Posted by: L | July 29, 2007

That Good Old British Empire…

THIS BLOG HAS MOVED TO ( as of August 2007

As always, it was only libertarians on the right who saw through the pretensions of what neoconservatives today avow was the one and only “good” empire — on which America ought to model itself.. In fact, IS modeling itself.

So, let’s take a look at what that empire actually did (caveat: this piece is from the socialist press, so it makes no distinction between the mercantilist policies of today’s capitalism and a real free market; it also tends to simplify the actual interaction of race and religion with state policies — it’s downright wrong on that in some places but the facts are not in dispute):

“Tax collections rose even as millions died of man-made famines. Like Bengal of 1770-72. The East India Company’s own report put it simply. The famine in that province “exceeds all description.” Close to ten million people had died, as Rajni Palme-Dutt pointed out in his remarkable book, India Today. The Company noted that more than a third of the populace had perished in the province of Purnea. “And in other parts the misery is equal.”Yet, Warren Hastings wrote to the directors of the East India Company in 1772: “Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of this province, and the consequent decrease in cultivation, the net collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of [pre-famine] 1768.” Hastings was clear on why and how this was achieved. It was “owing to [tax collection] being violently kept up to its former standard.”

The Company itself, as Palme Dutt observed, was smug about this. It noted that despite “the severity of the late famine and the great reduction of people thereby, some increase has been made” in the collections.

Between 24 million and 29 million Indians, maybe more, died in famines in the era of British good governance. Many of these famines were policy-driven. Millions died of callous and wilful neglect. The victims of Malthusian rulers. Over 6 million humans perished in just 1876 — when Madras was a hell. Many others had their lives shortened by ruthless exploitation and plunder. Well before the Great Bengal Famine, the report of that province’s Director for Health for 1927-28 made grisly reading. It noted that “the present peasantry of Bengal are in a very large proportion taking to a dietary on which even rats could not live for more than five weeks.” By 1931, life expectancy in India was sharply down. It was now 23.2 and 22.8 years for men and women. Less than half that of those living in England and Wales. (Palme-Dutt.)

Mike Davis’ stunning book, Late Victorian Holocausts, also ought to be required reading in every Indian school. Davis gives us a scathing account, for instance, of the Viceroy Lord Lytton. Lytton was the most ardent free-marketeer of his time — and Queen Victoria’s favourite poet. He “vehemently opposed efforts … to stockpile grain or otherwise interfere with market forces. All through the autumn of 1876, while the kharif crop was withering in the fields of southern India, Lytton had been absorbed in organising the immense Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Victoria Empress of India.” The weeklong feast for 68,000 guests, points out Davis, was an orgy of excess. It proved to be “the most colossal and expensive meal in world history.” Through the same week as this spectacular durbar, “100,000 of the Queen Empress’ subjects starved to death in Madras and Mysore” alone.

In fact, barring the scale, it all sounds depressingly like the present. In terms of ideology and principle at least. The Raj nostalgia of today’s neo-liberals is quite heart-felt. .

Cannon fodder

Yes, there’s that, too. British good governance killed more than those tens of millions in famines. Countless numbers of Indians died in wars waged for, by, and against the British. Over 8,000 died in the single battle around Kut in Iraq in 1916. London used them as canon fodder in its desperate search for a success against the Turks after the rout at Gallipoli. When there were no Indians around, the British sacrificed other captive peoples. “Waste the Irish” was the term used by an English officer when sending out troops on a suicidal mission.

In his book Global Capitalism and India, C.T. Kurien gives us a stark example of British-led globalisation from the 1860s. The civil war in America had hurt the flow of cheap, slave-labour cotton to Britain. So the Raj forced the growing of that crop here on a much larger scale than before. “From then on, commercialisation of agriculture continued to gain momentum. Between the last decade of the 19th century and the middle of the twentieth, when food production in India declined by 7 per cent, that of commercial crops increased by 85 per cent. Widespread and regular famines became a recurring feature during this period…….

Again, while the scale is wholly different, the parallels are odd. In June this year, we could see Montek Singh Ahluwalia speaking solemnly of problems, even a crisis in agriculture. (Gee! I wonder who told him.) These headaches, he feels, go to back to the mid-1990s. No mention of who was shaping the ghoulish policies of that — and the present — period. And no questions asked about it in the media. There’s good governance for you. Welcome back, Lytton. All is forgiven, come home.”


That’s a powerful piece from the Indian press reviewing Mike Davis’ important book, “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World” Verso (July 2002)

I am not fond of the reiteration of the terms “White” and “Christian” in this piece — though color and religion probably exacerbated attitudes toward the peasantry and even to some of the Indian elites. It’s a fact, however, that racial attitudes were strengthened only AFTER the establishment of imperial “good governance” and not in the early history of the British East India company, the entity that began this whole remarkable mercantilist conquest. And obviously I don’t sympathize with the idea that more government interference is the needed prescription.

But still, the Davis’ book is a welcome antidote to the neoconservative glorification of the British empire (as in Niall Ferguson’s poorly-sourced coffee table primer – “Empire.”

Not as dreadful as Hitler or Stalin or Mao is not good, and as you can see, the death toll from the famines was certainly up there as far as sheer numbers go.

You can’t equate intentionally killing vast numbers of people with deaths from famines that were set off at first by climate conditions (hmmm….does Davis have an axe to grind?) and dreadfully worsened by pitiless and incompetent policies. And I’m not really sure what the use of the word ‘holocaust’ was intended to do here, either. An intentionally murderous policy is not the same as horrible mismanagement and callousness. Still, at a certain level, if you go ahead knowing what’s going to happen, you can’t hide behind “intention” after that. Driving a truck through a classroom without “intending” to kill children is something of a self-contradiction, I would think. Collateral damage you calculate before hand and discount counts as intended.

That aside, Davis has shone some light on a history that many people simply don’t know.

When Americans take up the imperial purple from the British empire, they should read about its darker side. However admirable English culture, laws, and civil society may be, they were not made so by empire, but undermined by it.

In fact, as I pointed out, racial feelings only seriously developed after the imperial state had administrative charge of the whole of the country – after very decent, well-meaning British civil servants had been sent out to man the apparatus of government. Many of them were of a much higher caliber than the corrupt merchant adventurers of the earlier centures — true. But the record seems to show that in spite of that, racism really came into the mix only later in imperial history, not earlier. It was a theoretical justification for the overwhelming inequality between rulers and ruled by the nineteenth century.

In any case, whenever it developed (most probably in the 19th century), it seems to me to have been exacerbated by the expansion of the empire.

You can admire British culture, literature and science but still see this. British culture and society are not the same thing as the British empire and they never needed to have been.

No matter what Dinesh D’Souza says.

Mark Twain had it right.

“Now considered the quintessential American novelist, yet he too was called a traitor for opposing the annexation of the Philippines. Twain was thought un-American. ‘Shall we?’ he asked, attacking McKinley’s foreign policy. ‘Shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest? Shall we bang right ahead in our old-time, loud, pious way, and commit the new century to the game; or shall we sober up and sit down and think it over first?’

Read more of “Over There,” by Eric Schlosser at Granta.

Update: What about the benefits of British rule, you might ask? There were some. The railroads, for one example. But at what expense did the Indians get railroads? And couldn’t they have got them from, industrialization, free trade (and free trade is NOT mercantilism) and competition just as well? They could have got all the cultural benefits without the murderous sideshow.

Do I deny that culture plays a big role in things? Not at all. What I do deny is that you need an aggressive state to foster the kinds of civic associations and laws needed for culture to grow.

As for Social Darwinism and statism being opposed — you only have to look at policies where the state actively intervenes to prop up the financial classes, while it lets the rest sink or swim — you can have both going on at the same time. The powerful get bail-outs, handouts, while the rest get the law of the jungle. Note – the powerful doesn’t always mean the rich. I mean those who have the state to mop up their mistakes and shove their costs on to other people.

Look – the free market always assumes you already have laws and morality. Where statists are mistaken is to think you need a modern bureaucracy and a standing army for laws and morality to exist…

THIS BLOG HAS MOVED TO ( as of August 2007



  1. Great post here. This topic– the many atrocities, mass murders and genocides of the British Empire– is one that’s just aching for more attention from both the popular and professional press.

    I read a summary by one author who’s aggregated evidence showed that not only was the British Empire no better than its rapacious counterparts among the Russians, the Nazis and the Japanese– it was much worse, since it killed so many more people over a longer time period, and usually not in the midst of a bitterly contested European War.

    Some examples the author cited:
    1. The near-extermination of the aboriginal peoples of the South Pacific, esp. in Australia and the surrounding islands, not by disease but through deliberate, targeted genocide, even of aboriginal women and children, sponsored by the British government in the form of rewards given for killed aborigines.
    2. The brutality in India you describe above– deliberate seizures of farms in India and terrible repression of Indian trade, which effectively starved out entire towns. Only about 1/2 of India was ever in British hands, but the region that was– especially hard-hit Bengal– suffered mightily, and in fact it’s the non-British ruled portions of India that, today, are the richest.
    3. The British concentration camps in the Boer War, deliberately targeting Boer women and children.
    4. Ireland. (Any summary needed? Many centuries of tremendous brutality and atrocities toward the Irish people, who knows how many hundreds of thousands killed in wars, not even considering the famines.)
    5. British campaigns against North American Indians that, through means such as clothing deliberately coated with smallpox-containing droplets, were designed expressly to wipe out entire tribes. Another clear case of British genocide against the native peoples.
    6. British RAF terror-bombing of the Iraqis in 1921 who rebelled against British rule. This was where Arthur Bomber Harris got his start– what a jerk, he deserved to be denied the glory his sorry ass craved after WWII, and to have his statue vandalized as it recently was.
    7. Similar British terror-bombing of the Somalis around the same time, hitting entire civilian villages. Notice the clear racism the British demonstrated toward the Somalis, Iraqis, Indians and others.
    8. British death camps that look and sound a lot like Buchenwald or Auschwitz in the midst of the Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya after WWII, very brutal places with torture and murder. See Caroline Elkins, “Imperial Reckoning.”

    9. After repeatedly getting their asses kicked by the Afghans in 2 wars during the Victorian period, the frustrated and humiliated British (“how dare those uppity darkies defeat us this way”) occasionally tried to hit Afghan towns– held by their allies, no less, who naturally became bitter enemies (not exactly allies anymore) after the attacks. For example, the Afghans in 1842 defeated the British so badly that an entire British army was wiped out, maybe 20,000 people or so. So the British then proceeded to sack a nice bazaar in Kabul– where Afghans initially friendly to the British were doing their business– at which point the enraged Afghans then turned on the British punitive raiding party and basically turned them into meat for pot-shotting Ghalzai (sp?) warriors who brutalized them on their retreat.

    10. In 1945, just after WWII, the British immediately got embroiled in a war in Indonesia against native resistance forces who were fighting against British and Dutch attempts to impose a joint Dutch-English occupation zone in the islands. The British were frustrated in numerous battles there and– their memories of the prior disastrous defeat against Japan in Singapore in 1942 still fresh– panicked and started to terror-bomb the Indonesians, much like the way the Americans bombed the stuffings out of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This only enraged the Indonesians more and galvanized the local population to the point that the British were driven out of every town they had initially held; General Mallaby was killed.

    The Indonesians utterly defeated the British in that Anglo-Indonesian War and subsequently expelled the Dutch. This was a critical victory against the British because it demonstrated that (1) RAF terror bombing would not be successful this time and (2) the British– initially hoping to hold on to India– realized that it would be impossible. If the plucky Indonesians on their islands could defeat the British so overwhelmingly with arms acquired from the Japanese occupation, then India, with simmering bitterness from over 2 centuries of British brutality, was going to be impossible hold. It’s no exaggeration to point out that India’s independence in 1948 owed a lot to British defeats in Singapore and then in Indonesia.

    11. The Opium Wars, about as disgusting a war rationale as one could imagine– waging a war to explicitly attempt to hook Chinese peasants on opium acquired from British India.

    IMHO the Opium Wars stand out not only because of the repugnance of the British actions there, but also because strategically, this is likely to prove one of the most disastrous mistakes of the British in the 19th century. The British attacks actually galvanized Chinese nationalism, so much so that further British invasion attacks were frustrated in the later 19th century, occasionally by Q’ing Dynasty troops but often with the help of coastal militias. The Opium Wars were also cited by nationalist types when China entered the Korean War and decisively defeated the British and Americans, pushing them back away from the Yallu River– a stalemate for the N. Koreans, but a clear victory for the Chinese.

    I say the Opium Wars may be such a strategic mistake for the British, since because of them, the British effectively made an enemy out of a country that’s likely going to be ruling the world in 15 years or maybe even less. The Chinese have never forgotten those wars, and Chinese films skewer the British almost as much as Indian historical films do. The British thereby blundered into making an enemy out of a very tough nation, and 1.4 billion Chinese today– whether or not they specifically hate the British– haven’t forgotten. Karma, payback, what goes around comes around, whatever you wanna call it, it’s not gonna be pretty for the British.

    There were many other atrocities the British committed throughout their Empire, but the ones above are the best documented and probably the most repulsive.

  2. I will get back to this…just one thing: I should say “British empire” not “British.” This is a linguistic detail that is very important. When you say British — (and this is the problem of how the state has infected our language) — you really mean the British imperial apparatus, not…the British.

    Jingoism for the empire in the late nineteenth century as well as the “British” entrance into WWII would not have happened without careful and extensive state propaganda of the population. You know, Gandhi seems to have been well-loved by the British working class and ordinary people. It was current neocon hero, Churchill, who derided him.

    Update: Funny you brought up that 1842 expedition to Kabul (under Lord Elphinstone) I put it into my new book — it was the only section about the British that managed to make the cut. We looked at our target audience and I thought that that would be all they would be willing to accept…. I decided that the full British empire expose would have to wait — until scholarship had launched a broadside against empire nostalgia and made the climate more receptive…

    My co-author trashed Che, Mao, and a few other icons in the book (deservedly), so I thought it was only fair to cast a few stones at the British empire as well, especially seeing how popular the darn thing’s become in certain circles.

  3. “I decided that the full British empire expose would have to wait — until scholarship had launched a broadside against empire nostalgia and made the climate more receptive…”

    L, I applaud you for this effort on a British Empire expose, it’s much needed. It took almost 50 years to unearth and fully appreciate the horrid crimes of Josef Stalin, and it’s taking even longer to expose and draw attention to the even greater and more heinous crimes of the British Empire, detailed here but also in other places.

    My own advice to you– please, don’t wait to release such a broadside, trust me you have an enormous audience for it. There’s always going to be some foolish British Empire nostalgia, but you’ll find that the climate for a “Little Black Book” on the British Empire is in fact, quite a receptive one, probably as receptive as it’s ever been since WWII.

    The simple fact is, there are hundreds of millions of descendants of the Indians, Irish, aboriginal peoples, Kenyans and many other peoples who were brutally oppressed, massacred or even suffered genocides due to the British, yet their stories have not been told, and this continues to provoke fury among our peoples. It would be as though the descendants of the Holocaust or the Stalinist purges were still going on without anyone discussing their crimes, blindly and stupidly reveling in the greatness of these brutal regimes.

    It’s time that someone did the same and blew the lid off the even more monstrous and extensive crimes of the British Empire.

    In fact, because there is such a relative lack of good popular history books in this field, you’ll essentially dominate this very much sought-after topic and essentially monopolize the audience when you put your book out. This is why the Elkins book referenced above has done so well, among the other handful in this field.

    Furthermore, it would be a great service to puncture so many of the idiotic myths that Empire apologists still use to cite how much more “enlightened” the British Empire was. For example: The UK giving India the “gift” of all those railroads and administrative system. (Fact: India was among the world’s richest countries with impressive industries in things like shipping, cotton and ceramics before the British came, along with an ancient and developed administration, but the British– besides killing so many millions of Indians– systematically dismantled India’s industries, making India among the poorest nations by 1948.)

    Similarly, that other idiotic trope about how “the Nazis would have shot Gandhi” and “the British were much better than the Nazis.” In fact, the British *did* shoot, hang, and kill in many other ways, a number of proto-Gandhi independence leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. And the British killed far more people in India in the late 19th century with their mass land seizures and provoked famines than the Nazis did. Those railroads the British built? The only purpose being to basically loot the Subcontinent more efficiently, as well as to send in troops to terrorize Indian civilians (esp after the 1857 uprising) as well as to ship the Indian workers to work camps, which I’m glad is being noted more these days.

    Another myth: “Former British colonies in Africa/Asia have done much better than former French, Dutch and Japanese colonies.” Along similar lines: “India should be thankful that the British brought English to India.” More cock and bull. No language is a “gift” more than any other, and if English is so empowering, than why are so many English-speaking British former colonies– Zimbabwe, Burma, Uganda, Iraq, Kenya, Jamaica, South Africa among others– among the world’s very worst basketcases? Conversely, why are so many non-English speaking countries that were colonized by e.g. Japan or other countries (Taiwan and Korea for example) or never colonized at all (Japan, Germany and China) so rich and successful, in many cases surpassing Britain itself?

    Fact is that Britain’s colonization and the imparting of the English language has no effect whatsoever on a former colony’s success or failure, and if anything India continues to suffer mightily from the suppression of its various indigenous tongues– no nation in history, not a single one, has ever succeeded in the international big leagues by using the language of an oppressive imperial power, it’s succeeded only when it develops and matures its own indigenous languages. This is another myth that deserves a thorough debunking.

    Also on the point of the British having shied away from genocide (unlike the Nazis), again that’s bull when we look at the examples of the Aussie aboriginals and Tasmanians, as well as the Pequot Indians in North America, who were deliberately targeted by the British. I’d also argue that many British actions toward the Irish and the people in India were very much genocidal. The Irish defeated Elizabethan England’s expeditionary forces in a series of important battles around 1600, at which point the frustrated English basically set fire deliberately to Ireland’s farms and starved out and killed about 1/3 to 1/2 of the people. (Even then, the Irish harassed and damaged the English via guerrilla war, never surrendering– only when the new king came to power did the Irish rebel O’Neill agree to a truce on favorable terms.) Many Indian groups such as the Bengalis very much did experience something like genocide when the East India company came along.

    Trust me, your book will be a bestseller, and for every idiotic British Imperial apologist who criticizes it, you’ll have 100 enthusiastic readers who will sing its praises and make you quite a famous author overnight– with the help of a wide variety of sites and blogs, we’re already becoming familiar with the British Empire’s crimes, and it would be great to have someone such as yourself catalog these actions in detail and put them in historical context, while puncturing many of the idiotic myths that apologists such as Andrew Roberts still cite.

  4. Well – let me say – I didn’t do the cutting.

    The publisher and editors did.

    I thought just making our target audience — well-to-do and well-meaning libertarians and investors — acquainted with a part of this history in a way that they would not immediately discard as biased would be useful. I have the other sections for a future book. I excerpted one passage and adapted it into a response to Dinesh D’Souza’s empire piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and sent it to a left wing magazine – but it wasn’t accepted. You have to consider who is writing what in all these things.

    Besides, I think socialist criticism misses the point by conflating free enterprise with the British empire, which was anything but free….

    Many thanks for your support, though. I agree that an important part of attacking neo-imperial policies is showing that the British empire was not what it is popularly thought to be.

    Finally – people have a mistaken idea of how much, say, even a best seller makes…$50,000 if you’re lucky – for at least 2 years work…and most books are not best-sellers….
    On Amazon, even a small sharp spurt can put you in the best seller category for your field (or in general), but then you fall back..if your name is not constantly in the eye of the buying public (not necessarily the same as the internet browsing public). Staff writers at the major print outlets are at a huge advantage and there are fewer and fewer chances for freelancers to break into that work, especially if their views are non-mainstream or controversial and political….

    Without a consistent good sales record,it’s hard to be a professional writer…so the market shapes you…

    If you want to be independent (as I do)..blogging and hoping to widen your audience and sell your own books directly, without all the risks of publishers, is the only option.

    That means depending…kindly reader…on YOU. You have to support writers who want to stay independent and bring important ideas and scholarship to larger numbers of people without selling out.

    Here is an earlier post of mine on the difficulties of my first book:

    So – again, yes, I am promoting myself; but I have to survive independently…so I do it without apology…knowing that succeeding will help me spread the ideas I believe in..

  5. “Besides, I think socialist criticism misses the point by conflating free enterprise with the British empire, which was anything but free….”

    Yes precisely, this conflation is part of the problem. Taking note of the crimes of the British Empire is in no way attacking free enterprise, it’s attacking a corrupt, murderous regime the same way we attack the Stalin regimes or those of Pol Pot or Genghis Khan. It’s criticism of an ultraviolent, mass-murdering institution.

    I sympathize with the challenges of publishing, and again you should be applauded– never be concerned about promoting yourself, it’s what you have to do.

    Again, as far as having an audience for your book detailing the atrocities of the British Empire, please don’t hesitate to get it into print.

    In part because there’s so little popular history out there, you have an eager audience waiting.

    And I promise you, we as your fans and interested readers on this topic, will be sure to do our part. As soon as you get that book into print, we’ll let each other know about it, buy it up in bulk (for distribution in our seminars, among other things) and write strong reviews for it.

    This is your edge over the sold-out imperial scribes like Andrew Roberts, you have a grass-roots army that will support you in bringing to light, the disgusting crimes, massacres, genocides, whitewashes and defeats of the British Empire as detailed above. If it comes in a separate book, all the better.

    In fact, I think a catchy title like “The Little Black Book of the British Empire” might be a good choice. I’ve heard this before so it’s public domain, you’d have every right to use it or something like it as a book title, and it would be sure to grab attention.

    We’ve already bookmarked your blog and news of your work is spreading among a lot of people, especially among the literally millions of Indian, Irish, Kenyan and other activists who are furious at the way this history has been suppressed for so long. If you finally open a crack in the dam, you’ll not only have a great and popular work on your hands, but you’ll achieve something unusual as a historical author, i.e. an expose of something that’s essentially been covered up for far too long.

    Good luck to you and again, we’ve got you bookmarked. Keep us updated on the British Imperial crimes book and we’ll be sure to follow closely, ready to eagerly support you when you have it published.

  6. Thanks very much. Appreciate it.
    And I’ll keep that title in mind!

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