Winston Churchill in the Culture War: Defending an Icon

Alan Lester

University of Sussex and La Trobe University

Winston Churchill is an iconic figure. For many, he stands for the idealised qualities of the British nation: a bulldog spirit leavened with a sense of fair play and deep attachment to freedom. His character, contribution to historical events and legacy have been contested to greater or lesser extents ever since he became a public figure at the beginning of the twentieth century, but after Black Lives Matter protestors named him a racist by graffitiing his stocky, brooding statue in Westminster in June 2020, he also become more central to the culture war.

Churchill Statue, Westminster
Tim Buss from North County, San Diego, California, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Culture war works to drive wedges between social groups, forcing them to extremes from which they are unable to work collaboratively, find nuance or reach consensus. So who has been primarily responsible for making Churchill’s legacy a culture war wedge, driven into our public consciousness and preventing dialogue? Is it the antiracist activists and scholars who have alienated Britons by claiming that their ‘wartime PM was a white supremacist’ leading an empire ‘worse than the Nazis’, as The Telegraph would have us believe? Or is it social conservatives and their allies in papers like The Telegraph itself, who rally to defend Churchill from critique as if the fate of the nation, and indeed the Western world, depended upon it?

The Cambridge ‘Debate’

In this essay I focus on one the key moments in which Churchill’s legacy was weaponised. In January 2021 the University of Cambridge college named Churchill as his national memorial announced a series of online events to reflect specifically upon his racial views and relationship with the British Empire. The Daily Mail immediately described the plan as ‘idiotic’, quoting Churchill’s grandson, former Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames: ‘It seems to me extremely unlikely young ladies and gentlemen will get a balanced view of Churchill’s life … in … this idiotic debate that’s got out of control in all our universities.’  

The Daily Mail had already encountered the academic who would chair the events, Professor Priyamvada Gopal. The previous year it had been forced to pay her £25,000 in damages after claiming, falsely, that she was ‘attempting to incite a race war, and that she supported and endorsed the subjugation and persecution of white people’. The story was based on fake Twitter posts maliciously attributed to Gopal. The newspaper had to admit, ‘We also partially quoted another tweet from Professor Gopal as saying: “White lives don’t matter.” The tweet in fact continued: “As white lives.” Professor Gopal’s actual view is that all lives should be valued.’

Following the Mail’s pre-emptive strike, the series of events itself was introduced by the Master of Churchill College, Professor Dame Athene Donald. She explained that Churchill’s legacy as a staunch opponent of Nazism and supreme wartime leader was well known, but that ‘his views on race have had their own legacy … which is less well known’. The purpose of the planned discussions was not to cover every aspect of Churchill’s well-aired life and times, but to explore the ‘complex truths’ behind this specific and more ‘difficult’ legacy of racism. She introduced Professor Gopal, who reiterated the intent to ‘bring long overdue balance to a heavily skewed national story that has preferred untrammelled national glorification to an … assessment in the round’. She made it clear that the year-long series would be based around ‘discussion, not … debate’.

The first event was a conversation between Prof Gopal and the leading historian of Churchill, Prof Richard Toye of Exeter University. Toye started by mentioning the reaction of Piers Morgan when Professor Kehinde Andrews (who featured in the next Churchill College event) named Churchill’s racism as a problematic legacy on the TV show Good Morning Britain.

Piers Morgan Interrogates Kehinde Andrews on Good Morning Britain

Morgan had launched an unremitting barrage of criticism and aggressive questioning, allowing Andrews barely any opportunity to respond and demanding to know ‘why don’t you like living in this country’? The onslaught concluded with Morgan demanding that Andrews ‘say one good thing about this country’ and suggesting that if he did not like his country, he should live elsewhere.  The inaugural discussion between Gopal and Toye, which centred on the way that Churchill had come to stand for the nation in the eyes of people such as Morgan, seems to have escaped the attention of the series’ critics. It was the panel assembled by Gopal on 11th Feb 2021 and comprised entirely of scholars of colour, including Andrews, that attracted their ire.

The topic for this discussion was ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’. After an introduction by Gopal the speakers, Professor Andrews from Birmingham City University, Dr Madhusree Mukerjee senior editor for Scientific American and the author of Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, and Dr Onyeka Nubia from Nottingham University, each gave a ten-minute presentation. Collectively, they discussed the racist comments that Churchill had made and placed them in the context of their time and place, noting the problematic silencing of this aspect of his life in the popular iconography. Then they discussed questions raised by Gopal before taking further questions from the online audience.

Andrews’ was the most provocative talk, referencing Zygmunt Bauman’s argument that the Holocaust was not an aberration in Western modernity but could be explained only through its logic, and arguing that colonial genocide too, was intrinsic to the fabric of that modernity. He made a comment as an aside, later seized upon by his detractors, about having read that the numbers of indigenous Americans killed by European colonisers caused global temperature changes. Seemingly a bizarre claim on the surface, he appears to have been referring to research indicating that the ‘clearance’ of 60 million indigenous peoples from vast swathes of land in the Americas through the spread of introduced diseases, slavery, warfare and societal collapse gave rise to a temporary reforestation that may in turn have contributed to the Little Ice Age

The most significant attack on this second event in the series came in a paper by Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes, with a foreword by Churchill’s grandson, the man who had called the planned events ‘idiotic’ in the Daily Mail, Nicholas Soames. Andrew Roberts, or Baron Roberts of Belgravia, is a popular historian and journalist who was appointed to the House of Lords by Boris Johnson. He has written widely, including a biography of Napoleon and the impressively researched and generally very well reviewed Churchill: Walking With Destiny (although Toye’s review was an exception). Zewditu Gebreyohanes is a former director of the Restore Trust lobbying group, which tries to prevent the National Trust from researching or publicising its properties’ colonial history, worked at the think tank Policy Exchange, is deputy editor at History Reclaimed, was appointed by Nadine Dorries as a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and is now a senior researcher at the Legatum Institute, which is directed by the former special adviser to Jacob Rees-Mogg MP.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes’ response, ostensibly a detailed engagement with the arguments presented by the panelists, was published initially as a Policy Exchange paper and repurposed in The Spectator. It is still available on the History Reclaimed website. The US-based International Churchill Society, of which Roberts is a director, issued a statement that it ‘is pleased that Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes have addressed the recent controversy at Churchill College, Cambridge with historical context and nuance’. Even in a recently published book that is critical of Churchill’s attitudes towards Indian people, Walter Reid felt obliged to mention that ‘The “scholarship” behind the conference [sic] has been fairly devastatingly destroyed’ by the Roberts and Gebreyohanes paper (Fighting retreat: Churchill and India, Hurst, 2024, p. 5). Unfortunately for Reid, Roberts did not repay the compliment, calling Reid’s book ‘vicious’, ‘malign and cruel’.

Despite the definitive status that this riposte to the panel’s arguments has gained in some quarters, I have not been able to find any detailed engagement with it or assessment of its validity.

Churchill the Coward?

Roberts and Gebreyohanes attack Andrews for pointing out that Churchill had not personally fought in WWII, as if he had said this in order to question the Prime Minister’s courage. They ‘respond’ by pointing out, quite accurately, that Churchill had taken part in plenty of fighting between 1895 and 1916 and was therefore no coward. However, Andrews seemed fully aware of Churchill’s participation in campaigns against Indians and Sudanese, viewing them as an indication of his complicity in colonial violence. Andrews was making a different point: that in popular culture Churchill is often spoken of as if he were the reason why Germany was defeated. Andrews was saying that, in some people’s view it is almost as if Churchill single-handedly fought off the Germans. He said that ‘Britain [as a whole] should be proud of its role in the war’.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes themselves admit that ‘no historian [my emphasis] has ever claimed that Churchill won the war alone … yet Churchill … played a crucial and indispensable role in ensuring the victory’, so the only real argument here is over the emphasis accorded to Churchill as an individual vis a vis other individuals, such as Roosevelt and Stalin, and relative to broader collectives such as the Soviet, American and imperial armies.

Churchill in the military dress uniform of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars at Aldershot in 1895, public domain

Dr Nubia’s point that ‘Churchill was part of a collection of individuals … part of a policy’ could surely have been accepted as relatively uncontroversial had Roberts and Gebreyohanes been inclined to note it.

The British Empire Versus the Third Reich

Roberts and Gebreyohanes claim that the panellists stated ‘the British Empire was worse than the Third Reich’. There were two moments in the discussion to which they might be referring. The first was when Andrews was discussing the Holocaust in the terms that Bauman had used. Andrews said that this event was ‘not an other at all; it’s the complete logic of the West. Just the only difference is that it was brought to bear in Europe with people we would consider White, right? If you actually consider the mechanics of the … killing, millions of people because they’d been deemed racially inferior, we’d seen that before … this is kind of the foundation of what the West is’. Roberts and Gebreyohanes respond that this is ‘belittling’ and ‘normalising’ the Holocaust, but Andrews was actually following Bauman in problematising modernity as responsible for the horrors of both the Holocaust and colonial genocidal violence. To say that he was belittling either seems to me a gross misrepresentation.

The only mention of the ‘Third Reich’ came from Andrews in the impromptu Q & A following the presentations. He remarked ‘The British Empire was worse than the Nazis. It lasted far longer, it killed many more people, and in fact, in many ways … the Nazis were copying large elements of the British Empire. And that’s just fact. But you state something like that, it’s like heresy, right? Because we’re not having a rational conversation … about actual history’. Roberts and Gebreyohanes slam this comment as ‘puerile invective. More befitting the playground than the seminar hall’.

Let us look at the grounds upon which Andrews based his remark. He gave three grounds for the comparison. First, ‘it [the British Empire] lasted longer’. Well, of course it did. Most historians date the start of the British Empire to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century and its end in the mid-late twentieth century. The Nazis were in power for 12 years. The British and other European empires developed through four centuries of technological change, emergent nationalism, racist ideologies and the global displacement of peoples, while Nazism was more of a concentrated burst of nationalistic antisemitism and racism towards the end of their existence.

Secondly, Andrews asserted that the British Empire killed many more people. The standard figure for the Holocaust is 6 million and if we attribute the 15 million military and 38 million civilian WWII war deaths to the Nazis alone, that is a figure verging on 60 million people. We will never know how many indigenous peoples were killed defending their lands against British invasions in North America, Africa, Australasia and Asia because they were never enumerated, but a rough estimate of those killed in British colonial wars in the late nineteenth century alone would be well over a million. If we attribute the deaths from avoidable famine too, the figure would probably be over 20 million. It has been estimated that around 60 million indigenous Americans alone died as a result of European colonial conquest. We are clearly trading off wild guesstimates and making all sorts of assumptions about responsibility in both cases, but it is probably fair to say that in this off-the-cuff allusion Andrews overestimated the numbers killed in the imposition and maintenance of British rule compared to the Nazis, but not those killed by European colonialism in general.

Andrews was right in his final point: that the Nazis tended to admire the British Empire to the extent that they wished to copy elements of it. As Mukerjee noted in her presentation, Hitler spoke of ‘a copy of the British Empire, only to the East’ in occupied Slavic lands, and during the 1930s the Nazis particularly admired the arch British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, not least because he saw the Anglo- Saxons as a branch of the Germanic race. Hitler thought that he was the only man who had understood what was necessary for continuing British supremacy and Goebbels described him as a ‘rare force man’.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes characterise Andrews’ informal response to a question as ‘puerile invective’. He may not have gauged that response in a way that conceded to the sensibilities of Empire fans, but the format of the discussion was a provocation to reconsider. Roberts and Gebreyohanes state something equally sweeping, offensive and insulting to many: that the British Empire was ‘not only to benefit Britain but also – especially by the Victorian era and certainly thereafter – to further global civilisation and social advancement. The British wanted the best for the peoples of their empire’. Andrews is the descendant of people whom the British bought as captives and shipped to Jamaica as slaves. Victorian anti-slavery thereafter did not challenge, and in many ways, exacerbated colonial racism, something that Roberts and Gebreyohanes unwittingly confirm when they say that Churchill’s racial views were of their time.

Churchill the Racist?

Roberts and Gebreyohanes contest or mitigate the panel’s repeated and well-substantiated claims that Churchill was racist. The attempt is based on the premise that notions of cultural superiority are not the same as those of biological superiority, together with the claim that only the latter constitutes racism. The Oxford definition does not specify biological or cultural forms of differentiation. Racism is ‘the inability or refusal to recognize the rights, needs, dignity, or value of people of particular races or geographical origins. More widely, the devaluation of various traits of character or intelligence as ‘typical’ of particular peoples’.

Like most of his contemporaries, Roberts and Gebreyohanes argue, Churchill spoke of civilising other peoples so that they could ultimately share in the advantages enjoyed by Britons. This indicates a cultural rather than a racial hierarchy – one which allows for individuals’ movements up and down the scale of civilisation regardless of their skin colour. They suggest that ‘Churchill’s view was not focused on skin colour … but instead on a rather nationalised perspective’. Even where he did use the word ‘race’, he meant a ‘people’ or a nationality, and not differences between Black and Brown and White people. ‘Churchill did on several occasions make disobliging remarks about Indians, about Chinese, about Palestinian Arabs and various other groups, but it is important to understand the context in which he did so’. They adapt the definition of racism again so that a racist is one who ‘wants bad things to happen to non-whites’. Having never expressed such a sentiment, Churchill is exonerated.

In her introductory presentation Gopal had presented evidence that Roberts and Gebreyohanes simply ignored. Their argument that Churchill was not focused on skin colour was directly contradicted by his physician: ‘Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin’. His remarks on Indians and other ‘races’ were more than  ‘disobliging’. The imperialist Leo Amery wrote that ‘I didn’t see much difference between his outlook’ on Indians ‘and Hitler’s’. Roberts and Gebreyohanes dismiss Amery as an unreliable witness because he was a political rival of Churchill. As Reid shows though, Churchill repeatedly referred to Indians as ‘Baboos’, describing them as ‘gross, dirty and corrupt’. He declared ‘I think we shall have to take the Chinese in hand and regulate them. I believe that as civilized nations become more powerful they will get more ruthless, and the time will come when the world will impatiently bear the existence of great barbaric nations who may at any time arm themselves and menace civilized nations … The Aryan stock is bound to triumph’. For Churchill there was no consistent differentiation between race, people or nation. He moved blithely across these categories conflating them into a single notion of White supremacy.

Churchill as Secretary of State for the Colonies during his visit to Mandatory Palestine, Tel Aviv, 1921, public domain

Such views were not just uncharacteristic outbursts, expressed in moments of stress during the dark days of WWII as his apologists routinely claim. It may have been in 1942 that, as Nubia pointed out, he said ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion’, but it was in 1921 that he described visiting East African Indians as ‘a vulgar class of coolies’ who ‘could not yet be allowed the same political rights as white men’. It was in 1922 that he expressed his belief ‘that opinion would change soon as to the expediency of granting democratic institutions to backward races who had no capacity for self-government’. A decade after the outbursts against Indians during the crisis of 1942, he told his doctor, ‘When you learn to think of a race as inferior beings it is difficult to get rid of that way of thinking; when I was a subaltern in India the Indians did not seem to be equal to the white man’. He seems not to have tried very hard to unlearn these attitudes since, in 1954, he declared ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails’ and admitted he ‘did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people’. The following year he told Cabinet that ‘Keep Britain White would be a good slogan’.

As Roberts and Gebreyohanes reiterate, one must take isolated quotations in the context of Churchill’s stage in life and environment. Whether we consider Churchill as a younger man, in middle age or old age, whether we take him in peacetime or wartime, as a young officer or as a Prime Minister, he did not vary in his racism. Most British people believed that White people were superior to others, with many, like Churchill himself, crossing fluidly between biological and cultural ‘explanations’. But as contemporaries of his noted, his racism was also particularly pronounced, and resistant to change. By the 1930s, Reid, argues, it was presenting an obstacle to negotiations with Indians about self-governance.

In the light of his response to the panel’s arguments, it may seem surprising that Roberts himself wrote in a 1994 Spectator article: ‘For all his public pronouncements on “The Brotherhood of Man” [Churchill] was an unrepentant white – not to say Anglo-Saxon – supremacist … for Churchill, negroes were ‘n*****s’ or ‘blackamoors’, Arabs were ‘worthless’, Chinese were ‘chinks’ or ‘pigtails’, and other black races were ‘baboons’ or ‘Hottentots’.”

Churchill was vehemently opposed to Hitler’s genocidal policies and he professed a paternalistic desire to ‘improve’ other races instead, but fighting Hitler and sharing some of his racial views were not mutually exclusive. As Nubia pointed out in his presentation, Churchill’s notions of the inferiority of Black and Brown people were ‘not contradictory’ to Hitler’s, although the way they were ‘implemented’ was ‘very different’.

Churchill was briefly attracted by the idea of Eugenics, wanting to to improve the ‘national stock’ by eliminating the ‘socially unfit’, preventing the ‘multiplication of the Feeble-Minded.’ He advocated the forced sterilisation of 100,000 people to test the outcome. Roberts and Gebreyohanes justify this by saying that the only alternative was ‘confining the mentally ill in institutions’, and that Churchill’s idea would ‘at last enable them to live in relative liberty’. They provide no evidence that this would have been the fate of the people upon whom Churchill wished to experiment. They are correct in noting that he later abandoned this idea and was not ‘one of those many intellectuals who used Eugenics to justify class or racial oppression’.

Churchill and The Bengal Famine

Roberts and Gebreyohanes are exercised by the idea that the panellists blamed Churchill for the 1943 Bengal Famine, in which 3 million Indians died. They allege that Mukerjee made the ‘monstrous accusation that Churchill wished starvation and suffering upon innocent Indian civilians because of his dislike of their ilk’. However, she made no such accusation. What she said, in the Q& A, was that because of his relative devaluing of Indian lives (he referred to them repeatedly as rabbits compared to British lions), ‘if someone other than Churchill had been prime Minister at the time, the death toll … would not have been so high’. Mukerjee had noted in her presentation that the resources needed, and risks taken, to ship food to Bengal through Japanese submarine-infested waters were no greater than those of shipping much greater quantities of food across the U-Boat-infested Atlantic to feed Britain.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes are right to explain that the major causes of the famine were beyond Churchill’s control and ability to fix. Indian suppliers’ hoarding, and local Indian officials’ initial inactivity, the Japanese occupation of food producing areas, the extra 2 million military mouths to feed and the cyclone that had destroyed crops were all primarily responsible. Mukerjee had noted all this and added the inflationary pressures of the wartime Indian economy and the policy of denying resources to potential Japanese invaders in some areas by appropriating them from the civilian population.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes argue that ‘It is unrealistic to imagine that anyone else in [Churchill’s] place could have given more attention to the famine than he did when a world war was being waged on multiple fronts’. Whether someone more sympathetic to Indian people would have given greater priority to rescuing them from starvation is unfortunately one of those counterfactual questions to which we will never have an answer. However we do know that Churchill declined to supply the amount of aid that was requested by the Viceroy until, too late, he asked Roosevelt for help without success. In the recent Radio 4 series, Three Million, the Churchill admirer and WWII expert Max Hastings said that he does not believe that ‘the interests of the war effort would have been disastrously compromised by’ Churchill sending more ‘shipping to Bengal relief supplies’, and that this should have been done. He also confirmed that Churchill was ‘callous to non-White’ subjects of empire, and inferred that this affected his decisions.


Roberts and Gebreyohanes say that the panel made the ridiculous claim that ‘colonialism is to blame for … the caste system’ in India. I have not been able to find such a statement in anything they said, either in the presentations or in Q&A. Gopal and Nubia said that ‘colonialism operated with the assistance of native tyrannies including the caste system’. Gopal also addressed the Raj’s inheritance (not fabrication), of the caste system when she said that colonialism in India operated ‘with the assistance of Brahminical supremacy’.

The Aftermath

Roberts and Gebreyohanes’ supposed ‘demolition’ of the panel’s arguments provided the ammunition for a very public, orchestrated backlash, against both the panelists and the college authorities. At first the college issued a statement saying that,  despite the ‘considerable publicity’ that it had received ‘because of the membership of the panel and nature of some of the views expressed’, the year-long programme would continue. The second panel, however, proved to be the last event. In its aftermath, the working group organising the series was disbanded.

Gopal said, ‘after ‘Policy Exchange’s [Roberts and Gebreyohanes] tendentious attack on the series’ was ‘circulated to the college’s Governing Body without caveat’, it was left ‘with the impression that Policy Exchange’s position is both uncontroversial and objective.’ When the college’s leaders tried to prevent the working group inviting the writer and activist Akala to the next planned event, Gopal accused them of ‘taking fright’, writing on Twitter/X, ‘Let me repeat: under pressure from groups like Policy Exchange & some members of the Churchill family, Churchill College has disbanded a group set up to engage critically with Churchill’s complicated legacies. Let that sink in.’

Churchill College’s Master, Donald, who had introduced the series, confirmed that there had been contact from the Churchill family and noted that their ‘support (not least for the Archives) has always been very important to the College’. She said ‘The event received a great deal of, often hostile, attention because it did address some of parts of [Churchill’s] life that are often not looked at in depth in the UK, and which do not play well to some of the standard views about his life. That hostility was also directed at the participants, who received unacceptable racist abuse, something the College utterly deplores’. However, she was adamant that ‘the implication made in some quarters that they [Churchill’s family], Policy Exchange or the national press might have been steering matters, is to misunderstand our governance arrangements.’ She attributed the demise of the programme to the Working Group ‘at some point’ seeming ‘to have changed direction, with the second event not aligning with the initial proposals that Council saw; nor did their suggestions for the third [potentially including Akala]’.

The Telegraph, 17 June 2021

It seems likely to me that the College’s council wanted the working group to organise a less controversial, perhaps more appeasing, third event following the backlash that Roberts and Gebreyohanes had helped to fuel against the second. The council, Donald, said, had ‘suggestions which they felt fitted better with the aspirations originally set out, including the names of further speakers previously identified by the Group themselves’. According to Donald, Gopal refused to concede, writing ‘at that point that the group might as well dissolve themselves’. Donald ‘was told that, at their meeting of 20th May, the group decided that they would not make further recommendations on a third event. Rightly or wrongly, as Master, I took that statement at face value: that they had in fact disbanded themselves, and that Council would instead need to take the next steps in moving the explorations of Churchill, Empire and Race forward’. Those next steps never materialised as far as I am aware.

Whatever the interactions between the Churchill family, Policy Exchange, the college council, the working group and Donald, whose position must have been invidious, there is no reason to disbelieve Gopal’s account of outraged letters sent to the college saying that the panel ‘was academic freedom gone too far, and that the event should be cancelled’. ‘The speakers and I, all scholars and people of colour, ‘she wrote, were subjected to vicious hate mail, racist slurs and threats. We were accused of treason and slander. One correspondent warned that my name was being forwarded to the commanding officer of an RAF base near my home’. Since I first posted this essay, Dr Zareer Mazani, a former nominee of Restore Trust for election to the National Trust council and founder member of History Reclaimed, has admitted that ‘I was one of those’ who wrote, ‘since we found it outrageous that college in Churchill’s memory hosting such an event, with not a single panellist to counter [Gopal’s] insane venom. Churchill family threatening to withdraw support finally persuaded the college governing body.’

Although sympathisers with Roberts and Gebreyohanes have complained that it was the panel’s discussion of Churchill that was somehow driven by ‘cancel culture’, to me it looks like Roberts and Gebreyohanes and allies in the Telegraph, Mail, History Reclaimed, Restore Trust and on TV programmes like Good Morning Britain, managed to block the ‘national conversation’ that Donald, Churchill College and the panel had sought to initiate.


Rather than really addressing all the panel’s arguments and evidence on Churchill’s relationship with Empire and race, Roberts and Gebreyohanes asserted that ‘Churchill’s intentions’ on racial matters ‘were both noble and moral’. The key point was missed. In a talk that Roberts gave to History Reclaimed entitled ‘Churchill Revisionism’, we can see how. The problem is not so much denial of Churchill’s racist attitudes in the past, it is the failure to reckon with them, indeed the exoneration of them, by his defenders in the present. Stating, as Roberts does in this talk, that Churchill’s racist comments were ‘very often jokes’, and giving Churchill personal credit for actions ‘intended to be to the benefit of the non-white, native population of the empire’ reinforce this problem. Blindness to the effects of justifying what Roberts himself describes as Churchill’s ‘awful, flippant, racist remarks’ is the real issue. It suggests that the acknowledgement that some of Churchill’s statements are ‘unacceptable today’ is a mere platitude. There has been no reckoning with the ideas behind those statements, let alone a fulsome rejection. Actively defending the man and the Empire by representing them as benevolent towards Black people reinscribes the racism that Churchill embodied.

A second lesson from this episode is more hopeful. What would happen if we set aside the intent to close down debate and examine the points made by the panelists and those of their detractors that were the least tendentious? Perhaps, with the adversarial friction taken out of it, we might piece together some meaningful insights about Churchill, race and empire. We might even find some points of convergence among a group of people who have all studied Churchill, albeit asking very different questions of him?

First, if anyone had actually said that Churchill was responsible for the 1943 Bengal Famine, they would be wrong. Whether he could have done more to alleviate it or would have done if the victims had been White rather than Brown is open to question and we’ll never have the evidence for a definitive answer, although it seems very likely to unprejudiced observers that his callous disregard for the mass of Indian subjects had some influence on his priorities.

Secondly, Churchill’s leadership was indispensable to British morale and he made critical decisions to continue fighting during WWII. These facts, emphasised by Roberts and Gebreyohanes, render his influence on the war greater than that of most individuals. As the panel emphasised, he was also part of the much broader assemblage of people and materials that made the victory against Nazism possible. As Roberts and Gebreyohanes pointed out, a confusion arose around the names of Aneurin Bevan and Ernest Bevin at one point, but it did not detract from this point. Britain, let alone Churchill, could never have prevailed without the help of soldiers from the Empire and especially India, and without the intervention of far more numerous and powerful Soviet and US forces.

Thirdly, unlike the Nazis, Churchill was vehemently opposed to the idea of exterminating ‘lesser’ peoples, and as Roberts and Gebreyohanes pointed out, he took the leading role in condemning Brigadier General Dyer’s massacre at Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar), casting it as an unnecessarily violent aberration from the more ‘normal’ processes of colonial policing.

Fourthly, Churchill saw no contradiction between opposing spectacular acts of colonial violence such as Dyer’s and believing in the need for White people’s authoritarian governance over ‘inferior peoples’. He articulated the sacred value of freedom for Europeans opposed to the tyranny of Nazi Germany but not for Indians at the same time. He may have resisted Indian independence because he was prescient about the chaotic violence that would ensue upon Partition, as his defenders argue. Or, as Reid argues, he may simply have been unwilling to cede control of India because he considered it the most important bastion of British greatness. Both are probably true, although his observations tend more to the desirability of maintaining Empire than concern for Indian people.

Finally, as Roberts admitted in an earlier phase of his career, Churchill was a racist. To deny that is historically inaccurate and, in most people’s eyes also morally indefensible. It would be surprising if he were not a racist, since racism, ‘racialism’ or ‘colour prejudice’, as it was called for much of his lifetime, was a prevailing ideology justifying British colonialism, just as antisemitism was a prevailing ideology fuelling Nazism. Roberts and Gebreyohanes are quite right that we must consider Churchill in the context of his times. While the analogy could have been better, in his History Reclaimed talk, Roberts described expecting Churchill to have had antiracist views as being like expecting Oliver Cromwell to have been an adherent of ‘socialised medicine’.

Placing Churchill in the context of the imperial understandings of his day was at the very centre of the panel’s project. Like others, Churchill employed both biological and cultural ‘explanations’ of Black and Brown people’s inferiority to White people. He also proved more reluctant than some of his contemporaries to moderate his views as Black and Brown people’s self-determination became more likely. Admitting that Churchill was a flawed character, often drinking too much and making strategic errors for example, is not the same thing as reckoning with the legacy of this national icon’s racism.

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When the Raj Came to Brighton

‘The Royal Pavilion, Brighton, as an Indian Military Hospital. Main Entrance, Western Front.’ Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

In the early stages of World War I, the Raj came to the south coast of England in the form of over 4,000 wounded Indian soldiers. They convalesced in a number of specially constructed hospitals, including in the Brighton Pavilion. Between 1914 and 1916 the former Prince Regent’s Oriental-style palace became charged with the hubris and anxiety of the largest and most diverse Empire the world had ever seen. [1]

A Palace Becomes a Hospital

In August 1914, the Indian Army was roughly the same size as the regular British Army (around 240,000 men), but their deployment against the German Army was a thorny issue. British commanders had used Indian troops against a variety of opponents to conquer parts of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, but the maintenance of ‘white prestige’, so necessary to the retention of those territories had deterred any use against white enemies. They had been held back from deployment against the Boers, for instance, in the South African War (1899-1902). Aside from the obvious military need though, for reasons that we will come onto, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, was keen to appease Indian opinion at this critical juncture. Although he intended to ‘keep the white race pure’, he decided that the loyalty of the Princely States in particular should be secured by trusting their soldiers to serve in the trenches alongside British counterparts.

Indian troops began arriving in Marseille from late September 1914 and by the time they were removed from the western front the following year, about 90,000 had seen active service as frontline troops and a further 50,000 as auxiliary labourers. The wounded were cared for initially in Marseille, but as the numbers increased the French Army suggested that with resources for white soldiers stretched, colonial subjects should be treated in England or Algeria. With some reluctance, the War Office opted for the former, and from November 1914 injured Indian men started crossing the Channel.

Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, appointed Walter Lawrence as Commissioner for Sick and Wounded Indian Soldiers in France and England. For the last five years, Lawrence had worked as Lord Curzon’s private secretary in the India Office. From November 1914, despite the lack of any military experience,  he was responsible for every aspect of the wounded Indians’ treatment in England.

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Lord Kitchener (left) shaking hands with Mir Dast VC (see below), with Walter Lawrence on the right:
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

With the facilities initially provided at Brockenhurst in the New Forest and Netley, Southampton, proving inadequate, Lawrence was relieved when the Mayor of Brighton, John Otter, offered the use of his town. Lawrence felt that Otter’s initial offer of the pier and racecourse were unsuitable, largely because they lacked any roof. He was delighted, though, when Brighton Corporation offered him the use of the Royal Pavilion.

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Illustration from Brighton and Hove Society, 3 December 1914, by Charles Phelp. Shows Mayor John Otter welcoming wounded Indian soldiers to the Royal Pavilion hospital.

No building, Lawrence considered, could be more suitable as a place of convalescence for Indian men. Its oriental style would make them feel at home while they could relax in the seclusion of its ‘charming gardens’. The Pavilion Hospital would consist of the palace itself and the Brighton Dome and Corn Exchange, which lay in the same complex, hosting 724 beds. With the Corporation’s help, Lawrence was also able to procure a school that came to be known as the York Place Hospital, containing 600 beds, and the Brighton Poor Law Institution, renamed the ‘Kitchener Hospital’, with a further 2000 beds. He oversaw the conversion of each building, the setting of hospital wards amidst the Pavilion’s orientalist splendour especially attracting official photographers.

Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

What a Welcome!

Between 1914 and 1916, Lawrence oversaw the treatment of 4,306 patients in Brighton. He preferred to recruit retired Indian Medical Service officers to treat them, filling the other medical positions with members of the Indian Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Indian doctors and volunteer medical students who were training in Britain when the war broke out. As well as serving as dressers and orderlies, the students acted as translators between British staff and Indian patients. Most of the cooks, cleaners and launderers were Indian men too, some of whom had been residing in England, and others hired from India.

Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Lawrence made provision for religiously segregated wards, baths, toilet facilities, laundry services and water supplies. The kitchens were divided into separate sections to cater for Muslims, Hindus and vegetarians and men of the same caste handled, cooked and served the patients’ food. No beef or pork products entered the hospitals and special arrangements were made for slaughter and storing of meat.

Indian Soldiers at a butcher house. Featured on page 9 of the ‘Brighton, Hove and South Sussex Graphic 1914 – 1915’, 29 July 1915, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Major James of the Kitchener Hospital, explained in a lecture on ‘Indian Sanitation’ in the Brighton Art Gallery, that ‘There were eight different kinds of diet and separate cookhouses for six different classes’. (He went on to regale his audience with ‘amusing’ tales of the Indian soldiers’ confrontation with European modernity, talking of soldiers who knew how to turn on a water tap, but ‘did not seem to see the necessity of turning it off’ flooding the bathrooms, and of patients nearly gassing themselves when they blew out the gas lamps instead of turning them off’.)

Presciently, Lawrence insisted that the arrangements for deceased soldiers were of particular ‘political importance’. Each hospital provided separate storage areas for the bodies and specific burial procedures according to religion, while the Home Office swiftly sanctioned cremation for Hindus and Sikhs at a site on the South Downs above Brighton. Fifty three cremations took place there on specially constructed ghats, and the location was marked with the unveiling of the Chattri memorial in 1921. The twenty one Muslim soldiers who died in Brighton were taken to Woking, where they were buried near the mosque with Muslim rites and a full military firing squad. As The Times, remarked, ‘The action of the civic authorities at Brighton in the matter is warmly appreciated in India, the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford [Hardinge’s successor from April 1916], has written to the mayor thanking him’.

Unveiling of Chattri memorial, 1 February 1921, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

The Times also printed a letter from the Maharaja of Bikanir contrasting the solicitude shown by the British imperial authorities with what might have been expected of the Germans: ‘the military authorities have spared no pains or outlay to ensure adequate provision being made for the cremation or burial of soldiers in full accordance with the ritual and customs of their respective communities’.

Lawrence also made great efforts to ensure that patients could worship as they wished. Marquees and huts were erected within the grounds of each hospital, functioning as temporary Mosques and Gurdwaras. The Indian Soldier Fund provided appropriate religious texts to all soldiers too. Anticipating ‘trouble abroad’, Lawrence ensured that the Y.M.C.A and other missionary societies were allowed to help only on condition they did not ‘proselytise’. He appointed ‘caste committees’ from among the convalescents to advise on all manner of cultural sensitivities, particularly in relation to the catering. He arranged with the India Office for weekly trips to the tourist attractions and famous landmarks of London and organised supervised walks around Brighton, with trips in ambulances for those unable to walk.

From East to West for the Motherland, 1915, Hove seafront, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

The Indian Soldiers Fund provided items such as gramophones, books and puzzles and a Brighton woman, Mrs. Bailey, founded The Indian Gift House to organise treats and weekly organ recitals. At Lawrence’s suggestion, patients wrote their own newspaper. Printed in London, Akhbar-i-Jang was available in Urdu, Gurmukhi, and Hindi, containing censored news of the war that paid particular attention to incidents of Indian bravery. It proved to be extremely popular, with a weekly distribution of 32,000 copies to troops serving on many fronts.

The local, the national and even the international press were entranced by the thousands of Indian soldiers in an English seaside town. Mrs. Malcolm Ross, special correspondent for New Zealand’s Wanganui Chronicle, wrote in August 1915,

The Pavilion at Brighton, that architectural freak of the Georges, is filled with wounded men. Driving along country roads one meets often char-a-bancs filled with men in the bright blue hospital suits, who are having an outing and thoroughly enjoying it. One waves to them and greets them as a matter of course, and if the girl is pretty it is quite likely an invalid may call something very choice indeed.

The military authorities were concerned about such interactions, as we will see, but the local newspapers retained a lighthearted tone in their accounts of the ‘martial races’ on their doorstep. Announcing ‘The Indians Have Come’, the Brighton Herald reported that the town’s public had been ‘agog’ to see the these ‘warriors from the East’ march through Brighton, but were disappointed by the discreet manner in which they were admitted to the hospitals. Brightonians felt they deserved ‘a little more spectacle for their money’. The Brighton Herald found some consolation in telling its readers of an incident in which an Indian soldier had spontaneously picked up a white child, encouraging other mothers to hand their children over, in a ‘comedy that aroused pearls of laughter’.

The Brighton and Hove and South Sussex Graphic published some ‘interesting facts’ about ‘Our Indians’, that included data from the Indian census broken down by religion, a list of the primary crops cultivated in India, a brief description of different ethnic groups (Sikhs described as a ‘splendid race of fighting men’ and Gurkhas noted for their ‘fearlessness in the fighting line’). For those interested it also included the number of Indians killed by tigers in 1903. A Brighton Herald issue including pictures of the Royal Pavilion wards elicited unprecedented sales, with demand for reprints continuing well after the date of publication.

Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Imperial Anxieties Come Home

There was more to Lawrence’s solicitude for his patients than his obliging nature. It was immediately apparent that the hospitals were highly charged nodal points connecting Britain and India, crackling with all the tensions besetting the Raj. Both the India Office and the War Office continually reminded Lawrence of this wider significance and he wrote to reassure Kitchener, ‘I will never lose an opportunity of impressing upon all those who are working in these hospitals that great political issues are involved in making the stay of the Indians in England as agreeable as possible’. Lawrence was acutely conscious of anti-colonial agitators in India waiting to ‘make political capital’ out of any error he might make.

Britain’s war was not only against Germany but also Turkey, the seat of the Khilafat. This angered many Indian Muslims, who were still upset over the decision to repeal the Partition of Bengal after Swadeshi (self-sufficiency movement) riots. British officials’ fear of pan-Islamism was exacerbated by Turkish and German propaganda encouraging Indians to throw off British rule and ‘share the glory of being a free nation’. The Ghadar movement, founded in 1913 by expatriates residing in the USA to fight for Indian independence, had achieved an international following and regularly published newspapers that circulated throughout India and America. At the outbreak of the war, hundreds of Ghadrites had returned to India to fight for independence against the British. Despite their failure to generate wholesale resistance, they carried out 51 political murders from 1914-1916.

Hardinge was, if anything, even more concerned by non-violent agitation. Following his release from jail in 1914, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one of the founders of the Swadeshi movement, allied with the British Theosophist leader and Irish home rule advocate Annie Besant to reunify the Congress, a move that paved the way for the Lucknow Pact of 1916 with the All India Muslim League. Tilak and Besant continued to press for Indian Home Rule, Besant declaring that ‘England’s need is India’s opportunity’.  Hardinge met this mobilisation with repression, the Defence of India Act 1915 granting the police greater powers to detain without trial and censor the press.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak
Bal Gangadhar Tilak,, public domain
Annie Besant, London Stereoscopic Company – NYPL, public domain

These events might have been taking place over 4000 miles away, but Lawrence felt their repercussions in Brighton. Hardinge wanted recovered soldiers’ recollections to increase British ‘prestige’ and consolidate ‘the attachment the lower classes have to the Sirkar’. At one point Lawrence objected mildly that special treatment in England might spoil them for their return to the Indian Army ranks, where they were expected to provide their own bedding, clothing and food, and were often lacking in medical equipment. However, he appreciated that British India itself was ‘on trial’ within his hospital grounds.

Lawrence was placed in an extremely difficult position. He was expected to act as if there was no difference in status between Indian and British soldiers. Yet, as everybody knew, there were great differences. The India and War Offices insisted on certain racial distinctions even as they told Lawerence to erase others. If the exclusive rule of Britons in India was to be maintained, the British in general must be considered fundamentally superior to the mass of Indians. The sanctity and prestige of white women was especially important.

In 1915 the Rajah of Puduto defied official orders by marrying a white woman. Hardinge was infuriated, insisting upon his ‘fixed intention to keep the white race pure’. Both Kitchener and Hardinge emphasised to Lawrence the importance of keeping the Indian men in Brighton well away from white women. As the censor of the soldiers’ letters put it, news of liaisons there might encourage volatile Indian subjects ‘to conceive a wrong idea of the ‘Izzat’ [honour] of the English women. A sentiment which if not properly held in check would be most detrimental to the prestige and spirit of European rule in India’.

Both potential parties in sexual encounters would have to be policed. The most pressing issue was the white female nurses volunteering in some of the hospitals. In May 1915, following the publication of a photograph of a white nurse standing by the bedside of a soldier in the Daily Mail, Kitchener demanded the removal of female staff. Lawrence immediately withdrew the Queen Alexandra Nursing Reserve from the Brighton hospitals. Dr. Charles of the private Lady Hardinge Hospital, however, resisted, arguing their employment was integral to his operations and quite possible without scandal. The situation was finally resolved when the new Secretary of State for India, Austin Chamberlain, declared that they could remain.

Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Colonel Bruce Seton, Commanding Officer at the Kitchener Hospital, characteristically took the harshest line. He believed that it was not just nurses but local women who harboured a risk of the ‘gravest scandal’. Lawrence was more emollient, writing to Kitchener and Hardinge that he had been careful to avoid ‘running into dangers arising from women’, and was keen to dispel such ‘myths’. Despite great ‘temptation’, the behaviour of his patients had been ‘gentlemanly’. Just in case, though, both patients and staff were kept under strict surveillance, never allowed outside without a senior British officer, while Lawrence kept in close communication with Brighton’s Chief Constable to ensure that the local police kept watch.

The Kitchener Hospital, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Seton’s control at the Kitchener Hospital was paranoid. He insisted on confining not only most of the patients but the Indian staff too. Only the higher-ranks were permitted occasional walks under the supervision of English officers and closely guarded ‘route marches’ across town. He had barbed wire installed on all walls and imposed harsh penalties for breaking out: six men were flogged and one sentenced to six weeks imprisonment in the nearby town of Lewes. Additionally, Seton formed a military police guard from 44 convalescent patients to ensure that the hospital became a prison. They prevented any communication or passing of items, especially alcohol, from the outside. For one Indian subassistant surgeon, unnamed in Seton’s report, the incarceration proved too much. He fired a gun at the commander, narrowly missing. He was tried for attempted murder and sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

Indian soldiers receiving rations outside the Kitchener Military Hospital, in 1915. The British military officer is thought to be Sir Bruce Gordon Seton (1868-1932), Commanding Officer at the Kitchener Military Hospital. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

The propaganda that Lawrence generated for Indian consumption contrasted greatly with the reality of Seton’s regime. It centred on the King’s and Queen’ visits to the wounded soldiers. These not only boosted morale for the patients, but also had the most useful ‘political effects’. The King’s visit of 25 August 1915 was particularly commemorated. Photographs of the occasion were presented to all patients, with copies sent to India as evidence of the emperor’s concern. Filmed footage of the King awarding the Victoria Cross to Jemadar Mir Dast was also disseminated.

Mir Dast receiving the Victoria Cross from George V, August 1915, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Hardinge was eager to receive such material, although Lawrence initially rejected an account of the hospital produced by Colonel J.N. Macleod because it neglected the citizens of Brighton’s role, especially that of Mrs. Bailey. Macleod replied,

As I wrote the account for its effect in India I tried to bring out the Pavilion was a Royal Palace and that the initiation of all that was done came from the King. To bring in the Corporation or Lord Kitchener more prominently I thought would confuse the egos of India. To give more details of the transfer of the Pavilion might emphasize the fact that the Pavilion is no longer a Royal palace which would minimize the political impression we want to make in India.

Lawrence commissioned the Corporation of Brighton to produce an alternative. The author was Henry Roberts, Director of the Public Library, Museums and Fine Art Galleries, who acted conjunction with Macleod. The resulting publication was entitled A Short History in English, Gurmukhi & Urdu of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton and a Description of it as a Hospital for Indian Soldiers. It begins with a brief history of the Pavilion, detailing its erection in 1820 and subsequent use as a palace for visiting members of the Royal family, with no attempt to disguise the transfer from royal to corporation ownership in 1845. However, the desire to overstate the King’s involvement remains, with the declaration that the hospitals were formed at the King’s suggestion. The combined effort of Mrs Bailey and the citizens of Brighton is presented as a debt that India owes Britain for taking care of its sons. ‘Brighton has thus come nobly to the help of the Indian Army, and the prompt and generous action of the Brighton citizens will never be forgotten by India’. There was a clear message for Indian nationalists: ‘a Sepoy was heard to say: ‘He (the King) is a listener. All we want in India is a listener. You saw that he listened and that is enough’.

As for the Soldiers?

The main evidence of what the convalescing soldiers themselves thought comes is in the form of the censors’ weekly reports on their letters home. These contain substantial reproductions and extracts from the originals, most of which were dictated to a scribe who was well aware that what he wrote might be redacted or stopped.[2] Many tried using ‘secret code’ to refer to unauthorised activities and sentiments. The censors were wise to much of this, blocking military information, demoralising accounts of the war and references to white women. Redactions were also made, for incitements to crime, reference to drugs, slighting reference to white people, and complaints about their treatment.

A Pathan, A Garhwall, and Two Young Gurkhas, Bal and Pim Bahadur, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Both Lawrence and Second Lieutenant E.B. Howell, the chief censor, worried about the changing tone of the letters as the war progressed. The initial pride in service and optimism that Germany would soon be defeated had waned by March 1915 when Howell reported ‘The feeling of total despondency is rife as usual, but it is generally tempered to a certain extent by the resignation to or belief, in a higher power’. Soldiers arriving in Brighton described the war as ‘hellish’, and caused Howell consternation by writing home hoping to discourage family members from joining the army. Lawrence was especially concerned when patients attempted to tell contacts in India that the Indian soldiers’ lives were considered more dispensable than those of British soldiers. The censors worked out that the code adopted was ‘red pepper’ for British soldiers and ‘black pepper’ for Indian:

Please let me know what is the condition of the market for black pepper. That which I bought with me has all been finished and some more has been sent (.) You probably know that there is lots of red pepper but they want black.

Lawrence assured the Indian soldiers constantly that they were not considered mere cannon fodder.

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Indian soldier smoking pipe at the Royal Pavilion hospital, 1915, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Generally, however, the convalescents sent home favourable impressions of Brighton itself. Ghulam Mohiyudin described it as being ‘like heaven’ in comparison with other countries. Gender roles were noted favourably, one soldier writing, ‘it is the same for men and women, both men and women please themselves, they cannot forbid one another’. Despite the restrictions on contact with white women, the lack of the everyday racial discrimination of British India impressed one soldier: ‘the people are so very good that they make no difference between black and white’. Another wrote, ‘When one considers this country and these people in comparison with our own country and our own people, one cannot be but distressed’.

The letters suggest that the King’s visits had their anticipated effect. One soldier declared a reluctance to return to India as he was now in the ‘land of our King’. Those who met the monarch felt honoured and many were overawed to be staying in a building once inhabited by the King, some believing, as Macleod had intended, that it was still a royal palace. A patient in the York Place hospital described his days as passing with ‘joyful ease’ as the government ‘showers benefits upon us’ and many reassured their families that their religious requirements were being met.

The praise was not, however, universal. Raja Khan at the Kitchener Hospital, where Seton appears not to have emulated Lawrence’s care over religious protocol, wrote that the ‘arrangements are such that it is impossible to distinguish a Mohammedan from a Hindu’. The biggest gripe was the restrictions on the soldiers mobility as they recovered from their wounds and sought to explore their surroundings: ‘The people here are most friendly and liberal minded but we have no freedom’. Ghulan Haidar wrote that ‘England is a very fine country but we are treated like prisoners’. Unsurprisingly, most such letters came from the Kitchener Hospital. Gurkha Jemander Damodhar told his family that ‘I am not allowed to write full details as you know’, but this did not deter others from trying.

Despite Lawerence’s assurance to Kitchener that his patients were ‘gentlemanly’ around local white women, the censored letters reveal some subversion. Even from the Kitchener Hospital, Nabi Bukhah wrote,

I wish we should have come here in our young age to pass several examinations free of charge. English girls are very free in their nature and they love Indians very much. Love making and breaking in Europe is nothing but a matter of choice, friends are plenty when purse is full.

Most references to white women, be they nurses or town dwellers, however, were more circumspect. Here again code was employed, with white women referred to as different kinds of fruit, the most common being ‘pears’ or ‘apples’. As with ‘pepper’, such efforts rarely deceived the censors. The following example was redacted for ‘immorality’ in the censor’s report: ‘Here there are many pears of the kind you have in your garden. They encounter our people on our walks and we sit down and enjoy them. Then we are put in jail’.


In late 1915, in response partly to low morale after many of their white officers had been killed, and the effect that another winter might have on them, and partly to the anxieties about prolonged exposure to white women, British commanders redirected the majority of the Indian soldiers away from the Western Front, to Mesopotamia and Egypt, with cavalry staying on until 1918. The south coast hospitals closed in succession with the Pavilion seeing off its last Indian patient on 16 February 1916 and repurposing to treat over 6,000 British soldiers with amputated limbs. 

For almost two years, Brighton had been pivotal to the maintenance of British rule in India. Its hopsitals manifested all the contradictions of that rule. The British authorities and Lawrence in particular, were right to be concerned about notions that Indian soldiers’ lives mattered less than white soldiers, and anxious that stories of ‘loose’ white women reaching India could prove subversive. But they also saw that the legitimacy of imperial governance could be bolstered through English grandeur and manners, and pride in fighting for an emperor who ‘listened’. The soldiers too were perceived ambivalently, as both exotic heroes coming to the aid of the motherland and racial inferiors intent on sullying the virtue of Englishwomen. The connections that sprang up between Brighton and India in 1914-16 worked both for and against the Empire.

Further Reading

K. Bacon and D. Beevers, The Royal Pavilion as an Indian Military Hospital 1914-1916, The Royal Pavilion, Brighton and Hove City Council, 2010.

Shrabani Basu, For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18, Bloomsbury, 2016

Crispin Bates, Subalterns and the Raj: South Asia since 1600, London, 2007.

G. Greenhut, ‘The Imperial Reserve: The Indian Corps on the Western Front, 1914-1915’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 12, 2009, 54-73

R. Holland, ‘The British Empire and the Great War, 1914-1918’, in: J. Brown, R. Lois, D. Litt (Eds), The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. IV, The Twentieth Century, Oxford, 1999, 114-137.

Samuel Hyson and Alan Lester, ‘British India on Trial’: Brighton Military Hospitals and the Politics of Empire in World War I, Journal of Historical Geography, Volume 38, Issue 1, 2012, 18-34.

Philippa Levine, ‘Battle Colors: Race, Sex, and Colonial Soldiery in World War I, Journal of Women’s History, 9, 1998, 104-130.

G. Martin, ‘The Influence of Racial Attitudes on British Policy Towards India During the First World War’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 14, 1986, 91-113.

George Morton-Jack, The Indian Empire At War: From Jihad to Victory, The Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War, Abacus, 2020.

David Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj: The Indian Army, 1860-1940, Basingstoke, 1994.

David Omissi, ‘Europe through Indian eyes: Indian Soldiers encounter England and France, 1914-1918’, English Historical Review, 496, 2007, 371-396.

David Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers Letters, 1914-1918, Basingstoke, 1999.

[1] This blog is based on an article first published in 2012, itself based on the undergraduate dissertation of the University of Sussex Geography student Samuel Hyson: Samuel Hyson and Alan Lester, ‘British India on Trial’: Brighton Military Hospitals and the Politics of Empire in World War I, Journal of Historical Geography, Volume 38, Issue 1, 2012, 18-34, ISSN 0305-7488, Full citations can be found there.

Samuel’s topic was inspired by an exhibition on the Pavilion as a military hospital: We are very grateful to Kevin Bacon of the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, for supporting Samuel’s project and help accessing images before their digital open access. We would also like to thank Prof Raminder Kaur for her translation of the Gurmukhi text.

[2] The Indian soldiers’ letters have been published in David Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers Letters, 1914-1918, Basingstoke, 1999.

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The Debate on British Colonialism

Alan Lester

Colonial Realities

Colonialism is, by its very nature, incompatible with many of the ideals of justice that we hold dear today. The definition of the word, according to the Oxford Online Dictionary, is “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” As that three-part definition suggests, no form of colonialism ever developed without great, unprovoked, violence.

My specialism is the British Empire, in all its complexity over 300 years, across 25 per cent of the Earth’s territory at its height and including over 40 colonies by the C20. In my last research monograph I tried to examine how that incredibly complicated entity was governed everywhere and all at once during certain moments of the C19. Unfortunately, the British Empire was no exception to the rule that colonialism entails unprovoked violence on a large scale. Let me take the three parts of the Oxford definition of ‘colonialism’ to sketch out how the British Empire in particular was established and operated.

Political Control

First, the acquisition of political control. Since, by and large, people don’t want to be colonised by outsiders, it should come as no surprise that this was obtained, for the most part, violently. The Caribbean colonies were seized from prior colonial occupants – mainly Spanish and French – after they had already overseen the genocide of the region’s indigenous peoples.

The British Capture of Trinidad, 1797, public domain

North America, Australia and New Zealand were taken with the displacement and dispossession of indigenous peoples by emigrant British settlers indigenous allies, with the frequent killing of those who resisted; India was obtained by the East India Company through a combination of actual and threatened armed force as well as negotiation.

A British gunboat during the invasion of the Waikato, New Zealand, 1863

In the second half of the C19 alone, over sixty colonial wars were launched by Britons establishing political control over southern, Western and Eastern Africa, Afghanistan and parts of the Middle East. Colonel Callwell wrote a famous field guide to winning such ‘small wars’ as the British called them. But these invasions, expeditions, raids, battles and massacres were anything but ‘small’ in their consequences for the people killed, displaced and subjugated and for the societies broken by them. It is impossible to calculate how many people were killed in Britain’s imperial conquests between the C17 and C20, since they were never systematically counted, but from the estimates we have of recorded conflicts, it is safe to say they number in the millions.

General Lord Cornwallis receiving Tipoo Sultan’s sons as hostages, by Robert Home, c. 1793


The occupation of settlers – the second part of the definition of colonialism, resulted in the decimation of indigenous peoples, as a result of both newly introduced disease and violence. Through meticulous ongoing research we now know, for example, that Aboriginal Australians were displaced from their land not only by smallpox, but also with the assistance of hundreds of separate, small-scale massacres, breaking up particular groups or clans. Those First Nations, Native Americans and Aboriginal people who survived the occupation were forced to give up their cultures and even, in many cases, their children, so that they could be assimilated to the new, White colonial society.

The Massacre Story - Friends of Myall Creek
The Myall Creek Massacre, New South Wales, 1838

Economic Exploitation

The third part of the definition of colonialism – economic exploitation – took various forms within the British Empire. Perhaps the most notorious was the capture and trafficking of over 3 million people on British ships, out of a total of 12.5 million, to be used as slave labour in the commercial plantations of the Americas – a form of slavery never before seen in human history. The sugar, tobacco, cotton and other commodities that this chattel workforce produced was part of a process that transformed three continents. Between the C16 and the mid C19, much of Africa was destabilised as African polities either participated in the trade by selling captives or succumbed to raids themselves; the ecology of the Americas was fundamentally altered as commercial plantations replaced indigenous plant species, and indigenous peoples were displaced, while Europe embarked on its Great Leap Forward with the assistance of the capital earned through the domination of enslaved labour. While the Arab slave trade had operated across much of the eastern side of the continent for a millennium, its effects were nowhere near so far-reaching or transformative of the world economy.

The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can  be revealed | Slavery | The Guardian
Plan of a slave ship showinmg how slaves were stowed, manacled, into the hold. Photograph: Christopher Jones/Bristol Museum

But while the slave trade is the best-known example of economic exploitation, and was of course brought to an end by campaigners in Britain in 1807, there was also the exploits of the East India Company. Once it had ceased to be a viable commercial trading entity, its business model consisted of extracting rent from Indians to send to British shareholders as dividends, and enforcing the production of opium in India, to smuggle into China, with which to buy tea for the European market.

Opium factory in India, 1850s - Stock Image - C016/9180 - Science Photo  Library
The Stacking Room: Opium Factory at Patna” (1851) (Wellcome Collection)

The connections forged by these forms of colonial economic exploitation were truly global. The tea brought from China with narcotics from India was drunk in Britain sweetened with the sugar grown by slaves in the Caribbean. And those slaves were generated in turn partly by bringing cloth from India to trade for captives in Africa. Finally, when the British government was the first among European nations to free slaves in the Caribbean in 1833, the shortage of labour on Caribbean plantations was resolved by resorting to India again, for the recruitment of 1.5 million impoverished British subjects under indentured labour contracts.

So, I am afraid, like it or not, the study of British colonialism contains things that nationalists who believe in the timeless, fundamental goodness of Britons, really don’t want to hear, but which are essential to understanding how the whole system of empire came to operate. We may want to focus mainly on the British abolition of slavery, and indeed that’s largely what we have done until recently, but we have to recognise that it was only a small part of the story. It gets worse though.

Having established these three elements of colonialism – political control, occupation and exploitation – the modern European empires including Britain’s did something else that was quite novel. They associated status in their colonial societies with race, pioneering what we know today as racism.

Modern European Colonialism and Race

The European empires first created that association between status and race with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This was the first slave trade in history in which only Black people could be enslaved. The Arab and ancient slave trades had no such hard and fast racial designation. In every colony sustained by Europeans, specifically racial hierarchies were imposed and maintained not just before but also, and to an even greater extent, after the abolition of slavery. As the historian of race Nancy Stepan has put it, the battle against slavery was won as the war against racism was lost. Even the campaigners against slavery, who saw its abolition through parliament (and who might today be condemned as ‘woke’), believed that colonialism in general was justified, because more advanced Europeans needed to rule more backward races in order to ‘civilise’ them.

While notions of scientific racism – the idea that Black people were biologically inferior to White people and could never match them – were often challenged, the notion that Black people would take hundreds of years at least to evolve culturally – was prevalent, seen even as ‘common sense’.

By the mid-C19, White men were in charge in every British colony and the ‘natives’ were expected to show deference to White women. Moral panics would break out periodically in most colonies over rumours of Black and Brown men threatening White women’s purity. Even the poorest White women generally had Black and Brown servants to do the domestic work thought to be part of a woman’s role, and corporal punishment of these servants was common. When Black or Brown servants sought prosecutions under supposedly non-racial laws, for masters and mistresses who abused them, their chances of success were infinitesimally small in the face of White juries and judges.

With the exception of certain indigenous elites, whose cooperation the colonial authorities required, especially in India, ‘ordinary’ Black people could find themselves ordered around and physically abused on the streets by even the lowest status White person, without any recourse to justice. Across the British Empire, for all its rhetoric of non-racial governance, racial discrimination was the everyday norm, with the degree of insult often finely graded according to ethnicity or skin shade. Access to jobs, the law, health care, education, democracy, justice and even the railways was by and large conditioned by race, no matter how much liberals in Britain might disown it.

She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen by Katie Hickman review — British  women in India
British Memsahib with bearers

In the colonies, racial views varied from the exterminatory to the patronising. At one end of this scale, John Mitford Bowker, a British settler in South Africa, regretted the disappearance of the Springbok (which he had helped to over-hunt), but thought that Africans “too, as well as the springbok, must give place … Is it just that a few thousand worthless savages are to sit like a nightmare upon a land that would support millions of civilised men happily? Nay, heaven forbids it”. At the liberal end of the scale, the Secretary of State for India Lord Salisbury commented, that “If England was to remain supreme … she must tolerate the political role of Indian princes and of participation by Indians in the administration”, but added later, “… that if the number of well-educated Indians … should increase, the government would face the indecent and embarrassing necessity of closing that avenue to them”.

The Benefits of Colonialism

The violence and racism of colonialism have long been accepted as matters of fact by historians, even if our interpretations of how they came about, how rigid the boundaries of race were, and how they were justified, vary. More conservative historians have long argued that, although regrettable, these features were necessary for the inculcation of modernity. They have stressed the elements of reform that British administrators brought to various societies as they sought to mould them to greater or lesser extents in the image of an imperial Britain that was itself undergoing rapid industrial change. Niall Ferguson in his very popular book and TV series Empire, argued that British colonialism, had introduced certain institutions such as free trade, and legal norms that allowed for higher living standards generally. In fact, Ferguson encouraged the USA to take up the mantle of the ‘White man’s burden’ from an expired British empire and re-occupy countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan to bring order once again. Perhaps the less said about how that turned out the better. Even he, however, did not seek to deny or mitigate the violence and the racism of colonialism in practice.

I want to make one thing clear: in highlighting the violence and the racism intrinsic to the British Empire, specialist historians do not focus solely, as some now allege, on the ‘bad bits’ or the ‘negatives’ of empire. We do not overlook the ‘good bits’ or the ‘benefits’, such as the abolition of slavery or Britain’s determination to ensure that no other nations profited from it once Britain had abolished it. We are very attentive to the reforms introduced against practices considered barbaric, such as sati, in places like India, to educational, infrastructural and health improvements over time.

However, we believe that trying to weigh up what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about certain historical episodes or even individuals is a bit primary-school-ish. It is far more important for us to consider who benefitted from certain aspects of colonialism and who did not, and this will of course vary hugely across time and space. Concluding that the Empire was either a net benefit or cost to people in general is meaningless and unverifiable. Often, the same people could both benefit and lose from colonialism’s different aspects at the same time. For instance Adivasi in India might feel liberated from caste oppression from other Hindus by certain British interventions, but subjected to racial oppression by others.

British colonialism was certainly of great benefit to many people. Speaking necessarily here in general terms, it benefitted most Britons, even if unevenly and often indirectly, most of the time; it benefitted Indian merchants who thrived in the conditions created by the East India Company, often at the cost of famine victims; it benefitted certain African leaders, who were able to profit and enhance their power with weapons supplied in return for captives for the European slave trade; it benefitted many around the world who could achieve elevated status by accommodating themselves to British rule.

King's African Rifles - Wikipedia
The King’s African Rifles Contingent of KAR at the Coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902.

Innovations that British rulers helped to introduce to many areas, largely for their own and their colonists’ benefit, such as health care, schools and democratic institutions, could be made to work for the benefit of many others once the British had left. It should come as no surprise, though, that the interventions that benefitted some could prove costly to others, and neither should it surprise us that the Empire was administered largely for the benefit of Britons rather than subject peoples. It has been true of all empires throughout history that they exist primarily to serve the purposes of their citizens rather than their conquered subjects.

Lovedale (South Africa) - Wikipedia
Lovedale Missionary College, South Africa

Why has the discussion of Britain’s colonial past become so controversial?

So what’s happened to generate such controversy over the nature of colonialism just recently? My answer is that the intrinsic characteristics of colonialism – part of its very definition – may have long been known to specialists in the field and may even have been admitted by some of those who nevertheless believed that all the violence, all the coercion and all the racism were necessary to some greater end. But what is crucial is that these characteristics, for the most part, have been ignored or disavowed in much of our public consciousness. Until recently, the most popular accounts of empire were nostalgic and celebratory. They viewed the empire through rose tinted spectacles.

It is the attempt to bring the intrinsic violence and racism of colonialism more to the forefront of public consciousness, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, that has now sent certain conservative figures on a reactive ‘woke hunt’. Their backlash against greater public understanding of what colonialism in general inevitably entails, and what British colonialism specifically entailed, has sparked an intensity of disagreement and rancour that I’ve not seen in thirty years of researching, teaching, writing about and editing books on the subject. It seems that for many joining in this backlash against greater historical understanding, it is ‘anti-British’ to write about the violence and racism that Britons inflicted on others in the past. There seems to be a misunderstanding that historians like myself are portraying Britons as villains when we talk about their colonial activities.

Let me conclude by addressing this point. Britons, in my and my colleagues’ view, have been neither more saintly nor more devilish as a national group than any other. People of all identities are complex. They tend always to believe that there is justification for their actions even when others see them as inflicting harm. Well-intentioned people are born into and help, sometimes unwittingly, to create systems and social structures that are deeply oppressive. Fae Dussart and I wrote a book, for instance on well-meaning men appointed as Protectors of Aborigines in the Australian colonies, who thought the best way of shielding Aboriginal people from the effects of settler colonialism was to forcibly remove their children into White -run boarding institutions and foster homes.

One does not have to believe that Britons were monsters – or indeed any better or any worse as a nation than any other – to see how the various, diverse forms of colonialism that they imposed, from missionary work through commercial exploitation to invasive settlement,  could have terrible effects. A sophisticated historian is able to reveal how even well-intentioned people can produce horrific outcomes and should be able to do so without accusations of being a ‘woke militant’, ‘Far-Leftist’, ‘Marxist’ or ‘anti-British’. Our job remains to tell it like it was, in all its complexity, regardless of how we are misrepresented and sometimes abused in the current culture war.

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On Colonialism: A Response to Nigel Biggar’s Reply

Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886 ( by , licensed as Creative Commons BY (2.0).

The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History has recently published my Extended Critique of Nigel Biggar’s book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. Prof. Biggar’s Reply was published alongside it.

Like his history of colonialism, Biggar’s reply has unorthodox features, some of which I will engage with, others I will not.

Balance: Page 276

Prof Biggar seeks to respond to each of my nine examples of his misuse of data. He does not explain why his errors, some of which he admits to, others not, all tend in the same direction: towards the justification and mitigation of colonialism’s violence and racism. He complains that my article fails to reflect his balanced approach to colonialism, noting that he is “candid about the evils and injustices of the Empire and provide[s] a summary on page 276”. Later, he claims that I “need only to have read 276 to find a summary of the different kinds of evil and injustice for which I hold British imperialists and colonialist either responsible or culpable”. This page would have to be very weighty to balance the other 428 pages of substantive text and footnotes generally justifying colonialism. Yet, p. 276 seems to be aimed at providing mitigation rather than analysis. We are instructed that, for all its faults, the British Empire was not as bad as Nazi Germany’s death camps or the Soviet Union’s Gulags.

The weighty page 276


Readers will judge for themselves whether the claim that Africans lack compassion compared to Europeans is not racist, as long as it is environmental rather than biological determinism that underpins that claim. In his response Biggar doubles down on his claim that only biological determinism counts as racism: “it is perfectly possible to regard certain current features of another person’s culture as inferior in certain respects, and still to accord that person a basic human respect, which includes the view that he or she has the same human potential to learn and grow as anyone else. Such an attitude, in my view, is not racist.” Let me quote from Stuart Hall on the relationship between biological and cultural racism: “so called biological racism has never been separated from cultural inferiorisation. Blackness always functioned as a sign that people of African decent are (a) closer to nature and therefore (b) more likely for that reason to be lazy, indolent, lacking in higher intellectual faculties, driven by emotion 8 not reason, oversexualised, prone to violence, etc, etc… The two logics have always been intertwined, ever since the beginning … There has never been one or other of these logics in the structure of social exclusion. It is of course true that in different historical contexts one or other of these two logics (biological racism or cultural inferiorisation) has often been foregrounded and this has had different effects in different historical communities. Leading to the necessity of our now speaking of racisms in the plural and bringing biological racism and cultural inferiorisation together in an expanded conception of what racialisation is about in the modern world”.

Political Positioning

Biggar has completely ignored the statement of my own political position and done exactly what I sought to guard against when including it: allege that I am driven as much by Left wing politics in my approach to history as he is by his Right wing views. He makes no effort to refute my analysis of his own political motivations. To suggest, without any basis whatsoever, that my longstanding professional involvement in colonial history is as politically driven as his own, which he admits dates only from his political decision to resist the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, is simply a deflection from the analysis of his book.

Culture Warrior or Colonial Analyst?

Nothing proves Biggar’s immersion in the tactics of the culture war, over and above any interest in debating colonialism, better than his second deflection. This is to the unrelated controversy concerning Prof Kathleen Stock.

In my review article, I located Biggar in a culture war context because it determines entirely his book’s approach to colonial history. Biggar chooses not to reject that association but rather to attempt ‘retaliation’ against the reviewer. He seeks to connect me to a different ‘front’ in the culture war – one which has nothing to do with the book’s purported subject or my comments on it.

His only reasoning for a connection is that fact that Prof Stock and I worked at the same university. It seems hypocritical of Biggar to then rail against another historian for apparently associating him with Thomas Carlyle based on their birthplaces and with Richard Dearlove based on their shared school. In attempting tit-for-tat rather than refuting the point I was making, Biggar only demonstrates that it is indeed political contestation rather than scholarly debate that drives his intervention.

Victor Orbán

Having first tried to smear me by association with the activists who sought Prof Stock’s dismissal, Biggar asks “What does the fact that Viktor Orbán was interviewed as an inspirational figure during the 2020 National Conservatism conference in the U.S. say about me? Nothing at all. So why report it?” The answer is obvious. With many conferences one would not expect any political alignment between participants. The National Conservatism conference is not just any conference. As has been widely reported, it is sponsored by the Trump-aligned far right in the USA and it exists to propagate its political ideology of National Conservatism. All of its speakers are chosen because they align with that shared political doctrine. Furthermore, Biggar is linked directly with Orbán’s government. He was a keynote speaker at the Brussels launch of Orbán’s Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), a body created to ‘educate’ (one might argue, indoctrinate) the next generation of Hungarians with exclusive nationalist ideology. Its chair of trustees is Orbán’s brother, Dr Balázs Orbán. I drew attention to Biggar’s association with the National Conservative movement because its political doctrine determines his arguments in the book.

Whereas I associate Biggar with the doctrines that drive his analysis of colonialism; he tries to associate me with all sorts of things that have nothing to do with that phenomenon, and with no evidence for any association in the first place.

Prof Biggar’s Contribution to the Launch of the Orbán government’s National Conservative ‘educational’ project

Straw Men

Biggar complains about my and Jon Wilson’s observation that he constructs “anticolonial” straw men against whom to argue. Again he slants his defence towards the ad hominem, suggesting that this might be because we are “miffed” that he has not paid attention to our own work. “If so”, he continues, “the reason is simple: the likes of Hilary Beckles, Dan Hicks, and Caroline Elkins have far more influence on the wider, public world than they do.”

However, Biggar’s book does not just condemn any supposed excesses of these more popular historians. It is a history of empire of its own, upon which Biggar then casts moral judgement. In constructing that history, he ignores not just the work of Jon Wilson and myself, but an enormous scholarship on that empire in general, produced by hundreds of colleagues around the world. This is poor scholarly practice in any discipline. The only explanation that I can offer is that this scholarship includes insights of an empirical nature that cannot simply be dismissed as politically motivated, but which do not accord with Biggar’s political preferences.

Tasmanian Genocide

On the Tasmanian genocide, Biggar succeeds in reinforcing my point. He states that “historians such as Henry Reynolds and Dirk Moses reject [the use of the concept of ‘genocide’ to describe what happened in Tasmania in the 1820s-30s] for the same reasons I do … If there is some particular text that would add an important philosophical or legal contribution to my discussion of genocide, Professor Lester does not identify it.” I would be happy to supply Biggar with a reading list but my first suggestion is that he read in full the sources that he already cites.

While he complicates the use of the word “genocide”, Dirk Moses does not reject the concept in Tasmania at all. Rather he identifies “genocidal processes” there, but also and more particularly in Queensland, which Biggar ignores along with most other violent colonial frontiers. Dirk Moses tells me that the claim of Biggar’s that he is in agreement with his work is “totally disingenuous”. Moses arranged the publication of Raphael Lemkin’s unpublished essay on genocide in Tasmania precisely to show how the concept applied there. Lemkin was the originator of the legal concept of genocide. Biggar could also profit from reading the full article by Ann Curthoys, which he again cites without apparently being familiar with its contents. As I pointed out, Curthoys concludes clearly that genocide applies to Tasmania.


Prof. Biggar complains that I have nothing positive to say about his book. This is correct. I have published reviews of over 40 academic books on colonialism. I have had analytical points of difference with some of their authors, but I have always made a point of emphasising the things that we can learn from reading their analyses. Even if their interpretations differed wildly, all of these scholars were intent on understanding and explaining the actors and actions involved in colonialism. They developed and adapted their arguments in response to a wide range of primary and secondary sources. None was driven from the start to tell a highly selective story purely in the interests of a contemporary political project.

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Indians in Eastern Africa: Sir Henry Bartle Frere’s Vision and the Networks of Empire*

Statue of Sir Henry Bartle Frere, Westminster (author’s photo)

The British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former and current Home Secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman are all second generation Indian East Africans. Families like theirs acquired a precarious status, subordinate to White settlers and officials but elevated above African subjects in the British colonies of southeast and East Africa. Indian intermediaries are most closely associated with the colonies of Kenya and Uganda. Notoriously, the post-independence Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled some 80,000 Indian subjects in 1972.

These communities took root mainly from the mid-1890s, but relatively few historians have appreciated that Sir Henry Bartle Frere, a famous antislavery reformer, had drawn up a scheme to employ Indian subjects in the management of colonised African people some twenty years beforehand. Frere was one of the first imperial officials to argue that certain classes of Indians could serve as a buffer between relatively few white officials and a conquered, dispossessed mass of African subjects.

There had been trading connections between India and East Africa long before the arrival of the British, with Indian merchants established in small numbers along the East African coastline. From the 1850s, tens of thousands of Indian labourers were recruited under contracts of indenture to work White-owned sugar plantations in the colony of Natal. Colonial planters there were following the precedent set by former slave owners experiencing post-emancipation labour shortages in the Caribbean and Central American colonies.

The Indian population in Uganda and Kenya owed its origins to the recruitment of labourers, mainly from the Punjab, to build the Uganda Railway from 1895. The track was laid at the cost of 4 Indian workers’ lives per mile, around 30 workers having been killed by the notorious ‘Tsavo maneater’ lions, mentioned in a series of parliamentary debates about funding for the railway in 1900. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury made a joke of the issue in the House of Lords, saying, “With respect to the lions, I feel bound to say something in their behalf. They are not so aristocratic that they will only feed on coolies; they took a medical man the other day, and I expect it will be found that they have taken many other people.”

The Uganda Railway’s Indian workers, from

The subsequent arrival of so-called ‘passenger Indians’ boosted the numbers who decided to stay in each of these southern and East African colonies, creating an Indian middle class whose lives were generally seen by British employers and administrators as less expendable.

Many of those migrating to Uganda were traders from Gujurat who saw opportunities for economic advancement. ‘Passenger’ Indians were attracted to Kenya mainly from the Bombay (Mumbai) region after the British East Africa Association (later British East Africa Company) was founded there in 1887. Although it later moved its headquarters to Mombasa, it already employed Indian accountants, guards and officials. Many more Indians arrived once the Company had morphed into the East Africa Protectorate in 1895, with the rupee as its currency and its law imported from British India.

Some British officials envisaged developing Kenya as the ‘America of the Hindu’, with middle class Indians as intermediaries who would help the British lead Africans towards ‘civilization’. However, when White settlers claimed the best land in the highlands, Indians already living there were expelled. In 1927 Indians won the right to five seats on the legislative council. Although Europeans had eleven seats, Indian representatives agreed that Africans should be excluded entirely.

After independence, Kenyan Indians were not expelled in the same way as those in Uganda, but policies of Africanisation and anti-Indian discrimination persuaded many of them to utilise their British citizenship and emigrate to the UK along with the expelled Indian Ugandans.

The employment of Punjabis in the Kenyan police during the early twentieth century is relatively well known, but what is not often appreciated is that Bartle Free’s scheme predated these developments by some two decades. Although his vision never came to pass, it is worth telling Bartle Frere’s story for what it reveals about imperial men’s utilisation of the links between India and eastern Africa.

Bartle Frere: Governor and antislavery activist

The young Bartle Frere graduated top of his year at the East India Company’s Haileybury College. His first employment was as a writer in the Bombay civil service. In 1842, he was promoted to private secretary to George Arthur, Governor of the Bombay Presidency. Within two years he was married to Arthur’s daughter, Catherine. By 1847, he was the Company’s Resident in Satara, one of the first princely states to be subject to Governor General Dalhousie’s doctrine of lapse and brought under direct East India Company rule. From there, he moved to Sind, where he guided the installation of a postal system based on Britain’s, which was subsequently adopted across India.

Frere’s swift action during the Indian Uprising in 1857, sending troops to support British forces in the Punjab, earned him the thanks of both houses of parliament and a knighthood. His promotion of literacy in the Sindhi language was rewarded with membership of the Viceroy’s Council in 1859, and in 1862, he succeeded his father-in-law as Governor of Bombay. Frere sought to use his authority for modernizing, liberal projects. He is remembered in Mumbai as the driving force behind the Deccan College at Pune, famed for instructing Indians in civil engineering. The city’s growth led to his being appointed to the Secretary of State for India’s Council of India when he returned to London in 1867.

Frere’s imperial career transcended India in 1872, when the Foreign Office commissioned him to travel to Zanzibar. Whilst governor of Bombay, Frere had hosted David Livingstone as he prepared for his expedition to find the source of the Nile. Frere seconded a number of Bombay army sepoys to accompany the expedition and, in January 1866, sent it underway to Zanzibar in a Bombay government steamer. Livingstone had then famously disappeared, at least as far as the British public were concerned, until 1871, when the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley found him on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

David Livingstone -1.jpg
David Livinsgtone, Wikipedia commons

At the same time that British writers were elevating Livingstone into an icon of Christianity, Commerce and Civilization, Frere was helping to lead a revived antislavery campaign. A high churchman and a member of the Antislavery Society, he had long condemned the ‘fashion of looking down on all men who differed from us in colour or in race.’ He also bemoaned the British public’s general ignorance of the Arab-led East African slave trade.
It was Frere’s well-known position on Arab slavery that led to his next employment on behalf of the British imperial government. The Foreign Office was concerned that Barghash bin Said, the sultan of Zanzibar’s, support for an Islamic revivalist movement threatened British control of the region. The convergence of a popular British lobby against Zanzibari slave trading and this strategic interest led to Frere’s appointment as British envoy to the sultan. Frere was given the autonomy to draw up his own instructions.

The slave market in Zanzibar, c.1860

When he arrived in Zanzibar he found that Barghash was emboldened by the French promise of support for his independence. Frere acted immediately, ordering the Royal Navy to seize any slave ships sailing between Zanzibar and the African coast. He then threatened Barghash with a total blockade. The Foreign Office was obliged, belatedly and somewhat reluctantly, to approve of his forceful actions. Barghash was forced to close the slave market, end the import and export of enslaved people, and ban British subjects, including Indians, from owning enslaved people. Arab slave owners, however, were left in possession of their ‘property’. Bargash’s promised French support never materialised.

By the mid-1870s Frere was famous in Britain as a proponent of liberal education, civic investment, modernization and antislavery. By the end of the decade, though, he was the Empire’s leading warmonger.

Warmonger in Chief

During the 1870s the Colonial Office was encountering difficulties trying to confederate the separate British colonies, Boer republics, and African kingdoms of South Africa. Given Frere’s success in Zanzibar, they turned to him for assistance. In October 1876, Lord Carnarvon, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, offered him a “special” appointment, rather than an ordinary governorship. He would be equipped with far more power than the governors of the existing British colonies of the Cape and Natal and, as High Commissioner, would also be commander-in- chief of all British military forces in the region. The normal gubernatorial salary was supplemented by an imperial grant of £2,000 and he was promised a peerage if he succeeded in effecting the merger of the region’s fractured governments.

Frere’s first task was to incorporate the lands of the still independent Gcaleka Xhosa in the Transkei, a region which, along with Mpondo territory, separated the Cape from Natal. He seized upon the pretext of a fight between some Xhosa men and Mfengu, who were allies of the Cape Colony, to declare war, announcing that the Gcaleka king, Sarhili, was deposed. Frere anticipated that the Xhosa territory would be governed indirectly, in the way that he had once overseen Satara on behalf of the East India Company. When British troops entered the Amatola Mountains in March 1878, however, they were ambushed repeatedly. In the end, it took a well-organized system of mounted units pursuing scorched earth tactics to secure Sarhili’s surrender.

Sarhili, The Gcaleka Xhosa paramount from

By mid-1878, Frere’s plan was coming to fruition. The last independent Xhosa chiefdoms, were being subjected to British authority through Resident Agents backed by British troops. His next target was the powerful Zulu kingdom on Natal’s northern, and the Transvaal’s eastern, border.

In London, however, the government was losing its enthusiasm for South African confederation. The renewed threat of a war to prevent Russian expansion in the Balkans meant that colonial military commitments had to be scaled back. A new colonial secretary told Frere, ‘it is the desire of Her Majesty’s Government not to furnish means for a campaign of invasion and conquest … I can by no means arrive at the conclusion that war with the Zulus should be unavoidable, and I am confident that you … will … avoid an evil so much to be deprecated as a Zulu war’.
For the second time in his career though, Frere was determined to act independently. On 11th December 1878, he presented Cetshwayo with an ultimatum. In the time-honoured tradition of justifying unprovoked attacks on independent peoples, he claimed that he was acting ‘on behalf of the Zulu people, to secure for them that measure of good government which we undertook to promise for them.’ The Zulu king was told that he had until 10th January 1879 to fulfil a number of conditions. Among other things such as the payment of fines for various alleged misdemeanours, Cetshwayo must disband his army and discontinue the Zulu military system, based on age-group cohorts of men known as amabutho (inaccurately likened by the British to their regiments). He must abandon his control of amabutho-based marriage arrangements, give freedom to missionaries to convert Zulu subjects and, of course, accept a British Resident Agent to oversee the kingdom’s future governance.

Once the Colonial Office heard of Frere’s provocations, it replied:

‘… the communications which had previously been received from you had not entirely prepared [the Colonial Office] for the course which you have deemed it necessary to take … I took the opportunity of impressing upon you the importance of using every effort to avoid war. But the terms which you have dictated to the Zulu king … are evidently such as he may not improbably refuse, even at the risk of war; and I regret that the necessity for immediate action should have appeared to you so imperative as to preclude you from incurring the delay which would have been involved in consulting Her Majesty’s Government upon a subject of so much importance.’
By the time this admonition reached him, Frere had already launched the invasion of Zululand with 18,000 troops, and also encountered a disastrous setback: the loss of nearly 1,700 men at the Battle of Isandhlwana.

Charles Edwin Fripp, Battle of Isandhlwana (1879) Natal, South Africa, 1885

Frere’s Scheme for the Zulu

After Isandhlwana, Frere spent the time awaiting reinforcements from Britain planning for the post-war occupation of Zululand. What Frere had in mind reverted once again to his Indian experience. He requested that the Colonial Office mediate with the India Office and War Office to send him Indian soldiers – sepoys – to assist in the control of Zululand.

Frere wrote,

‘There are objections of race and colour, which would be obstacles to an experiment anywhere but in the neighbourhood of Natal, where Indian Coolies are already present in considerable numbers [on the colony’s sugar plantations]; but Sepoys would probably be found very useful in garrison between the Drakensberg and the sea, anywhere from the Kei northwards to the Limpopo … Sepoy Regiments do not suffer either in health or discipline from being cut up into small detachments as European Regiments do … for a very moderate allowance of hutting money, they provide their own quarters, and do not require permanent barracks, and … the pioneer regiments do an immense deal of useful engineering work … When the strength of the Zulu Army is once broken, and the people relegated to their natural pastoral and agricultural avocations, it would take a very small force of Sepoys to keep 400,000 of them in order with the aid of a good Zulu police. I have Zululand in view rather than Natal, in the above observations; but if any Indian authority would consider the force necessary to keep in order a million of men of the most martial races in India, he would probably name a garrison very much smaller than anything yet contemplated for Natal and Zululand combined’.

Once discharged, Frere continued, the imported sepoys could join the ranks of the indentured workers occupied on Natal’s sugar plantations and in the colony’s trade, ‘though a Madras Sepoy would probably find himself more at home at once among the Indian Coolies than Sepoys from other parts of India.’ As for the existing Indian population of the colony, ‘that … material is generally much inferior to the Indian Sepoy of the same race – the ordinary Sepoys are the finest of the population, while the ordinary coolies who emigrate, are often the poorest and weakest.’
The Colonial Office response was lukewarm. It referred the matter to the War Office, asking it to estimate the relative costs of maintaining Indian and British garrisons overseas. This information, it suggested, might be obtained best from the dual British and Indian garrisons maintained in Malta. The Colonial Secretary himself commented that, given the recent experience at Isandhlwana, ‘the Zulu or Kaffir is, man for man, better than the Sepoy – and that therefore this experiment might be dangerous.’

The nail in the coffin for Frere’s scheme was advice from the India Office that the terms on which sepoys might accept service in South Africa ‘would certainly require a considerably higher rate of pay than the Government of India give for Indian service, even across the seas’. This led the Secretary of State for India to doubt ‘whether the charges would fall so far short of those of British Troops as would compensate for the difference in value of the two classes.’

All this remained speculative, of course, until the disaster at Isandhlwana could be reversed and the Zulu defeated. This was finally achieved with the Battle of Ulundi and the subsequent fragmentation of the Zulu Kingdom.
In the meantime, Frere had transitioned from an improving administrator of India and antislavery activist to a rampaging conqueror of independent African kingdoms (in his pursuit of confederation he had also started wars against the Griqua and Pedi). His vision for an Indian-policed colony in Zululand was not to be fulfilled, although Indians came to constitute a significant proportion of Natal’s population. It was Gandhi’s experience of discrimination in the Transvaal that set him on the path of activism, initially on behalf of middle class South African Indians and later for all Indians.

I doubt that Frere’s scheme for Zululand acted as a direct precedent for the later East African colonial administrations, but what it does highlight is the way in which Britain’s imperial administrators thought of India as a resource not only of labour for other parts of the empire, but also of intermediaries to help them maintain control of that empire.

*Much of this blog is extracted from Alan Lester, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

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What are the British Empire’s “Legacies”?

Before he became a beleaguered Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng wrote that “generations of politicians, historians and campaigners have made the British empire in their own image, promoting it as a vehicle for whatever cause they happen to espouse”. Since then, his government has waged a culture war in which a moral defence of the British Empire, against accusations of its intrinsic racism, has been central. The motivation seems clear. As a recent social survey shows, condemnation of the so-called “woke”, a category which includes campaigners against racism, has “the potential to keep the Brexit debate – and the electoral coalition that gave the Conservatives victory – alive at the next election.”

For someone like me who has spent over thirty years as a scholar of British colonialism, witnessing the explosion of polarised and simplistic argumentation over the Empire’s legacies in the last few years feels like a glimpse of what virologists and vaccinologists must have experienced as public discussion of Covid-19 exploded. As with so much of our post-Brexit politics, complexity, honesty and integrity in public discussions of Empire have become rare commodities.

Most professional historians of British colonialism, of whom I know many, base their research on evidence while admitting its limitations. They strive for objectivity whilst recognising that it is evasive, and they are driven by curiosity rather than contemporary politics, seeking to mitigate the ways in which the latter inevitably shapes the former. They are far from being the Marxist/Maoist/Critical Race Theory – inspired radicals portrayed by some right-wing journalists and politicians. Their implicit distaste for unprovoked invasion and racism stems from their humanity and basic morality. It is not directed solely and vindictively against “the British” and it is not the result of a “Far Left” political disposition. For the most part they refuse to be drawn into the culture war’s polarising binaries. In the meantime, however, a wider section of society is being exposed to politicised caricatures of the British Empire that do an active disservice to the public understanding of history.

The British Empire in 1879. From Alan Lester, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

The culture war solidifies one unrealistic notion of the relationship between past and present in particular: that legacies from the past are like family heirlooms, bequeathed in this case by “the British” and employed by their inheritors either wisely or foolishly. For conservatives these legacies of over three hundred years of British imperial rule, at one point over a quarter of the Earth’s surface, include globalisation, free trade, democracy, law, railways, education and medicine. Yes, these accomplishments may have been marred by certain instances of massacre, dispossession, racism and even genocide, but their effect has been overwhelmingly to benefit humanity. Things only got worse after the British left. Even the famines that killed tens of millions of British Indian subjects were opportunities for British innovation in famine-relief.

These justifications for imperialism were originally formulated during the imperial period itself, not least by historians. Prior to the current right-wing backlash against the “woke”, Niall Ferguson’s 2003-4 TV series and book Empire was a revival of the idea that human progress and the British Empire were indissolubly linked. In his case the argument was employed in support of the disastrous Western military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. As conservatives gained traction in the right-wing media and in government after Brexit and the Black Lives Matter protests, so some of those on the Left and anti-racists especially felt they had to respond with more strident assertions of the Empire’s pernicious legacies. Some have re-centred violent, racist White British actors in the drama of empire, albeit as villains rather than goodies. In doing so they have alienated many Britons who know little about colonialism.

Thanks to the British Empire being a relatively minor and optional part of the curriculum, and thanks to a long-established, convenient and self-comforting amnesia, we can, as Raymond Williams put it, “select and reselect our ancestors” in ignorance of their activities and beliefs. Add to this the fact that the archive through which we access the past is full of the self-justifications of those who carried out acts of colonialism, and the fact that Britain has never been forced to confront discomfiting aspects of its past in the same way that defeated Germany was after WWII, and we can see why conservatives have gained ground among those struggling to confront certain realities.

For those contesting the Right’s rehabilitation of colonialism, the modern European empires and especially Britain’s are indelibly associated with globalised and intergenerational racism. For Indigenous peoples still campaigning against the loss of sovereignty and land in the former settler colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, the idea of a “legacy” of British colonialism is absurd since the British never left. They simply became Australians, Pākehā, Canadians and Americans. Elsewhere the legacies of Empire identified by liberals and the Left include dispossession of people of colour, a more unequal world, the loss of sovereignty, and political instability brought about by divide and rule in places like India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine or combine and rule in much of Africa including Nigeria. Kwasi Kwarteng’s book pointed to these legacies rather than those of universal human progress.

Zadie Smith warns us that “… the past is not our plaything … degrees of manipulation and distortion exist, and the aim is surely to mitigate against the most egregious forms of both.” So how might we get beyond an endlessly confrontational and unproductive repetition of binaries, of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ legacies, in our discussion of the British Empire?

I would suggest three main steps. First, we need to distinguish between legacies on the one hand and historical continuities and discontinuities on the other. Secondly, we should consider whether the idea of a legacy is substituting for nostalgia. And thirdly, we need to think beyond “the British” as the only agents who mattered in the British Empire.


When commentators discuss legacies of the empire, what they are often referring to is not actually something that is handed down the generations, but rather the fiction of a moment frozen in time. A completely unrealistic concept given that change is continuous. It is the impossible and yet necessary job of the historian to study that change in all its complexity and variety. We can start by recognising that there is a distinction between the past and history, and then by acknowledging that history does not allow us clearly to distinguish legacies from any one frozen moment.

The late Hilary Mantel expressed the relationship between the past and history especially eloquently: “Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past … It’s the plan of positions taken, when we stop the dance to slow them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It’s no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey.”

If the past itself is unknowable except through such fragments, remnants and representations, its “legacies” – the things that “remain from an earlier time” – are even more difficult to pin down. Traces of an Empire that grew and contracted, was pursued through business, governmental, philanthropic and emigrant settler projects, and that resulted from diverse interactions with multiple indigenous and other imperial actors, take various forms. To do history with integrity we need to differentiate between them, and to understand the ways that they changed constantly.

Let us take public health in India as an example. On Twitter and elsewhere, members of the conservative History Reclaimed group have claimed advances in public health as a key beneficial legacy of British rule. The basis for these claims is notable scientific and medicinal advances against diseases such as smallpox and malaria, and the institution of public health programmes based upon them. Subsequent improvements in public health undoubtedly built upon both the scientific and practical lessons learned through these initiatives under British rule.

However, Indians running Municipal, District and Village Boards were behind many of these initiatives, sometimes in the face of resistance from local British officials. British colonial governments generally cared little about the health of disenfranchised colonial subjects unless epidemic diseases threatened to spread to White colonial communities. The capacity of the colonial state was always limited and it had other priorities than public health. A larger scale Indian public health service was spurred only by the threat of losing ground to the Quit India movement against British rule during the Second World War. Newly independent governments tended to invest far more in the health and welfare of their populations than had colonial governments. As Sunil Amrith notes, “The claim to care for the welfare of the Indian people, in a way that no colonial government could do, was central to constructing the legitimacy of the post-colonial state”.

Global health indices generally show far more drastic improvements after the demise not just of the British, but of all the European empires. As the graph below shows, infant mortality dropped precipitously in India only after independence in 1947. This correlation does not imply causation but it does suggest that the colonial government’s interventions were a late and limited adjustment.

One could see all this as indicating simply that the post-1947 government of India took a positive if limited “legacy” of British rule and made it more universally beneficial. Amrith, however, shows that things are more complicated even than this. “The concerns of India’s elite with racial purity and degeneration; the concern of social reformers with the misery of India’s villagers and the concern of modernists with using the state to transform society and economy – drawing on the most ‘advanced’ models then available – melded in sometimes contradictory ways to shape the political culture of health in India”.

This blend of actors and motivations resulted in the world’s most extensive malaria prevention campaign in the 1950s and 60s. It was funded more by American aid than British, and inspired by European, Soviet and New Zealand models of public health as well as British. The whole notion of distinguishing any straightforward British imperial “legacy” of public health care in India becomes unsustainable in the light of this complex trajectory, and that is without even considering regional variations.

Can we credit “the British” for public health improvements that they may have helped pioneer, but which occurred largely under an anti-colonial Indian movement? Can we separate “British” scientific and medical advances in the first place from those of other collaborating scientists around the world, and from the influence of Indians within the British administration who sometimes faced resistance from British officials? Can we say that it was British colonial precedents upon which the post-independence state built when it drew also upon public health interventions in the Soviet Union and elsewhere? What we can say is that when contemporary politics alone guides our approach to history, “legacies” become simplified, distorted and conflated with finely wrought continuities and discontinuities.

Built and Institutional Legacies

The most tangible legacies from the imperial past are of the material kind: physical structures such as cities, schools, hospitals, railway stations, judicial and legislative buildings, roads, canals and bridges. Claimed by those on the Right as benefits bestowed by “the British” and inherited by post-independence states, these were financed at least in part by British investors (albeit often with guarantees derived from taxing colonial subjects) and undertaken on British initiative. They were generally intended in the first instance to serve British military and business interests, though, and constructed by colonised labourers, who were often unpaid and coerced.

There may be general agreement about the continuing utility of many of these built legacies for post-colonial governments and populations. However, it all becomes more complicated once we start to examine their crediting to “the British”. Can we credit British rule with the advent of more representative parliamentary institutions today when they inhabit a building such as the Union Building in Pretoria that was designed by Hebert Baker for exclusively White legislators? Does such a building appear on the credit or debit side of imperial “legacies” when it was put to service on behalf of the population as a whole only after British rule (and in this case the apartheid governments that succeeded it)?

Union Buildings Pretoria, Originally created and uploaded to the Afrikaans Wikipedia by Davinci77, using the same filename.

Conservatives claim that the “law and order” which inhabits colonial era judicial buildings is also a legacy of British rule, but of course some kind of law and order existed everywhere before British rule as well as after. What changed was its nature, most notably the groups it was designed to safeguard. Imperial apologists assert that British rule discriminated between different kinds of subjects less, was more impartial, less corruptible and less clientelist; that the neutrality and independence of the judiciary broke down only after the British left. Repression and everyday violence were characteristic of British rule though, as they are of any other form of discriminatory governance.

British law and order existed mainly to maintain White dominance in the colonies where British colonists dwelt. When the Colonial Office or India Office (after 1858) in London prescribed that colonial law be non-racial, that intent was generally undermined by local colonial interests. Since the demise of colonial regimes, of course law and order has often worked partially too, in favour of other minorities defined ethnically, regionally, by kinship or clientelism. In these instances, conservatives use phrases such as corruption that they tend not to apply to equivalent British colonial practices that favoured White people.

James Fitzjames Stephen played a leading role in defining which of Britain’s legal principles applied to India during the 1870s. He declared

“If it be asked how the system works in practice, I can only say that it enables a handful of unsympathetic foreigners … to rule justly and firmly about 200,000,000 persons of many races …The Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the institutions which they regulate, are somewhat grim presents for one people to make to another, and are little calculated to excite affection; but they are eminently well-calculated to protect peaceable men and to beat down wrongdoers, to extort respect, and to enforce obedience … If, however, the authority of the Government is once materially relaxed, if the essential character of the enterprise is misunderstood and the delusion that it can be carried out by assemblies representing the opinions of the natives is admitted, nothing but anarchy, and ruin can be the result”.

Enforcement of Stephen’s law codes was entirely dependent on Indian policemen, record keepers and magistrates, employed in a vastly expanded Indian Civil Service and trained in new universities. But Indians were trusted neither to govern nor to make those laws.

Those approaching the imperial past with the justification of Britons in mind often deal in counterfactuals to evade such objections, arguing that if it were not for colonialism, neither the buildings themselves nor their current deployment for more democratic purposes would ever have developed in the colonies. The problem for historians who rely on sources relating to what actually happened rather than speculating about what might have happened, is evidencing those assertions.

Democracy developed after decolonisation in some countries subject to British rule and not in others. None of the benefits of the world today compared to that in say 1900 are necessarily the result of colonial conquest. The simple answer, whether the institutions supporting democracy, railways or health care would have developed in former colonies without British rule, is and always will be “who knows?”


If legacies of the past get artificially separated from continuities and discontinuities, they are also often mixed up with nostalgia: the longing for things to have remained the way that we imagine they were. The notion of a legacy preserves some notion of the past and makes it portable between generations, but most of the things that we want to preserve in this way never actually took the form we imagine. They are phantasms, dreams of what was and what might still be recovered.

Peter Mitchell and Hannah Rose Woods have both recently analysed convincingly nostalgia’s role in the culture war. We may think that it is a property only of conservatives, with their fondness for White memsahibs on palanquins borne by Indian servants and District Officers telling the natives what to do. But nostalgia has a more flexible political utility. It can be both pro-empire and anti-colonial, as when Narendra Modi mobilises a sectarian vision of precolonial Hindu society against both Muslims and the Raj.

When it comes to Hong Kong, nostalgia works for quite different agendas. For British conservatives it is seen as the prime example of a successful colony. Kwarteng admits that “the British Empire had nothing to do with liberal democracy”, and the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, introduced steps towards it only to frustrate the Chinese takeover. Nonetheless conservatives assert that the colony was governed with the consent of its subjects and with mutual prosperity in mind.

It is entirely understandable that a return to perceived colonial rule right now, for all its faults, would seem attractive not just to conservatives in the UK, but also to many dissident Chinese subjects in the former colony. But here too, nostalgia becomes conflated with legacy. Under British rule Hong Kong served as an imperial entrepot, creating wealth and opportunity for British and Chinese business elites. However, the British elites insisted on racial exclusion. The expatriate White community excluded even elite Chinese from the most luxurious residential districts on the Peak and kept their social clubs racially exclusive. When they pressed for more democracy they still intended to exclude those identified as Chinese. Most Hong Kong subjects’ well-being was left to Chinese and missionary charities until the 1950s, with British elites here, as elsewhere, concerned mainly about the risk of disease spreading to Whites.

Hong Kong from the Peak, Photo by Florian Wehde on Unsplash

Yet these features of colonial rule are set aside as those subjected to active state repression in Hong Kong are inspired to resist by an alternative past.

More broadly too, nostalgia is a resource for those subjected to ever-evolving forms of oppression or poverty in the places that Britons once governed. This is because, as David Lowenthal explained, “Nostalgia reaffirms identities bruised by recent turmoil”. For many in Hong Kong the turmoil consists of the more vicious imposition of Chinese state authoritarianism. For conservatives in Britain, it is part of a more diffuse cultural change in which “fundamental taken for granted convictions about man, woman, habits, manners, laws, society and God” are challenged by more inclusive values.


Much of the problem with the discussion of imperial legacies is its continual re-centring of “the British” as the only agents who matter in shaping them.

My first issue is with the word “the” before “British”. There never was any one British imperial project. How colonialism took root in each colony depended as much on tensions and debates among Britons as it did between Britons and other actors. Missionaries, philanthropists, businessmen, governing officials and settlers all had their own imperatives and favoured different kinds of relations with different groups of colonised people. Like the business elites in Hong Kong, certain of these groups predominated in particular colonies for particular periods.

In New Zealand, missionaries fought until 1840 to keep the Māori to themselves, since they saw them as potential converts who might be deterred by the unchristian behaviour of British traders and settlers. In West Africa in the late nineteenth century, it was palm oil and ivory traders who lay behind British attacks on African kingdoms, while in South Africa Rhodes faced opposition from liberal White politicians when he tried to force a convergence between his mining business’ demand for cheap African labour and the Cape Colony’s policies. We can no more assume a British consensus on colonialism, or a legacy of “the” British, than we can consensus among Britons on any other political issue.

My second issue is to do with the focus on Britons, however attentive we are to their differences. What are thought of as legacies passed from one generation to the next are, as we have seen, continually reshaped, and not only by Britons. British colonists, like other historical actors, were entangled in relationships that they often dominated but never entirely controlled. These relationships were not only with other Britons pursuing different projects, but also with a diverse array of colonised peoples with their own varied agendas, and with those representing other empires. In our discussions of Empire, we need to challenge the sense of national exceptionalism that characterises the culture war.

In India British rule was entangled with the collapse of Mughal power, in Australasia and North America it was spurred by French and other European rivalries; in central Asia and the Middle East some of the most dramatic (and disastrous) developments such as multiple invasions of Afghanistan were the result of fears of Russian expansion. By the same token, Britain’s imperial decline was related to growing American and German influence and a Japanese insistence on modern imperialism being more than just a White European and North American project.

92nd Highlanders and 2nd Gurkhas storming the Gaudi Mullah Sahibdad at Kandahar 1 September 1880.
Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. – D. Chandler (ed.): The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army, Oxford University Press 1994, ISBN 0-19-869178-5
Public Domain

Aside from other empires, the pattern of British colonialism was inherently the result of interactions with colonised peoples themselves. The extent of their resistance, accommodation, adaptation, collaboration, and appropriation of British rule varied enormously across the different parts of the empire and over time. Whatever legacies we might imagine the British left behind are as much a product of their agency as that of “the British”, regardless of whether they are identified as positive or negative.

We might try to identify the legacies of the empire that all these actors forged by imagining it frozen in some snapshot taken at the moment of decolonisation in any particular colony. This would be Mantel’s “plan of positions taken, when we stop the dance to slow them down”. But however that frozen schema appeared, and however successful our attempts to characterise it, post-independence governments and populations were already repurposing it. Some of the features of those snapshots were allowed to fade into obscurity, some were sustained, extended and reconditioned for newly enfranchised citizens rather than subject peoples. Other features were continued, but in even more authoritarian guises. How can we possibly now distinguish between those which can fairly be identified as legacies of Empire, to be blamed on, or credited to, “the British”, from those for which responsibility is more diffuse?

More to the point perhaps, was British conquest and racially discriminatory rule ever necessary for the dissemination of medical, technological, and scientific advances? I would suggest that the burden of proof is on the ultra conservatives defending colonialism – a project that inevitably entails violence and conquest – to prove that they were, but I don’t rate their chances.

Alan Lester
Professor of Historical Geography, University of Sussex and Adjunct Professor of History, La Trobe University

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The War on Woke is 200 years Old

One of the Brexit populists’ most successful political strategies, played out in the recent Tory leadership contest, has been culture war: an assault on reformist and liberal agendas including anti-racism, that are now condemned as “woke”. With Suella Braverman Priti Patel’s successor at the Home Office, it shows no sign of abating. A key plank of the strategy has been attacks on those who attempt to educate and inform the public about the racial discrimination and legacies of the British Empire, the latest manifestation being the conservative activist group Restore Trust‘s ongoing attempt to pack the National trust Council with members who will censor it from saying more about the role of slavery and colonialism in its properties’ history. Accusations that those who try to educate about the empire are ‘anti-British’, however, are not entirely novel. They are contemporary twists on debates about the Empire staged over the last 200 years. When enslaved people secured emancipation and indigenous people raised their right to survive the onslaught of British colonisation, their liberal allies in Britain faced a similar conservative backlash. It may not have been referred to at the time as a culture war but it did much to shape enduring divisions over race in Britain and Britain’s place in the world.

Colston statue lowered into Bristol harbour
Black Lives Matter protestors dump Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol harbour

After Black Lives Matter protestors toppled slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in June 2020 the government’s “war on woke” reached new levels of intensity. Robert Jenrick declared “We will save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past” and Oliver Dowden instructed Britain’s leading museums, galleries and heritage organisations that they “must defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”. The right wing press followed up with hyperbolic articles about the interpretation of colonial heritage. The torrent of hysterical reaction to small things, such as the decision in May 2021 of some Oxford graduate students to take down a picture of the Queen, became relentless.

This manufactured hysteria has politicised Britain’s heritage to a degree unimaginable just a few years ago. Some of the rhetoric in the Mail’s online forums reflects the belief of the trans-national extreme right in The Great Replacement. This bizarre notion of an existential threat to White racial survival stemming from fellow citizens of colour and their “woke” allies is what motivated the terrorist atrocities in Oslo in 2011 and Christchurch in 2019. Boris Johnson’s advisor on race, Samuel Kasumu, quit recently, complaining that “some people in the government … feel like the right way to win is to pick a fight on the culture war and to exploit division.” These elements, Kasumu feared, were facilitating a repeat of the murder of Jo Cox’, the Labour MP killed by a right wing racist in 2016. While it might be more subtle, the Telegraph’s use of “woke” is also not so far from the idea of a “collaborator” with sinister forces threatening White people. It has ranted that the woke “want to make all White people feel guilty and feel ashamed of their skin colour. In a White majority country”.

The New Zealand Attack Posed New Challenges for Journalists. Here Are the  Decisions The Times Made. - The New York Times
Aftermath of White supremacist terrorist attack in New Zealand

All this conservative culture war activity echoes the backlash against liberal concern for colonial subjects of colour that began in the context of a reforming British Empire in the early nineteenth century. Enslaved and colonised peoples themselves played the leading roles in securing emancipation and representing their communities as best they could in Britain, but like Black Lives Matter activists, they were working in alliances, often tense ones, with White allies. Some of the most illustrious and famous conservatives of the day led the charge against them. 

When sugar production plummeted in the wake of emancipation in Jamaica and the 1846 Sugar Duties Act abolished the former slave owners’ preferential rates on sugar imports, one of the most famous critics of the day, Thomas Carlyle, fulminated against both the “naïve” philanthropists and the free trade economists, who, between them, had helped free slaves into a state of wage labour while abandoning British planters. Carlyle argued that emancipation had condemned Black Jamaicans to idle pauperism, just as greater freedom had the Irish. The Irish, he argued, had been reduced to “human swinery”, a “black howling Babel of superstitious savages” during the Famine. In a deliberately provocative article, which he boasted “you will not, in the least like” entitled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro [later substituted for the N word] Question”, he described the freed slaves of Jamaica “Sitting yonder, with their beautiful muzzles up to the ears in pumpkins, imbibing sweet pulps and juices; the grinder and incisor teeth ready for every new work; while the sugar crops rot round them, uncut, because labour cannot be hired”.

Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question - Wikipedia
Carlyle’s Occasional Discourse …

Despite the protests of liberal friends like John Stuart Mill, Carlyle’s unabashed racism sharpened and articulated the British public’s sense of disappointment in Africans’ ability to become “civilised”. Together with the stream of racial invective pouring into British homes from colonial newspapers extracted by the British press, in the private correspondence of settlers to their contacts at home, and in publications such as the Memorials of the Settlers in the Eastern Cape, it reinforced the notion that white Britons had a particular, if not unique, claim to that mantle.

The most popular author of the day, Charles Dickens soon arrayed himself alongside Carlyle as a leading mid-nineteenth century culture warrior. In October 1857, when news of the Indian Uprising massacre of 120 British women and children at Cawnpore dominated the British press, Dickens summed up the public’s mood of vengeance: “I wish I were the Commander in Chief in India …. I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested … proceeding, with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth.”

Carlyle and Dickens ridiculed people like Thomas Fowell Buxton, who had taken over from Wilberforce as the leading anti-slavery and colonial humanitarian campaigner. In the wake of the abolition of slavery, the two writers asserted that philanthropists and missionary supporters had been proved wrong. The formerly enslaved had not diligently continued to work on the plantations, as philanthropists had promised. Instead, they had sought to reunite families torn apart when parents and children were sold to different owners.

The lesson, however, was not that family could mean as much to Black as to White British subjects. It was that Black and indigenous people had squandered the freedom, and the gift of civilisation, that the British had offered them. Dickens’ Bleak House helped to invent the stereotype of the “woke”; the cause-obsessed, misguided and dangerous philanthropists who had helped them waste the opportunity. The book’s character, Mrs Jellyby, summed up nineteenth century wokeness. She is so preoccupied saving the souls of heathen Africans she has never met that she neglects her own children. White British children like the road sweep Jo, die pitifully on the streets of London while the “humanitarians” extend their sympathies only to distant savages, who refuse to learn. Rather than continuing with their “telescopic philanthropy”, Dickens moralised, Britons should focus on the needs of White kith and kin at home.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens | Goodreads
Dickens’ Bleak House

If a conservative reaction against the “woke” is nothing new, neither is the leading role taken by a Prime Minister. On the day that Boris Johnson became Prime Minister I came across the following extract from Reynolds’s Newspaper on Lord Palmerston, the Liberal PM in 1857: “What a truly melancholy exhibition! The foremost nation of all the Old World rushing, and screaming, and swearing, and shouting in mad hysterical hallelujahs, the praises of a man whose principal characteristic was an unconquerable disposition to jest at national calamities, and whose greatest recommendation was a species of boasts”. When Laurence Fox , himself a vocal right wing culture warrior, played Lord Palmerston in ITV’s Victoria, he admitted that the character “may have had a bit of the Boris about him”. Johnson and Palmerston shared undiplomatic careers as womanising, flippant Foreign Secretaries and a wit and charm that made them popular with large sections of the public, if not always with their peers in parliament. The parallels do not end there, however.

In 1857, Palmerston wanted war with China, which had had the temerity to prevent British ships illegally smuggling opium into Canton. Palmerston’s government intended to force Chinese markets open to “free trade” from British narcotics and industrial manufacturers. His problem was that many of his own liberal MPs objected to the war on moral grounds. Lord Lyndhurst asked, “was there ever conduct more abominable, more flagrant, in which … more false pretence has been put forward by a public man in the service of the British government?” After it became clear that British officials had ordered the shelling of the city, Parliament passed a motion, carried by sixteen votes, that the government had failed “to establish satisfactory grounds for the violent measures resorted to at Canton”. Anticipating Johnson’s Get Brexit Done election by one hundred and sixty-two years, the Prime Minister suspended parliament to appeal directly to the electorate.

Opium Wars - Wikipedia
The Second Opium War

In the 1857 general election, patriotic fervour was brought to bear against the Chinese rather than the EU. Palmerston declared that the problem with those who criticised the war on China was that “Everything that was English was wrong, and everything that was hostile to England was right”. Amid complaints of creating an “artificial public opinion”, the prime minister solicited the cartoonist George Cruikshank to circulate images of Chinese methods of torture and execution and fabricated a story that British heads had been displayed on the walls of Canton. It was printed in The Times and other evening newspapers and distributed as a flyer across Britain. In the midst of what Charles Greville called the Prime Minister’s “enormous and shameful lying”, Palmerston won a landslide victory. Many of his opponents lost their seats. All thanks, the Daily News claimed, to “the excited ignorance of a misinformed public”.

If Palmerston had not opportunistically seized upon the mid-nineteenth century culture war to portray activists of colour and their white reformist allies as woke threats to the nation, perhaps China’s Century of Humiliation and ensuing determination to reassert itself against global western domination might have taken a different direction. If key figures like Carlyle and Dickens had not entrenched British racism in the wake of emancipation, then perhaps we might have fewer of the structural issues that today’s antiracist “woke” activists are still having to combat. Who knows, given the speculative nature of counterfactual history? Perhaps the greatest irony, however, is that today’s conservative culture warriors, in pressure groups like Restore Trust, now claim emancipation from slavery and humanitarian concern for the welfare of colonised people as Britain’s greatest imperial achievements.  

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Where is Empathy in the Empire Culture War?

The problem with making the history of the British empire a weapon in a divisive culture war is its omission of empathy.

Conservatives, exemplified by The Telegraph’s editorial line, feel that radical activists are determined to see Empire as an evil project, regardless of the sensitivities of Britons brought up to believe in their ancestors’  good intentions. Tearing down statues, reinterpreting National Trust properties, browbeating museum visitors with critical content, and lecturing White Britons on their inherited racism are all seen as acts which lack any sympathy or understanding for the majority of Britons. They are especially triggered when national heroes like Winston Churchill are challenged as racists, and when the iconography of an innocent and quintessentially English countryside, graced by stately mansions and landscaped gardens, is interpreted as, in part, the product of slave ownership and racial exploitation (even though they may acknowledge the engrained exploitation of British workers with just a shrug of the shoulders). 

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Sheffield Park, East Sussex

White friends of mine have argued that, if only the assaults on their long held beliefs and identities were not so vehement, if only those drawing attention to the violent realities of Empire were more reasonable in attempting to persuade them – if only they showed more empathy – then they would be more inclined to listen.

The fact that much of the government’s discussion of racial disparities is conditioned by the defence that there’s no structural racism to see here, helps to persuade many of my White friends that they are being unfairly maligned for the sins of their ancestors.

Those reacting against a supposed ‘woke’ assault on history are enraged that empathy seems to be directed solely towards Empire’s victims, with no appreciation of the good intentions of British colonisers. One of Nigel Biggar’s constant refrains, demonstrated in his critique of Dan Hicks’ Brutish Museum is that Hicks shows no empathy for the British who invaded Benin, burned its capital and stole its treasures. Hicks seems to empathise only with the expedition’s victims, and neither with the British invaders themselves nor the enslaved victims of Benin’s own ruler. Biggar accuses Hicks of “an ethical schizophrenia—on the one hand morally neutral and indulgent toward non-Western, African culture, on the other hand morally absolutist and unforgiving toward Western, British culture”. Biggar goes on to detail the accusations made by expedition members that there was widespread and revolting evidence of the kingdom’s practice of human sacrifice.

A project that I was involved with providing a new interpretation board for the statue of the Victorian army general Redvers Buller in Exeter tried to pay attention to this conservative feeling of a lack of empathy among Empire’s new critics – a feeling that has been mobilised so effectively by the culture warriors of the Telegraph, Mail and Express. We tried to proceed through dialogue and engagement with all sides in what has become a highly charged debate over the fate of the statue. 

Redvers Buller statue, Exeter

However, what has become clear in the course of this and other projects of late is that it is also incumbent on all Britons today to empathise with those now seeking to challenge our dominant understanding of the colonial past. 

There were many people of colour around the world who, once rendered British subjects by conquest, adapted and even prospered from alliances and negotiations with their new rulers. Indian merchant families especially collaborated with East India Company and other investors and sought to share in the education offered by the British even as they were denied a share in central governance. As one would expect during any radical reconfiguration of power relations, certain groups enhanced their power over traditional rivals by allying with British rulers and accepting what limited degrees of autonomy they could negotiate with them in return. During the Scramble for Africa especially, some African and Pacific leaders saw British rule as the lesser of two evils when confronted with a sudden French, Belgian or German determination to catch up and match Britain’s exploitation of colonies. For Hendrick Witbooi of the Nama, for instance, a British protectorate would have been a far better fate than German colonisation. 

But we delude ourselves spectacularly if we think that a fond appreciation of British colonisation was the norm among subjugated peoples. Millions of people of colour were killed trying to resist the British takeover of their lands. In Ruling the World we examined three years of the nineteenth century closely and estimated that in the wars of conquest fought in and around those years alone (including two Opium Wars in China, two invasions of Afghanistan, the Indian Uprising, and a series of imperial wars to confederate southern Africa) over a million died, although it is difficult to be precise because the deaths of people of colour were not recorded in the same way that White people’s deaths were. Millions more died in famines that the British colonial governments could and likely would have done far more to prevent had the victims been White (although their semi-racialised brand of Whiteness did not protect Catholic Irish subjects from mass starvation during the Great Famine). Sixty five so-called “small wars” were fought by late Victorian armies either to annex new territory or to punish African, Asian and Indigenous societies which resisted British demands. Scorched Earth tactics inlcuding the burning of entire villages were used regulalry. This is not to mention the disastrous long term effects of British attempts to govern Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and other zones in Britons’ rather than local peoples’ interests, nor the attempts to cling to influence after World War II in Egypt, Aden, Malaya and Kenya.

Well after the abolition of slavery, colonial laws ensured that people of colour’s labour was supplied to White employers freely, or as cheaply as possible, and colonial laws discriminated between coloniser and colonised whatever the British government itself claimed of their non-racialism. With formal empire on the wane, many more British subjects of colour migrated, invited, to Britain to become citizens, and found themselves rejected as equals. The ideologies of racial difference that had sustained colonial rule out there in the empire for so long were now applied more systematically against people of colour in Britain as Enoch Powell and others feared national disintegration from their presence and ever more racially restrictive immigration laws were passed.

Is it too much to expect the majority of White Britons to empathise with most Black Britons over these aspects of our national story? To the defence that things have changed, that there is a progressive move away from overt racism, and that Britain is less racist than other European countries, I would urge the ‘anti-woke’ to examine two things.

First, how such progress has come about. From their victimisation in the 1919 race riots through the Bristol bus boycotts, the New Cross fire, the Stephen Lawrence campaign and other instances, it has been the mobilisation primarily of Black Britons against racism which has spurred official enquiry and legal reform.  This progress too is a result of the empire. Britain’s vibrant communities of Black activists, themselves a product of late- and post-imperial migration, and their white allies, have been responsible for what progress there has been. It is the European countries that are overwhelmingly White which still tend to espouse the racial ideas that were disseminated within and beyond the British Empire most vigorously. Secondly, there is still a long way to go to address the structural inequalities that racial discrimination over centuries, and across the world, has seeded in the UK itself. One need only look at the Office for National Statistics figures on ethnic and racial disparity or the painful and ongoing Windrush scandal to understand this.

Culture warrior scholars like Nigel Biggar could certainly do with showing a little more empathy. He may criticise Hicks for having little sympathy for Victorian Englishmen, but his own account of the Benin Expedition derives solely from the racist pretexts that these men provided for their assault. He makes no attempt to engage with historians who have examined the expedition from the perspective of its African victims. At the very least, some more engagement with historians might have allowed him to contextualise the horrors that the British expedition members reported. This does not entail excusing the evidence of human sacrifice (explained by experts on the region as the ritual punishment of criminals and those accused of witchcraft rather than arbitrary and mass killing), but it might entail an appreciation that perhaps the sacking and looting of a city and the killing of those who resisted might be seen as a fairly extreme response to what was essentially a trade dispute. 

Biggar’s other claim to justification for the expedition was the “massacre” of a “a diplomatic mission, whose nine White members, led by Acting Consul James Phillips, had been deliberately unarmed, “apart from revolvers”. In fact Phillips had written to the Foreign Office before his departure for Benin that he intended “to depose and remove the King of Benin and to establish a native council in his place”. It was not just nine “unarmed” white men (if we can just dismiss their revolvers) on the mission. Phillips reported that he had “a sufficient armed Force, consisting of 250 troops, two seven pounder guns, 1 Maxim, and 1 rocket apparatus of the N.C.PE, and a detachment of Lagos Hausas 150 strong.” The postscript was appended: “I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory may be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses in removing the king from his stool” (Evo Ekpo, The Dialects of Definitions: “Massacre” and “sack” in the history of the Punitive Expedition, African Arts, 30, 3, Summer 1997, 34-5; James D. Graham, The Slave Trade, Depopulation and Human Sacrifice in Benin History: The general approach, Cahiers d’Études Africaines , 5, 18, 1965, 317-334).

If it is incumbent on activists to attend to the sensitivities of those who cherish imperial era statues and legitimations, then perhaps it is even more incumbent on those of us brought up to cherish these things to listen to, and empathise with, those whose heritage includes mass killing, dispossession, oppression, and exploitation by White Britons engaged in imperial projects. Can we not empathise enough with most Black Britons today to see how commemorating men who enslaved, killed, conquered and exploited their ancestors might not be conducive to a “shared national story”, as History Reclaimed puts it?

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Nadhim Zahawi and the Iraqi Civil Service: a benefit of empire we should teach our kids?

The Education secretary has now joined the Equalities Minister, arguing that the ‘positives’ of the British Empire should be taught to British schoolchildren. As if they haven’t been taught to us all for the last one hundred years.

Nadhim Zahawi’s choice of example is striking though. He suggests that children could be taught about the benefits that the British colonial civil service created to govern Iraq brought to the country’s people. That civil service was set up after the former Ottoman territory was mandated to British rule, without local people having any say in the matter, following the First World War.

In the light of our own government’s attempts to continue justifying invasion, suppression, occupation and the denial of sovereignty to others, perhaps we also should be more forgiving of President Putin’s attempts to brainwash the Russian people in favour of the invasion of Ukraine? After all, who knows, future generations of Ukrainians might be just as grateful for a Russian administration imposed upon their country as modern Iraqis are for the British civil service?

One hundred years ago an Iraqi rebellion against British rule was finally ended with the aid of the world’s first major aerial bombing campaign. It was led by ‘Bomber Harries’ twenty years before his more famous campaign against Germany. Few Britons know about it, but it played a significant role in creating the Middle East as we know it today, and helped set the scene for the rise of ISIS.

The rebellion in Mesopotamia (Iraq) resulted in a pattern of Western-backed, authoritarian governments suppressing Arab nationalist movements. The prospects for democratic, liberal states have since been squeezed between the extremes of such client states on the one hand, and enraged Islamic fundamentalist opposition on the other.

The seeds were sown during the First World War. Britain occupied the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the centre and Basra in the south. When British and Indian forces marched into Baghdad in 1917, they proclaimed themselves liberators rather than conquerors. T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) suggested a form of governance on the model of the princely states in British India, where the local nobility was cajoled, bullied and bribed into governing largely on Britain’s behalf, but the first British High Commissioner, Percy Cox disagreed.

Cox felt that ‘the people of Mesopotamia had come to accept the fact of our occupation and were resigned to the prospect of a permanent British administration’. His successor, Col. Arnold Wilson, abolished what representative institutions the Ottoman Empire had installed and replaced Arab with British officials, refusing permission for an Arab delegation to seek independence at the Paris peace conference. The calculations of a dependence on oil and knowledge of the resources that lay under the ground played a vital role in the British strategy to hold on to the region, as Zahawi’s colleague, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng recognised in his well-researched history of the empire.

With the League of Nations granting Britain the region as a mandate, the three provinces were merged to create the modern nation state of Iraq. British forces suppressed the protests and demonstrations that ensued. Britain had seized upon the opportunity provided by the League of Nations mandate to extend its influence across the oil rich Middle East, along a strategic belt between Suez and the Persian Gulf – a belt already surrounded by existing British possessions. Despite the League of Nations’ insistence on the right of national self-determination, the interests of the local population were very much a secondary consideration. The British helped establish a tradition where its strategic location and resources made the Middle East too attractive to Western powers for them to allow for self-determination.

The mandated government, with its newly established civil service, was effectively a military occupation. As Lawrence tried to explain to the British public, ‘Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows’. In 1919, the Kurds were the first to rebel, with British forces crushing their resistance. By June 1920, the occupying British forces were facing a much larger insurrection as disbanded ex-Ottoman soldiers, Islamists objecting to heathen governance and pro-independence Arab forces, both Sunni and Shia, combined to eject the ‘liberators’. A particular issue was the insensitivity of demanding a burial tax for Shias in the Wadi-us-Salaam Cemetery in Najaf.

Facing 130,000 rebels the British found themselves embroiled in the largest British-led military campaign of the inter-war period. The commander in chief, General Haldane, cabled London that the ‘rebellion has spread almost to Baghdad, where my position is by no means secure’.

The rebellion was gradually brought under control using similar tactics to those of the Boer War, with mobile columns trapping rebels between blockhouses along railways and using scorched earth tactics, burning villages, destroying food supplies and killing livestock, regardless of the impact on non-combatants.

British Royal Air Force (RAF) in Iraq in 1920s
British Bomber in Iraq in the 1920s

A new tactic was added, however, once War Secretary Winston Churchill authorised it. Rebel clusters were bombed from the air, with the British at least planning to use ‘gas shells in quantity … with excellent moral effect’ among 100 tonnes of bombs. Churchill admitted, ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes … [to] spread a lively terror’. By 1922, as the rebellion fizzled out, over four hundred British and Indian soldiers had been killed with rebel fatalities officially 8,450 but likely closer to 10,000 given the inability to count casualties of the bombs.

Bomber Harris proclaimed that the Arabs and Kurds ‘now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured’.

By the beginning of 1922, embarrassed by the costs of maintaining direct rule against such opposition, Britain had overseen the installation of their wartime Arab ally King Faisal, to govern Iraq with British interests in mind. Even after Iraqi independence in 1932, the British insisted on retaining RAF bases with which to threaten continued bombing in the region. It did so to help the new client Iraqi regime suppress ongoing Kurdish resistance.

British imperial authorities, the autocrats that they promoted to govern in their interests, and the Islamic radical movements that arose in response to their interference, have all played their part in stymying the development of liberal democracies in the Middle East. This is just one more facet of our Empire’s legacies that we choose to overlook when we celebrate our imperial past, and especially when we proclaim its legacy of liberal democracy and good governance around the world. If the current government really want to distance themselves from the kind of nationalistic propaganda that Putin is purveying to justify the bombing of innocent civilians and the denial of self-determination, perhaps they should cease urging that similar propaganda be taught to our children.

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The British Empire and Race: A Debate with Robert Tombs

Alan Lester

Background: On 9th January 2022, Robert Tombs, Emeritus Professor of French History at the University of Cambridge and myself debated the legacies of the British empire, all too briefly, on the GB TV News Channel’s The Debate programme. I followed up by contacting Prof Tombs, asking if he would like to engage in further debate. He invited me to submit an essay, to which he would respond, on his History Reclaimed website. I agreed and suggested that the exchange be about the relationship between the British Empire and Race, to which he assented. Below is that exchange with my initial essay, Prof Tombs’ response and my final rejoinder, which Prof Tombs kindly agreed to have as the ‘last word’ since he had had that privilege in the TV debate. At present I am awaiting publication of that rejoinder, only just sent to Prof Tombs, on the History Reclaimed website, but here is the exchange in full in the meantime:

Debating the British Empire
The image chosen to represent the debate by Robert Tombs/History Reclaimed. I would have selected a different image if given the choice

The British Empire and Race

By Alan Lester

Historians’ approach to the past is inevitably inflected by the politics of our own time. However, the ‘culture’ war has been marked by purely politically motivated commentary on the British Empire. The Empire cannot be reduced to racism but nor should the extent of its racism be denied as part of a backlash against Black Lives Matter. The following broad conclusions are based on extensive archival research and consensus among specialists.[1]

Racial Violence
Empires have been the norm in history. Britain’s was possible only with indigenous collaboration. Resistance to it was fractured by ‘tribal’, religious, and other distinctions. Its violence was not directed only against people of colour.

Yet the British Empire’s maintenance of White people’s rule over people of colour on six continents was unique. Only the other modern European and American empires came close in scale and racial differentiation. Antecedent empires were generally founded on contiguous land annexation and with shallower gradations of phenotypical difference.

White colonists’ building of Caribbean and American plantation colonies with enslaved African people’s labour from the 17th to the early 19th centuries, was a key foundation of the Empire’s enduring association between ‘race’ and status. By 1807 Britons had transported 3 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. Within the next half century, they and their descendants had decimated Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians; subjected the Xhosa to eight wars of colonial expansion; exploited the Mughal collapse to conquer much of India; and fought three wars against Māori.[2]

When Germany and Belgium developed empires in the Scramble for Africa later in the 19th century, some indigenous leaders appealed for British ‘Protection’ to retain self-determination.[3] Elsewhere Britons continued to extend their interests aggressively. Just three years, 1838, 1857 and 1879, saw the first and second invasions of Afghanistan, the first and second Opium Wars, the suppression of the Indian Uprising and wars of conquest against Xhosa, Griqua, Pedi and Zulu.[4] In 1896, Colonel Callwell wrote a guide for British soldiers engaged in the empire’s ‘small wars’, against ‘savages … provided with poor weapons.’ There were over sixty such wars during the second half of the nineteenth century.[5]

It is impossible to calculate how many people of colour were killed in Britain’s imperial conquests since they were never systematically counted, but from the estimates we have of recorded conflicts, it is safe to say they number in the millions.

Discriminatory Rule and Consent
Despite a tradition of anti-colonial thought in Britain, people of colour were generally subordinated in status to White colonists. In most colonies even the poorest White women had access to Black people’s domestic labour, and corporal punishment of servants was common.[6] Across the Empire, racial discrimination, often finely graded according to ethnicity or skin shade, conditioned everyday life, including access to jobs, the law, health care, education, democracy, and the railways.[7]

British rule in India was distinct, with Indian elites acting as subordinate partners. The East India Company controlled the nobility and brought security to merchants. After the 1857 Uprising, a British-educated Indian middle class grew to administer the civil service. These groups prospered amidst increasing inequality.[8]

There is insufficient data to track the well-being of the mass of the Indian population under British rule, but the government spent little on agriculture, healthcare, or education while some Indian taxation revenue was transferred to Britain as East India Company shareholder dividends, railway investor subsidies, and ‘home charges’.[9] A conservative estimate is that 20 million Indians died in the major famines under British rule. Aside from the devastating Bengal Famine in 1943, major famines became rarer and government responses better in the 20th century, with none after independence.[10]

Across the Empire, rebellions were a regular occurrence.[11] In 1860 the Colonial Office advised on the distribution of imperial military resources. Perceiving the main threat at this time not so much from external powers as from subjects ruled without their consent, they used a formula based on each colony’s ratio of White colonists to ‘natives’.[12]

Abolishing Slavery and Expanding the Empire
Britain’s role in anti-slavery is erroneously conflated with anti-racism. When Britain followed Denmark in abolishing its slave trade in 1807 it also sent patrols to seize other nations’ slave ships: the result both of antislavery campaigners’ commitment and of an attempt to deny rival nations the benefits of the trade. The Royal Navy rescued 60,000 African captives, most of whom were either pressed into the British military or assigned to colonists as unpaid ‘apprentices’ for 10-20 years.[13]

Upon the British abolition of slavery in 1834, fifty years after northern US states had outlawed it and forty years after Saint-Domingue rebels had overthrown it, British slave owners were compensated for the loss of their ‘property’. Many reinvested in settler colonies, and in British infrastructure and institutions.[14] Labour shortages on plantations were met through the indenture and transport of 1.5 million British Indian subjects.[15]

Most African colonies were conquered after slavery was abolished, some with the justification of supressing indigenous slavery. Despite continuing British action against slavery around the world, the wars of confederation in southern Africa from 1878 to 1902 were influenced by Charles Dilke’s popular vision of a Greater Britain reflecting ‘the grandeur of our race.’[16] Dilke saw the ‘defeat of the cheaper by the dearer peoples’ as essential for the spread of civilization and applauded the fact that ‘the Anglo-Saxon is the only extirpating race on earth’.[17]

Scientific racism developed after abolition and Britain led the way in eugenics even if it did not apply these principles as extensively as in the USA and Germany.[18] The most popular notion in Britain was that that Black people lagged as children do to adults. Colonialism would eventually render them responsible enough for a share in their own governance. Missionaries and antislavery campaigners supported the Empire on these grounds.[19] However, the records of British colonists themselves are characterised by an everyday, condescending sense of racial superiority.[20]

When indigenous subjects assimilated to British culture and claimed the civilisational rights promised they were still treated as inferior. Lord Salisbury, Secretary of State for India, admitted that ‘If England was to remain supreme … she must tolerate the political role of Indian princes and of participation by Indians in the administration’, but that ‘if the number of well-educated Indians … should increase, the government would face the … necessity of closing that avenue to them’.[21] British-educated Indians and their counterparts in Africa turned to anticolonial nationalism to demand equality and policies of colonial development came too late to appease them.[22] Meanwhile, Canadian and Australian colonial governments removed indigenous and so-called ‘half-caste’ children from their families and placed them in White-run institutions, often characterised by abuse, to prevent future generations of distinct indigenous people.[23]

Transitioning from Empire
After WWII the British Empire was in retreat, but its geography has left an indelible imprint. Generations of Britons have been conditioned to think of Britain as a White country even if most of its subjects were people of colour located overseas. The fact that Britain was an empire rather than an island nation was widely disavowed until the empire ‘came home’.

From 1948, many more Black and Asian citizens exercising their right to live in the UK were met with verbal and physical abuse and discrimination, which confined them to poorer housing, schooling, and occupation.[24] Most Britons agreed with Enoch Powell that inter-communal conflict would result from further immigration.[25] Labour and Conservative governments have responded with increasingly restrictive and racially discriminatory immigration legislation, enabling the Windrush scandal.[26]

Antiracist campaigning has rendered it illegal to racially abuse and discriminate and a larger proportion of the White population now oppose racism. In the absence of any decisive rupture or reckoning with nostalgic views of Empire, however, many still hold the view that ‘those natives were never meant to come here and live next door’.[27] Official figures reveal disparities in income, criminal justice, housing, and employment that cannot be explained in the absence of institutional racism, and similar numbers of people believe racism exists in the country today (84%) as believe it existed 30 years ago (86%).[28] The British Empire secured prosperity for many people, but we should acknowledge that its legacy of racism is not a fiction of the Black Lives Matter movement.

[1] Thanks to Saul Dubow, Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History, University of Cambridge, Catherine Hall, Professor Emerita of Modern British History at University College London, and Michael Taylor, historian and author, for very helpful comments on a first draft of this essay. Any lapses are my own.

[2] See for example, Trevor Burnard, Jamaica in the Age of Revolution, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020;  Kate Fullagar, Michael A. McDonnell and Daniel K. Richter (eds), Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018; Lester, Imperial Networks; Jon Wilson, India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire, Simon and Schuster, 2017; Ann Curthoys and Jessie Mitchell, Taking Liberty: Indigenous Rights and Settler Self-Government in Colonial Australia, 1830-1890, Cambridge University Press, 2018; James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders, Penguin, 2007.

[3] Thomas Packenham, The Scramble for Africa, Abacus, 1992; Jane Samson, Imperial Benevolence: Making British Authority in the Pacific Islands, University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

[4] Alan Lester, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

[5] Stephen M. Miller (ed) Queen Victoria’s Wars: British Military Campaigns, 1857-1902, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

[6] Cecily Jones, Engendering Whiteness: White Women and Colonialism in Barbados and North Carolina, 1627-1865, Manchester University Press, 2007; Fae Dussart, In the Service of Empire: Domestic Service and Mastery in Metropole and Colony, Bloomsbury, 2022.

[7] See for example Curthoys and Mitchell, Taking Liberty; Elizabeth Kolsky, Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law, Cambridge University Press, 2011; Saul Dubow, Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid in South Africa, 1919–36, Oxford University Press, 1989; Thomas Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991; Jon Wilson, India Conquered.

[8] Tirthankar Roy, The Economic History of India, 1857-2010, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, 2020, and An Economic History of India 1707-1857, 2nd Edition, Routledge, 2022.

[9] Roy, The Economic History of India, 1857-2010, 67, 94, 335.

[10] Tirthankar Roy, Were Indian Famines ‘Natural’ Or ‘Manmade’? LSE Economic History Working Papers No: 243/2016

[11][11] Richard Brown, Resistance and Rebellion in the British Empire 1600-1980, Clio Publishing, 2013

[12] Lester et al, Ruling the World.

[13] Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy, Liberated Africans and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807-1896, Rochester University Press, 2020.

[14] Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland, Nicholas Draper, Katie Donington, and Rachel Lang, Legacies of British Slave-ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2014; Alan Lester and Nikita Vanderbyl, Feature: Legacies Of Slave

Ownership: ‘The Restructuring of the British Empire and the Colonization of Australia, 1832–8’, History Workshop Journal, Volume 90, Autumn 2020, 165–252.

[15] David Northrup, Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834-1922, Cambridge University Press, 1995; Madhavi Kale, Fragments of Empire: Capital, Slavery, and Indian Indentured Labor in the British Caribbean, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998; Adam McKeown, ‘Global Migration 1846-1940’, Journal of World History, 19,2, 2004, 158.

[16] C. W. Dilke, Greater Britain A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries During 1866-7, J. B. Lippincott and Macmillan, 1869, preface.

[17] R. Jenkins, Dilke: A Victorian Tragedy, Bloomsbury, 1996, 28; Duncan Bell, Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America, Princeton University Press, 2020.

[18] Philippa Levine, Eugenics: A Very Short introduction, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2017.

[19] Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867, Verso, 2002.

[20] For one example among hundreds of studies, see Brett Shadle, The Souls of White Folk: White Settlers in Kenya, 1900s-1920s, Manchester University Press, 2015.

[21] P. Smith, ‘Cecil, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-, third marquess of Salisbury (1830–1903), prime minister, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2011, retrieved 28 Oct. 2019, from

[22] Judith Brown, Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1991; Saul Dubow, The African National Congress, Sutton, 2000; Roy, The Economic History of India, 213; Joseph M. Hodge, Gerald Hödl and Maryina Kopf, Developing Africa: Concepts and Practices in Twentieth-Century Colonialism, Manchester University Press, 2014.

[23] Julie Evans, Patricia Grimshaw, David Philips, and Shurlee Swain, Equal subjects, Unequal Rights: Indigenous People in British settler colonies, 1830s–1910, Manchester University Press, 2018.

[24] Eleanor Passmore and Andrew Thompson, ‘Multiculturalism, Decolonisation and Immigration

Policy in Britain and France after the Second World War’, in Andrew Thompson and Kent Fedorowich (eds), Empire, Migration and Identity in the British World, Manchester University Press, 2015, 247-64.

[25] The figures in opinion polls ranged from 67 to 82 per cent. Bill Schwarz, The White Man’s World: Memories of Empire vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2011, 48.

[26] Ian Sanjkay Patel, We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire, Verso 2021.

[27] Quote from Patel, We’re Here, vii. Observation from personal experience of conversations among White people.

[28]; Jonathan Portes, ‘Race Report: Sewell Commission Couldn’t Find Something It Wasn’t Looking For’9 April 2021:

Reply:  The British Empire in Context By Robert Tombs

I never expected that I would find myself writing in defence of the British Empire, which is not a scholarly interest of mine, and I do not pretend to any expertise.  I will not try to contest Professor Lester in detail, however occasionally tempting.  For example, the ‘decimation’ of aboriginal peoples in Australia was probably due to smallpox carried by South Asian fishermen[1]; Britain was never an empire, nor was there free movement within the empire; it is misleading to suggest that slavery was abolished in the northern USA before it was abolished throughout the British empire; although slave owners received compensation, it was not paid by the slaves – unlike the unfortunate Russian serfs a generation later; it is tendentious to imply that famines in India were caused by imperial government, when that government’s Famine Codes pioneered modern responses to famine[2]; and so on.

I am more interested in the overall approach taken by many academics and commentators today, of whom Professor Lester is a notable example.  I agree with his balanced comment that “the ‘culture’ war has been marked by purely politically motivated commentary on the British Empire … Empires have been the norm in history. Britain’s was possible only with indigenous collaboration.”  Most of his own article, in contrast, is written as an indictment, avowedly politically informed.  Are sustained negativity and rigorous selectivity convincing?  Is this the only credible interpretation?

The Empire conferred certain benefits, including protection from foreign attack, access to international trade, modern administration, technology, capital investment and order.  It did so fairly cheaply: taxation was lower than in independent states.  There were gainers and losers, and whether its subject people regarded it positively or negatively depends on who, when and where.  The voices of freed slaves, women spared forced marriages, or people saved from ritual sacrifice are mainly lost, unlike those of the celebrated anti-colonial elite.  Independence gave huge advantages to the latter, who took power in former colonies, but this was not a liberation for all their peoples, many of whom were worse governed after independence.  The end of the empire over the 1940s, 50s and 60s was in many ways a liberation for Britain, whose economy, finances and security had been skewed by possession of an empire.  I don’t think any of this is contentious.  Why then should there now have appeared, at least in some quarters, an obsessive interest in the Empire?

I think Alan Lester’s piece helps us to understand.  He is a serious scholar.  Nevertheless, his focus – to the exclusion of almost everything else – is on race and violence.  What was unique about the British Empire, he suggests, was the extent of “White people’s rule over people of colour”, whereas most other empires had “shallower gradations of phenotypical difference.” The unusual phraseology is a significant clue.  He is approaching the history of the empire through the eyes of the 21st century, or more precisely, through certain 21st-century eyes – seemingly those of post-colonial nationalism and Critical Race Theory, whose political record and theoretical assertions are highly questionable.

In part this revives a very old historical debate.  Is our aim to understand the past as ‘a foreign country’ (an insight that ‘humanity gradually learned’), or to summarily annex it to our own times and subordinate it to our own beliefs?[3]  There is no easy answer.  It would be repugnant to attempt to judge Nazism or Communism by their own standards.  But it would be ludicrous to criticize the Ottoman Empire for, let us say, not being a democracy.

Can the British Empire be assessed dispassionately, in the way we might assess the Ottoman or Mughal empires?  I remember being struck by one very distinguished global historian referring to massive violence by the Mughals as ‘extreme solutions’ to achieve ‘internal pacification’.[4]  We would not use those terms of the British in Amritsar in 1919.

This is not simply a chronological question, by which one might say that dispassionate analysis is possible after a certain lapse of time.  It is also dependent on whether there are people alive who claim some stake: people who are, or who consider themselves to be, in some way victims of empire, or indeed its beneficiaries.  There is also ideology.  Many people judge ‘colonialism’ more evil than the alternatives, and this inevitably colours their work.  Even defensive wars are considered wars of aggression if they take place within an empire.

The recent desire among some academics – often very publicly manifested — to pass moral judgment on the British Empire is unusual.  Historians of the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, or the Mughal Empire rarely if ever pronounce moral verdicts or support campaigns to pull down statues of Mehmed II or Aurangzeb, or place apologetic notices on the Coliseum.  That is not what modern historiography is about.  Historians normally seek to analyse how things worked, and how people thought.  Yet numerous academics tried to stop Professor Nigel Biggar’s research project on ‘Ideas of Empire’, and several other historians of empire are cancelled and even threatened if they undertake such analysis.

Professor Lester seems to condemn the British Empire and other European empires firstly because pale-skinned people ruled darker-skinned people – that gradation of phenotypes.  He gives a list of violent episodes and inequalities because they seem to back up his overall standpoint.  Do they?

Imagine trying to assess the British Empire — ‘a global mosaic of almost ungraspable complexity and staggering contrasts’[5] — in the way that other historical empires – ‘the norm in history’ in Lester’s words –are assessed.  What would one need to do?  To look at its economic policies and their outcomes; at its effectiveness in keeping the peace and in fostering health and education, its costs in terms of taxation or other forms of economic extraction, its cultural achievements, and the degree of support given by its peoples.  And one would need some standard of comparison: with contemporary empires, such as the French, Russian or Dutch; with settler states such as the USA or Brazil; with states that were not colonized (for example China, Thailand, or Ethiopia); with non-state societies (such as New Guinea[6]); with previous rulers; and with successor governments in former colonies.

But comparison seems lacking.  Indeed, some comparisons seem to be taboo, and those who make them risk being vilified and silenced.  Many academics appear to espouse the nationalist myths of postcolonial states, which in some notable cases are their own countries.  These myths highlight oppression and resistance, and privilege the voices of opponents of empire.  These were often the nationalist elites of those societies, whose rule, when it came, was sometimes more oppressive, more corrupt, and indeed more violent and racist, than that of the former colonial authorities.

One could list episodes of pre-colonial and post-colonial violence as Professor Lester lists cases of colonial violence.  I am not clear whether he and those who adopt similar positions think that violence committed by Zulus, Asante, Marathas, Arab slave traders and so on is morally neutral.  If so, is this not adopting the position he ascribes to the colonialists – that indigenous peoples are like children?  And are today’s oppressors not being let off the hook?

Comparison may be difficult, requiring a wide range of knowledge.  Yet without at least a broad comparative perspective, judgments are arbitrary, even meaningless.  Professor Lester characterizes the British Empire as violent.  Was it more violent than other empires, European and non-European?  More violent than the rulers it replaced, or than those who succeeded it?  What exactly is being claimed?

What is really going on in postcolonial studies?  Here again, Professor Lester indicates the crux of the matter.  Studying the empire is important because “its legacy of racism”, he asserts, makes us institutionally racist today.  This, surely, is what this is really about, and it is reflected in monographs rolling off University presses as well as in fashionable best-sellers and school textbooks.  It does not pretend to be dispassionate scholarship.  Is it any more than sophisticated propaganda?

For many commentators, “empire” has become not a historical phenomenon to be understood: an improvised and imperfect attempt to manage an unstable 19th century world and control the collision of societies at different stages of development.  Rather, it is an abstract symbol: of ‘oppression’, of ‘whiteness’, of ‘institutional racism’.  No other perspective is to be entertained.  Hence Lester’s reductionist portrayal of the Empire as a single minded process of aggressive racial conquest.  We see a parallel attempt to make slavery central to empire: both by downplaying the significance of abolition, and by attempting to discredit it as merely an excuse for imperial expansion (ironically, the very argument used by 19th century slave traders).  From this follows the widespread campaign to ‘decolonize’ almost everything.

But is it true that Britain today is institutionally racist as a consequence of empire?  Alan Lester cites as evidence hostile journalistic reactions to the Sewell Report.  But there is a large recent (2018) study, and a comparative one, which provides a meaningful assessment.[7]  It was carried out by the European Union covering all member states including Britain, and it is based on the experiences of members of ethnic minorities.  Perceptions of being racially harassed are lowest in Britain and Malta.  Violence between people of different ethnic groups is lowest in Britain and Portugal.  Friction with the police is among the lowest in the UK, and awareness of anti-discrimination laws is highest.  Discrimination in employment is lowest in the UK, and the percentage not in work, education or training is also lowest. Pay for men is highest, and for women second highest. The experience of being discriminated against by landlords is lowest, and ownership of accommodation highest.  Among the most racist countries, in contrast, are Ireland and Finland, where the experience of racial violence is roughly four times higher than in Britain.  Where does this leave Alan Lester’s grand narrative?  “The British Empire secured prosperity for many people, but we should acknowledge that its legacy of racism is not a fiction of the Black Lives Matter movement.”  The evidence suggests that only the first part of this statement is true.

[1]           Judy Campbell, Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780-1880 (Melbourne University Press, 2002)

[2]           Helen Toye and John O’Neill, eds, A World Without Famine? New Approaches to Aid and Development (London: Macmillan, 1998)

[3]           David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country: Revisited  (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

[4]           Sir Christopher Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) pp 91-2

[5]           Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968 (Cambridge University Press, 2006) p 3

[6]           See C. R. Hallpike, ‘In defence of colonialism: the case of Papua New Guinea’

[7]           Being Black in the EU/Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (2018)

Rejoinder by Alan Lester

I want to begin by thanking Professor Tombs for providing this opportunity to respond to his comments. In return I have promised to be very brief. I will not, therefore, further substantiate the five relatively minor contextual points with which Professor Tombs takes issue, especially after his admirable admission of a lack of expertise. Rather, I will follow his lead and discuss the broad contours of our respective approaches, using a metaphorical shotgun rather than a rapier.

Most of Professor Tombs’ objections can be addressed quite simply. We agreed that my preliminary essay was to be on the relationship between the British Empire and race. Hence its title, hence my focus, ‘to the exclusion of almost everything else … on race and violence’, and hence my lack of attention to Russian serfs, Mughal ‘pacification’ or the record of any other empire. Perhaps naively, I had assumed that Professor Tombs would stick to the same topic. However, his response calls for a moral comparison of the British and other empires. Had I been offered such a topic I would have declined. Neither of us has the expertise to comment on other empires meaningfully; the data with which to compare subjects’ experiences of different empires is inconsistent, inaccessible to us and inadequate; there is no objective basis on which to compare imperial moralities, and there is no space to do so without absurd reductionism. To evaluate the British Empire against others is thus a political rather than an historical approach. It is rich that Professor Tombs characterises my research of the last thirty years as being politically driven. Over the last decade Professor Tombs’ historical reflections have included Briefings for Britain – an historical toolkit for pro-Brexit politicians – and articles in the mainstream press about how our memorial heritage should be preserved in the wake of Black Lives Matter. I leave it for the reader to judge which of us is ‘approaching the history of the empire through the eyes of the 21st century, or more precisely, through certain 21st-century eyes’.

I will conclude by returning to what can be said about the British Empire and race. Professor Tombs chooses not to contest my main points: that the British Empire was founded in violence against people of colour; that its colonies were governed through racial stratification so that gains and losses were apportioned primarily (although not exclusively) according to race; that British antislavery was not antiracism and did not preclude further violent conquest, and that Black citizens of empire faced racial discrimination when they settled in Britain. Rather, he concludes by mentioning a 2018 survey showing that other European countries were more racist. This finding does not surprise me. The White supremacist ideas that the British Empire did so much to contribute to the world were of course shared by other Europeans. Their legacy is everywhere. We must acknowledge that significant progress has been made in contesting and rejecting these ideas, especially in Britain, since it became a more diverse society. We should also recognise those primarily responsible for that progress: the relatively large community of Black Britons descended from colonised people and their White allies, who have campaigned against racism for the last seventy years or so. Finally, we should ask ourselves whether we want that progress to continue to outstrip the progress of other countries. I suggest that if we do, dismissing antiracist campaigners as ‘woke’ and denying that there is still significant racism to deal with is not the way to go.

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