Exit the Glories of Empire

The rumors of the glorious British Empire persist, the benevolence of the colonial rule, the improvement in the lives of the natives. History has a way of leaking out over time, or of being excavated by diligent workers, and is now erecting a counter-narrative to that of golden years nostalgia.

British Colonialism was bad.  Very bad, especially for those who were tortured, starved and killed as the Empire began to be chipped apart by small revolts that became big rebellions.

David Anderson, author of Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, has a few reminders in the NY Times today. 

  •  In a historic decision last week, the British government agreed to compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused while detained during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s
  • In 2010, Britain formally apologized for its army’s conduct in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” killings in Northern Ireland in 1972, and earlier this year Prime Minister David Cameron visited Amritsar, India, the site of a 1919 massacre, and expressed “regret for the loss of life.”
  • The evidence of torture revealed in these [just released] documents was devastating. In the detention camps of colonial Kenya, a tough regime of physical and mental abuse of suspects was implemented from 1957 onward, as part of a government policy to induce detainees to obey orders or to make confessions.
  • The documents showed that responsibility for torture went right to the top — sanctioned by Kenya’s governor, Evelyn Baring, and authorized at cabinet level in London by Alan Lennox-Boyd, then secretary of state for the colonies in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.
  • A case already before the courts concerns the 1948 Batang Kali massacre in colonial Malaya, now Malaysia. There, the relatives of innocent villagers — who were murdered by young conscript soldiers ordered to shoot by an older, psychopathic sergeant major — have asked for compensation. For Americans, the case has eerie echoes of Vietnam.
  • In Cyprus, translators employed by the British during the 1950s told tales of electrocutions and pulled fingernails as British intelligence officers tried to elicit information about gunrunning.
  • The British historians Andrew RobertsNiall Ferguson and Max Hastings have all nailed their colors to the mast of the good ship Britannia as she sailed the ocean blue bringing civilization and prosperity to the world. This view seems unlikely to be credible for much longer.
  • Empire was built by conquest. It was violent. And decolonization was sometimes a bloody, brutal business.
  • Torture is torture, whoever the perpetrator, whoever the victim. Wrongs should be put right. Whatever wrongs were done in the name of Britain in Kenya in the 1950s, the British government has now delivered modest reparations to some victims. And maybe we in Britain have also finally begun to come to terms with our imperial past.
  • Would the United States be so accommodating to a similar claim? In the current political climate, probably not. But times change. Fifty years from now, will Americans face claims from Guantánamo survivors? You might, and perhaps you should.

Histories of the Hanged

[Nor have we heard anything about a fulsome apology for say, the Trail of Tears…]