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

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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock, whose expression was coveted by Alex Salmond as a young man  

Leonard Nimroy: Why Spock was the blackest person on the Enterprise

Bonnie Greer
 

Leonard Nimroy: Spock made me feel like it was good to be the weird kid

Matthew James
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?