Heart of smugness
Unlike Belgium, Britain is still complacently ignoring the gory cruelties of its empire
July 23, 2002
So the Belgians are to return to the Heart of Darkness in an attempt finally to exorcise their imperial demons. Stung by another book cataloguing the violence and misery inflicted by King Leopold's empire on the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th century, the state-funded Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has commissioned a group of historians to pass authoritative judgment on accusations of genocide: forced labour, systematic rape, torture and murder of the Congolese, around 10 million of whom are thought to have died as a consequence.
This is not the first time that the Belgian empire has been singled out for censure. Back in the Edwardian era, British humanitarians spilled much ink over its excesses and Conrad's novella was corralled into service to show Leopold's Congo as a sort of horrific "other" to Britain's more uplifting colonialism.
Complacency about Britain's imperial record lingers on. In the post-September 11 orgy of self-congratulation about the west's superiority, Blair's former foreign policy guru, Robert Cooper, and a host of journalistic flag-wavers were urging us not to be ashamed of empire. Cooper insisted empire was "as necessary now as it had been in the 19th century". The British empire was, we were assured, a generally well-intentioned attempt to inculcate notions of good government, civilised behaviour and market rationality into less well-favoured societies.
Is such a rosy view of British imperialism justified? Many argue that it is. After all, surely the British have less blood on their hands than the French and the Belgians? Wasn't the British addiction to the free market a prophylactic against the horrors of forced labour? And didn't those peculiar class obsessions make them less racist than the rest - silly snobs, but not vicious yobs? And isn't India not only a democracy, but, thanks to the British, one with great railways? Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in some of this, but there's also much wilful smugness. While the complex consequences of colonial economic policy require extended analysis, it is possible to dispel more swiftly the myth that the British Empire, unlike King Leopold's, was innocent of atrocities.
It has become a modern orthodoxy that Europe's 20th century was the bloodiest in history and that atrocities must be recorded and remembered by society as a whole. But while a Black Book of Communism has been compiled and everybody is aware of the horrors of nazism, popular historians have been surprisingly uninterested in the dark side of the British Empire. There are exceptions, such as Mike Davis's powerful Late Victorian Holocausts, but much else still lies buried in the academic literature. Davis and others have estimated that there were between 12 and 33 million avoidable deaths by famine in India between 1876 and 1908, produced by a deadly combination of official callousness and free-market ideology. But these were far from being a purely Victorian phenomenon. As late as 1943 around 4 million died in the Bengal famine, largely because of official policy.
No one has even attempted to quantify the casualties caused by state-backed forced labour on British-owned mines and plantations in India, Africa and Malaya. But we do know that tens of thousands of often conscripted Africans, Indians and Malays - men, women and children - were either killed or maimed constructing Britain's imperial railways. Also unquantified are the numbers of civilian deaths caused by British aerial bombing and gassing of villages in Sudan, Iraq and Palestine in the 1920 and 1930s.
Nor was the supposedly peaceful decolonisation of the British Empire without its gory cruelties. The hurried partition of the Indian subcontinent brought about a million deaths in the ensuing uncontrolled panic and violence. The brutal suppression of the Mau Mau and the detention of thousands of Kenyan peasants in concentration camps are still dimly remembered, as are the Aden killings of the 1960s. But the massacre of communist insurgents by the Scots Guard in Malaya in the 1950s, the decapitation of so-called bandits by the Royal Marine Commandos in Perak and the secret bombing of Malayan villages during the Emergency remain uninvestigated.
One might argue that these were simply the unfortunate consequences of the arrival of economic and political modernity. But does change have to come so brutally? There are plenty of examples of wanton British cruelty to chill the blood even of a hardened Belgian. Who, after all, invented the concentration camp but the British? The scandalous conditions in British camps during the Boer war, where thousands of women and children died of disease and malnutrition, are relatively well known. Who now remembers the Indian famine-relief-cum-work camps, where gentlemanly British officials conducted experiments to determine how few calories an Indian coolie could be fed and still perform hard labour? The rations in these camps amounted to less than those at Buchenwald.
There is Churchill's assiduous promotion of schemes to cut the costs of imperial defence in India and the Middle East by using aerial bombing, machine gunning and gassing for the control of rebellion, political protest, labour disputes and non-payment of taxes. There is the denial of free food to starving south Asians on the grounds that it would simply hasten a population explosion among India's "feckless poor". There is the extraordinary British justification for bombing Sudanese villages after the first world war: Nuer women were, officials claimed, of less value to their community than cattle or rifles.
These facts and figures are not easily culled from textbooks on empire. We don't have a dedicated museum of empire, but our nearest equivalent, the new Imperial War Museum North, would leave the impression that Britain's colonial subjects had been enthusiastic participants in its wartime crusades to rid the world of want and evil.
Does it matter that the British are smug about their imperial past, that British atrocities have been airbrushed from history? One can't help thinking that Jack Straw's pious missions to India to broker solutions to the Kashmir crisis might have more credibility if the British had the good grace to apologise for such imperial crimes as the Amritsar massacre. But a more worrying symptom of this rosy glossing of the imperial past is the re-emergence of a sort of sanitised advocacy of imperialism as a viable option in contemporary international relations.
The point of cataloguing Britain's imperial crimes is not to trash our forebears, but to remind our rulers that even the best-run empires are cruel and violent, not just the Belgian Congo. Overwhelming power, combined with a sense of boundless superiority, will produce atrocities - even among the well intentioned. Let's not forget that Leopold's central African empire was originally called the International Association for Philanthropy in the Congo.
· Maria Misra is lecturer in modern history at Keble College, Oxford. Her history of modern India will be published by Penguin next year.