A new history of the British Empire might be expected to concern itself with such issues as the construction of military dictatorship through the imposition of martial law; the violent seizure and settlement of land; the genocidal destruction of indigenous peoples (and their culture and environment); the establishment of what is now called ‘institutional racism’; and the continuing coercion and induced movement of labour. The new Oxford History of the British Empire presents a more up-beat version typical of the age of Imperial sunset. An attempt to construct a positive memorial to Empire, these volumes engage only spasmodically with the ‘post-colonial’ debates of the last twenty years.
The editor-in-chief of this immense project is William Roger Louis, an American – though famously Anglophile – scholar. When he was appointed dismay was expressed in conservative newspapers at the thought that a quintessentially British historical experience was to be in the hands of some renegade colonial. In the event, he has proved a sensible choice, and perhaps an inevitable one. Without American scholarship and money, this particular millennium construction would not have seen the light of day for many years.
Louis has not produced an encyclopedia. Anyone searching for information about events in specific countries, or on the origins of current crises, would be seriously disappointed. Only Ireland gets a decent showing over the centuries – here, perhaps, the interests of the North American diaspora can be detected – and it is revealed for what it was: the model colony on whose pattern the entire Empire was based. India, too, is well catered for, but other parts of the Empire are treated more cavalierly. There is nothing about the dynamite dropped into the caves of Africans who objected to their land being seized in Rhodesia in 1896; very little about the Hut Tax War in 1898 in Sierra Leone, when two military expeditions were sent to quell enraged Africans in the hinterland; not much explanation of 19th-century Indian immigration to Ceylon and Fiji, promoted by British settlers as a means to secure cheap labour; nothing about Kashmir; and very little about the permanent dissent and disorder on the North-West Frontier with Afghanistan. Iraq and Palestine are inadequately subsumed in a chapter curiously entitled ‘Britain’s Informal Empire in the Middle East’.
In the first volume, on Imperial ‘origins’, there are ground-breaking contributions from Jane Ohlmeyer on Ireland and Scotland as ‘laboratories of Empire’, and from Peter Mancall on the troubled relationship between Europeans and Native Americans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The second volume, concerned principally with slavery and the American Revolution, has a sparkling chapter on Native Americans by Daniel Richter, and another on the ‘black experience’ of Empire by Philip Morgan. But broadly speaking, the radical historians of Empire – David Killingray, Peter Sluglett, Nicholas Tarling – have been confined to the final, historiographical volume, while the more conservative have been given the meaty chapters in the bulk of the History.
The purpose of the Historiography volume is to trace themes that were dealt with inadequately in the earlier narrative volumes, and it provides a vivid account of the way historians portrayed Empire during its final century. Discussing work in Canada, D.R. Owram describes how ‘older images of the British as a benevolent ruling society have tended to give way to darker pictures of indigenous peoples displaced.’ Contemporary Australian historians, we are told by Stuart Macintyre, have recovered ‘a forgotten history of genocidal expropriation of Aboriginal Australians’. These are welcome contributions, yet neither writer can explain why these issues are so neglected in the earlier volumes. C.A. Bayly, the Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at Cambridge, dismisses as ‘fashionable’ or ‘anachronistic’ issues that have agitated Imperial historians for the past twenty years – famine and ecology, for example; the destruction of forests and tribal peoples.
We now recognise that the Empire was not established on virgin territory, as some of the older Imperial histories liked to suggest. Land – for tax collection, for production and for settlement – had to be wrested from indigenous peoples, who were driven away, sent into permanent exile, or exterminated. A familiar pattern in the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries, this destruction of native peoples became more purposive in the larger Empire in the 19th, and lasted well into the 20th. Colonial governors who had fought with Wellington in the Peninsular Wars, and were subsequently rewarded with jobs, often perceived native inhabitants of the Empire as an ‘enemy’ to be rooted out. In New South Wales and Tasmania, in India and South Africa, in the seas off Singapore and on the Arabian mainland, these officers helped create the circumstances in which British trade and investment could flourish without the tiresome physical presence of those unwilling to recognise its obvious advantages.
The most satisfactory exposition of this aspect of Imperial control comes in a brilliant essay by D.A. Washbrook about 19th-century India. In his account, the British conquerors turned what they perceived as a tradition of ‘oriental despotism’ to their advantage, organising a ‘military offensive against civil society’:
The Army was made highly visible through garrison policies which dispersed it widely across the country. Pacification policies were developed which treated the slightest manifestation of civil disorder as incipient revolt and punished it accordingly. Soldiers were deputed to attend many of the functions of civil government, such as revenue collection. Non-military departments of the state adopted military-style uniforms and rituals . . . Flogging came to be regarded as a highly appropriate punishment for an ever-widening range of ‘civil’ offences. Martial force – that is, torture – was also extensively used in such tasks as the collection of land revenue.
Washbrook also refers to the British search-and-destroy missions sent to Central India in 1817 to slaughter the marauding Pindari armies of Chitu, although he does not quote the remark of Colonel George Fitzclarence, an aide-de-camp to the Governor of Bengal, who underlined their real purpose. The Pindaris were ‘viewed as public robbers’, Fitzclarence wrote, and so ‘their extirpation was aimed at, and not their defeat as an enemy entitled to the rights of war.’
Such physical extermination of native peoples is largely ignored in other contributions to the Oxford History. The chapter on Southern Africa in the 19th century by Christopher Saunders and Iain Smith benignly suggests that ‘British troops repeatedly intervened to play a crucial role in supporting settlers who were unable on their own to displace African farmers.’ No attempt is made to describe what ‘intervention’ or ‘displacement’ might have involved, nor is there any reference to the prolonged campaign to exterminate the San (Bushmen) during the first decades of the 19th century. Hundreds of thousands of acres were seized by white farmers, and hardly a single Bushman band remained by 1825. A correspondent in a frontier town in 1821, describing how he had met people involved in the ‘commando’ expeditions sent out against them, wrote that ‘they talk of shooting Bushmen with the same feelings as if the poor creatures were wild beasts.’ British officials liked to think that the extermination of the San was chiefly the work of the Dutch, and some British historians have accepted this view, but John Philip, a hawk-eyed missionary in the 1820s, knew that this wasn’t so. The system ‘which rendered the Dutch name so infamous’, he wrote, is now being carried on ‘in all its horrors’ under the British Government: ‘Impatient to obtain undisturbed possession of the Bushman country, and tired of the slow method of exterminating the natives by commandos of Boers . . . a plan was devised to employ the Cape regiments, and the British soldiers then on the frontiers of the colony, in this work of death.’ Philip concluded that ‘the mass of evil brought upon the wretched Bushmen is greater under the English Government than under the Dutch.’
Similar attitudes were evident among the British dealing with the Aborigines and the Maoris. ‘How would I civilise the Maoris?’ asked Captain John Guard, a former convict whose ship was wrecked off the North Island in 1834. ‘Shoot them to be sure! A musket ball for every New Zealander is the only way of civilising their country.’ However, no one would learn from the Oxford History that the slaughter of the aborigines was often intentional. Donald Denoon and Marivic Wyndham, who write here about Australia and the Pacific in the 19th century, suggest matter-of-factly that ‘indigenous peoples were decimated and outnumbered by new, expanding societies of free British migrants,’ but they seem to believe that this ‘demographic revolution’ was caused by smallpox rather than the deliberate actions of colonists. There is no mention of the use of poisoned ‘damper’ (maize meal laced with arsenic), nor of the simple remedies suggested by wealthy Australian ranchers like Colonel William Cox, speaking at a public meeting in Beaufort in 1825: ‘The best thing that could be done would be to shoot all the Blacks and manure the ground with their carcases, which was all the good they were fit for . . . the women and children should especially be shot as the most certain method of getting rid of the race.’ It is true that smallpox had a dramatic impact on other subject peoples of the Empire, notably on Native Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries, but even its spread was not always accidental. ‘Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians,’ wrote General Jeffrey Amherst, the British commander in North America during the great Indian rebellion led by Pontiac in 1763, another notorious utterance that finds no place in the Oxford History.
The fate of the Canadian Indians, too, is largely ignored in these pages, though Ged Martin, in a chapter on Canada after 1815, admits that the 19th century was ‘a disaster’ for its indigenous peoples: ‘They had constituted at least one-fifth of the population in 1815 but by 1911 their total members halved to just over 100,000, barely 1 per cent of Canada’s total.’ Martin makes no attempt to explain this extraordinary development, and omits any reference to Prince Maximilian of Wied, who travelled in the lands south of Lake Winnipeg in the wake of a smallpox epidemic in the 1830s. ‘The prairie all around is a vast field of death,’ wrote the Prince. ‘The Assiniboines . . . are, in the literal sense of the expression, nearly exterminated.’ Out of step with today’s revisionist historians, Martin is also dismissive of Indian resistance, hinting that Louis Riel, the leader of an Indian-supported rebellion in Saskatchewan in 1885, was simply a deranged millenarian whose cause few Indians cared to join.
These volumes lack any sense of outrage at the routine horror of the Empire. The rape and plunder of Imperial campaigns, and the stench of burning villages, were not confined to the early years. Things grew steadily worse as technological advances reached distant, newly acquired colonies. The late 19th-century conquest of Africa coincided with the improvement of the machine-gun; and in the 20th century, the technique of killing at a distance was refined through aerial bombing, enabling opponents and troublemakers to be destroyed, with their families, at minimum cost and with no publicity. In Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq, the Sudan and on India’s North-West Frontier, aerial bombing was to prove formidably effective as a weapon of terror. Only passing reference is made to these technological developments, and there are even attempts to downgrade their significance. Robert Kubicek argues that in numerous armed clashes between the British and local peoples between 1875 and 1907, ‘both sides had modern weaponry.’ So they did, but Winston Churchill was appalled by the one-sided slaughter at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, where the followers of the Mahdi had just two machine-guns, while Kitchener’s men had 55.
The coercion and movement of labour is also underplayed. When indigenous peoples refused to be enslaved, or had been exterminated, alternative sources of labour had to be found. Traditional Imperial history prefers to dwell on Britain’s admirable role in the abolition of its slave trade in 1807, but disavows the role played by slavery itself in establishing the seed-corn of Imperial fortunes. In fact, for much of the time until 1833, production in the outer reaches of the Empire was dependent on slave labour imported from Africa. In a chapter on the development of the Caribbean islands, Richard Sheridan underestimates the role of slave labour. ‘The New World plantation represented the capitalistic exploitation of land,’ he writes, ‘with a combination of African labour, European technology and management, Asiatic and American plants, European animal husbandry, and American soil and climate.’ So it did, yet without African slaves and their labour, the other items on Sheridan’s list would have made little impact. David Richardson is more outspoken in an essay on the economics of the slave trade. Differences may exist among historians about the amount of money the slave trade made for Britain, but he has little doubt that merchants of the British Empire, the leading shippers of slaves to America, made life hell for the Africans.
When slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833, many former slaves sought to work for themselves, and withdrew their labour from the market. Colonial governments fell back on a system of forced labour. Prisoners and ordinary citizens were recruited for road construction, part of the essential infrastructure of Empire, just as it had been in the days of Rome. Private Imperial producers were less fortunate, and had to embark on a global search for cheap labour. In one bizarre episode in the 1840s, Jamaican labour recruiters brought back from Sierra Leone the descendants of the Maroons, who had been forcibly expelled from the Caribbean after a rebellion in 1795. Eventually, a more reliable source of labour was found in India and China: the seizure of Hong Kong in 1841 provided a conduit for the dispersal of Chinese labour around the globe, while Britain’s direct control over India ensured that its impoverished peasants were always available for export. Whatever their formal status, these indentured labourers often worked under conditions comparable with those of the slaves they replaced. When Indian coolies first arrived in British Guiana, they were housed in barracks known as the ‘Niggers’ Yard’; those who went to the sugar estates of Mauritius were housed in the ‘Camp des Noirs’. In a single, inadequate chapter about this new form of Imperial labour, David Northrup argues blandly that it was ‘less a new system of slavery than an old system of free labour revived to suit Imperial needs in an industrial age’. ‘Limited space,’ he concludes, ‘prevents consideration of the conditions of labour in the various colonies.’
One casualty of this ‘limited space’ is Fiji, where British annexation of the islands in 1874 led to a complete collapse of ‘the will to live’ for many native Fijians, a phenomenon W.H.R. Rivers, the British pioneer of psychoanalysis, compared with shell shock. So remarkable was this collapse that the Governor felt obliged to set up a commission in 1893, barely twenty years after the British takeover, to seek explanations for ‘the decline of the native population’. The commissioners’ report identified a number of causes, including a measles epidemic carried on a British ship, and the changes wrought in traditional society through the activities of missionaries. They also found that some people believed there to be ‘a mysterious malign influence surrounding the white man, like a poisonous atmosphere, which stifles every coloured race encountering it’. Four years after British annexation, the settlers found it so difficult to persuade the Fijians to work for them that they transferred boatloads of indentured Indian workers from the Subcontinent. By 1916, when the indenture system was finally abandoned, some 50,000 Indians were living in Fiji, and by 1944, they outnumbered the native Fijians.
The issue of military control is also neglected. To ensure its survival, and to avoid imposing an intolerable burden on the British population at home, the Empire was usually defended and policed by armies recruited from among each colony’s indigenous peoples. In South Africa, the Khoi-Khoi (Hottentots) were formed into the Cape Mounted Rifles to be used against the Xhosa (Kaffirs). In Australia, Aborigines were recruited into the Corps of Native Police to be deployed against other Aborigines, usually in different parts of the country. In the Caribbean, black slaves were bought up in the marketplace to serve in the British Army during the counter-revolutionary wars of the 1790s, and the projected end of the slave trade was postponed for several years to maintain this important source of military recruits. The British Army in the Caribbean, much reduced by yellow fever, was seriously deficient in manpower as it sought to quell Carib and Maroon rebellions, and to defend the white planters against the French. In Ceylon, too, the British Governor was forced to purchase Africans from the Portuguese slave market in Goa to fight the resistance wars in Kandy. Later, in the 19th century, the black soldiers of the West Indian regiments were sent from the Caribbean to fight against the children of their forebears in West Africa, and to help police the ramparts of Empire in the Middle East. A fresh Imperial pattern was created, with locally recruited regiments dispatched around the globe. African soldiers, notably from Nigeria, were hired to fight in Ghana and Sierra Leone, and during the Second World War were sent as far away as Burma.
In India, most famously, locally recruited soldiers known as ‘sepoys’ came to form the backbone of Britain’s Imperial forces. After a hundred years of service in the conquest of India itself, the sepoys were deployed in Egypt, Indonesia, the Persian Gulf and Aden, in Ethiopia and East Africa, and in Europe during the First and Second World Wars. Some of the Imperial hoplites joined up gratefully – unemployment in the Caribbean colonies meant joyful scenes at the recruiting offices in 1914 – but others were less willing, and their forced recruitment became a point of resistance. Indian sepoys mutinied often, though the prospect of ‘cannonading’ – being ‘blown from guns’ – was enough to keep many from stepping out of line. There was ‘not a dry eye amongst the Europeans’, it is said of one occasion in 1764, when 24 sepoys were killed in this way on the parade ground at Patna. A mutinous soldier would be placed in front of a cannon, his shoulders against the barrel’s mouth. When the gun was fired, his severed head and arms would fly away, while the amputated body fell to the ground. The ceremony was used for the execution of Indians following the Mutiny in 1857, and in 1872 Lambert Cowan, deputy commissioner of a town in the Punjab, ordered 50 Sikh zealots to be blown from guns. The late Philip Mason, like many old India hands, used to argue that the sepoys preferred this manner of dying. During the Mutiny, he claimed, ‘there were many cases of men begging to be blown from guns or shot, a soldier’s death, but not to be hanged – the death of a dog.’ Eyewitnesses thought otherwise: William Butler, a missionary, argued that the sepoys objected to the dishonour done to the integrity of the body. ‘The disembodied ghost’ of someone executed by cannonading, he wrote, would be exposed ‘to a wandering, indefinite condition in the other world, which they regard as dreadful’.
By the end of the 19th century, cannonading had been abandoned, but the machine-gun, then aerial bombing, replaced the practice as powerful disincentives to mutiny. Hugh Trenchard, who spent the first decade of the 20th century quelling rebellions in Nigeria, made ready use of the new technologies. Revelations about his early career owe much to African oral traditions resurrected by historians and exploited by novelists. Chinua Achebe, in Things Fall Apart (1958), describes the scene on market day in Abame when punishment was exacted for the murder of a white man who had arrived in the village ‘riding an iron horse’. Three white men ‘and a very large number of other men surrounded the market . . . and they began to shoot. Everyone was killed, except the old and the sick who were at home.’ The event on which Achebe based his story took place in southern Nigeria, in December 1905, in the village of Ahiara. The villagers had killed Dr James Stewart, an officer who had arrived in their village on a bicycle. Major Trenchard, aged 32, was the commander of the force in charge of the subsequent massacre. The historian Johnson Asiegbu interviewed people in the area in 1978, and found that some still remembered what had happened, recalling that ‘after gathering the local people for a public “palaver” or meeting, the British-led soldiers opened fire on the unsuspecting people and mowed them down by the hundreds.’
Years after this largely forgotten and unreported Nigerian massacre, Air Marshal Trenchard became ‘the founder’ of the Royal Air Force. In the 1920s, as Chief of Air Staff, he became a devoted advocate of the aerial bombing of rebels in Iraq, a strategy that enabled the British to control the country in the absence of Indian sepoys, who were needed back in India to quell the revolutionary uprisings following the massacre at Amritsar in 1919. Trenchard concluded his career as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and chairman of the United Africa Company. His biography, and the findings of oral history generally, do not find a place in the pages of the Oxford History.
The editor’s own contributions, particularly in the section of the 20th-century volume dealing with Imperial collapse, bring his American agenda to the fore. Louis is very conscious of the question posed by Gibbon: must all empires inevitably decline? Gibbon answered in the affirmative, but Louis is at pains to argue that ‘empires can revive as well as die,’ anxious perhaps to reassure his readers that today’s American empire need not necessarily follow the British example.
In order to stage this argument, Louis must stake his position in a well-established debate as to the date of onset of the British decline. The usual view is that the Second World War sapped Britain’s economic strength and Imperial will, so that in parallel with the rise of a United States hostile to the European empires was a Gadarene rush from the Indian Subcontinent and a steady withdrawal from the remaining Imperial possessions during the twenty years to follow.
An alternative view, with which I have more sympathy, is that the impact of the First World War was far more significant. The conquest of the territories of the Middle East, in particular, extended the Empire to its widest limits and helped bring about its downfall. (People were well aware of this at the time. My uncle, Sir Penderel Moon, joined the Imperial Civil Service in the 1920s and stayed on in India to work for Nehru. When I asked him in the 1980s, late in his life, why he had chosen such a career when it must have been obvious to him that British control of India was coming to an end, he replied that all his contemporaries knew that the game was up, but they had thought it would be fun, and intellectually interesting, to preside over the Empire’s final years.) Louis does not accept this view. He prefers the simpler, familiar story that the Second World War put paid to the Empire, but he does give it a slight twist. His suggestion is that in the years after 1945, far from planning to give up their Empire, the British were in fact examining ways to revive it, and hoped to do so in collaboration with the Americans. Louis’s reading is that the Americans did their best to prop up Britain’s Empire in the early postwar years, in spite of their ideological opposition. One of the benefits (or disbenefits) of the special Anglo-American relationship was the American decision to assist the British in retaining their status as an Imperial power at a time when other European empires were being thrown to the wolves. (The Dutch received no Marshall Aid until they had undertaken to get rid of Indonesia.)
The initial beneficiary of this American munificence was the Labour Government of Clement Attlee. Although forced by imminent bankruptcy into withdrawal from India, Palestine and Greece, Labour held grimly onto its remaining colonies in Africa and Asia, imagining their future incorporation into the Commonwealth. The subsequent Conservative Governments of Churchill and Eden were also able to sustain an Imperial rearguard action backed by American money, but the tide turned after Suez, when a younger generation of Tory politicians, recruited by Harold Macmillan, decided that an Empire kept going by the Americans was not worth the candle. Louis singles out Iain Macleod, Conservative Colonial Secretary for two crucial years at the start of the 1960s, as someone who speeded up the process of decolonisation in the teeth of tremendous political opposition.
A generation later, it is New Labour that appears more eager to take up the white man’s burden again, sending latter-day gunboats to the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Certain members of today’s Cabinet, one feels, may have had Louis’s nostalgic History as their bedside reading.