British policemen hold villagers at gunpoint while their huts are searched for evidence that they took part in the 1952 Mau Mau rebellion

Bombastic lecture on the evil empire

From the suppression of colonial documents, Caroline Elkins spins a tale of violence

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 2008, Caroline Elkins did a great service for students of empire. Together with several other eminent historians, she served as an “expert witness” in the four-year high court trial, brought against the British government by five elderly Kenyans over atrocities committed during the Mau Mau insurgency of the 1950s. As a result, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office uncovered a massive repository of colonial-era records spirited away from Kenya and elsewhere at decolonisation. Known as the “Migrated Archives”, these more than 10,000 files were afterwards made available to researchers and promise to transform new histories of the end of empire.

It is not possible to take seriously the more grandiose claims

This “discovery,” for Elkins and others, was as good as proof of the dark reality of Britain’s empire, revealing patterns of document removal and destruction that amount to a “conspiratorial suppression of historical evidence” over the nation’s imperial past. One wonders if such conclusions will survive what we have recently learned about the United States’ botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Officials in Kabul had apparently not “spirited away” their records, and were unable (to borrow a favourite Elkins phrase) to “reduce to ashes” their documents quickly enough.

As a result, the Taliban is reported to possess American files that include the names, home addresses, family members, and biometrical data of every Afghan who ever allied with, helped and trusted them. It is difficult to imagine a more cruel, real-life lesson being delivered in the responsibilities of document management by declining imperial powers.

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, Caroline Elkins (Vintage, £30)

There is an eminently plausible story at the heart of Elkins’ hefty book. She is interested in the circulation of people, methods and ideas connected with colonial violence around the British Empire, and uncovering how supposedly isolated incidents — or individual “bad apples” — in one colonial crisis tended to spread, even metastasise, to others around the globe.

Robert Bickers wrote the classic of this genre in 2003. Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai recorded how a very average young man from Cumbria, inured to violence in the Great War, then joined an eastern colonial police force and went on to brutalise British colonial subjects in his turn.

Many Britons of that Second World War generation, Elkins suggests, were shaped by fighting in colonial crises of the 1920s and 30s, including in Ireland, India, and Palestine. This included a lot of policemen: 10,000 Britons passed through police academies at Jenin and Ramallah and fanned out into the empire — occasionally taking violent methods and mindsets with them. The Arab Revolt in Palestine, between 1936 and 1939, was also the making of many later household names — colonial governors such as Hugh Foot, and military figures such as Arthur “Bomber” Harris.

Elkins is correct that British decolonisation after the end of the war — if not “white-washed” — has got off lightly among historians, often via a contrast with the dreadful behaviour of the French. We remain far too influenced by the impression that Britain willingly and amicably handed over power (as Harold Macmillan put it) to Asian and African representatives of “agreeable, educated, Liberal, North Oxford society”.

There is a single map in this book which should definitively dispose of such ideas, showing all the colonial conflicts and states of emergency Britain was engaged in around the world after 1945. There are the well-known counterinsurgencies in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden. Alongside other, less well-known ones, however — British Guiana, Malaysia, Belize, Oman and the New Hebrides — bring us pretty much into the 1980s without a single year of global colonial peace.

In Kenya and Malaya, the British carried out massive coercive interventions in the 1950s, including the forcible resettlement of over a million people into closely monitored “new villages”, which, if they cannot be likened to concentration camps, certainly resemble the kinds of things the French were doing in Algeria. Difficult though it is to believe today, until very recently the British were a “warlike” and patriotic people, and their agents could be ruthless in the pursuit of imperial interest overseas.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to take seriously the more grandiose claims of Legacy of Violence, including Elkins’ presumption to have uncovered the Key to All Mythologies of British imperial wickedness in the form of Liberalism and Racism. The prose is part of the problem. Her introductory statement of the book’s bombastic aims reads more like something written by a professional satirist, than a professional historian.

“To study the British empire,” she writes, “is to unlock memory’s gate using the key of historical enquiry. But once inside, history’s fortress is bewildering … Unlike mythical fire-breathing monsters, however, the creatures inhabiting the annals of Britain’s imperial past are not illusions [but] monstrosities [which] inflicted untold suffering …”

Much of the book is given over to a plodding chronicle of British history

Much of the book is given over to a plodding chronicle of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history, in which events are construed — and often misconstrued — to give the meanest possible interpretation. British “arch-imperialists” resemble cartoon villains, who wear “Hitleresque moustaches” and “racist coattails” and are awarded MBEs and OBEs according to how much harm they inflict upon colonial subjects. There is even an imaginative reconstruction of British pilots all but laughing as they machine-gun “defenceless women and children”; readers are invited to listen to their “screams of pain”.

To determine whether Britain’s empire was uniquely violent invites the question: compared to what? Niall Ferguson earned opprobrium for suggesting in 2003 that alongside the rival empires which arose to challenge it in the middle of the twentieth century, Britain’s looked pretty attractive.

To her credit, Elkins does not disagree with this. Her treatment of Malaya’s communist insurgency suggests that she is not particularly exercised by violence when it is committed by ideological confrères. The only thing we get in the way of any broader comparison, however, is the notably wishy-washy one implied between the “East and the West”, which she describes as the contrast between “humanity and inhumanity”.

The other thing we learned from the Migrated Archives is about the world of Britain’s local imperial allies. The empire was not — as Elkins anachronistically argues — some long-standing Liberal Imperial project to spread civilisation across the world. Yet there is a whole other history of the end of empire to be written about how, when it did become more Liberal after the Second World War, its local partners sought independence because they became fed up with what they regarded as Britain’s growing colonial pusillanimity.

Author Caroline Elkins

In the early 1960s Malaysia was created as part of a deal between the Malayan prime minister and Singapore’s premier, motivated in part because they didn’t trust Britain to suppress Singapore’s communists. Several years earlier, Nigeria’s soon-to-be independence prime minister was horrified when British-officered police failed to shoot on demonstrators, telling the outgoing colonial governor that “things would be different” when the police and army were under his control. (Fact check: they were.)

This is not to suggest that the British empire was morally superior to its post-colonial successors — or its predecessors — but to only point out that the very idea that certain kinds of “state-directed violence”, or the existence of racial, ethnic or religious states, were wrong owed a lot to the Liberalism that Elkins would have us excoriate as the source of all evil in the world.

In academic circles, Legacy of Violence will be treated as having “proven” beyond all doubt that Britain’s empire was a sadistic, “fascist-imperial project” and will be solemnly referenced to this effect in scholarly books and articles — underlining the extent to which the humanities are starting to resemble a gigantic Ponzi scheme. “Violence” will become another stop-word, used against anyone who works on any other aspect of Britain’s imperial history, placing the moral onus on them to defend themselves.

In reality, the book’s gruesome catalogue of every crime and violent act committed by the British against their colonial subjects — torture, electrocution, castration, starvation, rape, mutilation — resembles those nineteenth-century newspaper reporters whose graphic depictions of “Oriental savagery” were so often deployed to justify the expansion of empire.

The book seems to have a similar intention — judging by its constant relating of historical events to Black Lives Matter, Brexit, and Meghan Markle — to fan moral outrage in the hope of advancing a desired political end. When the discovery of dispassionate truth is once again the main pursuit of the academy, the real value of this book will be what it tells us about our century, not for anything it says about the twentieth.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover