Commonwealth Day: Six things the speeches won't tell you about the British Empire

Concentration camps, massacres, racial segregation, torture and theft are unlikely to make the bill on today's official celebrations

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The Independent Online

Today is Commonwealth Day, when Britain’s former colonies supposedly unite in celebration of their “shared history, mutual co-operation and understanding”.

Those were the words of the Queen in her address to mark the annual occasion which is this year focusing on young people.

“We are guardians of a precious flame, and it is our duty not only to keep it burning brightly but to keep it replenished for the decades ahead,” the Queen added.

"As a concept that is unique in human history, the Commonwealth can only flourish if its ideas and ideals continue to be young and fresh and relevant to all generations.”

The Commonwealth incorporates 53 former territories of the British Empire, many of which were created or carved up by colonial rulers before withdrawals that spawned numerous wars.

Here are some facts that are unlikely to be included in Commonwealth Day celebration speeches.

A map of the British Empire from 1897

Britain used concentration camps

Decades before the Holocaust, the British Army was using concentration camps in South Africa and Swaziland during the Second Boer War.

Originally set up as camps for refugees fleeing the conflict between the UK, South African Republic and Orange Free State, new tactics against guerrilla forces were brought in by Kitchener in 1900.

His “scorched earth policy” ordered the destruction of civilians’ farms, homes, livestock and crops to prevent the Boers from obtaining supplies.

Lizzie van Zyl who died in the Bloemfontein concentration camp

Tens of thousands of women and children were forcibly moved to concentration camps, which were kept separate for black and white prisoners.

Emily Hobhouse, the welfare campaigner, brought the atrocities to the attention of the British public in a 1901 report after visiting South Africa.

After describing watching a six-month-old baby “gasping its life out on its mother’s knee” and parents watching their children die of starvation and disease, she wrote: “It is such a curious position, hollow and rotten to the heart’s core, to have made all over the State large uncomfortable communities of people whom you call refugees and say you are protecting, but who call themselves prisoners of war, compulsorily detained, and detesting your protection.

A British concentration camp for Boer civilians during the second Boer War.

“They are tired of being told by officers that they are refugees under “the kind and beneficient protection of the British”.

By the end of the war in 1902, South African History online says that official figures recorded 116, 572 people in the white camps and 115,700 in black camps.

A minimum of  27,927 white prisoners are believed to have died and 14,154 black. Most of the fatalities were children.

The British army massacred up to 1,000 non-violent protesters in 10 minutes

Violent political oppression was commonplace in British India but the Amritsar massacre of 1919 stands out as one of the bloodiest single atrocities.

Thousands of people gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh public gardens on 13 April, defying colonial authorities’ ban on public meetings that may not have been widely known.

A general was sent to disperse the crowds but instead, he blocked the exits and ordered his soldiers to open fire.

The Amritsar massacre is commemorated every year at a monument erected for the victims

They stopped 10 minutes later because their ammunition had run out. As well as gunshot wounds, many people were killed in stampedes to the exits or jumping into a deep well to escape.

As Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for War, described it in a Commons debate the next year: “The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything… When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away.

“Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other.

“When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed down on the ground.”

Winston Churchill, seen here in 1915, expressed his horror at the massacre

The death toll is still disputed, with an inquiry set up by colonial authorities putting the figure at 379 but subsequent investigations making estimates nearer to 1,000 men, women and children.

General Dyer, who ordered the massacre and became known as “the Butcher of Amritsar”, showed no remorse for his order.

At the official inquiry, he explained: “I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good and [the Indians] would realise that they were not to be wicked.”

Dyer was disgraced by the Indian government’s investigation into the massacre and in 1920 he was ordered to resign from the military.

Britain enforced its own “apartheid” in many colonies

As imperialists viewed themselves as innately superior both culturally and racially to subjugated people in the empire, a brutal division was enforced between “civilised” whites and “natives”.

Cecil Rhodes, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (now part of South Africa) wrote to a friend in the 1890s:“I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”

Black Africans had the land they could own limited by law, could not vote, were restricted to set areas and had to carry passes.

Later laws before official Apartheid came in removed the right of blacks to sit in Parliament, practicing skilled trades and they were forbidden from entering “white” restaurants and shops.

Apartheid was not a new concept in South Africa

Similar systems were in place in Kenya and Rhodesia, while in other parts of Africa the segregation was less institutionalised.

In Sierra Leone, the divide between white and black was enforced in clubs, bars, churches and hotels, although there were few official signs, as was the case in Lagos and several other colonies.

In British India, separate parks, roads, shops and housing areas were reserved for whites and Indians violating the rules risked beatings and arrest.

To snuff out political unrest, Indian people were frequently subjected to curfews and travel restrictions, as well as humiliating delays and searches.

British imperialists, seen here in Indian in 1888, maintained a segregated lifestyle they believed was superior

General Dyer (see above), infamously introduced a “crawling order” in Amritsar after a white female missionary was attacked in April 1919.

For six days, Indians could only use the 180m road if they crawled on their bellies and elbows and were to be beaten if they raised a limb.

Dyer later explained to a British inspector: “Some Indians crawl face downwards in front of their gods. I wanted them to know that a British woman is as sacred as a Hindu god and therefore, they have to crawl in front of her too.”

Resistance fighters were tortured by British troops in the 1950s

The Empire is largely consigned to history in Britain, being considered a relic of the Victorian era, but atrocities were still being committed in the 1950s.

Former insurgents have attempted to sue the country over alleged torture during Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising and fighting against British rule in Cyprus.

The three Kenyan complainants said they were castrated, severely beaten and sexually assaulted during the uprising.

Five Kenyans launched a bid for compensation in London in 2009

Alleged victim Jane Muthoni Mara said she was 15 when she was raped at a detention camp. “I want the British citizens of today to know what their forefathers did to me and to so many others. These crimes cannot go unpunished and forgotten,” she said after a court hearing in 2012.

The Eoka Fighters' Federation claim more than 3,000 Cypriots were imprisoned without trial during the group’s violent 1950s uprising against British rule.

Petros Patrides was a 15-year-old schoolboy when he was detained by the British hunting the Eoka leader Georgios Grivas.

British policemen stand guard over men from the village of Kariobangi, north-east of Nairobi, while their huts are searched for evidence that they participated in the Mau Mau rebellion

He says he was waterboarded by his interrogators who were British Special Branch officers. “They tied me on a bed, spread-eagled and naked, and rubbed pepper into my lips and eyelids, and my private parts.

“They would put a piece of cloth over your nose and mouth and dip water on to it and you would feel like you were drowning. Just before you passed out they would stop and take the cloth off. And then they would start again.”

Britain massacred Iraqis long before Saddam Hussein and Isis

British forces drove the Ottomans out of much of Iraq during the First World War and attempted to establish the “British Mandate for Mesopotamia” in 1920.

A revolt started against the occupation with protests in the summer as calls for independence and the creation of an Arab government grew.

Tribes took up arms against British garrisons and rebels gained control of strongholds along the Euphrates river, prompting Winston Churchill to send in reinforcements from Iran including the Royal Air Force.

1922: British armoured cars on patrol in the deserts of Iraq during the Mesopotamian campaign.

Weapons deployed against both militants and civilians in tribe-controlled areas allegedly included chemical weapons, although some historians have contended that only tear gas was used.

On 12 May 1919, Winston Churchill infamously argued: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas…I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”

More than 4,000 hours of missions reportedly saw 97 tons of bombs  dropped and 183,861 rounds fired.

British RAF armoured cars and bomber planes on duty in Iraq during the Mesopotamia conflict.

According to the Guardian, writing in 1921, Wing Commander J A Chamier suggested that the best way to counter resistance was to demoralise resistance by massacring civilians in “most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe which it is desired to punish.

“All available aircraft must be collected the attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle.”

Between 6,000 and 10,000 Iraqis and 500 British and Indian soldiers are believed to have died during the revolt.

The mandate failed and the modern borders of Iraq were drawn by colonial powers, becoming the Kingdom of Iraq which was held under a British mandate until independence in 1932.

Britain owes its wealth to the Empire and won’t give it back

The British Empire started its spread around the world in the 1500s with trade and the exploitation of plants, minerals and natural resources in colonies that sustained it for the next 400 years.

America and English settlements in the Caribbean are widely seen as the first “empire”, as the infamous East India Company vied with other firms to profit from tobacco, sugar and other goods.

Slavery on an industrial scale was a major source of the wealth of the British empire

Slave labour was used on many islands to farm bananas, coconuts and other goods for export, while the addition of India and parts of Africa in the “second” Empire would turn attention to minerals.

As well as silk, salt, tea and opium, the British could now mine for gold, silver, diamonds and precious stones.

The natural resources were shipped around the world to great profit for imperialists and the aristocracy at home, maintaining Britain’s status as a world power.

Tea - it's not really a British drink if you think about it

Commonwealth countries are well aware of the riches that were stolen from them and whose pockets they lined, with some being so bold to request the return of pillaged items or reparations.

In 2010, India’s request for the return of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which has been part of the Crown Jewels for 150 years, was rejected by David Cameron.

Mined in India, it was seized by the East India Company in 1849 and given to Queen Victoria as a present.

The Koh-i-Noor diamond

Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, said it should be returned as “atonement for the colonial past”.

The Prime Minister said: “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.

“I think I am afraid to say… it is going to have to stay put.”