Owen Jones: William Hague is wrong... we must own up to our brutal colonial past

We associate the term 'concentration camps' with the Nazis. But it started with the British

Share

Remember all that national soul-searching and self-flagellation over Empire and all the horrors committed in its name? No, me neither. But this is the fictional Britain that has been conjured up by our Foreign Secretary, William Hague. "We have to get out of this post-colonial guilt," he declared in Friday's Evening Standard. "Be confident in ourselves."

Here is an echo of Gordon Brown's assertion in 2005 that "the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over". It was a straw man argument, because there has never been an apology for British imperialism. The British Empire has been virtually erased by collective amnesia; like an embarrassing, sordid secret that should never be mentioned in polite company. A foreign country such as Turkey can rightly be berated for failing to come to terms with an atrocity like the Armenian genocide, but the darkest moments of our own history are intentionally forgotten.

Consider India, the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire. At the beginning of the 18th-century – before it was conquered – its share of the world economy was well over a fifth, nearly as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the country won independence, it had dropped to less than 4 per cent. India was treated as a cash cow; the revenues that flowed into London's Treasury were described by the Earl of Chatham as "the redemption of a nation… a kind of gift from heaven". By the end of the 19th-century, India was the world's biggest buyer of British exports and provided highly paid work for British civil servants – all at India's expense.

As India became increasingly crucial to British prosperity, millions of Indians died completely unnecessary deaths. Over a decade ago, Mike Davis wrote a seminal book entitled Late Victorian Holocausts: the title is far from hyperbole. As a result of laissez-faire economic policies ruthlessly enforced by Britain, between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation needlessly. Millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain even as famine raged. When relief camps were set up, the inhabitants were barely fed and nearly all died.

The last large-scale famine to take place in India was under British rule; none has taken place since. Up to four million Bengalis starved to death in 1943 after Winston Churchill diverted food to well-fed British soldiers and countries such as Greece. "The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious" than that of "sturdy Greeks", he argued. "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion," he said to his Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery. In any case, the famine was their fault for "breeding like rabbits". Churchill had form: back in 1919, he declared himself "strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes", arguing that it would "spread a lively terror".

We normally associate "concentration camps" with the Nazis, but the term entered into general circulation because of the British. During the Boer War at the turn of the 20th-century, up to a sixth of the Boer population – mainly women and children – perished after the British imprisoned them in camps. Their homes, farms and crops were burned, their sheep and cattle butchered in a scorched earth policy.

Elsewhere in Africa, British rule could be just as cruel. Two decades before helping to send hundreds of thousands of British Tommies to their deaths, Lord Kitchener led a brutal campaign to seize the Sudan. As historian Piers Brendon put it his The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, "British punitive expeditions in the Sudan" were extremely brutal, "at times amounting almost to genocide".

These sorts of atrocities are not all part of some distant past. In July, three survivors of the 1950s Mau Mau uprising against British rule in Kenya demanded reparations from the Government for alleged torture. In the brutal crackdown of the insurgency, thousands of members of the Kikuyu tribe were driven into detention camps, described by Harvard historian Caroline Elkins as "Britain's gulag". Estimates of deaths vary widely; historian David Anderson puts the death toll at 20,000, but Elkins believes up to 100,000 could have died. Despite courageous opposition from Labour's Barbara Castle and – oddly enough – Tory right-winger Enoch Powell, British crimes were hidden from the population back home in favour of a daily diet of Mau Mau atrocities.

None of this is to single out Britain: a conspiracy of silence remains over European colonialism as a whole. Most have never heard of Belgium's King Leopold II, but he should be regarded as a tyrant up there with Hitler and Stalin. Under his tyrannical rule over the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo, about 10 million people – or half the population – died horrible deaths. Millions were forced to collect sap from rubber plants; those that missed their quotas had their hands chopped off. It is difficult to know where to start with other European horrors, like the forgotten German genocide against the Herero and Nama people in South-West Africa in the early 1900s, or the post-war French slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Indochina and Algeria.

European moral superiority is often asserted, despite the fact that the greatest atrocities in human history – colonialism, two catastrophic wars, Nazism, the Holocaust – were all committed by Europeans, and within living memory. But it is all too tempting to airbrush the colonial era from history. As Hague says, "it's a long time ago, the retreat from empire."

Yet it is all too easy for an aggressor to say "let bygones be bygones". Hundreds of millions still suffer from the consequences of colonialism. As the then-South Africa President Thabo Mbeki put it in 2005, colonialism left a "common and terrible legacy of countries deeply divided on the basis of race, colour, culture and religion". Across Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, conflicts and divisions created or exacerbated by colonialism remain.

We could learn from our colonial past, too. The siren voices of armchair bombers, loudly demanding intervention in foreign lands, would be far less appealing if we were aware of past horrors. In the 19th century, Britain was bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan; and so history repeats itself.

Both William Hague and Gordon Brown would have us believe that we have tortured ourselves enough over Empire, and that it is time to move on. But a national debate over this largely ignored – and crucial – part of our history has not even begun. It is desperately overdue.

Twitter: @OwenJones84

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

What I saw on the night my husband was hit by a car

Rebecca Armstrong
UK border control at Heathrow Airport  

Luckily for Barbara Roche, formerly of the Home Office, Easter reminds us that heaven loves the repenting sinner best

Matthew Norman
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit