IN 2003 NIALL FERGUSON published his Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World, a volume intended to capture the spirit of the times. Empires and imperialism were being celebrated as a duty that powerful states owed to their weaker brethren. This duty was to be put into effect with catastrophic consequences with the invasion of Iraq. Ferguson followed this bestselling volume with another one, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, establishing himself as a latter day Rudyard Kipling, urging the American ruling class to take up “the white man’s burden”.1
One problem with contemporary apologists for empire, however, is their reluctance to acknowledge the extent to which imperial rule rests on coercion, on the policeman torturing a suspect and the soldier blowing up houses and shooting prisoners. It is the contention of this book that this is the inevitable reality of colonial rule and, more particularly, that a close look at British imperial rule reveals episodes as brutal and shameful as in the history of any empire. Indeed, a case in point is the methods the British used to suppress the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. This is especially pertinent, because in a personal reminiscence Ferguson tells his readers that “thanks to the British Empire, my earliest childhood memories are of colonial Africa”. His father worked for two years in Kenya after independence, but as he observes, “scarcely anything had changed…We had our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili—and our sense of unshakeable security. It was a magical time.” Indeed, he still has “the carved wooden hippopotamus, wart hog, elephant and lion which were once my most treasured possessions”.2 Now this is, of course, all very touching but his “magical time” was only made possible by one of the most ferocious episodes of colonial repression in British imperial history which does not merit so much as a mention in his book. The Mau Mau revolt of the 1950s was put down with terrible brutality, the routine use of torture, summary executions, internment on a massive scale, and the hanging of over 1,000 prisoners. How seriously should we take a history of the empire that somehow misses all this? Hopefully this volume will serve, at least in part, as an antidote to Ferguson’s work.
First, however, let us make clear what we are primarily concerned with here. Imperialism has two dimensions: firstly, the competition between the great imperial powers, competition that in the 20th century produced two world wars and the Cold War. This competition is the driving force of modern imperialism, and it has wreaked terrible damage on the world, consuming millions of lives. What this book is primarily concerned with, however, is not the relationship between the British Empire and its imperial rivals, but with the second dimension—the relationship between the imperial power and its conquered peoples. The best description of this relationship was provided by George Orwell in his novel Burmese Days, where he wrote that imperialism consisted of the policeman and the soldier holding the “native” down, while the businessman went through his pockets.3 Of course, countries were not invaded and occupied just for reasons of economic exploitation. Strategic considerations were also an important factor, although these strategic considerations invariably involved protecting colonies that were of economic importance.
It is the contention here that imperial occupation inevitably involved the use of violence and that, far from this being a glorious affair, it involved considerable brutality against people who were often virtually defenceless. For too long the image of imperial conquest that has prevailed in Britain is that propagated by the 1964 film Zulu. This tells the epic story of a small band of British soldiers battling against overwhelming odds at Rorke’s Drift (in today’s South Africa) in 1879. The British fight with both courage and honour and emerge victorious, more because of their national character than their superior weaponry. What the film conveniently leaves out is the subsequent slaughter of hundreds of Zulus wounded, clubbed, shot and bayoneted to death, some hanged and others buried alive.4 This was and remains the reality of colonial warfare.
It is worth remembering that the much trumpeted “Shock and Awe” that the United States promised to inflict on Iraq in 2003 had been inflicted by the British on city after city throughout the world in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Bombardments that left hundreds dead, districts reduced to rubble, and populations cowed are hardly worth the notice of most historians. If it had been British cities shelled by an invader, the story would have been very different. How many readers, one wonders, have even heard of the British bombardment of the Indonesian city of Surabaya in November 1945? A battle that is still celebrated as “Heroes Day”, a vital episode in that country’s struggle for independence, is altogether unknown in Britain, the country that carried out the attack.
Once a country was conquered, imperial rule was maintained by force. Whatever the particular architecture of imperial rule, it always rested in the end on the back of the policeman torturing a suspect. Those who affect surprise at the excesses of Abu Ghraib need to be reminded that these are the inevitable and unavoidable consequences of colonial rule. The aim in what follows is to provide evidence of this.
The book is also concerned to celebrate, dare one say “glorify”, resistance to empire. From the slaves who overthrew slavery in the Caribbean, to the Indian rebels of the 1850s, from the Irish Republicans who took up arms during and after the First World War, to the Palestinian peasants fighting against the British and the Zionists in the 1930s, from the Mau Mau in the 1950s to the Iraqi resistance of today, brave men and women have resisted empire. The book also chronicles the extent to which radicals and socialists in Britain organised, demonstrated and protested in solidarity with these resistance movements. While the Stop the War Coalition can legitimately claim to be the largest and most powerful anti-imperialist and anti-war movement in British history, it stands in an honourable tradition. It was in the 1850s that the Chartist and socialist Ernest Jones responded to the claim that while the sun might never set on the British Empire, similarly “the blood never dried”. Anti-imperialists today stand in the tradition of Ernest Jones and William Morris, another socialist and fierce critic of the empire—a tradition to be proud of.
And what of those who support and glorify the British Empire? What they have to be asked is how they would respond if other states had done to Britain what the British state has done to other countries. How pro-imperialist would they feel for example if, instead of Britain forcing opium on the Chinese Empire, it had been the other way round? What would their response be if, when the British government had tried to ban the importation of opium, the Chinese had sent a powerful military expedition to ravage the British coastline, bombard British ports, and slaughter British soldiers and civilians? What if, instead of Britain seizing Hong Kong, the Chinese had seized Liverpool and Merseyside as a bridgehead from which to dominate Britain for nearly a hundred years? What if further British resistance provoked another attack that led to the Chinese occupying London, looting and burning down Buckingham Palace and dictating humiliating peace terms? What if today there was an Imperial Museum in Beijing that still put on display the fruits of the Chinese pillage of Britain? None of this is fanciful because it is exactly what the British state did to China in the 19th century.
The British Empire, it is argued here, is indefensible, except on the premise that the conquered peoples were somehow lesser beings than the British. What British people would regard as crimes if done to them, are somehow justified by supporters of the empire when done to others, indeed were actually done for their own good. This attitude is at the very best implicitly racist, and, of course, often explicitly so.
Which brings us to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The argument in this book is that while Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the New Labour government might well have dispensed with just about everything the Labour Party stood for, as far as domestic politics are concerned, with regard to imperialism they are very much in the Labour tradition. This may well surprise many readers, but the contention here is that the evidence is overwhelming. Labour politicians invented a tradition of anti-imperialism for the consumption of Labour Party members, but that is precisely what it is, an invention. While many individual Labour Party members, or more likely today, ex-members, and some Labour MPs certainly have been anti-imperialists and believe in this tradition, the fact is that every Labour government has been concerned with maintaining Britain’s imperial position and has engaged in colonial repression. The bombardment of Surabaya, for example, was the work of a Labour government. Moreover, Blair’s participation in the American invasion of Iraq was, as we shall see, little different from Attlee’s participation in the American invasion of North Korea in 1950.
While this book is in the main concerned with the British Empire’s relationship with its conquered peoples, it does also attempt to explore the process of British subordination to American imperialism that has taken place since the Second World War. There is a danger today that this policy of subordination will be personalised as Blair’s policy. While his distinctive style (a combination of dishonesty and sincerity) and his personal domination over a supine cabinet and the most contemptible collection of Labour MPs in that party’s history certainly contribute to this appearance, the reality is that this subordination is institutional and systemic. While the 1945-1951 Labour government hoped for some sort of equal alliance with the United States, in the aftermath of the Suez invasion of 1956, both Conservative and Labour governments have aspired to a subordinate role in the American Empire. This remains the situation today and it will continue when Blair is gone. In opposing our own government, we are participants in the global fight against American imperialism.
This book is not a comprehensive history of the British Empire. It is instead a study of particular episodes, from the struggle against slavery to the struggle against New Labour’s Iraq adventure today. This struggle will go on as long as capitalism and imperialism are still with us.