Jolly Good Fellows and Their Nasty
Times of India (15 January 2007)
The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire
Some apologists for the British empire, whose numbers have increased rapidly in recent years under aggressive cheerleaders such as Niall Ferguson, Max Boot, and Robert Kaplan, have long argued that British colonial rule was, on balance, something of a gentlemanly affair.
The British liked their tea and gin and tonic, cricket and polo, and dealing with the natives was something of a nuisance. Sometime after General Dyer had shot dead at least 379 people at the Jallianwala Bagh, the British initiated an official inquiry and Dyer was brought before the Hunter commission.
In the House of Commons, Churchill thundered forth about how 'frightfulness' or terror of the sort in which Dyer engaged was not part of the British pharmacoepia.
This is the kind of 'evidence' that is usually summoned forth to support the view that the British cared much about what is today called 'accountability' and were guided by principles of 'fair play'.
To clinch their argument, the members of the British Empire fan club never fail to mention that had Gandhi faced any foe other than the British, he would certainly have been shot dead long before he had multiple opportunities to create mischief.
The apologists invite their readers to countenance the fate of Gandhi before Goebbels's thugs and Nazi tanks.
One of the indisputable merits of Newsinger's book is that the author is relentlessly candid in advancing the argument that the British empire was not merely gained at the point of bayonets but was down to its last days a very bloody affair.
The subtitle of the book, A People's History of the British Empire, will likely suggest comparisons with Howard Zinn's famous People's History of the United States, and there is little doubt that Newsinger is actuated by the impulse to write a history from below —a history, more precisely, of British repression, of the suffering imposed upon the Empire's victims, and frequent resistance to colonial rule.
Most histories of the British Empire have dwelled on regimes of law and order installed by the British, the bringing of the railways, roads, and telegraph to the natives, the institutionalisation of formal education, the introduction of British political traditions and institutions—not only parliamentary democracy, but law courts, an adversarial judicial system, and so on.
Newsinger dispenses with the idea, which is almost like a religion to (especially Anglo) historians of the British empire, that the good must be weighed alongside the (little) evil and that the well-intentioned proconsuls and office-bearers of the Empire have not been done justice.
What Newsinger offers instead is an annotated catalogue of British crimes, some more familiar than others. The story of the brutal suppression of the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58, for instance, has been the staple of nationalist Indian narratives and is generally encountered in most histories of the British empire.
The chapter on the 1940s, which covers the Quit India 'disturbances', INA trials, and the Royal Indian Navy mutiny, is more intellectually rewarding since the historiographical focus has been largely on the Hindu-Muslim communal conflict.
At the same time that Churchill was waging a valiant struggle against the Nazis and Japanese, he complained to Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, 'I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.'
The Hindus, Churchill observed, are a 'foul people', and the Royal Air Force's surplus bombers could, in his opinion, be suitably deployed 'to destroy them'. Amery privately noted, 'I didn't see much difference between his outlook and Hitler's.'
Though India was doubtless Britain's most important colony, the British were, as Newsinger amply demonstrates, ecumenical in their pursuit of dominance and, when faced with resistance, unflinching retribution.
British historians are fond of dwelling on the abolition of slavery in British possessions, but Newsinger alerts us to the less frequently mentioned suppression of slave revolts by the British in their Caribbean possessions.
They initiated ferocious anti-insurgency campaigns against the Malays in the 1940s, pioneering methods of 'forced villigisation' that would later be adopted by the Americans in Vietnam.
The Mau Mau revolt in Kenya was crushed with complete abandon, and arguably the British abandoned all restraint on the theory that African people were even less deserving than other people of any measure of dignity and respect.
Nor does Newsinger at all incline to the relatively benign reading of the devastating Irish Potato famine of the 1840s, which killed a million people, as merely a consequence of ill-informed English administrative decisions and neglect.
He sees the famine through the eyes of the Republican John Mitchel, who described 'how every one of those years, '46, '47 and '48, Ireland was exporting to England food to the value of 15 million pounds sterling'. Mitchel recognised genocide for what it was.
Though not unsympathetic to Gandhi, Newsinger is evidently of the school of thought which sees Gandhi as something of a bourgeois leader who, notwithstanding his stringent anti-colonialism, shared with the colonial regime anxieties about the masses and a concern for retaining law and order.
His readings of Gandhi are similar to those offered by four generations of Indian Marxists and, to put it mildly, intellectually uninteresting. There are also numerous errors of fact: for example, the Iranian revolution took place in 1979 not 1989, and Indian independence took place on August 15th not 17th.
Yet Newsinger's book commends itself to our attention with the author's unimpeachable politics, wide canvas, and quest for justice.
His painstaking critique of the Labour party's collusion with imperialism at every turn alone makes the book worthwhile reading, and suggests why Blair's support of aggression against Iraq is precisely what one might have expected from him.
But perhaps nothing testifies to the need for such a book as much as the fact that, astonishingly, there is very little in the mountainous literature on the British Empire of a comparable scope.
(Vinay Lal teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles
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