Lowering the flag

One of the most striking things about our contemporary political culture is how swiftly and completely it has turned against the idea of ​​empire. Yet until 1945, empires great and small, ruled by Africans, Asians and (pre-Columbian) Americans as well as Europeans, had been perhaps the commonest form of polity, and we still find it hard not to admire the products of imperial civilizations, the more ancient the better. Nor, despite much ill-informed assertion, have empires been the most violent form of polity. That distinction belongs to nation-states in search of racial purity and Marxist states demanding ideological conformity: Hitler’s Germany; Lenin and Stalin’s Russia; Mao’s China; Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The violent displacement of indigenous peoples, sometimes amounting to genocide, and racial discrimination were practiced most vigorously by settled democracies, with the United States in the van. In fact, it is only since about 1960 that explicit racism has been almost universally deemed morally unacceptable, with colonialism following soon after. Since then we have struggled to turn our back on past values ​​and attitudes, and to think about the imperial past without the “condescension of posterity” that EP Thompson once warned us against.

It is against this background that Caroline Elkins’s new book should be viewed. Like many historians of empire, she is frustrated by the notorious reluctance of “ordinary people” in Britain to see the British Empire as an instrument of rule – political, racial, economic and cultural. Her argument is that the use of violence, often in extreme forms, should be seen not as incidental to British colonialism, but as the grand theme of Britain’s imperial history, and one that has left a lasting impression on the contemporary world, not least on racial attitudes in Britain. How far she will convert an older generation to this view is at best uncertain. But she has certainly posed a formidable challenge to those who still believe that the Empire was chiefly an instrument of sweetness and light.

It should be said that the particular episodes that form the core of Legacy of Violence have been familiar for some years to anyone interested in imperial history. White violence against Blacks in South and Central Africa has dominated histories of the region since the 1970s. Earlier work Elkins, David Anderson and a score of others has highlighted the barbaric techniques by security forces, either British or under British control, in the so-called dirty wars of decolonization. What Elkins has done in this long but vividly written book is to bring together these episodes in order to draw out what she sees as their commonalities in British imperial doctrine, and to advance a broadly ideological explanation of how and why the British justified imperial violence to themselves.

The book opens with a survey that takes in slavery and the slave trade, the East India Company’s conquest of Bengal, the 1857 Rebellion, the South African War of 1899–1902 (in which the brutal Afrikaner conquest state of the Transvaal appears rather oddly as the helpless victim of Britishism), Amritsar and the imperial war of independence, before concentrating on the period from the 1930s to the 1960s. The point of this earlier history is to show that the resort to force, often in its most brutal forms, had long been intrinsic to the way the British wielded their colonial authority. Hence the more recent episodes, here much more extensively documented, should be seen not as a novelty but a continuation of past practices of what Elkins calls, in a useful phrase, “legalised lawlessness”.

Between 1936 and 1960, the British engaged in at least five significant campaigns to repress the threat to their colonial authority: in Palestine twice (against Arab opposition before 1939, and Jewish after 1945); in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus. There were similar, if shorter, actions in Aden and British Guiana (Guyana) among other places. Elkins describes and documents in often chilling detail the use of torture, collective punishment (such as village burning), random killing of civilians, punishment beatings and incarceration that, if not explicitly licensed under the provisions of “emergency rule”, were tolerated and even encouraged by those in authority. The narrative operates at three levels: in closely detailed incidents, sometimes with identifiable culprits; in an account of the instructions and policies of colonial officials and military commanders; and finally, perhaps most scathingly, in a description of Whitehall’s complicity in practices that it simultaneously licensed and denied. (It was, of course, a familiar division of imperial administrative labor that those at the top should see no evil and know no evil). A critic might grumble that while British crimes appear in glaring Technicolor and at considerable length, those of their opponents, equally careless for the most part of innocent lives and humanitarian concerns, recede into the background. (This reviewer can remember a robust assertion of “Well, they started it” at a counterinsurgency event.) But that is incidental to Elkins’s purpose: to destroy the illusion of imperial benevolence.

Yet, fierce though it is, the book is not just a charge sheet of imperial crimes. Elkins rejects any comparison with Nazism. More to the point, she argues that the resort to violence was justified in British minds by the deeply held belief that Britain was the providential instrument of what the (British) Government of India called “moral and material progress”, and that those who opposed them did so for reasons that were reactionary, self-interested, corrupt, fanatical, unscientific or the product of superstition and ignorance. Of course there is nothing peculiarly imperial in this “progressive” mentality. Nor – in other versions – has it gone away. But it is certainly true that the “logic” of empire was sustained by a specifically western conception of progress into the 1960s, a conception widely shared across the world, and not just by westerners. So we are left with a history that encapsulates the broader western experience of trying to force the non-western world into a mold of its making, and resorting to force when persuasion failed. Since the British led the way in this enterprise and pursued it most ardently, it is their record on which the spotlight should fall.

What should we add to this story? Perhaps we should start with the context. It is a truism that most empires are built over the ruins of their predecessors and adopt (out of necessity) much of their method. And that their rule is constrained by the political and cultural landscapes into which they have stumbled. There were few larger-scale pre-colonial communities in which homogeneous populations were governed by rulers of their choosing and of a shared cultural identity. Alien rule and ethno-religious diversity were much more common. Added to that was the fact that immediately pre-colonial societies had often been violently disturbed by the effects of global trade, or by indigenous processes of conquest and rebellion. Eighteenth-century India was the scene of what might be called the wars of Mughal succession, in which Iranians, Afghans, Marathas and states such as Mysore competed for hegemony alongside the British East India Company. Local “big men” such as the poligars of South India “privatized” Mughal revenues and crafted petty fiefdoms. The Company’s triumph was both military and financial: it had the deepest pockets and could hire more (Indian) soldiers. In the messy aftermath, it remained an overtly conquest state until the late nineteenth century, and fear of rebellion was sharpened after 1857 by an almost paranoid awareness of how quickly it might spread and the suppressty means with which to it.

In pre-colonial central Africa, as recent research has revealed, the Arab slave trade and other commercial connections had created a guns-for- slaves cycle of appalling violence, only gradually suppressed by the disarming imposed by colonial authorities. The Arab Middle East, Ottoman-ruled until 1918, had been devastated by four years of war exacerbating ethno-religious tensions and conflicts. Whatever colonialism’s justification or lack of it, it is easy to see why those “on the spot”, charged with keeping “order”, would have found governing by consent somewhat difficult – a task that became harder and harder amid the geopolitical hurricanes of the twentieth century.

The second element we might add is complexity. Perhaps understandably, given her focus, Elkins might leave the casual reader with the impression that colonial peoples shared a common dislike of their alien rulers, whose allies were limited to a “handful of elites” greedy for privilege and profit. In fact, two generations of scholarship have been dedicated to showing the enormous complexity and diversity of colonial societies, and the multiple ways in which they responded to British and other colonial rulers. Colonial rule meant different things to different people, and different peoples. Co-operation – or, as it is sometimes termed, “collaboration” – extended far more widely than a tiny elite. How else to explain the make-up of the Indian army, or the possibility of governing Nigeria with less than 300 British administrators, or policing the Madras Presidency’s 50 million people with a cadre of sixty Europeans? Or the satisfaction of Bengali Hindus at the overthrow of its Muslim raj by the British? Or the eagerness of Cape Colony “Coloreds” to assert their status as “British subjects”? Most Afro-Asian wars of colonial conquest were fought with indigenous soldiery. Indeed, some of the savagery of the wars of decolonization derived from internal divisions among colonial peoples (as the Kenya case vividly shows) – divisions that colonial rule may have encouraged, but which it did not invent. Ethno-religious mobilizations and the conflicts they generate have been a universal feature of modernity, colonial or non-colonial, and have persisted into the post-colonial world.

We cannot defend or deny the atrocities visited by the British on those they saw as their enemies, or the racist assumptions that enabled the sometimes contemptuous attitude to non-European life. It is right that these should be recorded and exposed. But we should not assume too readily that violence and terror were the norm in colonial governance, if only because a few colonies had the means to fund them. (The availability of a large conscript army in peacetime was unique to the period 1945-60.) And “A history of the British Empire” – the subtitle of this book – should also remind us that it engaged with colonial peoples in many other ways. than by violence: religiously, educationally, architecturally, philosophically, medically, scientifically and through ideas about law and – perhapsly – justice. Much of this has survived. Even as we reject the moral of colonialism, it is too reductionist to see its legacy as simply or mainly one of violence. Colonialism, after all, was chiefly a product of modernity and tangled up in its ethics and practices. We are still not sure in the world of 2022 how much of that modernity we want to renounce.

John Darwin‘s books include Unfinished Empire: The global expansion of Britain2012, and, most recently, Unlocking the World: Port cities and globalization in the age of steam, 1830–19302020

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