The Aim of Labour Is to Save the Empire

Ceylon and Malaya

Ceylon won freedom by quite different means though in many ways its colonial history resembled that of Burma. To help secure India, the British had seized Ceylon by force. They overthrew the ancient Kandyan kingdom. They exiled its monarch to the subcontinent, looting his throne, sceptre, sword, footstool and other royal regalia. They turned his Audience Hall first into a church and later into a court. They imposed their own system of rule. They suppressed resistance ferociously, provoking a national abhorrence for the conquerors. They invested their Governors with quasi-regal status, so much so that one of them, Sir Arthur Gordon, came close to imitating Caligula. Unable to attend a ceremony inaugurating a new province, he arranged to be represented by his horse.

At the function itself, which consisted of a large procession of elephants, tom-tom beaters, chiefs, dancers, and the rag-tag and bobtail of the populace, the pony was led in solemn state, closely followed by the officials. On its back was a saddle, upon which rested a cushion, that in turn carried a silver tray, on which rested Sir Arthur Gordon’s message to “The chiefs and people of Sabaragamuwa”…expressed in a ponderous mass of verbiage.1

The British used forced labour and despoiled virgin forests. They imported Tamils to serve first King Coffee and then the tyrant tea in conditions tantamount to slavery—planters kept them in squalor and thought nothing of “thumping a coolie for nearly half an hour.”2

The colonial masters held aloof from both Sinhalese and Tamils, seldom learning their language and sometimes regarding them with contempt or even hatred. Samuel Baker described the typical native as “a treacherous villain, who would perpetrate the greatest rascality had he only the pluck.”3 James Bowes, Assistant Superintendent of Police in Jaffna, would trot through the town’s palm-fringed streets in a gig cursing the drivers of bullock carts and others who got in his way: “Get out, you ugly stinking fucking son of a black buggered bitch.”4 Later Bowes said that his superiors had encouraged “harsh and overbearing conduct towards Orientals.” And he admitted to having thought that “dark blood” guaranteed certain disabilities, “including a tendency to megalomania.”5 Yet in general the Ceylonese replied softly to racial antagonism. And although during the late nineteenth century a revived Buddhism stimulated nationalism in Ceylon as it did in Burma, the two peoples diverged on the issue of violence. Whereas the Burmese sought independence through conflict, the Ceylonese pursued the same end by means of cooperation.

They had had much longer than the people of Burma to learn the art of accommodating Europeans. As early as 1505 the Portuguese landed on “India’s utmost isle” (to use Ovid’s phrase), avid for cinnamon. They got a grip on coastal regions and converted many of the inhabitants (notably members of the karava fishing caste) to Christianity. They also earned a reputation for hellish cruelty. One famously punned as he slaughtered the children of Galle, “How the young gallos (cocks) crow.”6 For centuries the Sinhalese represented their first white invaders as devils who ate stones and drank blood. The Dutch, who drove the Portuguese from their last fortress in 1658, were also harsh rulers. They persecuted Catholics and administered the maritime provinces with remorseless efficiency. Suspecting that the Dutch were “dangerous, turbulent or crafty Jacobins,”7the British expelled them and (in 1802) made Ceylon a crown colony. But the new masters were no less implacable than the old. To crush rebellion in Kandy in 1818 the Governor, Sir Robert Brownrigg, set off in person, his escort of mounted dragoons led by tusked elephants with swinging bells while he himself rode in a “tom-john,” a hooded and curtained armchair carried by four bearers. His force killed some ten thousand people. This was more than 1 per cent of the population of an island that the British idealised as “the pearl drop on the brow of India.”8

Once the country was secured, Governors conducted a “paternal despotism.”9 Their avowed object was to plant the germ of western civilisation while preserving what was sacred to the East. The British rarely intermarried with the Sinhalese, unlike their predecessors, who sired clans of Fernandos, Pereras and de Silvas, and a whole race of Burghers. But in the 1830s the new rulers did set up a Legislative Council and appoint to it natives of Ceylon, who were also given other minor posts. The British abolished slavery and compulsory labour. They established law and order, occasionally resorting to repression. The only uprising worthy of the name, which occurred in 1848, killed not a single European. But two hundred alleged rebels were hanged or shot, and more were flogged or imprisoned, the Governor establishing courts martial as “instruments of terror and vengeance.”10 The colonisers, who could buy land, invested sweat and cash in commerce and agriculture. Planters provided the only opposition to Governors, one of whom, Lord Torrington, said that they would think him an able man while the price of coffee rose, “and if it falls a great fool.”11

Convinced that “coffee could not prosper without rice,”12 the authorities began to restore the gigantic irrigation works that had been the wonder of ancient Ceylon. They reclaimed from jungle the huge tanks or reservoirs, some as large as inland seas. And to a lesser extent they restored the vital tracery of canals—the British saw these more as a means of transport than a system of arteries, veins and capillaries for giving life to Ceylon’s arid north and east. By the 1850s they had linked all the main towns with good roads, where there had been none under the Dutch. They also built railways, which the planters so favoured that, in order to fund them, they took “the desperate course of proposing to be taxed.” Workers on the iron road paid in blood, for “every sleeper was laid at the cost of a human life.”13 As a Scottish merchant acknowledged, the state of the nation was measured by the prosperity of the eight thousand Europeans; “but as regards the welfare and happiness of the Ceylonese all are silent as midnight on Pedrotallagalle.”*1214 Nevertheless, the educated elite learned to live with the British, to speak their language, play their games, adopt their habits and benefit from their Empire.

The British found Ceylon exceptionally easy to control. The maritime powers were said to have netted the island like a fish and for 150 years it remained in thrall to the Royal Navy. Ships flying the white ensign found safety in the magnificent haven at Trincomalee and awed the polyglot craft trading round the coast—Arab dhows, Chinese junks, patamars from Malabar, Coromandel dhoneys, Ceylonese catamarans. The pearl banks south of Adam’s Bridge in the Gulf of Mannar, which were periodically opened for fishing, drew thirty thousand people from all over Asia. Yet the operation was supervised by two or three British officials with walking sticks. One of them, Leonard Woolf, observed that Ceylon in 1906 was “the exact opposite of a ‘police state.’”15Ports such as Colombo and Galle also attracted a picturesque mixture of races, umbrella’d Europeans, whiskered Malays, white-capped Moors, earringed Chetties, Parsees in their arched hats of flowered silk as well as Sinhalese wearing their hair in a bun as they did at the time of the Ptolemies. Yet the authorities seldom needed to use force here or in the country at large, where the population was also fragmented. There were not only communal hostilities between Sinhalese and Tamils but rivalries within each community. For example, anglicised lowland Sinhalese were at odds with feudal highlanders, typified by their chiefs’ old-fashioned ceremonial dress—protruding muslin skirt, stiff silk brocade jacket and “large four-cornered cocked-hat, richly embroidered with gold-lace”16 and topped with a little jewelled pagoda. Sophisticated Burghers had nothing in common with cave-dwelling Veddas, thought to be descendants of the country’s aboriginal inhabitants. Caste antipathies ran deep. And some people, such as the Rodiyas, who carried out polluting tasks like preparing monkey skins for tom-toms, were treated as pariahs. On one occasion, when ordered to arrest some Rodiyas for murder, policemen refused to lay hands on them “but offered to shoot them down from a distance.17

Religious differences were profound. Hindus were ranged against Muslims. Christians, some 10 per cent of the three million population in the late nineteenth century, resented Britain’s early pledge to defend the faith of the majority. And one Victorian Governor withdrew the military Guard from the Tooth, revered relic of the Buddha swathed in red silk and swaddled in a nest of gorgeous caskets inside its Chinese-style temple at Kandy, so as not to sanction “idolatrous veneration.”18 Buddhists blamed the British for the decayed state of the sacred Bo-tree at Anuradhapura. Their sensitivities were particularly acute because they looked on Ceylon as the spiritual home of their faith, just as Catholics looked on Rome. Yet whereas Christianity was a proselytising religion, Buddhism was a quietist philosophy, its goal being the extinction of desire in the bliss of enlightenment. So it did not pose a serious challenge to British rule in conservative Ceylon. Rather, the “blessed isle” (to translate the ancient and modern name of Sri Lanka) was to be cherished as a foretaste of nirvana. Christians had their own belief—that this was the site of the garden God had created for Adam and Eve. Muslims said that it was “a new elysium to console them for the loss of paradise.”

Certainly the British hymned the delights of Ceylon. Every prospect pleased (and only man was vile) in what Bishop Heber called one of the loveliest spots in the universe. Leaving this “dear colony,” Radnadipa (“Island of Gems”), Governor Stewart Mackenzie lamented his transfer to Corfu, “as bare as Ulysses would have found himself in Ithaca.”19 Arriving at Galle, Sir Emerson Tennent, a senior official, rhapsodised over the sapphire-blue water, the golden sands, the shore “gemmed with flowers”20 and the jade-green jungle draping the flanks of the country’s natural shrine, Adam’s Peak. Other visitors extolled the unbridled luxuriance of the tropics, the floral garlands enveloping the white, red-tiled houses of Colombo, the crimson carpets of goat’s foot convolvulus, and miniature bananas said to be the “figs of paradise.”21 Those who took the train up to Kandy gazed with rapture on the terraced rice fields, the palm and bamboo groves, the forested hills riven by rocky gorges, silvery streams and feathery waterfalls. Equally entrancing were the jewelled creatures of the air: opalescent bee-eaters, crystalline sun-birds, bronze drongos, azure kingfishers red in bill and claw, lambent glow-worms three inches long and “green enamelled dragonflies” darting over pools on “wings that flash like sliced emeralds set in gold.”22 Here, in short, was a “matchless panoply of beauty and romance.”23 But the more aliens lauded the genius of the place, the more natives asserted their title to it. In about 1850 one Kandyan chief lamented its fate: “A country enslaved—a nobility falling into the depths of servility, a religion tottering under the incessant attacks, open and secret, of that patronised by our rulers.”24 He and his ilk did not wish to share their Eden.

Of course it contained mosquitoes as well as serpents—to say nothing of leeches, ticks, scorpions, millipedes, spiders, stinging flies and poisonous caterpillars. As late as the 1930s malaria killed 100,000 people in a single epidemic and the infection had helped to destroy the medieval Sinhalese kingdom in its golden age. Nevertheless, the historic as well as the natural splendours of Ceylon gave every impetus to national pride. It was impossible to ignore the wreckage of pre-Christian Taprobane, as the Greeks and Romans had called this remote world, which they imbued with mythic purity. The ruined city of its first capital, Anuradhapura, founded a century before Rome subjugated Italy, was an awesome monument to vanished greatness. It covered an area twice the size of Victorian London and on a visit in 1890 Edward Carpenter said that “it is as if London had again become a wilderness.”25 Vegetable had triumphed over mineral and the stones were split by roots, throttled by lianas and buried by undergrowth. Yet scattered in astonishing profusion were plinths, pavements, cisterns, steps, pavilions, moonstones, inscribed columns, noble statues, and carvings of monkeys, horses, geese, snakes, dragons, demons and other creatures. There were also enormous blocks of granite, some hollowed out to make elephant baths, and the remains of brick dagobas second in size only to the pyramids. British archaeologists did much to unearth these petrified records of a vanished civilisation. They also explored other impressive sites such as the palace-fortress perched on its pillar of gneiss at Sigiriya and the marshy metropolis of Polonnoruwa, where the Prince’s Bath had been fed by streams flowing from the mouths of stone crocodiles. Some of the finest artefacts were preserved in the Italianate Colombo Museum,*13 inaugurated by Governor Sir William Gregory in 1872. Cultural relics excited political aspirations. The old patriot Ponnambalam Arunachalam wrote in his 1903 diary: “Thought much of the unhappy condition of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”26 Having visited the lost cities of Ceylon, the young nationalist leader and future Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike said that its people were now like caged animals at a zoo, unaware of their captivity. “It is not right,” he declared, “that a servile race should inhabit the same locality which their ancestors inhabited in power and glory.”27

Significantly, Bandaranaike’s forebears had been among the most prominent allies of the British. Sir Emerson Tennent described his loyal grandfather as “a noble specimen of the native race.” And S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s father proudly repeated this patronising encomium. He was Sir Solomon Bandaranaike, a wealthy patrician who became more English than the English. He espoused their Anglican faith, adopted their mode of dress, matched their enthusiasm for horses and dogs and outmatched them in snobbery. He would have sympathised with the member of his clan who refused to entertain Nehru because she did not eat with coolies. And he would have agreed with the critic who said that Ceylon’s colonial society was “suburbia at its worst.”28 Sir Solomon trumped the British in devotion to their monarchy. His autobiography, published in 1929 when he was sixty-seven, records in numbing detail a lifetime’s acquaintance with royal personages—every invitation sent, every banality exchanged, every bauble bestowed. A high point in this saga of sycophancy is his being presented with a “beautiful scarf-pin” by Edward Prince of Wales,29 who expressed pleasure that Bandaranaike was already wearing the cuff links which his father, now King George V, had given him twenty years earlier. Sir Solomon received many other honours and titles. As Maha Mudaliyar, or Great Chief, he was a staunch supporter of successive Governors. He even named his son after one of them (West Ridgeway, who became the boy’s godfather) and he frequently visited Queen’s House, their colonnaded, verandahed residence in the old Dutch fort at Colombo. Other educated Ceylonese understandably deemed the Bandaranaikes (or Bandarlog, as they sometimes called themselves in homage to Kipling) “lackeys of the British, and flunkeys at the governor’s ‘court.’”30

Yet the elite also chose the way of collaboration, if not toadyism. Its children were educated at schools such as Trinity College, Kandy, where pupils were punished for not speaking English. As one wrote, they were taught to “mimic alien ways, much as the ancient Britons were Romanised under Agricola, a process they thought to be civilisation when it was actually slavery.”31 But westernised Ceylonese also learned the lessons of liberty from such instructors as Locke, Burke and Mill. By 1910 they had gained a single democratic crumb: one Ceylonese was elected to the Legislative Council. Five years later, though, an outbreak of communal violence took place in Kandy and elsewhere. It was anything but an insurrection—one District Judge treated it as a joke and suggested that the police should pepper the rioters’ rumps. But the Governor, Sir Robert Chalmers, heeded hysteria about a wartime conspiracy against the Empire masterminded by a European-educated “set of skunks.”32 He succumbed to an acute “attack of treasonitis.” So, with the automatic endorsement of Sir Solomon Bandaranaike, the Governor declared martial law. According to a subsequent report, this resulted in the dispatch of a posse of vigilantes “to deal with desperadoes in the manner depicted in kinema shows and dime novels of the Wild West.”33 Dozens of people were shot, some of them in cold blood, most of them entirely innocent. Before one execution a British officer declared, “You, Sinhalese, wanted to fight the Moors [i.e. Muslims] and then to fight us. Now you see what has happened. This man will be shot in ten minutes and your wives will be delivered to be ravished by the Moors.”34 Other punishments included flogging, banishment and collective fines. Hundreds were imprisoned, among them the architect of the country’s independence, Don Stephen Senanayake. This “reign of terror”35 provoked “widespread horror and consternation and a sense of rankling injustice among the Sinhalese people.”36Chalmers’s replacement tried to restore the Empire’s moral reputation. He acknowledged both native loyalty and “official brutality.”37 Remarkably, too, at a time when Allied propaganda was spreading lurid stories about German atrocities, he also said that some actions had been “Hunnish in their violence and injustice.”38 However, what might have provoked revolution in Ireland or upheaval in India merely prompted calls for more reform in Ceylon.

In 1919 reform associations that had sprung up in the wake of the repression amalgamated with the new Ceylon National Congress. The CNC was not meant to resemble India’s nationalist body. It was not aggressive. It was not a mass movement but the vehicle of the Anglophone elite. Its President urged his countrymen to become “Britishers first and Ceylonese afterwards.”39 The CNC was also hopelessly prone to splits, which were exploited by Governors pursuing a “policy of divide-et-impera.40 Tamils, Burghers, Kandyans and urban workers set up rival organisations during the 1920s, as did Marxists and Sinhalese chauvinists during the 1930s. Nevertheless, the CNC’s members campaigned manfully for progress towards independence within the Empire, drafting addresses, presenting petitions, dispatching deputations. This polite pressure paid dividends and Governors included more Ceylonese representatives in their Councils. But they then found it hard to work with the likes of D. S. Senanayake, who robustly undermined the myth of European superiority. So the system had to change again and in 1927 the President of Congress declared that they had reached the borders of the Promised Land. That year the British appointed a Commission led by Lord Donoughmore to determine means of further constitutional reform. Unlike the Simon Commission in India, it was warmly received. And its Report was correspondingly “revolutionary,”41 so much so that Lord Donoughmore was compared to Lord Durham. This was not because he recommended a form of dyarchy, whereby the Governor would rule with the aid of a Ceylonese-dominated State Council. It was because this Council would be elected by universal suffrage. Britain itself had only just given all adults the vote and in 1931 Ceylon became the first Asian and colonial nation to do the same. The Ceylon plantocracy was appalled. One Governor called its old-fashioned leaders “Rip van Winkles” for they continued to dismiss brown people as children and they were quite capable of smashing an official’s umbrella because “it was impudent for a native to carry one in the face of a European.” Ironically, Congress was no less shocked by Donoughmore’s new franchise. It was carrying democracy too far. Members opposed it because they believed that self-government was government by themselves.

As it happened a deferential people, nearly 90 per cent living in rural poverty, 60 per cent unable to read and less than 30 per cent casting their vote, duly endorsed its elite at the polls. But the Governor remained in command, with wide powers and control, through three appointed ministers, over justice, finance, defence and foreign policy. However, the State Council elected seven Ceylonese ministers, who were in charge of health, education, agriculture, communications and so on. One said that the country had thus achieved seven-tenths of self-rule and they expected it to advance swiftly to complete independence. The British, though, likened Ceylon to other colonies where constitutional progress had stalled—Jamaica, Malta, Cyprus, British Guiana—and they regarded the Donoughmore constitution as a fixture. Actually it taught Ceylonese ministers to govern and demonstrated that the art was not a European monopoly. No one mastered it more completely than Senanayake, the Minister of Agriculture. A tall, bulky landowner with a bristling moustache, he was neither clever nor well educated. Sir Andrew Caldecott, Governor from 1937 to 1944, wrote that Senanayake’s “scope of vision is no less limited than his power of expression” and described him as a “village bully” and a “mud-buffalo.”42 But the British valued intellect less than character, which Senanayake possessed in abundance. Viscount Soulbury said that he resembled “the best type of English country-gentleman, able, shrewd, practical, good-humoured, kindly, modest.”43 Senanayake ruled his department with a rod of iron, tackling drought and famine, expanding cultivation in the dry zone and providing Crown lands for the rural poor at the expense of British interests. The planters, who rejoiced in names such as the Kelani Valley Boys and the Merry Men of Uva, hated him with undisguised passion.

To be sure, Senanayake was an ambitious man. He once said that to succeed in Ceylonese politics one had to be a Buddhist, which meant that he had been obliged to give up his two favourite recreations, hunting and beer. But he was a model of probity compared to his most brilliant rival, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who actually became (in Caldecott’s words) “a pervert for political purposes from Christianity to Buddhism.”44 Bandaranaike loved to parade his spiritual emancipation, once suggesting to the Bishop of Colombo that the Christian God should “give up the privileged position of an English gentleman and become a brown and simple Sinhalese villager.”45 In public Bandaranaike also adopted a somewhat spurious national costume, whereas at home he relaxed in trousers and shirts—though he had his riding breeches made of homespun cloth. Sir Solomon condemned his sartorial treachery; an amusing photograph shows the father looking furious in a morning suit complete with spats and grey felt gloves, while the rebellious son wears a white dhoti, toga, shawl and sandals. But it was clear that the young Bandaranaike, who had been the star orator of his day at the Oxford Union, dressed, as he spoke, for effect. He had boundless faith in his own greatness and had early adopted the Latin motto “Primus aut Nullus” (“First or Nothing”), but he changed his mind as often as he changed his clothes. He first espoused western ideals, then preached the gospel according to Gandhi, next stoked up Sinhalese antagonism towards the Tamils. In 1941 he advocated “bloody revolution” against the British,46 for which the Governor slapped him down effectively. For all his eloquence, therefore, the imperious and mercurial Bandaranaike was widely distrusted. When the Second World War began it was the solid, unpretentious Senanayake who emerged as the unchallenged leader of Congress. Even though he wore a sarong at home and a suit, often with an orchid in its buttonhole, to work, he could never have been lampooned, in the way that Bandaranaike was, as a British–Sinhalese hybrid. On the contrary, Senanayake was already being seen as the founder of a new nation.

The war both delayed and secured its foundation. Churchill tried to block progress for the duration and the Colonial Office made a virtue of procrastination. Yet Caldecott himself urged that Ceylon’s full-hearted assistance with the war effort should be encouraged and rewarded. In any case, he argued, the country’s nationalism could no more be checked than “the waves which wetted Canute.” The tidal flow, he noted, came from England. A sentence in Sir Norman Angell’s Overseas League pamphlet What is the British Empire? seemed to promise the freedom that was denied, thus stirring up passions throughout Ceylon: “We have done our best to unconquer our conquests; disannex our annexations; turn what was originally an empire into a group of sovereign nations; indeed the empire, so far as most of it is concerned, long since came to an end.”47

There were signs that the Empire was reaching a terminal state in Ceylon. Since 1937 no European had been appointed to the Civil Service and Ceylonese were widely promoted to other professional jobs, an essential part of “nation-building.”48 In 1942 ministers became, in effect, the Governor’s cabinet. This reflected the country’s vital new strategic and economic role. After the fall of Malaya, Ceylon was in the front line against Japan and it produced nearly two-thirds of the Allies’ rubber, slaughter-tapping the trees to meet their needs. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, who became Commander-in-Chief of the island in March 1942, was a crusty old salt with a “rough, tough quarterdeck manner, like one of Nelson’s captains.”49 He seemed bound to offend and, indeed, he immediately had a blazing row with Senanayake. But they soon became friends and Layton rapidly endorsed Caldecott’s view that Ceylon should receive concessions in return for cooperation. In May 1943, after dragging their feet unconscionably, the British undertook to introduce full internal self-government when hostilities ceased.

A further Commission, led by Lord Soulbury, confirmed this offer in 1945. It naturally failed to satisfy the Ceylonese, who wanted control over defence and foreign policy as well. Senanayake told the Colonial Office that his country was “like a cow tied to a tree with a rope. A longer rope was better than a shorter one, but still the restriction remained.”50 This was a compelling image. But Senanayake used the Vice-Chancellor of Ceylon University, Ivor Jennings, to make a more sophisticated case. Jennings contended that Ceylon, then the most prosperous nation in Asia, was qualified for dominion status as Britain’s premier colony. He also drafted a Westminster-style constitution that attempted to protect Ceylon’s minorities. “Lack of responsibility encouraged irresponsibility,”51 Jennings warned, and unless responsible government were granted soon Ceylon would become like India in its hostility to Britain. But instead of demanding, or threatening in the manner of Aung San, Senanayake accepted the Soulbury scheme as a bridge to liberty. Soulbury himself, along with the new Governor, Sir Henry Moore, helped Ceylon to cross it. Moore told the Colonial Office that it had a “golden opportunity, by the exercise of a little courage now, of making a generous and spontaneous gesture to Ceylon.” Soulbury said that its people resembled the Irish and that it would be “a tragedy to repeat in Ceylon the colossal mistakes we have made in Ireland.” He believed that Ceylon’s loyalty to the Crown must be secured and, he pronounced sagely, “giving too much too soon will prove to be wiser than giving too little too late.”52

The Colonial Office itself was impressed by Senanayake’s strength of character, sincerity of purpose and hostility to Communism. Officials had expected a slick politician and they warmed to “a rugged farmer with a sense of humour.”53 But none of this might have sufficed if Aung San had not made the case for him. The argument was quite simple: Britain could hardly grant full independence to Burma, thus rewarding a nation that had fought for Japan, while denying it to Ceylon, thus punishing a nation that had remained loyal to the Allies. The Labour Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech Jones, accepted this logic but feared accusations that he was “squandering the Empire.”54 So he maintained that Ceylon, politically stable and strategically vital, was a “special case.” It was not being lost as a result of ad hoc decision-making, he speciously asserted, it was being added to the Commonwealth in fulfilment of a long-term development plan. More sincerely Creech Jones claimed that Ceylon’s membership would demonstrate that dominion status was not restricted to whites. The Colonial Office hoped it would also show that the day of the British Empire was not done, that the Commonwealth was no “mere afterglow following sunset, ending in night.”55 On the contrary, it was a means of retaining a British presence without having to bear the burdens of command. It was a union of hearts, as long ago foreshadowed in the Durham Report. Socialist ministers argued the case aggressively: “If Churchill were in power, he would lose the Empire, just as George III lost the thirteen colonies. The aim of Labour is to save the Empire; this will be achieved by giving the colonies self-government.”56 So, having followed the primrose path of negotiation, Senanayake was able to lead his country to freedom. Early on 4 February 1948, wrote a Ceylonese newspaper, bells pealed and drums sounded to wake its people from their “slumber of servitude.”57

In Malaya the people, often deemed by their alien masters to be soft and indolent, had apparently enjoyed that slumber before the Second World War. Here, as in Ceylon, society was held together by deference, but the British adroitly allied themselves to the Malayan upper crust. Colonial officials ruled while local royalty reigned and both fostered “the myth that the Sultans were still independent.” Thus they upheld traditions of loyalty among the predominantly rural Malays, while the Chinese (about half the five million population) supported the imperial power that protected them. The largest Malayan nationalist organisation between the wars, the Sahabat Pena, or “Friends of the Pen,” began as a correspondence column in the children’s pages of a newspaper and remained as callow as its origin suggests. Malaya’s well-being seemed to depend chiefly on playing an English game. As one journalist wrote, “To stop football would be like destroying the medicine of the people.” Nevertheless, pressure for political change was bubbling beneath the surface. Islamic reformers, vernacular teachers and a minuscule English-educated elite all contributed to the growth of “nationalist feeling.”58 So did a new corps of professional pressmen. They drew attention to the advance of the English language and the erosion of Malay culture: “Bedsteads replace mats; and the custom of the people is no longer to sit cross-legged but many rent tables and chairs.”59 Radical influences spread from China and Chinese Communists in Malaya formed a “League against Imperialism.” Economic competition between peasant Malays and entrepreneurial Chinese fed communal antagonism. Then Japanese infantry on bicycles conquered Malaya in 1941–2 as swiftly as German panzers had conquered France in 1940, destroying the legend of European supremacy at a stroke. The soldiers of Nippon gave an incomparable stimulus to Asian pride, not only by their boldness and vigour but by their unrivalled capacity for self-sacrifice. One Malay wrote, “The British fought in order to live, the Japanese in order to die.”60

When contemplating the cosmic impact of Nippon on Britain’s Empire, Franklin D. Roosevelt mused: “It almost seems that the Japs were a necessary evil in order to break down the old colonial system.”61 Yet although the Japanese fatally undermined British standing in Asia, they did little to promote Malayan independence apart from briefly patronising Ibrahim Yaacob’s Young Malay Union, the rough equivalent to Aung San’s Burma Independence Army. Indeed, the main achievement of the invaders, who predictably posed as liberators, was to destroy. They wrecked Malaya’s economy, cutting off its export markets and wiping out its currency. They monopolised the rice harvest, causing widespread malnutrition and disease. They behaved so brutally to their forced labourers that nearly a third of them died. They divided the races, treating Malays and Indians less harshly than Chinese, whom they tortured and decapitated freely, decorating bridges over the Singapore River with severed heads. Most members of all races cooperated with their new masters on pain of death, but most members of the resistance were Chinese. Supplied with Allied arms, inspired by Communist beliefs and assisted by aboriginal hill tribes (Orang Asli), the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) fought a savage jungle war. Anticipating subsequent British tactics, the Japanese tried to isolate the guerrillas from those who might help them. They herded Chinese squatters—unemployed workers and urban refugees scratching subsistence from the forest fringe—into “fortress villages.”62 But with astonishing suddenness, on 15 August 1945, the Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s capitulation, saying that the war “had developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”63 Since Nippon surrendered before Mountbatten’s forces could invade, the Communists claimed that theirs was the victory. They often raised the three-starred emblem of the MPAJA next to the hammer and sickle.

In the weeks after the war guerrillas, gaunt and deathly pale from their years in the jungle, emerged to bask in the glory of their triumph and to wreak vengeance on those who had helped their foes. They executed thousands, condemning some in kangaroo courts, lynching others out of hand and killing still more indiscriminately. They butchered men, raped women and bayoneted babies. A “Whispering Terror” convulsed Singapore, where hushed words snuffed out the lives of many supposed traitors, informers and collaborators. Policemen, denounced as the running dogs of fascism, came in for particular brutality—their eyes were gouged out and their bodies mutilated. “It was a world gone mad,” said one sergeant, “a world turned upside down.”64 Malays, the main victims of these atrocities, duly retaliated. They carried out village massacres, matching their persecutors in ferocity. Islamic holy warriors in red sashes added to the carnage, cutting up the heathen, pork-eating Chinese with their long knives—the kris, lembing, pedang and tombak. At a time of shortages amounting to famine in some districts, when plundering and profiteering put further strains on the country’s social fabric, ethnic communities also divided against themselves. They were torn by leadership rivalries and ideological feuds, rent by Triad gangsters, millenarian Sufis and labour militants. To contain this anarchy the British at first had to employ Japanese troops, delaying their repatriation—a vast operation, involving six million people throughout South-East Asia, thoughtfully code-named “Nipoff.”65 Nevertheless, the British proposed an imperial restoration. The Singapore debacle had by no means shattered their confidence: fearing that the Japanese would melt down Malaya’s coins for their metal during the war, they actually manufactured replacements in London. Ironically, since Malaya was the Royal Mint’s source of supply, the fifty million one-cent pieces contained “only the barest trace of tin.”66 During the war, too, the Colonial Office worked out plans for Malaya’s future constitution on the inestimable basis of complete ignorance about its current situation.

Their scheme was to establish a Malayan Union with the long-term aim that the united states (plus Malacca and Penang but not Singapore, which would become a crown colony and a free port) should evolve into a South-East Asian dominion. Their immediate purpose was to impose direct rule in order to carry out two—sharply divergent—policies. First, in the spirit of Attlee’s Socialist government, they tried to introduce a progressive form of imperialism. By improving education, health and welfare, they hoped to win the allegiance of a unified people and to persuade other countries (especially America) that the Empire was a force for good. Secondly, the British aimed to exploit Malaya during the post-war balance of payments crisis. Malaya was, as Creech Jones said, “by far the most important source of dollars in the Colonial Empire.”67 Its rubber alone earned more hard currency than all Britain’s domestic exports to America. The prospect of bankruptcy hardened Britain’s resolve to profit from its Empire, especially in view of the impending loss of India, Burma and Ceylon. It is true that, as one historian has written, “Colonialism and capitalism were never married.” Yet they sometimes conducted a liaison. This was especially the case during the “second colonial occupation”68 of Malaya. So Britain’s relative economic decline actually postponed its imperial fall in the Orient.

Nevertheless, the contradictions of British policy finally undermined its regime in Malaya. Liberal principles invariably gave way to the imperatives of coercion. For example, trade union militants were tolerated in theory but deported in practice. The post-war British Military Administration (BMA) talked the language of liberation, but it was not only inept and corrupt (nicknamed the Black Market Administration), but so overbearing that Malayans were generally antagonised. The official sent to lay the foundation for the strong central government that would take its place in 1946 was Sir Harold MacMichael, who had become even more arrogant since his days in the Sudan. Like other old imperial hands, he tried to enhance his own standing on the grounds that he could thus better impress the natives. Before his departure he demanded an honour, a resounding title, a warship for transport—“the larger the better”—and a “large size” saloon car to waft him round the country.69 Once there he intimidated and cajoled the nine sultans into signing away their sovereignty so that their states could be consolidated into the Union. The Sultan of Kedah was particularly stubborn, though MacMichael dismissed him as a “small, shy and retiring ‘failed B.A.’ type.”70 The envoy used methods that the Sultan himself likened to “the familiar Japanese technique of bullying.”71 A menacing question secured the royal compliance: “Perhaps Your Excellency would prefer to return to your friends in Siam?”72 Malays, who revered the sultans as quasi-divine beings, protested at their involuntary abdication. They also denounced the grant of citizenship to Chinese, Indians and others. Far from ushering in an enlightened new administration, MacMichael seemed to have entrenched the old imperialism of order and obey. Moreover, he incensed Britain’s traditional allies, the sultans’ Malay subjects. In May 1946 Dato Onn bin Jafar, chief minister of Johore, founded the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s first major political movement. Onn was a charismatic but erratic aristocrat, bold, astute, flamboyant and ambitious. No one played a more important role in forcing the British to stifle the Malayan Union at birth.

Dato Onn mobilised Malays, women as well as men, from top to bottom of society. He persuaded sultans to boycott the inauguration of the new Governor, Sir Edward Gent. This was “an unprecedented discourtesy”73 made still more offensive when the sultans greeted cheering supporters outside their Kuala Lumpur hotel, many of them dressed in ceremonial mourning clothes. Onn exploited fears over the prospect of Chinese domination, fears that mustered tens of thousands of Malays to declare that “this is our country.”74 But the struggle over the Malayan Union was only one element in the continuing turmoil. Crime, disease and hunger were still rife—children aged ten looked as if they were six and some adults resembled victims of Belsen. Faction fighting within communities persisted, notably between the followers of Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek. Government attempts to control agriculture and preserve the forests produced a violent reaction. In 1946 two million days’ work were lost in strikes resulting from official attempts to hold wages down at a time of spiralling prices. Malayans generally kicked against growing state intervention. They protested about restrictions on the use of water and electricity, the regulation of printers and hawkers, new imposts such as income tax, a “tax on amusement, a licence fee for the rearing of dogs.” All told, the British were intruding into their lives, one newspaper claimed, “even more comprehensively and minutely than Mayor Odate of the Syonan regime.”75

Gent soon decided that there was a “serious likelihood of organised and widespread non-cooperation and disorder.”76 The country was evidently becoming ungovernable. So although he was one of the chief begetters of the Malayan Union, the Governor now advocated its demise. It was therefore replaced in 1948 by a Malayan Federation which gave Onn, who had been consulted this time, most of what he wanted. The sultans returned to their thrones. Chinese citizenship was curtailed. Gent was transmogrified from Governor to High Commissioner. His accommodation with UMNO was understandable. It is true that Onn exploited his countrymen’s propensity towards xenophobia, embodied in his slogan “Malaya for the Malays,” and that he denounced the predatory British, colloquially known as lintah puteh, white leeches. Nevertheless, he was a conservative who did not mind working with them. By contrast, many Chinese saw the Federation as flagrant treachery. The Communists were particularly enraged, having fought against Nippon and afterwards followed the path of agitation rather than revolution. In fact their post-war tameness stemmed largely from the fact that the leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), Lai Tek, was a serial traitor who had sold out to the British. The faithful had long worshipped him as “a mysterious ‘hero’ and a man of superhuman ability”77 who could fly planes, drive tanks and elude arrest. So his exposure as a double agent (who added insult to injury by absconding with the party’s funds) discredited his peaceful policy. In 1948 the MCP, under its Maoist new leader Chin Peng, determined to overthrow the fascist imperialists, “whose outrages are the same as those of the Japanese.”78 Aiming to seize power, they embarked on an armed struggle.

Young and inexperienced, Chin Peng could only mobilise four thousand guerrillas, few of whom knew much about jungle warfare—some set off in clogs rather than boots. So his campaign made a poor start. It began with sporadic attacks on mines and plantations in outlying districts where, ever since the war, “the gun and the knife had held sway.”79 When three white planters were killed in June 1948 Gent declared a state of emergency. This gave the police wide powers of search, arrest, detention, deportation and confiscation. Europeans, especially those in the front line, were not satisfied. Many wanted martial law, some advocated public hanging. Their complaints about Gent were summed up in a famous newspaper headline, “Govern or Get Out.”80 Malcolm MacDonald, son of the first Labour Prime Minister and the Colonial Office’s roving Commissioner-General in South-East Asia, clinched the matter. “A natty little man who dressed rather loudly”81 and sat in his Rolls-Royce like an orchid wrapped in cellophane, he identified the Communist threat and thought it required a more determined opponent. So Gent was summoned home, dying en route in an air crash, to be replaced by the suave and aloof Sir Henry Gurney. He was a diplomat of the old school. But he had supposedly learned new tricks while combating terrorists in the Holy Land, where his unruffled calm in the midst of crisis had infuriated Jewish leaders such as Golda Meir. The new High Commissioner received reinforcements, including policemen from Palestine and fresh troops, many of them raw recruits—virgin soldiers. They helped to turn the military “sweeps” (assisted by futile RAF bombing raids) that had begun before Gurney’s arrival into a vicious and self-defeating campaign of counter-terror.

The security forces found it hard to capture or kill the so-called “bandits,” who soon became adept at butcher-and-bolt tactics. Their small “Blood and Steel” units were especially elusive. These mobile murder squads committed terrible atrocities such as disembowelling their victims, and then vanished into bamboo and palm-thatch encampments in the jungle. So army patrols vented their fury on Chinese squatter communities suspected of feeding the guerrillas. Many were doing so, sometimes under duress, sometimes voluntarily in response to appeals from ten thousand plain-clothes Communist auxiliaries known as the Min Yuen (People’s Movement). Policemen who had served in Palestine operated along the lines of the Black and Tans. Empire soldiers interrogated suspects under torture. They shot or lynched those found guilty. They burned villages and uprooted their inhabitants. In December 1948 Scots Guards murdered at least twenty-four Chinese at Batang Kali in Selangor, claiming that they were trying to escape. Gurney hushed up the incident though two decades later it leaked out, described in the press as Britain’s own My Lai massacre. But the High Commissioner acknowledged privately that “the police and the army are breaking the law every day.” He apparently had no scruples about this, for he reckoned that the Chinese were “inclined to lean towards whichever side frightens them more and at the moment this seems to be the Government.” He was mistaken. Many Chinese thought that the British were behaving worse than the Japanese. And this inclined them to support, even to join, their revolutionary compatriots who supposedly preferred “to woo rather than to murder.”82

By 1950 the Communists seemed to be getting the upper hand, but Malaya found salvation through Korea. Hostilities began there in June. At the same time General Harold Briggs initiated his campaign to deny Chin Peng’s guerrillas aid by resettling hundreds of thousands of Chinese squatters in fortified villages—he likened this method of defeating Communism to eradicating malaria by depriving mosquitoes of their breeding grounds. The two Asian conflicts were closely connected. For the Korean War dramatically raised the price of rubber and tin, thus enabling the British to pay for this vast feat of social engineering. It was also possible to evict the Chinese without undue difficulty. They hated being torn from their homes, smallholdings, fishponds, poultry and pigs. They loathed the new settlements which, a few model villages apart, were insalubrious slums situated on wasteland. They detested the barbed wire and searchlights, the curfews and food searches, the continuing insecurity, the inadequate schools and health care. They also resented the petty regulations, over carrying identity cards, for example, that gave ample scope for extortion by corrupt policemen and officials. However, thanks to the boom, amenities gradually improved. More important, the Chinese found compensation in high wages and full employment. They also found it increasingly hard to deliver supplies to the “bandits,” who were now renamed “Communist Terrorists.”

The term had international resonance. London worried about whether Washington would perceive it as “waging a valiant struggle against Communism or as fighting a dirty little colonial war designed to hang on to sterling balances.”83 Attlee had shocked transatlantic opinion by recognising Red China, but he promised self-government to Malaya and spent enough blood and treasure there to convince America that Britain was a sound ally in the Cold War. As it happened, 1951 was the worst year of the emergency. More than a thousand civilians and members of the security forces were killed. Among the casualties was Gurney himself, shot in an ambush, almost the last British colonial Governor to be killed on duty. Yet the policy of concentrating the squatters was beginning to work. It extended to displacing many of the eighty thousand Orang Asli, caught up in a conflict which destroyed some 10 per cent of these “confused and traumatised people,”84 most of them from disease caused by confinement. The guerrillas faced starvation. They hunted everything from wild boar to monkeys, from rats to elephants. They devoured grassy reeds, bamboo shoots and boiled rubber leaves. They even explored the possibility of making rubber seeds edible, but Peking assured Chin Peng that they contained an ineradicable toxin. He concluded that food was “our Achilles’ heel.”85

Chin Peng retreated the better to advance, hiding deeper in the jungle and focusing more on sabotage and the infiltration of trade unions. But although the British knew of this strategic shift, they failed to realise the precariousness of his position. Determined to avoid another defeat like that of 1942, Winston Churchill, now back in Downing Street, personally appointed General Sir Gerald Templer to succeed Gurney. “You must have power—absolute power—civil and military power,” the Prime Minister told him. “And when you’ve got it grasp it, grasp it firmly. And then never use it. Be cunning—very cunning. That’s what you’ve got to be.”86 Templer is generally reckoned to have obeyed Churchill’s exhortation to the letter, defeating the Communists by winning the battle for Malayan “hearts and minds”—an expression attributed to him. In the process, it is said, he built a nation that was fit for self-government within the Commonwealth. This was now the Tory policy, as explained by the new Colonial Secretary, Oliver Lyttelton.

Fifty million islanders shorn of so much of their economic power can no longer by themselves expect to hold dominion over palm and pine on the nineteenth century model…which made us the greatest nation in the world. We may regain our pinnacle of fame and power by the pursuit of this new policy.87

Certainly Templer shocked Europeans by treating Malayans with a novel respect. Against official advice, he shook hands with the servants at his official residence in Kuala Lumpur, King’s House. He offended the city’s Rotarians by saying that Chinese Communists seldom threw cocktail parties or went to the races and “they don’t play golf.”88 When the Lake Club barred the Sultan of Selangor from a function Templer forced it to elect a new committee, which admitted Asians as guests, though they could not become members until after independence. Templer even took to eating durians in the garage with his Malay ADC—he had a tigerish passion for this exotic fruit, which his wife banned from the house since it smelt like “rotten melon and onions” or “custard passed through a gas main.”89

Yet Templer was essentially conventional though, like his mentor Field-Marshal Montgomery, he made an electrifying impact. He looked like a standard senior officer, spare-framed, stiff-backed and lean-faced, with a late-imperial moustache “so thin as to be barely perceptible”90—a contrast to growths still favoured by the sultans, which resembled black buffalo horns “dropped in the manner of the handlebars of a racing bicycle.”91 But Templer was not afraid of his superiors, later literally coming to blows with the Defence Minister Duncan Sandys. And he galvanised his subordinates, not least by his habit of stubbing out his cigarettes in their sherry glasses. In a high-pitched voice Templer discharged staccato sentences pungent with profanity and driven home with prods of his swagger stick. Dynamic and dogmatic, he was also surprisingly lucid—as his police chief said, “somehow one expects a soldier to be dumb.”92 Templer whirled round the country, sacked incompetents, improved intelligence and raised morale. He so ameliorated conditions in the Chinese “resettlement areas,” changing their name to “New Villages,” that one or two were compared to holiday camps instead of concentration camps.

He gave huge rewards to informers and defectors. He employed more armoured cars to avert ambushes and helicopters to carry out lightning raids. He cranked up the propaganda war, using radio, mobile cinemas and loudspeaker aircraft—the citizens of Kuala Lumpur were startled to hear a silvery female voice from the clouds announcing in Chinese, “World Communism is Doomed.”93 Templer also distributed millions of leaflets, among them ninety thousand coronation pictures of Queen Elizabeth II. And although he encouraged Malayan culture, he seemed to think that the nation could be saved by the spread of Women’s Institutes and youth movements—he enthused about jamborees and often wore a Scout uniform himself. He literally tried to drum up loyalty with the band of the Coldstream Guards, though he was told that the Chinese “worship noise rather than harmony.”94 Templer was crass and unsophisticated as well as energetic and ruthless. He despised anything academic. He distrusted men who used hair oil. At King’s House, a kind of mock-Tudor cricket pavilion complete with flagstaff, he enjoyed dancing the conga. But every time he led the dancers round a sentry saluted and the whole place was surrounded by barbed wire—so much so that the press quipped, “The High Commissioner has resettled himself.”

The barbed wire was an apt symbol of Templer’s rule, for his capture of Malayan hearts and minds is something of a myth. It is true that he successfully employed persuasion; but he relied more heavily on coercion. Even admirers acknowledged that he presided over “a police state.”95Critics claimed that there was “no human activity from the cradle to the grave that the police did not superintend.” Templer imposed “totalitarian” restrictions on the New Villages. He berated communities violently and punished them collectively. He conscripted Chinese into the police force, such an affront that it gained more recruits for the MCP than for the police. The state of his prisons was reported to be “WORSE than that experienced by internees under [the] Jap regime.”96 He had few scruples about the tactics adopted in jungle warfare, even employing early chemical weapons such as defoliants. According to Chin Peng, “If anyone employed terrorist measures, he did.”97 Certainly Templer gave free rein to his forces, among them Gurkhas, Dyak head-hunters and Fijians descended from cannibals, some of whom claimed to be Scots “by absorption.”98

This led, in the spring of 1952, to a scandal. The Daily Worker published a series of trophy photographs, the most notorious featuring a smiling Royal Marine Commando holding up two severed Chinese heads, one of them female. After first denouncing the pictures as fakes, the government acknowledged their authenticity. Whitehall privately admitted, too, that they would have been evidence of war crimes had not the Malayan conflict been a mere emergency—one reason for keeping it so. But Templer was unabashed by the revelations. He said that guerrilla fighting was a nasty business and that decapitation was necessary for identification. The practice ceased but harsh measures continued. In 1956 the Director of Operations said that “in spite of a sullenly hostile population, we are making very good military progress by screwing down the people in the strongest and sternest manner.”99

By then the Communists were facing defeat. Hundreds had surrendered and the so-called “White Areas,” purged of insurgents and freed from restrictions, were expanding. Planters, of whom 7 per cent had lost their lives, could now move freely through most of the country’s three thousand rubber estates. Chin Peng had retreated into Thailand and even sued for peace though his terms, notably that the MCP should be legalised, were rejected. But although Malaya witnessed one of the last great imperial struggles undertaken by the British, it was not their strength so much as guerrilla weakness that led to the collapse of the uprising. Chin Peng only drew support from a minority of Chinese, themselves divided into competing communities, some of which, such as long-established, English-speaking immigrants, remained fiercely loyal to the Crown. Almost all Malays were hostile to the Communists, not least because their own kampongs languished in poverty while the state spent money on the Chinese New Villages. Malay farmers or fishermen sometimes butchered armed guerrillas who strayed into their territory.

Meanwhile, a political alliance between Malays, Chinese and Indians looked set to bring about peaceful Merdeka (Independence) for Malaya, thus making revolution redundant. This inter-racial accord was a surprise. Dato Onn had not only failed to turn UMNO into a national party that could succeed the British but, after resigning as leader, he had also failed to create such a party himself. But his successor as head of UMNO, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the brother of the Sultan of Kedah, possessed more finesse. First insisting that UMNO was a Malay and Muslim organisation, he achieved a rapprochement with the Malayan Chinese Association and the Malayan Indian Congress. The Alliance built on its success in local polls and in 1955 it won a landslide victory in the election for the Federal Legislative Council. This demonstration of national unity was irresistible, though it did not convince everyone. Asked how long Britain would stay in Malaya, a visiting Tory MP, Robert Boothby, replied: “A thousand years.”100

In fact the British were stampeded into granting Merdeka as early as 1957. They had announced their intention of going when the emergency ended (which did not happen until 1960). And they were reluctant to cede command to the Tunku (or Prince), regarding him as a quicksilver combination of western playboy and oriental despot. He was notorious for dancing, horse-racing, driving fast cars and getting into tight corners with loose women. So anglicised as to lack fluency in Malay, he displayed on official business a “general air of mild befuddlement.”101 Yet he also gave the impression of aiming to create an “old-fashioned Muslim dictatorship.”102 The British feared that he would then deal ruthlessly with other members of the Alliance, especially the Chinese, whose leader was “in the unenviable position of the young lady of Riga.”103

As it happened, the Tunku proved to be a moderate politician who understood the need for communal harmony. In any case the British were bound by their principles to heed the voice of democracy. Moreover, handing over to the Tunku might well serve their interests. They would retain a dominant share in Malaya’s economy, itself less crucial because synthetic rubber was being produced at home, where capital might be more profitably invested. They would also keep a military presence in the region. London took responsibility for the defence of Malaya and then of Malaysia—the confederation of former colonies, Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah), created in the early 1960s. Even with American help, though, Britain could not afford to sustain this role for long. Its day as an eastern power was done. After quitting India, it had recoiled from Burma under threat of main force. It had left Ceylon when liberal logic dictated. It departed from Malaya sadly, reluctantly and in some disarray, its pace determined by Chin Peng’s retreat and Tunku Abdul Rahman’s advance. Britain was intent on making a dignified exit not just to contrast with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 but to compensate for the disastrous invasion of Suez in 1956—an event which Americans also saw as a victory for Communism. Britain used the Far East to restore the moral prestige it had lost in the Middle East. As a propaganda ploy it was quite successful, particularly the claim that Templer’s counter-insurgency techniques had won hearts and minds, which influenced America in Vietnam. But nothing could disguise the fact that the end of empire was, as Gibbon said, a scene of desolation.

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