Notes 24, 25 and 26/Rishi Sunak










It’s a myth that British imperialism benefited one of its richest colony, India, when in reality it drained all its wealth and resources.

According to a YouGov poll in 2016, 43 percent of British citizens thought the existence of the British Empire was a “good thing,” while only 19 percent disagreed. It’s a myth that British imperialism benefited one of its richest colonies, India when on the contrary it drained all its wealth and resources just like colonizers do.

“They don’t talk about the colonial textbooks, it should be taught as part of the history because after all, it is their history. It’s also about acknowledging their past and learning about their ex-colonies. Denial is the worst thing,” said Assistant Professor of History Ruchika Sharma at Gargi College, Delhi University.

1. First traders, then colonizers

The British East India Company made its sneaky entry through the Indian port of Surat in 1608. Originally the company started with a group of merchants trying to seek a monopoly over trade operations in the East Indies. In 1615, Thomas Row one of the members approached the ruling Mughal emperor Jehangir to gain permission to open the first factory in Surat.

Slowly as they expanded their trade operations, the British started forming colonies. Penetrating deep into Indian politics, the imperialists took advantage of the infighting between the ruling royalty in different states, pitting one against the other by taking sides and offering protection.

To monitor the activities of the company, the British government installed the first governor general of India, Warren Hastings, who laid the administrative foundation for subsequent British consolidation. The East India Act of 1784 was passed to dissolve the monopoly of the East India Company and put the British government in charge. After the Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British government assumed full control, dissolving the trading company.

Imperial rule destroyed India’s local hand loom industry to fund its own industrialization. India became one of the major cotton exporters to the U.K. The raw materials from India were taken to the U.K. and the finished products were sent back to Indian markets and other parts of the world, leaving the Indian handloom industry in shambles and taking jobs away from local weavers.

India, that was one of the major exporters of finished products became an importer of British goods as its world share of exports fell from 27 percent to 2 percent. India was once referred to as “Sone ki Chidiya” or “The Golden Bird” before the British looters drained all its wealth. At the beginning of the 18th century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 percent, as large as all of Europe put together, but by the time the British were kicked out of India in 1947, it had dropped to less than 4 percent, according to the BBC.

2. How the British Empire starved India

The last famine in India, in Bengal between 1943 and 1944, claimed over four million lives. The Bengal famine — also referred to as the man-made famine — between 1943 and 1944 claimed over four million lives and is said to have been engineered as part of an unsympathetic and ruthless economic agenda, according to Rakhi Chakraborty’s book titled, “The Bengal Famine: How the British Engineered the Worst Genocide in Human History for Profit.”

Madhusree Mukerjee, a U.S.-based journalist, points out in her book, “Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II,” that U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ignored farmers’ pleas for emergency food aid, leaving millions to starve as their rice paddy fields were turned over to jute production. Mukerjee cites ministry records that reveal ships carrying cereals from Australia bypassed India on their way to the Mediterranean Sea where supplies were already abundant, the Telegraph reported.

According to Crimes of Britain, during the Bihar famine of 1873, the so-called “relief efforts” were deemed “excessive.” The British didn’t intend to end the misery caused by the famine but instead devised a strategy to prolong the starvation. The people suffering the famine, in what the empire called the “distance test” were made to walk over 10 miles to and from the relief works, according to the Crimes of Britain. The food provided at these slave labor camps where the annual death rate in 1877 was 94 percent was less than that provided at the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald.

3. Stole from the language of the oppressed

Imparting the English language was a colonial instrument designed to help the British empire oppress the Indian masses. The strategic decision by the East India Company was made to create a class of Indians, the “Babus,” who could act as a bridge between the millions of Indians who didn’t speak the language. Secretary to the Board of Control Lord Macaulay, in a nasty 1835 “Minute on Education,” urged the Governor-General to teach English to a minority of Indians, reasoning, “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

In their 200 years of rule, the British couldn’t help but steal words from local Indian languages that are now part of the English vocabulary. Ironically, one of the first words that they took was “loot” equivalent to “plunder.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late 18th century, after which it became a commonly used term across the U.K. Some other common words stolen from the subcontinent include bungalow, cheetah, chutney, juggernaut, maharaja, mantra, nirvana, pundit, thug, veranda, pyjama, shampoo and bangle, among others.

4. Indian Railways: “Dogs and Indians not allowed”

In 1843, Governor-General Charles Hardinge said the construction of railways would benefit the empire and help with “the commerce, government and military control of the country.” The railroad was paid for by Indian taxpayers. The British shareholders claimed the investments guaranteed massive returns.

The colonizers were only interested in exploiting India’s natural resources as they transported items such as coal, iron ore, cotton and other natural resources to ports for the British to ship home to use in their factories. Indians were prohibited from riding in first class compartments in the trains that they helped build even if they could afford it as the first compartments were labeled as “Dogs and Indians are not allowed.” Thousands of Indian workers died during the construction of the railroads.

5. The Imperialist policy of Divide and Conquer

The British Empire adopted the age-old political strategy of divide and conquer throughout their colonization of India. The occupiers used the strategy to turn locals against each other to help them rule the region. Whenever the British felt threatened by Indian nationalism and saw it growing, they divided the Indian people along religious lines.

In 1905, Viceroy of India Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal dividing the largely Muslim-dominated eastern section from the Hindu dominated western part. But the strategy didn’t last long as Bengal was reunited in 1911. After oppressing India for 200 years, draining its wealth and filling their own coffers, the U.K. ripped the Indian subcontinent into pieces just before they finally left. The partition of 1947 that came along with India’s independence left nearly one million dead and 13 million displaced. Billions of dollars were lost in property left behind.




Benjamin B Cohen
Orient BlackSwan
211 pages; Rs 695

One of the abiding mysteries of India’s horrific 200-year colonial encounter with England is the near-total absence of rancour between the peoples of the two countries. It is as if the depredations by the British never happened. The British have forgotten all about it, as they well might; and the Indians have decided to let bygones be bygones. Indeed, there is fairly large body of opinion in India that believes that the colonial experience was actually a good thing for the natives, what with all the mod-cons that the British kindly left behind – railways, ports, army, schools, hospitals, the judiciary, police and administrative apparatus and so on.

I have often sought an explanation for this and one of the best I ever heard came from a newspaper baron who said Indians and the British understand each other perfectly because both love to exclude people from social groups to which they belong. India, he said, had the caste system. The British had their own equivalent of it in England. And in India, well, they had their clubs.

These, as Benjamin Cohen points in this excellent and tidy little study with its fascinating bibliography, were designed to create islands of succour for the expatriates. Social homogeneity was the virtually sole requirement. The government types had their own clubs, and these were at the top of the totem pole. The businessmen, known deprecatingly as boxwallahs, too had their clubs, as did the Anglo-Indians and other persons of lesser social standing. The lines were clearly drawn and everyone was supposed to know his place.

They had, and still have, idiosyncratic rules. Women were not allowed until the late 19th century. Even then, they could only come as guests and not become members. They responded in the first few decades of the 20th century by forming their own clubs where no males were allowed to set foot.

You could not bring your own alcohol to the club. If you did you had to pay a fine before you could drink it. The process of becoming a member was typically designed to exclude the “wrong” types. A member had to nominate you; then another had to second you. Then all the members would vote whether or not to take you in. As in all voting there was politics and personal enmity. The means by which you voted against someone for whatever reason was the black wooden or ivory ball. You dropped it into the urn and your vote remained anonymous. White balls were used for saying yes. As the years went by the rules became more and more cumbersome.

The codes of conduct were strict and often silly. For example, a member was severely castigated and almost expelled because he sat on the bar. Mr Cohen provides a most entertaining account. Another didn’t become a member because he was foolish enough to call for a bearer while in the reading room and then, when he stepped out, whistle in the corridor outside it.

The clubs relied heavily on servants. The term extended from the club secretary to peons, masalchis and markers. There were scores of them in any decent club. They took care of everything that the members might need, including loans. In many of these clubs, although the practice was strictly forbidden, the servants used to lend money to the members. Clearly, when it came to money, the sahibs were not as picky as when it came to receiving reprimands sent by the club secretary or president. The markers were a special breed available to play tennis or billiards with a member who found himself alone on the court or at the table.

The food was and is generally awful, being fake British cooked mostly by Indians who had been taught how to make things like omelettes, cutlets and puddings. Some clubs tried to import chefs but the experiment didn’t work and the attempt was abandoned after a while.

The real problem, however, was warm alcohol. Members liked it to be cool, if not cold. But in the absence of refrigeration, the only way out was to keep the bottles covered in wet cloth covers, known for some reason as “petticoats”. Then in the mid-19th century, an American called Frederic Tudor appeared on the scene. He came to be known as the “Ice King” because he carted ice all the way from the east coast of America to India for sale to clubs and others, like the railways, which used it in tubs to cool the first class. These carriages were running till the mid-70s, minus the ice of course.

By the time the British left, there were over 500 clubs in existence. In most of them, dogs and Indians were not allowed. This practice was not very different from upper caste Indians not allowing Dalits into temples. And just as with the temples, the rule about the dogs could be relaxed but never about the Indians. It was only in the 20th century that this changed.







the alleged duty of white colonizers to care for nonwhite Indigenous subjects in their colonial possessions.


[anti racist resistance or ”revenge” of once colonial

people against the former colonial


is also connected with

”The Empire writes back”










During the tough times of Colonial aftermath, Indian women had three choices – be killed by the enemy, be killed by their family so as to avoid being killed by the enemy, or kill themselves, said Anita Rani in a recent podcast by Afua Hirsch, a Norwegian-born British journalist.

While a few well-read people in India are aware of the atrocities of partition, unfortunately the British education system still tries to glorify colonisation as a ‘golden era’. Hirsch however is dispelling many such myths in a series of interviews that go against the popular word.

“We rarely hear the stories of the colonised. It’s the voices of the colonisers that have shaped our ideas of the British empire,” the podcast presenter Hirsch said.

In British schools, children are told how the ‘clever’ Brits arrived in chaotic foreign lands, and bestowed them with world-class structures and roads etc. “Moreover, things went mad in the country after the British left,” said Hirsch.

India was the largest colonial empire when they covered 25% of the world lands – claiming the Sun never sets in the British empire. Rani, a British-Indian TV presenter herself, belongs to Punjab. In the podcast, she speaks about her grandfather ‘Sant Singh’ who was in the British-Indian army.

The Greatest Modern tragedies

The partition in 1947 described as “one of the greatest tragedies in modern human history” created the largest recorded mass migration in history. About 15 million people became refugees overnight as they were forced away from the country they were born in.

Sant Singh’s family who, while he was posted elsewhere, were forced to leave their home. Presumed murdered, they were never seen again. Many families were divided and friends turned foes during the vast communal violence as depicted in the moving novel, Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, a writer and a Punjabi like Rani.

Famines, funds and wars

In spite of what British claim, for Indians, colonial times were far from wonderful. Though to be fair, the British did establish schools, the railways and even tried to mitigate inequality amongst the ‘natives’ they so abhorred. In fact, they fought a lot of extremists against the violent practice of Sati where young women of deceased husbands were burned on the pyre.

Yet, much Indian blood was spilled during the British rule. The Bengal famine of 1943, which ended up claiming over 2 million lives was a result of the British government’s policies where grain was lifted off to fund its war rations. In India, it resulted in malaria, starvation and malnutrition.

Last year in April 2019, India marked the 100th anniversary of Jallianwala Bagh, where the British troops fired mercilessly on innocent protestors.

No clear, full apology

The former British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed “deep regret” for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. However, May did not offer an absolute apology; she told the House of Commons, “We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused by the massacre.” Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and other MP’s asked May for a full, clear apology instead.

Queen Elizabeth however apologised for the act in October 1997, when she visited Jallianwala Bagh to pay tribute with a 30-sec moment of silence. In February 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron while visiting Amritsar, called the massacre “a deeply shameful event in British history”.

The Imperial Amnesia

Many historians and thinkers refuse to believe that the British truly regret their actions. Shashi Tharoor the Congress MP is one of the many critics who wrote a book called ‘Imperial Amnesia’.

“There is a statute of limitations on colonial wrongdoings, but none on human memory, especially living memory. There are still millions of Indians alive today who remember the iniquities of the British Empire in India,” the book’s abstract says.

Hirsch however is one of the few who refuses to forget. She says that “we need to fully recognise our past – not as far away as we imagine – in order to understand ourselves.”

The other parts of the podcast available on Audible Amazon have six episodes which include Emmy the Great and Benjamin Zephaniah, are not just telling their own stories but the stories of millions and different British empires.





The Harvard historian Caroline Elkins stirred controversy with her work on the crushing of the Mau Mau uprising. But it laid the ground for a legal case that has transformed our view of Britain’s past

Help us sue the British government for torture. That was the request Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, received in 2008. The idea was both legally improbable and professionally risky. Improbable because the case, then being assembled by human rights lawyers in London, would attempt to hold Britain accountable for atrocities perpetrated 50 years earlier, in pre-independence Kenya. Risky because investigating those misdeeds had already earned Elkins heaps of abuse.

Elkins had come to prominence in 2005 with a book that exhumed one of the nastiest chapters of British imperial history: the suppression of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Her study, Britain’s Gulag, chronicled how the British had battled this anticolonial uprising by confining some 1.5 million Kenyans to a network of detention camps and heavily patrolled villages. It was a tale of systematic violence and high-level cover-ups.

It was also an unconventional first book for a junior scholar. Elkins framed the story as a personal journey of discovery. Her prose seethed with outrage. Britain’s Gulag, titled Imperial Reckoning in the US, earned Elkins a great deal of attention and a Pulitzer prize. But the book polarised scholars. Some praised Elkins for breaking the “code of silence” that had squelched discussion of British imperial violence. Others branded her a self-aggrandising crusader whose overstated findings had relied on sloppy methods and dubious oral testimonies.

By 2008, Elkins’s job was on the line. Her case for tenure, once on the fast track, had been delayed in response to criticism of her work. To secure a permanent position, she needed to make progress on her second book. This would be an ambitious study of violence at the end of the British empire, one that would take her far beyond the controversy that had engulfed her Mau Mau work.

That’s when the phone rang, pulling her back in. A London law firm was preparing to file a reparations claim on behalf of elderly Kenyans who had been tortured in detention camps during the Mau Mau revolt. Elkins’s research had made the suit possible. Now the lawyer running the case wanted her to sign on as an expert witness. Elkins was in the top-floor study of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the call came. She looked at the file boxes around her. “I was supposed to be working on this next book,” she says. “Keep my head down and be an academic. Don’t go out and be on the front page of the paper.”

She said yes. She wanted to rectify injustice. And she stood behind her work. “I was kind of like a dog with a bone,” she says. “I knew I was right.”

What she didn’t know was that the lawsuit would expose a secret: a vast colonial archive that had been hidden for half a century. The files within would be a reminder to historians of just how far a government would go to sanitise its past. And the story Elkins would tell about those papers would once again plunge her into controversy.

Nothing about Caroline Elkins suggests her as an obvious candidate for the role of Mau Mau avenger. Now 47, she grew up a lower-middle-class kid in New Jersey. 

Her mother was a schoolteacher; her father, a computer-supplies salesman. In high school, she worked at a pizza shop that was run by what she calls “low-level mob”. You still hear this background when she speaks. Foul-mouthed, fast-talking and hyperbolic, Elkins can sound more Central Jersey than Harvard Yard. She classifies fellow scholars as friends or enemies.

After high school, Princeton University recruited her to play soccer, and she considered a career in the sport. But an African history class put her on a different path. For her senior thesis, Elkins visited archives in London and Nairobi to study the shifting roles of women from Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. She stumbled on to files about an all-female Mau Mau detention camp called Kamiti, kindling her curiosity.

The Mau Mau uprising had long fascinated scholars. It was an armed rebellion launched by the Kikuyu, who had lost land during colonisation. Its adherents mounted gruesome attacks on white settlers and fellow Kikuyu who collaborated with the British administration. Colonial authorities portrayed Mau Mau as a descent into savagery, turning its fighters into “the face of international terrorism in the 1950s”, as one scholar puts it.

The British, declaring a state of emergency in October 1952, proceeded to attack the movement along two tracks. They waged a forest war against 20,000 Mau Mau fighters, and, with African allies, also targeted a bigger civilian enemy: roughly 1.5 million Kikuyu thought to have proclaimed their allegiance to the Mau Mau campaign for land and freedom. That fight took place in a system of detention camps.

Elkins enrolled in Harvard’s history PhD programme knowing she wanted to study those camps. An initial sifting of the official records conveyed a sense that these had been sites of rehabilitation, not punishment, with civics and home-craft classes meant to instruct the detainees to be good citizens. Incidents of violence against prisoners were described as isolated events. When Elkins presented her dissertation proposal in 1997, its premise was “the success of Britain’s civilising mission in the detention camps of Kenya”.

But that thesis crumbled as Elkins dug into her research. She met a former colonial official, Terence Gavaghan, who had been in charge of rehabilitation at a group of detention camps on Kenya’s Mwea Plain. Even in his 70s, he was a formidable figure: well over six feet tall, with an Adonis-like physique and piercing blue eyes. Elkins, questioning him in London, found him creepy and defensive. He denied violence she hadn’t asked about.

“What’s a nice young lady like you working on a topic like this for?” he asked Elkins, as she recalled the conversation years later. “I’m from New Jersey,” she answered. “We’re a different breed. We’re a little tougher. So I can handle this – don’t worry.”

In the British and Kenyan archives, meanwhile, Elkins encountered another oddity. Many documents relating to the detention camps were either absent or still classified as confidential 50 years after the war. She discovered that the British had torched documents before their 1963 withdrawal from Kenya. The scale of the cleansing had been enormous. For example, three departments had maintained files for each of the reported 80,000 detainees. At a minimum, there should have been 240,000 files in the archives. She found a few hundred.

But some important records escaped the purges. One day in the spring of 1998, after months of often frustrating searches, she discovered a baby-blue folder that would become central to both her book and the Mau Mau lawsuit. Stamped “secret”, it revealed a system for breaking recalcitrant detainees by isolating them, torturing them and forcing them to work. This was called the “dilution technique”. Britain’s Colonial Office had endorsed it. And, as Elkins would eventually learn, Gavaghan had developed the technique and put it into practice.

Later that year, Elkins travelled to the rural highlands of Central Kenya to begin interviewing former detainees. Some thought she was British and refused to speak with her at first. But she eventually gained their trust. Over some 300 interviews, she heard testimony after testimony of torture. She met people such as Salome Maina, who had been accused of supplying arms to the Mau Mau. Maina told Elkins she had been beaten unconscious by Kikuyu collaborating with the British. When she failed to provide information, she said, they raped her using a bottle filled with pepper and water.

Elkins’s fieldwork brought to the surface stories repressed by Kenya’s policy of official amnesia. After the country gained independence in 1963, its first prime minister and president, Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, declared repeatedly that Kenyans must “forgive and forget the past”. This helped contain the hatred between Kikuyu who joined the Mau Mau revolt and those who fought alongside the British. In prying open that story, Elkins would meet younger Kikuyu who didn’t know their parents or grandparents had been detained; Kikuyu who didn’t know the reason they had been forbidden to play with their neighbour’s children was that the neighbour had been a collaborator who raped their mother. Mau Mau was still a banned movement in Kenya, and would remain so until 2002. When Elkins interviewed Kikuyu in their remote homes, they whispered.

Elkins emerged with a book that turned her initial thesis on its head. The British had sought to quell the Mau Mau uprising by instituting a policy of mass detention. This system – “Britain’s gulag”, as Elkins called it – had affected far more people than previously understood. She calculated that the camps had held not 80,000 detainees, as official figures stated, but between 160,000 and 320,000. She also came to understand that colonial authorities had herded Kikuyu women and children into some 800 enclosed villages dispersed across the countryside. These heavily patrolled villages – cordoned off by barbed wire, spiked trenches and watchtowers – amounted to another form of detention. In camps, villages and other outposts, the Kikuyu suffered forced labour, disease, starvation, torture, rape and murder.

“I’ve come to believe that during the Mau Mau war British forces wielded their authority with a savagery that betrayed a perverse colonial logic,” Elkins wrote in Britain’s Gulag. “Only by detaining nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million people and physically and psychologically atomising its men, women, and children could colonial authority be restored and the civilising mission reinstated.” After nearly a decade of oral and archival research, she had uncovered “a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead”.

Elkins knew her findings would be explosive. But the ferocity of the response went beyond what she could have imagined. Felicitous timing helped. Britain’s Gulag hit bookstores after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had touched off debate about imperialism. It was a moment when another historian, Niall Ferguson, had won acclaim for his sympathetic writing on British colonialism. Hawkish intellectuals pressed America to embrace an imperial role. Then came Bagram. Abu Ghraib. Guantánamo. These controversies primed readers for stories about the underside of empire.

Enter Elkins. Young, articulate and photogenic, she was fired up with outrage over her findings. Her book cut against an abiding belief that the British had managed and retreated from their empire with more dignity and humanity than other former colonial powers, such as the French or the Belgians. And she didn’t hesitate to speak about that research in the grandest possible terms: as a “tectonic shift in Kenyan history”.

Some academics shared her enthusiasm. By conveying the perspective of the Mau Mau themselves, Britain’s Gulag marked a “historical breakthrough”, says Wm Roger Louis, a historian of the British empire at the University of Texas at Austin. Richard Drayton of King’s College London, another imperial historian, judged it an “extraordinary” book whose implications went beyond Kenya. It set the stage for a rethinking of British imperial violence, he says, demanding that scholars reckon with colonial brutality in territories such as Cyprus, Malaya, and Aden (now part of Yemen).

But many other scholars slammed the book. No review was more devastating than the one that Bethwell A Ogot, a senior Kenyan historian, published in the Journal of African History. Ogot dismissed Elkins as an uncritical imbiber of Mau Mau propaganda. In compiling “a kind of case for the prosecution”, he argued, she had glossed over the litany of Mau Mau atrocities: “decapitation and general mutilation of civilians, torture before murder, bodies bound up in sacks and dropped in wells, burning the victims alive, gouging out of eyes, splitting open the stomachs of pregnant women”. Ogot also suggested that Elkins might have made up quotes and fallen for the bogus stories of financially motivated interviewees. Pascal James Imperato picked up the same theme in African Studies Review. Elkins’s work, he wrote, depended heavily on the “largely uncorroborated 50-year-old memories of a few elderly men and women interested in financial reparations”.

Elkins was also accused of sensationalism, a charge that figured prominently in a fierce debate over her mortality figures. Britain’s Gulag opens by describing a “murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people” and ends with the suggestion that “between 130,000 and 300,000 Kikuyu are unaccounted for”, an estimate derived from Elkins’s analysis of census figures. “In this very long book, she really doesn’t bring out any more evidence than that for talking about the possibility of hundreds of thousands killed, and talking in terms almost of genocide as a policy,” says Philip Murphy, a University of London historian who directs the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and co-edits the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. This marred what was otherwise an “incredibly valuable” study, he says. “If you make a really radical claim about history, you really need to back it up solidly.”

Critics didn’t just find the substance overstated. They also rolled their eyes at the narrative Elkins told about her work. Particularly irksome, to some Africanists, was her claim to have discovered an unknown story. This was a motif of articles on Elkins in the popular press. But it hinged on the public ignorance of African history and the scholarly marginalisation of Africanist research, wrote Bruce J Berman, a historian of African political economy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. During the Mau Mau war, journalists, missionaries and colonial whistleblowers had exposed abuses. The broad strokes of British misbehaviour were known by the late 60s, Berman argued. Memoirs and studies had added to the picture. Britain’s Gulag had broken important new ground, providing the most comprehensive chronicle yet of the detention camps and prison villages. But among Kenyanists, Berman wrote, the reaction had generally been no more than: “It was as bad as or worse than I had imagined from more fragmentary accounts.”

He called Elkins “astonishingly disingenuous” for saying her project began as an attempt to show the success of Britain’s liberal reforms. “If, at that late date,” he wrote, “she still believed in the official British line about its so-called civilising mission in the empire, then she was perhaps the only scholar or graduate student in the English-speaking world who did.”

To Elkins, the vituperation felt over the top. And she believes there was more going on than the usual academic disagreement. Kenyan history, she says, was “an old boys’ club”. Women worked on uncontroversial topics such as maternal health, not blood and violence during Mau Mau. Now here came this interloper from the US, blowing open the Mau Mau story, winning a Pulitzer, landing media coverage. It raised questions about why they hadn’t told the tale themselves. “Who is controlling the production of the history of Kenya? That was white men from Oxbridge, not a young American girl from Harvard,” she says.

On 6 April 2011, the debate over Caroline Elkins’s work shifted to the Royal Courts of Justice in London. A scrum of reporters turned out to document the real-life Britain’s Gulag: four elderly plaintiffs from rural Kenya, some clutching canes, who had come to the heart of the former British empire to seek justice. Elkins paraded with them outside the court. Her career was now secure: Harvard had awarded her tenure in 2009, based on Britain’s Gulag and the research she had done for a second book. But she remained nervous about the case. “Good God,” she thought. “This is the moment where literally my footnotes are on trial.”

In preparation, Elkins had distilled her book into a 78-page witness statement. The claimants marching beside her were just like the people she had interviewed in Kenya. One, Paulo Nzili, said he had been castrated with pliers at a detention camp. Another, Jane Muthoni Mara, reported being sexually assaulted with a heated glass bottle. Their case made the same claim as Britain’s Gulag: this was part of systematic violence against detainees, sanctioned by British authorities. But there was one difference now. Many more documents were coming out.

Just as the hearings were set to begin, a story broke in the British press that would affect the case, the debate about Britain’s Gulag, and the broader community of imperial historians. A cache of papers had come to light that documented Britain’s torture and mistreatment of detainees during the Mau Mau rebellion. The Times splashed the news across its front page: “50 years later: Britain’s Kenya cover-up revealed.”

The story exposed to the public an archival mystery that had long intrigued historians. The British destroyed documents in Kenya – scholars knew that. But for years clues had existed that Britain had also expatriated colonial records that were considered too sensitive to be left in the hands of successor governments. Kenyan officials had sniffed this trail soon after the country gained its independence. In 1967, they wrote to Britain’s Foreign Office asking for the return of the “stolen papers”. The response? Blatant dishonesty, writes David M Anderson, a University of Warwick historian and author of Histories of the Hanged, a highly regarded book about the Mau Mau war.

Internally, British officials acknowledged that more than 1,500 files, encompassing over 100 linear feet of storage, had been flown from Kenya to London in 1963, according to documents reviewed by Anderson. Yet they conveyed none of this in their official reply to the Kenyans. “They were simply told that no such collection of Kenyan documents existed, and that the British had removed nothing that they were not entitled to take with them in December 1963,” Anderson writes. The stonewalling continued as Kenyan officials made more inquiries in 1974 and 1981, when Kenya’s chief archivist dispatched officials to London to search for what he called the “migrated archives”. This delegation was “systematically and deliberately misled in its meetings with British diplomats and archivists,” Anderson writes in a History Workshop Journal article, Guilty Secrets: Deceit, Denial and the Discovery of Kenya’s ‘Migrated Archive’.

The turning point came in 2010, when Anderson, now serving as an expert witness in the Mau Mau case, submitted a statement to the court that referred directly to the 1,500 files spirited out of Kenya. Under legal pressure, the government finally acknowledged that the records had been stashed at a high-security storage facility that the Foreign Office shared with the intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6. It also revealed a bigger secret. This same repository, Hanslope Park, held files removed from a total of 37 former colonies.

The disclosure sparked an uproar in the press and flabbergasted Elkins: “After all these years of being just roasted over the coals, they’ve been sitting on the evidence? Are you frickin’ kidding me? This almost destroyed my career.”

Events moved quickly from there. In court, lawyers representing the British government tried to have the Mau Mau case tossed out. They argued that Britain could not be held responsible because liability for any colonial abuses had devolved to the Kenyan government upon independence. But the presiding judge, Richard McCombe, dismissed the government’s bid to dodge responsibility as “dishonourable”. He ruled that the claim could move forward. “There is ample evidence even in the few papers that I have seen suggesting that there may have been systematic torture of detainees,” he wrote in July 2011.

And that was before historians had a chance to thoroughly review the newly discovered files, known as the “Hanslope disclosure”. A careful combing-through of these documents might normally have taken three years. Elkins had about nine months. Working with five students at Harvard, she found thousands of records relevant to the case: more evidence about the nature and extent of detainee abuse, more details of what officials knew about it, new material about the brutal “dilution technique” used to break hardcore detainees. These documents would probably have spared her years of research for Britain’s Gulag. She drew on them in two more witness statements.

Back in London, Foreign Office lawyers conceded that the elderly Kenyan claimants had suffered torture during the Mau Mau rebellion. But too much time had elapsed for a fair trial, they contended. There weren’t enough surviving witnesses. The evidence was insufficient. In October 2012, Justice McCombe rejected those arguments, too. His decision, which noted the thousands of Hanslope files that had emerged, allowed the case to proceed to trial. It also fed speculation that many more colonial abuse claims would crop up from across an empire that once ruled about a quarter of the earth’s population.

The British government, defeated repeatedly in court, moved to settle the Mau Mau case. On 6 June 2013, the foreign secretary, William Hague, read a statement in parliament announcing an unprecedented agreement to compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused during the insurrection. Each would receive about £3,800. “The British government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Hague said. Britain “sincerely regrets that these abuses took place.” The settlement, in Anderson’s view, marked a “profound” rewriting of history. It was the first time Britain had admitted carrying out torture anywhere in its former empire.

The lawyers were done fighting, but the academics were not. The Mau Mau case has fuelled two scholarly debates, one old and one new. The old one is about Caroline Elkins. To the historian and her allies, a single word summarises what happened in the High Court: vindication. Scholars had mistreated Elkins in their attacks on Britain’s Gulag. Then a British court, which had every reason to sympathise with those critics, gave her the fair hearing academia never did. By ruling in her favour, the court also implicitly judged her critics.

The evidence backing this account comes from Justice McCombe, whose 2011 decision had stressed the substantial documentation supporting accusations of systematic abuses. That “spoke directly to claims that, if you took out the oral evidence” in Britain’s Gulag, “the whole thing fell apart”, Elkins says. Then the Hanslope disclosure added extensive documentation about the scale and scope of what went on. At least two scholars have noted that these new files corroborated important aspects of the oral testimony in Britain’s Gulag, such as the systematic beating and torture of detainees at specific detention camps. “Basically, I read document after document after document that proved the book to be correct,” Elkins says.

Her victory lap has played out in op-eds, interviews and journal articles. It may soon reach an even bigger audience. Elkins has sold the film rights for her book and personal story to John Hart, the producer of hits including Boys Don’t Cry and Revolutionary Road. An early summary of the feature film he is developing gives its flavour: “One woman’s journey to tell the story of the colonial British genocide of the Mau Mau. Threatened and shunned by colleagues and critics, Caroline Elkins persevered and brought to life the atrocities that were committed and hidden from the world for decades.”

But some scholars find aspects of Elkins’s vindication story unconvincing. Philip Murphy, who specialises in the history of British decolonisation, attended some of the Mau Mau hearings. He thinks Elkins and other historians did “hugely important” work on the case. Still, he does not believe that the Hanslope files justify the notion that hundreds of thousands of people were killed in Kenya, or that those deaths were systematic. “Probably most of the historical criticisms of the book still stand,” he says. “I don’t think the trial really changes that.”

Susan L Carruthers feels the same about her own criticism of Britain’s Gulag. Carruthers, a professor of history at Rutgers University at Newark, had cast doubt on Elkins’s self-dramatisation: her account of naively embarking on a journey of personal discovery, only to see the scales drop from her eyes. She finds that Elkins’s current “narrative of victimisation” also rings a bit false. “There’s only so much ostracism one can plausibly claim if you won a Pulitzer and you became a full professor at Harvard – and this on the strength of the book that supposedly also made you outcast and vilified by all and sundry,” she says. “If only all the rest of us could be ostracised and have to make do with a Pulitzer and a full professorship at Harvard.”

The second debate triggered by the Mau Mau case concerns not just Elkins but the future of British imperial history. At its heart is a series of documents that now sits in the National Archives as a result of Britain’s decision to make public the Hanslope files. They describe, in extensive detail, how the government went about retaining and destroying colonial records in the waning days of empire. Elkins considers them to be the most important new material to emerge from the Hanslope disclosure.

One morning this spring, I accompanied Elkins as she visited the National Archives to look at those files. The facility occupies a 1970s-era concrete building beside a pond in Kew, in south-west London. A blue cord held together the thin, yellowed pages, which smelled of decaying paper. One record, a 1961 dispatch from the British colonial secretary to authorities in Kenya and elsewhere, states that no documents should be handed over to a successor regime that might, among other things, “embarrass” Her Majesty’s Government. Another details the system that would be used to carry out that order. All Kenyan files were to be classified either “Watch” or “Legacy”. The Legacy files could be passed on to Kenya. The Watch files would be flown back to Britain or destroyed. A certificate of destruction was to be issued for every document destroyed – in duplicate. The files indicate that roughly 3.5 tons of Kenyan documents were bound for the incinerator.

“The overarching takeaway is that the government itself was involved in a very highly choreographed, systematised process of destroying and removing documents so it could craft the official narrative that sits in these archives,” Elkins told me. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined this level of detail,” she added, speaking in a whisper but opening her eyes wide. “I imagined it more of a haphazard kind of process.”

What’s more, “It’s not just happening in Kenya to this level, but all over the empire.” For British historians, this is “absolutely seismic,” she said. “Everybody right now is trying to figure out what to make of this.”

Elkins laid out what she makes of this development in a 2015 essay for the American Historical Review. Broadly speaking, she thinks end-of-empire historians have largely failed to show scepticism about the archives. She thinks that the fact that those records were manipulated puts a cloud over many studies that have been based on their contents. And she thinks all of this amounts to a watershed moment in which historians must rethink their field.

The issue of archival erasure figures prominently in Elkins’s next book, a history of violence at the end of the British empire whose case studies will include Kenya, Aden, Cyprus, Malaya, Palestine and Northern Ireland. But if the response to her latest claims is any indication, her arguments will once again be controversial. The same document shenanigans that leave Elkins wide-eyed prompt several other historians to essentially shrug. “That’s exactly what you would expect of a colonial administration, or any government in particular, including our own,” laughs Wm Roger Louis. “That’s the way a bureaucracy works. You want to destroy the documents that can be incriminating.”

Murphy says Elkins “has a tendency to caricature other historians of empire as simply passive and unthinking consumers in the National Archives supermarket, who don’t think about the ideological way in which the archive is constructed”. They’ve been far more sceptical than that, he says. Historians, he adds, have always dealt with the absence of documents. What’s more, history constantly changes, with new evidence and new paradigms. To say that a discovery about document destruction will change the whole field is “simply not true”, he says. “That’s not how history works.”

Some historians who have read the document-destruction materials come away with a picture of events that seems less Orwellian than Elkins’s. Anderson’s review of the evidence shows how the purging process evolved from colony to colony and allowed substantial latitude to local officials. Tony Badger, a University of Cambridge professor emeritus who monitored the Hanslope files’ release, writes that there was “no systematic process dictated from London”.


Badger sees a different lesson in the Hanslope disclosure: a “profound sense of contingency”. Over the decades, archivists and Foreign Office officials puzzled over what to do with the Hanslope papers. The National Archives essentially said they should either be destroyed or returned to the countries from which they had been taken. The files could easily have been trashed on at least three occasions, he says, probably without publicity. For a variety of reasons, they weren’t. Maybe it was the squirrel-like tendency of archivists. Maybe it was luck. In retrospect, he says, what is remarkable is not that the documents were kept secret for so many years. What is remarkable is that they survived at all.







Isabel Ringrose tells the terrible truth about the British Empire that Boris Johnson expects us to salute

America and the Caribbean – How Britain profited from barbarism

The songs Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia will be played without lyrics at the BBC Proms this year. This led Boris Johnson to call for an end to a “bout of self recrimination and wetness” about British history.

The bloody legacy of the British Empire is not something to be proud of. Through vicious military conquest, it used enslavement, massacres, famines and partitions to create profit.

It was the largest empire ever known, covering a quarter of the world and colonising hundreds of millions of people. The Union flag represents its barbarity.

Its first colonies were established in Jamestown, north America, in 1607. Upon arrival, the British convinced the chief of the local Powhatan tribe that his people should be put to work supplying the colonisers with food.

The Powhatans rose up in revenge, but were butchered. Their numbers fell from 8,000 to under 1,000.

Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all those transported across the Atlantic.

The most profitable West Indian colonies were part of the Empire. Some, such as Barbados and Jamaica, had vicious slave codes to deter rebellions.

Plantations grew cotton, tobacco and sugar cane. By 1750, sugar made up a fifth of all European imports. Slave merchants pocketed £12 million on the sale of African people.

Between 1761 and 1807 British ports banked £60 million—around £8 billion today—from slave sales.

Britain’s rulers viewed slaves as subhuman. Slavers killed over 130 slaves on the Zong ship in 1781—just so they could claim insurance.

Life on plantations was brutal. A third of newly-imported slaves died within three years.

Africa and the Middle East – Control built on divide and conquer

The Empire forced African economies to depend on Britain for trade. Colonisation was brutal—but there was resistance.

British took over Kenya in 1890. In 1952, Kenyans demanded independence and waged the Mau Mau rebellion.

The British castrated people, sliced off ears, flogged, executed and burnt those fighting for independence.

They herded them into concentration camps that have become known as “Britain’s Gulag” and killed up to 100,000 people.

Britain also wanted to control Egypt and southern Africa to secure trade routes to India.

The Empire grabbed the Cape Colony in South Africa in 1806 and settlers pushed out the Boers. Its attempts to snatch gold and diamond industries in South Africa led in 1899 to the Second Boer War.

At least 25,000 Afrikaners died, mostly in concentration camps set up by the British. The black people who died weren’t even counted.

Between 1880 and 1900 Britain ruled 30 percent of Africa’s people.

Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and began a long obsession with control of the Middle East. The Suez Canal opened not long after—and soon Britain owned 44 percent of it.

The rush for oil grew after the First World War, when imperial powers vied for control of the oil-rich lands that Britain dominated.

Divide and conquer became the Empire’s unofficial motto. It set ethnic and religious groups against each other.

In 1917 the British signed a declaration supporting the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine—knowing this would mean the expulsion of Palestinians.

Asia and Australasia – Plunder, riches and genocide

India became known as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire mostly because of the extent to which it was plundered.

The British East India company started by trading in textiles and spices in 1600. But by the 1750s it was snatching control of ports and cities, and shipping its captured wealth back home.

The equivalent of billions of pounds of India’s wealth was pocketed by Empire.

Anger at colonialism fuelled the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Thousands of Indian troops stopped serving the British and instead turned their guns on them.

In reprisal, the British invented new ways of killing rebels—including blowing them from cannons.

After the Mutiny, the Crown took direct control and announced that queen Victoria was now “Empress of India”.

The economic chaos that Empire had created led to repeated famines. Millions of people died while the British continued to export food from India.

Resistance forced Britain to finally quit India in 1947—but not before it had slashed the country in two with Partition, creating India and Pakistan.

Indigenous Australians had inhabited the continent for around 65,000 years prior to arrival of the British in the early 17th century.

But in the 150 years that followed, indigenous numbers plummeted.

Between 1788 and 1934, at least 40,000 Indigenous Australians were murdered by settlers in 270 frontier massacres.

These were state‑sanctioned attempts to eradicate Aboriginal people.

Between 1910 and 1970, one in three Indigenous Australian children were forcibly taken from their homes.


British colonial rule oversaw the Irish Famine of 1845-1849.

One million people died and a further million were forced to emigrate.

In 1846, the British government claimed the free market would solve the problem. But it meant most people couldn’t afford food.

During the famine’s worst year in 1847, 4,000 vessels took food to England. Meanwhile 400,000 Irish people starved to death.


Britain twice waged war on China to force it to buy the highly addictive, and profitable, opium that Britain stole from India.

The British Navy bombared China in 1840 and 1856. The wars saw the massacre of Chinese troops and mass looting.

The army eventually stormed Beijing to force the Chinese to keep taking Britain’s drugs.

Silence the songs of Empire

Rule Britannia is a callous song celebrating the horrors of the empire.

“Britons never will be slaves” is a boast about how Britain profited from slavery. The song rejoices that Britain “rules the waves”.

Yet it used this to mercilessly transport those it enslaved across them. And Britain is not a “Land of Hope and Glory”.

By 1901 when the song was written, Britain had assumed ownership of over 400 million people worldwide. And it had instilled terror among people across its empire.

Neither can Britain be described as the “mother of the free” after colonising a quarter of the world.

Patriotism—a toxic idea that’s rooted in Empire

The British Empire is gone, but its horrible legacy is kept alive in patriotism.

Patriotism is the claim that there is something special about Britain. So it follows that British people, whether billionaires or the working class, have a common set of interests and values. This goes hand in glove with painting people from other countries as an “other”.

The British ruling class used patriotism to build popular support for Empire in the 19th century. It presented colonial subjects as racially inferior, and encouraged working class people to think they had a stake in subjugating them.

That empire came to an end thanks to changes in capitalism and victorious national liberation struggles that spelt an end for colonialism in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 60s.


Despite Tories’ imperial delusions of “global Britain”, they run a clapped out, fourth rate power that has been in decline since the end of the Second World War.

But the end of Empire didn’t mean a decline in patriotism and nationalism. Precisely because Britain no longer has an empire, right wing politicians pump out nationalist nonsense about how important and special Britain is and scapegoat “the foreigner” for decline.

And the racism of empire still lives on in how people from the former colonies are treated in the immigration system.

Sometimes this process is overt. Politicians and pundits have, for instance, routinely described refugees trying to make it across the English Channel as an “invasion”.

They also imply that those who support refugees are unpatriotic. Just last week the Home Office released a chilling video promising more deportations of refugees who have used their legal right to claim asylum in Britain.

The problem, said the video, was “activist lawyers” who “abuse” the system.


By claiming we all have something in common, patriotism deflects blame away from the Tories, bankers and bosses who attack working class people.

Despite this many liberals and left wingers argue it’s possible to have a British patriotism that’s inclusive or even “progressive”.

The far right may wave the Union flag or St George’s Cross as racist symbols.

But, it’s argued, instead of the British Empire, you can be patriotic about multiculturalism, the NHS, or the struggles of the Suffragettes and Chartists.

Yet there’s nothing particularly “British” about these values or institutions. Attempts at “progressive patriotism” just reinforce regular racist patriotism.

It encourages the idea that there’s something that unites everyone in Britain across class divides. And this is something the ruling class can co-opt.

They respond to the widespread popularity of reforms won through working class struggles, such as the NHS, by trying to adopt them as “national symbols”.

This in turn bolsters right wing ideas. So when restricting migrants’ right to use the NHS, Tories often say it’s a “national health service not an international health service”.

Really the history we should be proud of is one of working class struggles and mass movements that clashed with the establishment. Far from being united, workers and the British ruling class were bitter enemies.

Even if presented as harmless, patriotism leads away from class politics to class peace.

Tomáš Tengely-Evans

Reacties uitgeschakeld voor Notes 24, 25 and 26/Rishi Sunak

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