Johann Hari: The dark side of Andrew Roberts

This historian's work elaborately defends the crimes of a white man's empire

Share
Related Topics

What does it say about Britain that today we merrily laud a historian who celebrates the most murderous acts of the British Empire – and even says women and children who died in our concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity?

Andrew Roberts is routinely described in the British press as a talented historian with a penchant for partying. They affectionately describe how the 46-year-old millionaire-inheritee sucks up to the English aristocracy. He brags: "To [the] charge of snobbery I plead guilty, with pride," saying he has "an exaggerated sense of – and tak[es] an unapologetic delight in – class distinctions." But all this Evelyn Waugh tomfoolery masks the toxic values that infuse Roberts's works of "history".

Roberts, who has a new book out this week, describes himself as "extremely right-wing". To understand him, you need to look at a small, sinister group of British-based South African and Zimbabwean exiles he has associated with. In 2001, Roberts spoke to a dinner of the Springbok Club, a group that regards itself as the shadow white government of South Africa. Its founder, a former member of the neo-fascist National Front, says: "In a nutshell our policy can be summed up in one sentence: we want our countries back, and believe this can now only come about by the re-establishment of civilised European rule throughout the African continent."

The club, according to its website, flies the flag of apartheid South Africa at every meeting. The British High Commission has accused the club of spreading "hate literature".

The dinner was a celebration of the 36th anniversary of the day the white supremacist government of Rhodesia announced a unilateral declaration of independence from Great Britain, because it was pressing the country to enfranchise black people. Surrounded by nostalgists for this racist rule, Roberts, according to the club's website, "finished his speech by proposing a toast to the Springbok Club, which he said he considered the heir to previous imperial achievements".

When I first pointed out this connection, Roberts said he gave a "historical speech", hadn't realised the Springbok Club was a racist organisation, and didn't recall anyone saying anything racist. Wasn't the apartheid flag, and the fact they were there specifically to celebrate the anniversary of a white supremacist declaration, a hint?

That Roberts would cheerfully lap up the applause of the Springbok Club is not surprising: it is perfectly logical to anybody who has read his writing, which consists of elaborate defences for the crimes of a white man's empire – and a plea to the US to continue its work.

How should this empire exercise its power? One useful tactic, Roberts appears to believe, is massacring civilians. The Amritsar massacre is one of the ugliest episodes in the history of the British Raj. In 1919, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on 10,000 unarmed men, women, and children who were peacefully protesting, and about 400 died. Dyer was even repudiated by the British government. As Patrick French, an award-winning historian of the period, explains: "The biographies of Dyer show that he was clearly mentally abnormal, and there was no way he should have been in charge of troops."

Yet Dyer has, at last, found a defender – Andrew Roberts. In his book A History Of The English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, he says that after Dyer shot down the peaceful crowd, "[i]t was not necessary for another shot to be fired throughout the entire region". He later comments: "Today's reactions to Dyer's deed are of course uniformly damning ... but if the Amritsar district, Punjab region or southern India generally had carried on in revolt, many more than 379 people would have lost their lives."

It is an extraordinary rationalisation for killing women and children in cold blood, and rejected by virtually all other historians. It was only after I exposed this passage that Roberts finally said: "I have never approved of massacring civilians."

But in his writings Roberts is even supportive of politicians who take mass punishment to its most extreme conclusion: concentration camps. His political hero is Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister who, during the Boer War, constructed concentration camps in South Africa that inspired Hermann Goering. Under Salisbury, the British burned Boer civilians out of their homes and farms and drove them into concentration camps, so they could grab control of one of the most strategically important parts of Africa. The result was that about 34,000 people – some 15 per cent of the entire Boer population – died in the camps, mainly of disease and starvation.

Roberts presents a very different picture. He says the British introduced "regime change" in Pretoria out of a concern "for human rights". Far from being a "war crime", the concentration camps "were set up for the Boers' protection". The mass deaths there were not a result of British policy. No: they were primarily the prisoners' own fault, because they didn't know how to take medicine or treat disease, and deliberately spread lice.

The "evidence" he gives for this is the word of a single British doctor who worked in the camps. What would our picture of the German camps look like if we relied on the words of a Nazi-employed doctor? Professor Mike Davis, an academic expert on the British Empire, says: "His arguments about the Boer concentration camps are similar to the arguments of the apologists about the Nazi camps."

This is not merely a matter of the past. Roberts sees his histories as road maps to the future, advising George W Bush, at a White House dinner to celebrate his histories, to adopt "the whole idea of mass internment", saying: "I think it is the way the administration of Iraq should go." Incredibly, he cited Ireland as a model of how internment can work, a claim that provokes incredulity in Irish historians.

This man is a high-society yob and he would be shunned in a culture that took human rights seriously. But it appears that in Britain today justifying mass murder will be cheerfully overlooked, provided the killing was carried out under the flapping of the Union Jack, and you can sprinkle some tart gossip into the pages of Tatler afterwards.



j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past