Demanding yet denying the human condition makes for an explosive contradiction.
Jean-Paul Sartre Preface to The Wretched of the Earth, 1961
On the overcast afternoon of June 7, 2020, thousands of protesters flooded London’s streets where their presence threw into relief an emptiness that the global pandemic had brought to Britain’s capital. The void of pedestrian and traffic hum amplified the demonstrators’ voices as they reverberated through the city’s edifices dedicated to the empire. Indeed, it was the empire and its conflicted past that fueled the crowd’s demands. They marched to Westminster, where an oversize statue of Winston Churchill beckoned Parliament to take care of the liberal order that he had so valiantly championed and protected during the high noon of Britain’s empire. In death as in life, Churchill was a figure of outsize proportions, and his often-repeated quotes have stood the test of time. “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never,” he famously intoned in 1941 to a cadre of impressionable young men at his exclusive alma mater, Harrow School.1 Yet on that spring day in 2020, the inspired crowd delivered a new message. Clad largely in black with accompanying face masks, the masses gathered around Churchill’s statue with fists raised as they chorused, over and again, “Churchill was a racist.” A protester with spray paint in hand soon struck out the former prime minister’s name on the monument’s pedestal. The damning words being chanted became the statue’s new epitaph.2
Demands for racial justice swept through Britain at a time when COVID-19 struck its Black population with the same disproportion already evident in prison populations and police violence. Churchill was not the only historic figure now held to account. Around the time his statue was defaced, another physical testament to empire also went the way of history. In Bristol, a city built on profits gained from the trade and labor of enslaved people, Black Lives Matter demonstrations ignited from backdrafts across the Atlantic. Edward Colston’s statue became the target of protesters’ fury, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Colston was director of the Royal African Company when it forcibly transported around eighty-five thousand African men, women, and children, in conditions so inhumane that nearly a quarter of them perished before they reached the Americas. For over a century, his statue was a monument, for some, to the extraordinary beneficence that Colston bestowed on the city. For others, it represented a nation that still boasted an imperial pride built not only on shameless racial assumptions but also on the backs of countless enslaved and colonized peoples across Britain’s empire—an empire that, in its heyday, covered over a quarter of the world’s landmass and claimed 700 million people as its subjects. The protesters rendered their judgment when they toppled Colston’s statue and launched it into the River Avon.3
The silence of Colston’s final resting place stood in stark contrast to the debates over the past that haunted and divided the nation. In the eyes of many, Britain had been the purveyor of a benign imperialism that was the standard-bearer for all other empires. For certain, there were blots, like the trade in enslaved peoples, but on history’s balance sheet, any ill-begotten wealth had been more than atoned for through Britain’s largesse. When empire’s aperture widened to the postemancipation nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the narrative persisted and produced imperial icons like Cecil John Rhodes. Founder of the British South African Company, Rhodes enacted a grandiose “Cape to Cairo” vision with an oppressive hand of economic extraction. He was, according to Oxford’s Oriel College, “a businessman and a political deal-maker who prosecuted wars in pursuit of his goals.”4 Rhodes was also a great “race patriot” who had amassed a fortune, in his own words, “exploit[ing] the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies.”5 Upon his death in 1902, he bequeathed £100,000 to Oriel College, though the bulk of his money went to the Rhodes Trust and its scholarships for students from the British colonies, the United States, and Germany. For more than a century, Rhodes’s statue has gazed at Oxford students—a select few of whom hold the mineral magnate’s prestigious fellowship—as they walk past Oriel’s north side. This, despite vehement calls for its removal.
Questions over whether “Rhodes must fall” are, of course, proxies for much larger battles over how we in the present remember the past. Debates about the meanings and legacies of Britain’s empire are not new. Recent crises, however, spotlight persistent injustices and demand reassessments of how Britain became what it is today. But there are powerful countervailing forces in these “imperial history wars.”6 At Oxford, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology Nigel Biggar launched his “Ethics and Empire” project in 2017.7 The theologian admonishes those who are “wont to assume that domination is an intrinsically bad thing.”8 “Sometimes the imposition of imperial rule,” he emphasizes, “can have the salutary effect of imposing a unifying, pacific, and law-abiding order on peoples otherwise inclined to war among themselves.”9 Looking “to develop a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire,” Biggar points to real-world implications at stake. “Not allowing our imperial history to be rubbished is important,” he emphasizes, “because if indeed our imperial history was all that they say it was, namely a litany of atrocity, then the moral authority of the West is eroded.”10
In contrast to Biggar’s concern with morality, Niall Ferguson’s focus is on imperialism’s systems and structures. In his blockbuster book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, the prolific historian champions Britons’ noble and triumphant character by stressing their concrete legacies around the globe. “The British Empire,” he proclaims, “acted as an agency for imposing free markets, the rule of law, investor protection and relatively incorrupt government on roughly a quarter of the world.” Ferguson invites his readers to consider an alternative history. “The imagination reels from the counterfactual of modern history without the British Empire,” he insists. “There would be no Calcutta; no Bombay; no Madras. Indians may rename them as many times as they like, but these vast metropoles remain cities founded and built by the British.” British ideals and institutions drove unprecedented socioeconomic, legal, and political transformations ushering much of the world into the modern era, Ferguson concludes. “There therefore seems to be a plausible case that the Empire enhanced global welfare—in other words, was a Good Thing.”11
Biggar and Ferguson are not alone in their views. Sixty percent of the nation, when polled in 2014, believed that “the British Empire was something to be proud of”; more recently, over a quarter of Britons say they want empire back.12 In June 2016, Britain voted on whether to leave the European Union. Brexit, the portmanteau of British and exit, won narrowly and memories of empire played no small role. “We have spent 500 years trying to stop continental European powers uniting against us,” Boris Johnson reminded his nation in the run-up to the Brexit vote.13 Such sentiment reflected Britain’s long-standing embrace of empire and its ambivalence toward the continent. After the nation entered World War II in September 1939, its vast overseas possessions arguably tipped the scales toward Allied victory. Having imperial winds at its back, the postwar Labour government claimed Big Three status alongside the United States and the Soviet Union. Continental nations laid the foundations for the European Union in 1952, but Britain didn’t join until 1973, after it had lost most of its colonies.
“I cannot help remembering,” Prime Minister Johnson recently declared, “that this country over the last two hundred years has directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries—that is most of the members of the UN.”14 The Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign touted a “Global Britain” vision, an Empire 2.0. Pushing back his mop of hair and stammering with pride, Johnson reminded his nation that “Churchill was right when he said that the empires of the future will be empires of the mind and in expressing our values I believe that Global Britain is a soft power superpower and that we can be immensely proud of what we are achieving.”15 He urged voters to enact their historically informed destiny. As the influential journalist and author Neal Ascherson observed on the eve of Britain’s decision to go it alone: “Behind Brexit stalks the ghost of imperial exception, the feeling that Great Britain can never be just another nation. There’s still a providential feeling about Shakespeare’s ‘sceptred isle’ as ‘this fortress built by Nature.’ ”16
The British Empire was born from conflict, and coming to terms with its history is no different. To study it is to unlock memory’s gate using the key of historical inquiry. But once inside, history’s fortress is bewildering. Chimeras abound, spawned hundreds of years ago when Britain began its march toward amassing the largest empire that the world has ever known. Unlike mythical fire-breathing monsters, however, the creatures inhabiting the annals of Britain’s imperial past are not illusions. By the nineteenth century, they took fresh breath from a potent ideology of liberal imperialism and from new forms in the British Empire’s structures and practices. These monstrosities inflicted untold suffering, though with a deftness that obscured their corrosive effects in images, real and imagined, of imperial reform. The question is, how and why did these enigmatic creatures emerge, develop, and endure? It is also the question behind this book, an account of violence in the British Empire, its origins, institutions, practices, and effects on hundreds of millions of people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The story that unfolds is not the whole story of violence in the empire. This would be impossible to tell in a single account. Instead, my interest lies in British imperialism’s entanglement of liberalism, violence, the law, and historical claim making and the ways in which state-directed violence in the British Empire have shaped large parts of the contemporary world.
The arguments that I make unfold in the telling of this lengthy and troublesome story, though setting the broader scene and explaining recurring terms are essential for understanding what follows. The oldest stories of the British Empire read like memorials to a preordained expansion that was various parts secular and religious depending on where one stood. Sprawling across vast territories and bringing order to “savage” landscapes and populations, Britain was to the modern world what the Romans and Greeks were to the ancient one. As with all memorializing, such histories were not pure fiction. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, multimasted ships set sail from a craggy island speck in the North Atlantic. Their knee-breeched crews and motley collection of passengers voyaged across treacherous seas to seek fortune and trade and to claim new territories.
Britain’s first empire, as it is often called, was largely a Western one, comprised mostly of free whites, enslaved Black laborers, and indigenous populations dispossessed of land. When the American colonies revolted, Britain suffered a humiliating loss, though it found redemption in a turn to the East. There, in Britain’s second empire, imperial ambitions were grandiose. By the nineteenth century, British global expansion and imperialism—or the extension of economic and political control over foreign lands through either informal or formal means—was a defining feature. In search of markets for its goods and capital, Britain preferred to keep the doors of free trade and investment open through informal mechanisms like treaties and the sheer force of its economic dominance. When necessary, however, it would annex a territory and exert formal political control, achieving economic supremacy through protectionist policies, which included tariffs, monopolies, and an accumulation of sterling reserves through a positive trade balance. Whether through informal or formal means, imperialism was a difference of degree, not of kind. Britain exported its investments, manufactured goods, people, language, and culture to the far reaches of the globe while importing raw materials for its factories, food for the nation, and profits for its “gentlemanly capitalists,” or financiers, rentiers, and insurance agents who amassed invisible earnings. Through British loans, infrastructure investments, and predatory banking, laissez-faire imperialism rendered places in Latin America as much a sphere of influence as South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope or India—where, after 1857, formal annexation and protectionist policies consolidated political control, extortive taxation, and a host of monopolies that included opium and salt.17
As the nineteenth century progressed, however, Britain’s ability to maintain its empire through informal means diminished. Foreign competition forced British occupations and formal rule in far-flung territories like the Gold Coast, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Kowloon, Sierra Leone, Basutoland, Lagos, and Natal. Some British statesmen balked at further territorial acquisitions. Annexations, though deemed necessary to safeguard the nation’s commercial and strategic interests, were expensive. Part of this expense lay in the violence necessary to wrest and maintain control. In the nineteenth century, there were over 250 separate armed conflicts in the British Empire, with at least one in any given year. Among them were revolts in Barbados, Demerara (British Guiana), Ceylon, St. Vincent, and Jamaica. They also included sustained efforts to conquer and dominate—or “pacify” as Britain termed it—the Ashante in the Gold Coast; the Mahdists in Sudan; the Xhosa, Zulu, and Afrikaners in South Africa; the Afghans in Central Asia; and the Burmese in South Asia. Rudyard Kipling called these conflicts the “savage wars of peace”: some were short, others protracted and recurring. They became part of imperial life, consuming British manpower, lives, and taxpayer funds while devastating local populations.18
Ruling over hundreds of millions of conquered subjects, most of whom were Black or brown, and neither enslaved nor free, presented new challenges. How could Britain justify and maintain its domination of conquered peoples at a time when liberal ideals were rendering its own nation-state increasingly democratic?19 Before turning to this question, I need to offer some general points about nation-states, as their emergence and peculiarities have implications for our story.20 Nation-states are a fusion of tangible and subjective realities. The state is largely a political and geographical entity, whereas a nation is a cultural construction comprised of ideas and sentiments. Today, the modern state is the bedrock of our international order. It maintains and defends its own sovereignty, or exclusive and complete control over the people and territory within its borders, and this sovereignty is recognized legally and diplomatically by other states. It also gives rise to complex bureaucracies, including systems of law, taxation, and education. Nations are groups of people who see themselves as sharing a common language, religion, set of traditions, and history—or an identity—that binds them together into an “imagined community,” as the political scientist Benedict Anderson once called it.21 An ideal nation-state is a sovereign state governing a culturally unique nation, and its government is a collection of people through which the state’s power is deployed.
Copyright © 2022 by Caroline Elkins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.