In September 1897, 23-year-old Winston Churchill, then a soldier with the British army in India, took part in a punitive raid to put down rebellious tribes in the Mamund Valley of India’s North-West Frontier Province. The British response to the Pathans fighting for their lands, as recorded by Churchill was, “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”
Reading this it is hard to argue that these atrocities do not match those now being committed by Putin’s soldiers in Ukraine. And such violence was by no means unusual during British rule in India. It was the standard British way of dealing with tribals determined to preserve their way of life.
What makes this interesting is how Churchill justified it. In his book Frontiers and Wars, he wrote, “I invite the reader to examine the question of the legitimacy of village-burning for himself. A camp of a British brigade, moving at the order of the Indian government under the acquiescence of the people of the United Kingdom is attacked at night. Several valuable and expensive officers, soldiers and animals are killed and wounded. The assailants retire to the hills. Thither it is impossible to follow them. They cannot be caught. They cannot be punished. Only one remedy remains – their property must be destroyed. Their villages are made hostage for their good behaviour . . . Of course it is cruel and barbarous, as is much else in war, but it is only an unphilosophic mind that will hold it legitimate, to take a man’s life and illegitimate to destroy his property. In official parlance the burning of villages is described euphemistically as, ‘So many villages were visited and punished’, or, again, ‘The fortifications were demolished’. I do not believe in all this circumlocution. The lack of confidence in the good sense of the British democracy, which the Indian government displays, is one of its least admirable characteristics. The people of our islands only require to have the matter put fairly before them to arrive at sound, practical conclusions. If this were not so, we would not occupy our present position in the world.”
Yet, nearly a quarter of century later he, by then minister, was indulging in the same twisting of facts. In 1920, Churchill, responding to Brig Gen Dyer’s decision to fire on unarmed civilians in Amritsar, an action which killed some 400 civilians, told the House of Commons it was “absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things”. Over the years, Churchill’s views have proved very handy for British politicians for one of the worst atrocities of the empire. David Cameron invoked them when, as prime minister, he visited the memorial at Amritsar to avoid having to apologise. Yet, as Caroline Elkins argues, Amritsar was not a one-off perpetrated by the rogue Dyer.
Just over 30 years after Amritsar, between 1952 and 1960, the British used barbarous force in putting down the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya which Elkins wrote about in her groundbreaking book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. Elkins’s research provided evidence for the unprecedented legal claim made by five survivors of that violence in 2009 during which the British government sensationally disclosed that it had “discovered “ a huge cache of files hidden away in Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. These proved so devastating that it led to a settlement with the claimants and an unprecedented apology by William Hague, the foreign secretary, in the House of Commons whose tone was very different to the one Churchill had used to excuse Amritsar.
For Elkins, the Mau Mau atrocities raised, “unanswered questions about violence in the British empire” and this book is her answer. It deals with Britain’s second empire in Asia and Africa, after it had lost its first, the American colonies, and on which, as the saying went, “the sun never set”. Elkins, with amazing research, convincingly shows that the sun never set because the British used what she calls “legalised violence” to put down any attempt to challenge its rule. In the process she also explodes the myth that the empire was not central to British life or not supported by most of the nation including both the Labour and Conservative parties.
The majority of the British, who still see the empire as a force of good, may condemn this as a wokeish attempt to rewrite history, worse still done by an American historian. But this is a story that has not been told. In this case, the rewriting is fully justified and long overdue and, as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”