Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Johann Hari: The truth? Our empire killed millions

I've been told I should 'check my facts'. I have. Many times. And the truth is still there

Monday 19 June 2006 00:00 BST

We are still a nation locked in denial. If you point out basic facts about the British Empire - that the British deliberately adopted policies that caused as many as 29 million Indians to starve to death in the late 19th century, say - you smack into a wall of incomprehension and rage.

The historian Niall Ferguson called me "Hari the horrible" for writing about this in my column last week. Another neo-imperialist historian, Lawrence James, accuses me in The Sunday Times of being a "twerp" who writes "twaddle". The Daily Mail says I should check my facts.

I have. Many times. And the truth is still there, no matter how much sound and fury is vomited at it. If you check the claims of the defenders of Empire against the historical record, it becomes clear there is a howling gap between them. For example, Lawrence James says the British imperial rulers of India "were humane men and, although hampered by inadequate administrative machinery and limited resources, they made a determined effort to feed the hungry" during the El Nino famines of the 1870s and 1890s.

His evidence for this? "Between 1871-1901 India's population increased by 30 million," he says. This is a classic piece of deficient reasoning. The population of Russia grew during the Soviet Union, and the population of China exploded under Mao - does James think there was no mass death there either?

Keep going back to the record. There were indeed some decent men among the imperial rulers, whose instinct was to feed the starving Indians. One colonial administrator, Sir Richard Temple, reacted at first by importing massive amounts of rice from Burma. The official record shows that only 23 people died under this enlightened policy. If James and Ferguson were right, Temple would have been held up as a beacon of the way British chaps do things. But in reality, he was severely reprimanded by London for his "extravagance". The Economist savaged him for allowing the lazy Indians to think "it is the duty of the Government to keep them alive".

Temple learned his lesson. He slammed into reverse, and began to conduct experiments to see how little food Indians could survive on, noting coldly in his book when "strapping fine fellows" were reduced to "little more than animated skeletons ... utterly unfit for any work". In the average British labour camp that Temple was ordered to set up, inmates were given fewer daily calories than if they had ended up in Buchenwald 80 years later. This new Temple was praised by his imperial masters as a fine example. If you study the records, you can see this pattern practised as deliberate policy all over India.

Niall Ferguson is marginally less extreme than his defender James. He admits, "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 even this grudging concession presents the behaviour of the British as essentially a passive crime - the failure to act.

The evidence shows something much darker. Far from doing nothing during the famine, the British did a lot - to make it worse. They insisted that the Indian peasants carry on shipping out grain for global markets, and enforced this policy with guns. (Stalin did exactly the same thing in the 1930s, during the famines caused by collectivisation). This meant, as the historian Professor Mike Davis has noted, "London was eating India's bread" at the height of a famine. They even stepped up taxes on the starving, and insulted them as "indolent" and "unused to work".

And that's not all. Lord Lytton ordered that all relief operations would be punishable by imprisonment. One dissident civil servant, Lt-Colonel Ronald Osborne, described staggering through the horror: "Scores of corpses were tumbled into old wells, because the deaths were too numerous for the miserable relatives to perform the usually funeral rites. Mothers sold their children for a single scanty meal. Husbands flung their wives into ponds, to escape the torment of seeing them perish by the lingering agonies of hunger.

"Amid these scenes of death, the government of India kept its serenity and cheerfulness unimpaired. The [newspapers] of the North-west were persuaded into silence. Strict orders were given to civilians under no circumstances to countenance the pretence that civilians were dying of hunger."

He met one Brit, a Mr MacMinn, who couldn't bear it, and used his own money to distribute grain. He was "severely reprimanded, threatened with degradation, and ordered to close the work immediately". If this policy seems to make no sense, that's because it doesn't, just as the actions of Stalin and Mao seem incomprehensible. Lytton seems to have believed that by sticking to "liberal economics", he was obscurely helping the people of India.

When I criticised Ferguson for dedicating as much space in his revisionist history of Empire to the slaughter of 29 million people as he gives to a description of a statue of the Prince of Wales made out of butter, he responded primarily with personal abuse, comparing me to a children's writer. He claims that my sources, like Caroline Elkins' history of British atrocities in Kenya, are "sensationalist" and therefore not worthy of consideration. If that is so, why did Ferguson himself praise Elkins' "painstaking research", on the cover of her book, no less? It seems that Ferguson is not only trying to rewrite the history of Empire, but also that of his own life.

The terms used by these imperialist historians are revealing. Lawrence James brags, "Unlike Stalin's Russia, the British Empire was always an open society." If you implicitly think of only whites as people, then he is of course correct. People coloured like him or me could condemn anything they liked. But how "open" did the British Empire seem to a Mau Mau rebel being doused in paraffin and burned alive for trying to reclaim land stolen by the British? How "open" was it to an Irishman being tortured by the Black and Tans for advocating a free Ireland? How "open" was it to Indians who were jailed for trying to organise relief efforts in the middle of a famine?

No wonder James jeers at "the carping of African and Asian historians focused on [the Empire's] imperfections". Odd, isn't it, how the natives seem so ungrateful?

It seems extraordinary to argue that polite British historians with TV series on Channel 4 are apologists for mass murder, as ugly as the Russians who would have us believe Stalin's crimes were inevitable or justified by the advances in industrialisation he wrought. But the evidence shows that it is true.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in