Arab slave-traders throwing slaves overboard to avoid capture by a British patrol ship, circa 1830 (Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Violence against history

An aggressively one-sided book


I was very depressed when I saw Legacy of Violence was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize this week. I spent several days struggling through the lies and distortions contained between its covers and emerged somewhat shell-shocked at the end. I very much regret the £30 I spent on its purchase. 

Exaggerating? I wish I was. This book deliberately distorts reality. It sets out to make black white, and white black. It is a piece of ideology masquerading as history. Indeed, it is more akin to a religious tract than a piece of history. Elkins is a ruthless researcher, and the accounts of violence she has uncovered are at one level impressive. But she is not an historian, for evidence without context isn’t evidence at all, but noise.

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, Caroline Elkins (New York: Knopf, London: Bodley Head; $37.50 / £30)

What seems to be her basic premise is that British imperialism was an expression of British (for which read, “White, Christian”) state violence exerted on its benighted victims across the globe. The logic seems to be (it is hard to determine the logic exactly, as it’s never explicitly expressed), that because violence existed in the empire, ergo, British colonialism was violent. As we all know, violence is bad. The evil British Empire was characterised therefore by the violent subjugation of its peoples around the globe. The assertion is, to any person able to read, utterly preposterous. Yet here it is, being shortlisted for a prestigious non-fiction prize. 

The problem of the book, apart from its false basic premise, is that there is no historic contextualisation, historical understanding or nuance in the argument. It is very easy to draw up a list of all the violence across an empire that lasted as long as the British Empire did, but it strikes me as being such an utterly foolish notion that I am astonished (a) that any one would believe this idea and (b) that anyone would have the nerve to write a book — and have it published, no less — propounding this thesis. The argument doesn’t stack up, on many levels. 

It is simply not true that violence was the primary feature of colonialism. Sure, there were often wars at the start, in order to secure territory (though this actually occurred far less than might be thought: the British Empire was spurred on by the desire for trade, not territory per se). Equally, British or colonial law was imposed and asserted in each colony. It wasn’t done so for violence’s sake, or to coerce or repress, but for the orderly conduct of society. That I have to assert this point does seem rather extraordinary. Violence (a term she never bothers to define) is a feature of all societies. It wasn’t exclusively an issue in the British Empire. 

All civil societies require protecting by men and women in uniform

No one, I hope, denies that violence was a feature in the acquisition of some colonies and the loss of others. The American War of Independence is an example of where violence was enacted against the empire, but is justified on the basis of British violence against the freedom-loving colonists. Violence was certainly an unfortunate aspect of the empire in India. Amritsar in 1919 and the Bengal Famine of 1943 are trotted out as evidence of a general perfidy, without any allowance for context. There is a distinction between accidental violence and planned violence, however. Just because a state has soldiers in uniform doesn’t mean that the state is ergo, violent. Yet that is Elkins’ assumption. The idea that all civil societies, regardless of whether they are imperial, require protecting by men and women in uniform is ignored. 

Finally, what is violence? Elkins’ premise is that violence is the natural corollary to coercion. Having British soldiers in a colony meant that the British state was naturally coercive and that violence was/is the inevitable result. The absurdity of this claim is staggering. Does a state not have the right to protect itself, or uphold the rule of law? Not if it’s a (British) colony, seems to be Elkins view. Yet the first duty of any government, good or bad, is to protect its citizens. The failure of the British Empire to do this in Malaya, Singapore or Burma in 1942 (a subject Elkin’s doesn’t describe) allowed these colonies to fall into the hands of a less benign coloniser than the British. Millions died.

At a quite profound level the book is weird: it just doesn’t correlate with human social experience. All societies require security, and they have required it from the beginning of the human experience. It was not only good but essential for the British to establish security across its colonial enterprise to assert the rule of law, to help regulate society and commerce and to protect these territories from predators. But Elkins thinks it was evil.

The absurd lack of balance makes her book something of a joke

This is where her lack of proportion is so staggering. In Malaya, a subject I have studied and written about for nigh on forty years, Elkins completely twists the story of Malaya’s journey to independence (to become Malaysia) to argue that Britain fought with military violence to prevent it. This is not just historically inaccurate, but a blatant lie, which any reading of a reputable history book would reveal. Likewise, her treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya makes this animistic murderous cult out to be freedom-fighting angels defending against the state violence of the nasty white colonial oppressors. Any sense that the British or colonial authorities were fighting a counter-insurgency (where bad things did occasionally happen, sad to say) to protect the citizens from violence is rejected. Nor do we hear anywhere in the book about the millions of people who were happy with the governance the empire provided, in contradistinction to the chaos that had (sometimes) reigned before, nor those millions who over many centuries served and died in the armies of that accursed empire. 

This absurd lack of balance makes her book something of a joke. It treats all British security judgments in the colonies to be simply an expression of a moral evil that lay at the heart of the British Empire. I could go on, but it would be too depressing. 

In my study of aspects of the Indian empire I have found that in some cases the exact opposite to Elkins’ assertion to be true. In the village-based societies of Assam in the 19th century, villages voluntarily approached the government, in the form of Deputy Commissioners in the hills, for protection from their violent neighbours. Delhi was reluctant to get involved, not wanting to expand its responsibilities, but the DCs generally acceded, concerned as they were for the lives of the people in these remote Naga Hills. They were, to a man, remarkable anthropologists. In exchange for an annual tax, the Raj would agree to provide that village with security from its neighbours. I have described this in my book Among the Headhunters. The empire worked in places like India precisely because it developed along with the (sometimes unhappy) consent of the bulk of the population. At the point at which these populations decided they’d had enough, they sought their own independence, some, like those in the American colonies, through their own violence.

Far from bringing or abetting violence, the British Empire worked to remove it. You don’t get this view presented in Elkins book, but then again, she isn’t an historian, something her book demonstrates categorically. 

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