.