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Did he puff his crimes to please a bloodthirsty readership?

Bernard Porter: How bad was Stanley?, 5 April 2007

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer 
by Tim Jeal.
Faber, 570 pp., £25, March 2007, 978 0 571 22102 8
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... For a biographer looking for an unlikely reputation to rescue, reputations don’t come much unlikelier than that of Henry Morton Stanley. Widely excoriated in his own time as one of the most brutal of African travellers, condemned by historians for his part in the creation of King Leopold II’s Congo Free State, and derided both then and since for his famous but embarrassingly arch greeting to David Livingstone when he ‘found’ him in Ujiji in November 1871 – ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ – as well as for his silly ‘Stanley cap’ (like a chamberpot with holes and a tea-towel flapping at the sides), he has always been every historian’s least favourite British explorer ...

Friendly Fire

Bernard Porter: Torching the White House, 21 February 2008

Fusiliers: Eight Years with the Redcoats in America 
by Mark Urban.
Faber, 384 pp., £20, September 2007, 978 0 571 22486 9
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1812: War with America 
by Jon Latimer.
Harvard, 637 pp., £22.95, October 2007, 978 0 674 02584 4
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... Britain has fought the Americans twice. The first occasion we know about: it was the war that secured the colonists’ independence (1775-83). Mark Urban’s book is about the experiences of one British regiment – the Royal Welch Fusiliers – in that campaign. (Most of them weren’t Welsh, incidentally.) The second war scarcely anyone in Britain has heard of, and even Americans seem to be hazy about it ...

Pariahs Can’t Be Choosers

Bernard Porter: Israel, South Africa and the Bomb, 24 June 2010

The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa 
by Sasha Polakow-Suransky.
Pantheon, 324 pp., $27.95, May 2010, 978 0 375 42546 2
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... This book attracted a lot of attention when it first appeared in the US in May because it apparently showed Israel offering to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid South Africa. That happened some time ago, but it is bound to be an embarrassment to present-day Israel, especially on the eve of high-level non-proliferation negotiations focusing on the Middle East ...

‘We’re Not Jittery’

Bernard Porter: Monitoring Morale, 8 July 2010

Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour May-September 1940 
edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang.
Bodley Head, 492 pp., £18.99, May 2010, 978 1 84792 142 0
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... When Chamberlain took the British to war in September 1939, he had little idea of how they would respond. Very few of those in authority did. In their introduction to this important collection of documents, Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang point out the ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ that separated ministers and civil servants from ‘the broad mass of the British public ...

‘This is Africa, after all. What can you expect?’

Bernard Porter: Corruption and Post-Imperialism, 26 March 2009

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower 
by Michela Wrong.
Fourth Estate, 354 pp., £12.99, February 2009, 978 0 00 724196 5
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... You can’t just march into someone else’s country, give it entirely arbitrary boundaries, decide to rule it with only the minimum of resources, settle an alien population on its best land, brutally suppress any sign of resistance, then scuttle before you’ve properly prepared it for self-government – and expect everything to turn out OK. That’s with the best will in the world; of which there was some, but not enough, in the British Empire ...

Mule Races and Pillow Fights

Bernard Porter: Churchill’s Failings, 27 August 2009

Warlord: A Life of Churchill at War, 1874-1945 
by Carlo D’Este.
Allen Lane, 960 pp., £30, April 2009, 978 0 7139 9753 8
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... Carlo D’Este, a retired US army lieutenant-colonel much admired in military history circles for his books about World War Two, knows a real soldier when he sees one, and on most counts Churchill doesn’t measure up. He was certainly fascinated by soldiering from an early age – it was his toy soldiers, he claimed, that did it – but he seems to have gone to Sandhurst only because his father thought he was too dumb for Oxford, and to have mainly relished the Boy’s Own side of war ...

How bad are we?

Bernard Porter: Genocide in Tasmania, 31 July 2014

The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania 
by Tom Lawson.
Tauris, 263 pp., £25, January 2014, 978 1 78076 626 3
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... It’s​ well known now that contact with British settlers in the early 19th century led to the extinction of the native Tasmanians; it was pretty well known at the time too. But much about that extinction is obscure, including the numbers involved: most estimates suggest that in 1803 between five and ten thousand aborigines lived on the island, and that by 1876 there were none – only mixed-race Tasmanians and those deported to the Australian mainland survived ...

Who was the enemy?

Bernard Porter: Gallipoli, 21 May 2015

Gallipoli 
by Alan Moorehead.
Aurum, 384 pp., £25, April 2015, 978 1 78131 406 7
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Gallipoli: A Soldier’s Story 
by Arthur Beecroft.
Robert Hale, 176 pp., £12.99, March 2015, 978 0 7198 1654 3
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Gallipoli 1915 
by Joseph Murray.
Silvertail, 210 pp., £12.99, April 2015, 978 1 909269 11 8
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Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs 
by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers.
Bloomsbury, 344 pp., £25, March 2015, 978 1 4088 5615 4
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... From the time​ of the Crusades onwards, Western military interventions in the Near and Middle East have nearly all been disastrous; in the long run – just look at Iraq today – but usually in the short term too. The Gallipoli adventure of 1915, a disaster in every way, was dreamed up after Turkey sided with Germany in the Great War ...

Thank God for Traitors

Bernard Porter: GCHQ, 18 November 2010

GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency 
by Richard Aldrich.
Harper, 666 pp., £30, June 2010, 978 0 00 727847 3
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... Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, gathers secret intelligence electronically rather than through spies: ‘sigint’ as opposed to ‘humint’. (There is also ‘comint’, ‘elint’, ‘comsec’, ‘sinews’ and ‘sigmod’.) It was the last of Britain’s three (that we know of) national secret services to be founded, and has the lowest public profile ...

Where is this England?

Bernard Porter: The Opium War, 3 November 2011

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China 
by Julia Lovell.
Picador, 458 pp., £25, September 2011, 978 0 330 45747 7
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... In China the Opium War is taken to mark the beginning of the country’s modern history, seen as one of continuous national humiliation under the heel of Western imperialism, bravely but hopelessly resisted by the peasantry, until Chairman Mao came along. It takes pride of place in school history courses; monuments, museums, books, films and TV documentaries are devoted to it; and there is even a computer game in which you can play at bashing the British at Canton ...

Send more blondes

Bernard Porter: Spies in the Congo, 20 October 2016

Spies in the Congo: The Race for the Ore that Built the Atomic Bomb 
by Susan Williams.
Hurst, 369 pp., £25, June 2016, 978 1 84904 638 1
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... Congo​ is a country that has been impoverished by its riches. First it was its human capital that suffered, its people brutally enslaved by Arabs and then Europeans. Then the Europeans took it over, or, to be precise, one European, King Leopold II of the Belgians, who presented himself – the old monster – as a humanitarian, and was given the Congo as a personal fiefdom to prevent his more powerful neighbours squabbling over it ...

Manly Voices

Bernard Porter: Macaulay & Son, 22 November 2012

Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain 
by Catherine Hall.
Yale, 389 pp., £35, October 2012, 978 0 300 16023 9
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... Thomas Babington Macaulay – later Lord Macaulay, and ‘Tom’ to Catherine Hall – was the most influential of all British historians. Sales of the first two volumes of his great History of England, published in 1848, rivalled those of Scott and Dickens. The main reason for his popularity, apart from his literary style, was that he flattered the English by crediting them with a unique history of evolving ‘freedom ...

Quiet Sinners

Bernard Porter: Imperial Spooks, 21 March 2013

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire 
by Calder Walton.
Harper, 411 pp., £25, February 2013, 978 0 00 745796 0
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... It’s pretty obvious why British governments have been anxious to keep the history of their secret service secret for so long. In the case of decolonisation, which is the subject of Calder Walton’s book, revelations about dirty tricks even after fifty years might do irreparable damage to the myth carefully cultivated at the time: which was that for Britain, unlike France, say, or the Netherlands, or Belgium, the process was smooth and friendly ...

Trying to Make Decolonisation Look Good

Bernard Porter: The End of Empire, 2 August 2007

Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-68 
by Ronald Hyam.
Cambridge, 464 pp., £17.99, February 2007, 978 0 521 68555 9
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The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire 
by Peter Clarke.
Allen Lane, 559 pp., August 2007, 978 0 7139 9830 6
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Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire 
by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper.
Allen Lane, 673 pp., £30, January 2007, 978 0 7139 9782 8
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... army captain (later Dirk Bogarde) recalled, on his arrival in Calcutta in 1945, seeing an Indian porter being beaten by ‘a fat, ginger-haired, moustached, red-faced stocky little major … Screaming. Thrashing at the cringing Indian with his swagger cane … My first sight and sound of the Raj at work.’ Apparently, little had changed. Assaults on women ...

Boarder or Day Boy?

Bernard Porter: Secrecy in Britain, 15 July 1999

The Culture of Secrecy in Britain 1832-1998 
by David Vincent.
Oxford, 364 pp., £25, January 1999, 0 19 820307 1
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... It was Richard Crossman who described secrecy as ‘the British disease’. As with other alleged vices anglais – strikes, spanking and sodomy spring to mind – this seems on the surface to be unfair. Other societies have undoubtedly been as secretive. Soviet Russia, for example: I don’t suppose it was any easier to see your medical records there than it is here ...

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