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Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire

by Caroline Elkins

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2414111,216 (4.09)5
"Sprawling across a quarter of the world's land mass and claiming nearly seven hundred million people, Britain's twentieth-century empire was the largest empire in human history. For many Britons, it epitomized their nation's cultural superiority, but what legacy did the island nation deliver to the world? Covering more than two hundred years of history, Caroline Elkins reveals an evolutionary and racialized doctrine that espoused an unrelenting deployment of violence to secure and preserve the nation's imperial interests. She outlines how ideological foundations of violence were rooted in the Victorian era calls for punishing recalcitrant "natives," and how over time, its forms became increasingly systematized. And she makes clear that when Britain could no longer maintain control over the violence it provoked and enacted, it retreated from empire, destroying and hiding incriminating evidence of its policies and practices. Drawing on more than a decade of research on four continents, Legacy of Violence implicates all sides of Britain's political divide in the creation, execution, and cover-up of imperial violence. By demonstrating how and why violence was the most salient factor underwriting Britain's empire and the nation's imperial identity at home, Elkins upends long-held myths and sheds new light on empire's role in shaping the world today." -- Amazon.com. "From the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian: a searing study of the British Empire that interrogates the country's pervasive use of violence throughout the twentieth century and traces how these practices were exported, modified, and institutionalized in colonies around the globe"--… (more)
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Mentioned in Fintan O'Tolle's review of "Left is not Woke", by Susan Neiman in NYRB Nov 2, 2023 issue. "It has to be acknowledged that there are good historical reasons for skepticism about the Enlightenment’s claims to have articulated values for humanity as a whole. It’s not merely that the violence of slavery and colonialism exposed the hypocrisy of many of those who claimed to hold those values. It is that the very idea that one was enlightened justified the domination of those who were not. As Caroline Elkins has shown in Legacy of Violence (2022), her rigorous autopsy of the British Empire, the spread of the rule of law (a central Enlightenment project) was the great moral claim of nineteenth-century imperialism. But since the colonized peoples were not yet sufficiently developed to understand it, they could be subjected to what Elkins calls “legalized lawlessness.” This was the catch-22 for nonwhite peoples: until the indefinite point in the future when, under our firm tutelage, you have become sufficiently enlightened to grasp the universality of our principles, those universals exclude you.
  ddonahue | Feb 14, 2024 |
Legacy of Violence is somewhat mis-labelled as a history of the British Empire, but this should not detract from it’s overall usefulness in assessing the failures of the British Empire for both the British themselves and for their colonial subjects.

This book is mostly about its failures and that is why I say the book is mis-labelled. A complete history would assess its failures and its successes, so I would urge readers interested in the subject to find the successes in other volumes.

What brought me to this book now is the imminent coronation of King Charles, which may have already taken place by the time you read this review.

Is the British Monarchy still relevant, or an irritant from a former age of Imperial “greatness?”

If you only read this book your judgment would have to be that the Monarchy should be consigned to the dustbin of history, and it couldn’t happen soon enough.

Elkins' main thesis is that over the past few centuries the British Emperors (although they don’t call themselves that) refined the skills needed to control the vast numbers of its colonials in its territories using the technologies of war for policing measures, and when policing was simply ineffective, virtually inventing the art of terrorism.

That’s quite a claim, and damning if its true.

That the British used torture on its malcontents is now pretty well documented – most certainly by Elkins in her earlier volume on the Gulag Britain created in Kenya to manage kikuyu supporters of the Mau-mau revolt. Elkins follow the careers of British innovators and the innovations of police actions from the Raj in colonial India, to the Boer conflict in South Africa, the rise of Irish nationalism, the revolt of Jamaican slaves, the Palestine Mandate, to the submission of Malay following the occupation of the Japanese in WWII.

British terror tactics seemed to reach their apotheosis in the Malay with sophisticated intelligence, hit squads, deportations, mass resettlements, detention, concentration camps, starvation, and torture masquerading as a campaign of “winning the hearts of minds” of the local populace. In fact, the British were protecting their financial interests. After WWII, debt-laden Great Britain needed the taxes from Malay exports of tin and rubber while it found its footing again as a manufacturing and exporting colossus.

The focus on post-WWII also casts light on the famine British wartime colonial policy likely contributed to in East Pakistan where an estimated three million Bengalis died of hunger. Hardly a success of British rule.

The book is rife with irony, most certainly evident in the episode of the Arab Revolt and the ultimate partitioning of Palestine. At first, in attempting to subdue Arab malcontents after the Balfour Declaration promised a national homeland for Jews in the Middle East, the British armed Jewish settlers and trained them in the policing techniques learned elsewhere. At the close of WWII the British Cabinet suddenly realized the importance of Arab controlled oil reserves and Arab public opinion and tried to shut down Jewish immigration.

It resulted in the most violent Jewish terrorist group – Menachem Begin’s Irgun -- turning British methods against themselves.

The British saw themselves as the civilizing force, the liberal-minded empire even as it struck with night raids against Arab civilians in Palestine. The colonials were thought of as "toddler children." And they were committing atrocities even while signing both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the new United Nations, and the European Declaration of Human Rights, using semantics to justify themselves.

Oddly, for a book about such awfulness there is a fair bit of humour. There is the description of Captain Orde Wingate who “pontificated before his men stark naked while combing his pubic hair with a toothbrush, an apparently effective means of delousing;” he “wore an alarm clock on his wrist.” Wingate created the template for night/killer squads against Arabs/terrorists/Communists and is lionized in Israel today for essentially founding the famed Israeli Defense Force and its vaunted secret service agencies.

Then there are descriptions of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevins who could clear a room with his flatulence, and spymaster Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens. And the labelling of Britain's interrogation centres, its Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centres, CSDIC, which you could pronounce as "Seize Dicks", and which interrogators frequently did...with some force.

Reading this book on British atrocities led me once again to wonder where governments find the legions of sadists at their beck and call. Stalin, Hitler, Mau all found loads of sadists to undertake the dirtiest jobs. So did the British. It’s not as though you put out a want ad for torturers. This is a field, I think, where some scholarship is needed.

One could say that the British methods were a good training for D-Day, and for the later Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. But one could also draw a line from British methods in the Malay and French actions in Indo-China to the American invasion of South Vietnam. The Americans were simply worse than the British at convincing the homeland that the measures were justified.

What were Chinese “squatters” or “bandits” to the British in the Malay became communist insurgents to the Americans.

Of course, crowd control costs money. It cost the British big money. They had to weigh the value of maintaining their Imperial possessions after WWII.. It cost £40,000,000 annually to police Palestine.

Britain built its empire and extracted billions from the colonies. How valuable was all the violence to Britain at the end of the day?

Clearly, the rise of communications in the 20th century meant the beginning of the end for the British Empire. Global trade sped up, and the rise of multinational corporations replaced -– some might say learned from – the British Empire.

But let’s set aside for a moment all the nastiness. Today I live in Canada which, for the most part, is governed by the rule of law, the sanctity of property, and to some degree a responsive government. The framework for this society is — for better or worse — inherited from the British. I won’t say British Empire because the framework precedes the Empire, but the umbrella of empire certainly sheltered our society in its formative years.

We forget too that the British Empire was not the only one to fall. The Armistice of 1918 saw the demise of the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires. WWII destroyed the German and Japanese empires. And the French and Spanish followed suit. None of these political units were benign.

Compare what we have to the levels of corruption in China, the lawlessness and extortion in modern Russia, even the weakness of the social fabric in Latin America and you’d have to admit that the Empire left us with something enduringly good.

Good perhaps, but at what cost? ( )
  MylesKesten | Jan 23, 2024 |
The author has thoroughly researched and constructed a very useful analysis of an especially 'warts & all' depiction of the British Empire comprising as it does of many of the worst excesses of a notably self-serving British colonialism, i.e. violent outrages, including massacres, torture, imprisonment without trial, kidnap, extortion etc. to ensure the 'natives' comply with any & all demands of the undeniably racially motivated, English-speaking rulers.
Ms Elkins is no admirer, friend, or even neutral Historian of the exploits of British & Britons overseas: although typically she provides a dispassionate account of the numerous wrongdoings of the British ruling class across the Empire she is in all respects condemnatory of them at every level.
The work provides the critically ferocious antidote to the many histories that attempt to suggest a more balanced approach to what may be deemed good & bad perspectives & outcomes of Imperialism: for Ms Elkins there is only bad, & very, very bad.
It is for the reader to decide if someone who resides & prospers in an entirely Imperial US of A where post-1776 genocide of American Natives & enslavement of Africans continued for as long as the British Empire is really being honest in her moral judgement of Great Britain? ( )
  tommi180744 | Sep 11, 2023 |
Legacy of Violence is beautifully written book for anyone who wants to understand and argue against the idealisation of the British Empire, writes Ken Olende

Our rulers present the British Empire as somehow being a fairer, nicer sort of conquest. At its height, its advocates praised it for providing justice and the rule of law to all of its subjects. Unfortunately, they would occasionally add, many of these subjects were not civilised enough to cope with such rights. And so rule by law was often put aside. US historian Caroline Elkins’s new book graphically shows how “exceptional state-directed violence” was used repeatedly, and then “exonerated” by the authorities.

The British air ministry—a government department once responsible for the RAF—circulated a “Forms of Frightfulness” memo when it faced revolt in Iraq in the 1920s. This discussed controlling peasant villagers with “smoke bombs, aerial darts, tear gas, phosphorus bombs, war rockets, long-delay ‘action’ bombs, tracer ammunition, man-killing shrapnel bombs, ‘liquid’ fire [the precursor to napalm] and crude oil to pollute water supplies… A year earlier, Churchill had said that he was ‘ready to authorise the construction of [gas] bombs at once’.”

Winston Churchill is a recurring figure in this book, from youthful journalist to revered politician, always promoting the empire.

John Newsinger’s wide-ranging book The Blood Never Dried—A people’s history of the British Empire gives a clear Marxist understanding of what imperialism is and how Britain’s acquisition of the largest empire the world has ever seen was far from the “fortuitous accident” loved by the right. Newsinger describes the twin drives of the exploitation of colonised peoples and competition between the big powers, which resulted in two world wars and the Cold War.

But Elkins’s book adds something new and valuable, partly because she starts from a different place. This is an exploration of “liberal imperialism”. Roughly speaking—how the empire’s rulers justified their actions to themselves. One reason the book is nearly 700 pages long is because Elkins prefers to give them enough rope to hang themselves.

Here is a young Churchill singing the praises of dumdum bullets, “causing wounds that in the body must be generally mortal and in any limb necessitate amputation”. The British thought such bullets were important in colonial wars and blocked measures to ban them.

Elkins explains, “Concepts of ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ informed British logic—one senior army medical officer emphasised how conventional bullets often pass through the body. ‘As a rule when a white man is wounded… he has had enough, and is quite ready to drop out of the ranks and go to the rear; but the savage, like the tiger, is not so impressionable and will go on fighting even when desperately wounded.”

In 1896 the British War Office—a government department once responsible for the army—published its handbook, Small Wars, on how to fight in the colonies. Its author, Colonel Charles Callwell, was blunt that this was about unleashing havoc to achieve what he called “moral effect” on colonial civilians, and that “regular troops are forced to resort to cattle lifting and village burning and… the war assumes an aspect which may shock the humanitarian”.

Despite this reality, Britain’s leaders saw their own grasping, expansive behaviour as entirely noble. For instance, they justified the Boer War in South Africa “not in self-interested economic terms but rather as a conflict against a xenophobic and racist Boer Republic”.

When he became prime minister in 1940 Churchill told parliament that defeat for Britain in the war would mean “no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal”. Here, he casually identifies the empire with freedom and all that is good in humanity—something that would come as a surprise to the millions who had no say in how it was run or how their countries were exploited.

Elkins made a stir with her previous book, Imperial Reckoning—The untold story of Britain’s gulag in Kenya. It illustrates the Mau Mau independence struggle in the east African colony during the 1950s. Conservative historians have argued that her findings cannot be taken seriously because much of her information came from interviews with black Africans who supported the rebellion. Where was the written evidence? Elkins appeared as an expert witness in a 2011 case at the high court in London where several Kenyan victims of torture demanded compensation.

The Foreign Office had denied the existence of any documents that might clarify the British state’s role in the atrocities. But just as the case opened, it “discovered” 300 boxes of files “at Hanslope Park, the highly secure government facility… At the time of decolonization, colonial officials had packed up these newly discovered Kenyan files and spirited them away from Africa”.

The victims won their compensation, but Elkins was fascinated by the fact that this newly revealed archive contained embarrassing documents from across the empire, far beyond Kenya. This sparked her wider study.

Elkins is very good at showing the messy joins between lofty imperial rhetoric and the reality on the ground. She weaves from the brutality of the suppression of the 1857 Indian Rebellion to the Amritsar Massacre, to Ireland and on to the suppression of the Arab revolt.

Many names pop up again and again in different areas. Douglas Duff was the former head of the savage Black and Tans militia that tried to crush the independence movement in Ireland. He was sent on to use the same methods in Palestine. Elkins says his systematic beating of prisoners led to the phrase “duff them up”.

What’s more, she shows how the rulers’ view of subject peoples evolved not only from their contemptuous treatment of the slaves—whose pitiless exploitation funded Britain’s emergence as the workshop of the world—but also Britain’s own “native” workers.

Elkins writes, “The Poor Law of 1834 and the Habitual Criminals Act of 1869 created social categories of Britons who, like the empire’s subjects, were part of liberalism’s underbelly.” And the liberals in charge believed these “threats to society” must be reformed through “hard physical labour, thus rendering them more rational and civilised”. Variations of these laws emerged across the empire, such as India’s Criminal Tribes Act.

British commander Colonel Reginald Dyer explained why he ordered his troops to open fire on a peaceful demonstration at Amritsar in India in 1919, massacring as many as 1,500 people. “I consider this the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce… not only on those who were present but more specifically throughout the Punjab.”

As the atrocity was debated in the British parliament, a lord said, “One of the mainstays of our empire has been the feeling that every officer whose duty it was to take action in times of difficulty might rely, so long as he acted honestly and in the discharge of his duty, upon his superiors standing by him.” And this was taken as gospel truth—always assume British troops are right, to the extent that there is no point in investigating.

When prime minister Benjamin Disraeli proclaimed queen Victoria the Empress of India in 1877 it was part of an ideological redefinition of empire, away from images of trade and exploitation to those of family. This not only made Victoria a supposed mother figure for the whole empire, but also positioned her above political squabbles and, coincidentally, allowed her to be seen as a racial figurehead for the “superior” Anglo-Saxon breed.

This illusion of being above politics and head of a family with common interests has, if anything, grown in the intervening century and a half. So, in 1947 the late queen, then Princess Elizabeth, declared that her life would be “devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family”.

Often this idea of a commonwealth or family was achieved by a kind of doublethink that justified barbarism by saying it was a vital part of bringing civilisation. So, at one point Elkins focuses on the fact that Nazi Germany’s project of imperial expansion was largely in Europe. Before this, human rights thinking “remained on the periphery until Germany brought colonial counterinsurgency methods to Europe… and unleashing genocidal practices whose impact rippled through the international community”.

Even before the new horror of the Holocaust, the barbaric treatment of people regarded as lesser races brought into question the whole attitude that had built colonial empires for Britain, France and the other imperial powers.

After 1945 Britain’s Colonial Office complained that parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “may be extremely difficult to reconcile” in the empire.

The Second World War marked a turning point in the views of both rulers and ruled. Elkins notes, “most British officials believed the Japanese were tiny, weak men… and hardly a worthy enemy for their military.” The idea of white superiority was severely damaged by Japanese victories in Malaya and Singapore. Beyond this the cost of the fighting left the country heavily in debt to the US.

The economist John Keynes travelled to the US to negotiate Britain’s dire financial position and was outraged to discover they wanted to “pick out the eyes of the British Empire”. This outrage is based on an acceptance of the fantasy that Britain was somehow morally different and better than any other imperial project. This was despite the fact that Britain was actively rebuilding other colonial empires, notably those of the French and the Dutch, partly by retaking territory liberated by nationalist rebels from the Japanese.

Britain’s newly elected post-war Labour government hoped to go back to extracting wealth from the colonised countries. It thought a resurgence of empire at a higher rate of exploitation could repair the shattered imperial economy. However, it was faced with increasing numbers of people across the world rising up to free themselves from colonial occupation.

The costs required to keep the empire together undermined its profitability. “Military costs were 20 percent of total public expenditure, or nearly 8 percent of GDP, versus the United States’ 5 percent, but they could not be cut without imperilling the very policies on which recovery rested.” Eventually this burden forced Britain to let go. But the ruling strata’s self-image has never recovered, which is why the empire has become such a non-discussed presence.

Given this excellent book’s documentary power, it’s a pity there are a few minor errors, often associated with the introduction of background colour. To take two instances. First, England’s rulers did not oppress the Irish for their Catholicism from Norman times onwards—England was itself Catholic for 350 years after the invasion. Second, the city of Kano in Nigeria did not raise £10m for a Spitfire fighter, though the province of Kano did raise £10,000 to pay for two Spitfires.

There are also a couple of moments of political uncertainty, such as missing Cedric Robinson’s argument that all of capitalism is “racial”, not just certain exceptional states. However, none of these points undermine her central argument or research.

Legacy of Violence is beautifully written and follows through on its arguments doggedly. It concludes by looking at how the policies of liberal imperialism underlie much of current establishment thinking in Britain. Elkins does not shy away from talking directly about the hostile environment that attempts to blame immigrants for austerity or the Prevent Duty that penalises Muslims.

This is an important book that deserves to be read by everyone who wants to understand and argue against the current attempt to reinvigorate the romance of the British Empire. A knowledge of its contents will really help with arguments over what is the true history of Britain, where its wealth came from and the reality of empire.

https://socialistworker.co.uk/long-reads/legacy-of-violence-a-history-of-the-bri... ( )
  KenOlende | Feb 13, 2023 |
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"Sprawling across a quarter of the world's land mass and claiming nearly seven hundred million people, Britain's twentieth-century empire was the largest empire in human history. For many Britons, it epitomized their nation's cultural superiority, but what legacy did the island nation deliver to the world? Covering more than two hundred years of history, Caroline Elkins reveals an evolutionary and racialized doctrine that espoused an unrelenting deployment of violence to secure and preserve the nation's imperial interests. She outlines how ideological foundations of violence were rooted in the Victorian era calls for punishing recalcitrant "natives," and how over time, its forms became increasingly systematized. And she makes clear that when Britain could no longer maintain control over the violence it provoked and enacted, it retreated from empire, destroying and hiding incriminating evidence of its policies and practices. Drawing on more than a decade of research on four continents, Legacy of Violence implicates all sides of Britain's political divide in the creation, execution, and cover-up of imperial violence. By demonstrating how and why violence was the most salient factor underwriting Britain's empire and the nation's imperial identity at home, Elkins upends long-held myths and sheds new light on empire's role in shaping the world today." -- Amazon.com. "From the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian: a searing study of the British Empire that interrogates the country's pervasive use of violence throughout the twentieth century and traces how these practices were exported, modified, and institutionalized in colonies around the globe"--

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