Niall Ferguson: Home truths about famine, war and genocide

It is egregious to compare the suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya with Stalin's Terror

Share

Among the books my children enjoy are the Horrible Histories, a series of light-hearted introductions to historical subjects with titles like The Rotten Romans, The Terrible Tudors and The Vile Victorians. If their creator, Terry Deary, lacks the time or inclination to write The Bloody British Empire, he can subcontract the job to Johann Hari.

In his column on Monday ("There can be no defence for empire", 12 June), Horrible Hari simultaneously misrepresented my work and caricatured to the point of absurdity the history of British imperialism. I pass over the strange charge that I am "court historian for the imperial American hard right". Anyone who has read my book Colossus: The Decline and Fall of the American Empire will know how laughably wide of the mark that is.

More intriguing is the claim that I "consistently underestimate or ignore the massive crimes of Empire, and grossly overstate the benefits". Two examples of "crimes" supposedly glossed over in my book Empire are cited. According to Hari, Britain engaged in "a conscious policy of mass starvation of Indians in the 1870s and 1890s". This, he argues, was "a crime worthy of Stalin and Mao".

Less than a century later, in the 1950s, the British also "herded more than 300,000 Kenyans into gulags to be whipped, castrated and raped" during the Mau Mau "Emergency". "More than 50,000", he asserts, were "slain".

The article would appear to be based on two books: Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, and my Harvard colleague Caroline Elkins's Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. As their titles suggest, both books make explicit - and sensationalist - comparisons between British imperial rule and the totalitarian tyrannies of the mid-20th century.

There is, however, an essential difference between the famines that were a recurrent problem in British (and Mughal) India and wilful genocide of the sort perpetrated by Hitler against the Jews during the Second World War. And there is also a huge difference between the response of the authorities in Kenya to a violent insurrection and the Soviet system of slavery and terror.

No one disputes that Victorian officials in India were ill-equipped to mitigate the effects of famines. In the case of Lord Lytton, Viceroy during the disaster of 1876-8, there is clear evidence of incompetence, negligence and indifference to the fate of the starving. But to equate Lytton with Himmler is absurd and offensive.

A more valuable account by far is Tirthankar Roy's recent Economic History of India, 1857-1947. Among other things, Roy shows there was a sustained improvement in the mortality rate in India between the 1880s and the end of British rule. There was no famine after 1900 until the war-induced disaster of 1943.

It is equally egregious to compare the suppression of Mau Mau with Stalin's Terror. No one disputes that the authorities in Kenya used exceptional violence during the 1950s. But the point, as David Anderson writes in his meticulous Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, is precisely that it was exceptional. "In no other place, and at no other time in the history of British imperialism," he writes, "was state execution used on such a scale as this." To be precise, 1,090 Kikuyu were hanged for Mau Mau crimes, out of around 150,000 who were detained at one time or another during the crisis. Between 12,000 and 20,000 rebels were killed in combat, for this was a civil war in which the rebels killed at least 1,800 African civilians, 200 British soldiers and policemen, and 32 European settlers.

For the record, estimates for the total victims of Stalin range from 9 million to 51 million. Mao's reign of terror is said to have killed between 20 and 75 million people. Even if Hari's figures for Mau Mau dead were not inflated, they would still be around three orders of magnitude smaller. Britain's Gulag? Read some Solzhenitsyn if you still don't get the difference.

According to Hari, I have argued that "there are great swaths of humanity inherently incapable of self-rule who must be forever subject to imperial masters". This is wrong. In Colossus I argued that a small number of failed states and rogue regimes would only stand a chance of becoming democracies if there were temporary suspensions or limitations of their sovereignty.

The point that I make in The War of the World is that one of the main reasons for the extreme violence of the 20th century is that so many empires declined and fell in the period. It is an empirically verifiable fact that violence tends to increase as empires unravel, as indigenous ethnic groups compete, often violently, for future shares of power. The peak of violent death (as opposed to death by starvation) in modern India was of course in 1947, as the British withdrew and Hindus and Muslims slaughtered one another.

Hari calls, in a somewhat sinister phrase, for an "act of intellectual hygiene". It is, however, he who must come clean. His Horrible History is about as serious as the latest product of Terry Deary's pen.

Niall Ferguson new book, The War of the World: History's Age of Hatred, has just been published by Penguin Books

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Seven per cent of young men have recently stopped using deodorant  

‘Sweaty-gate’ leaves a bad smell for PRs and journalists

Danny Rogers
Alison Parker and Adam Ward: best remembered before tragedy  

The only way is ethics: Graphic portraits of TV killings would upset many, not just our readers in the US

Will Gore
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory