Feel free to enjoy Gary Oldman's portrayal of Churchill but don't forget his problematic past

The man who took part in 'jolly little wars against barbarous people' and claimed to have shot three 'savages' also defended the use of concentration camps in South Africa and the use of poison gas against 'uncivilised tribes'

Louise Raw
Tuesday 23 January 2018 16:02 GMT
Trailer: Darkest Hour

News that Gary Oldman had won a Screen Actors Guild award for his portrayal of Churchill in Darkest Hour was met with not-quite-universal enthusiasm: some took to social media to recall that then-wife Donya Fiorentino had filed assault allegations against the actor in 2001.

Bonnie Fuller, editor of influential entertainment news website Hollywood Life, was unequivocal, however: “Congrats to Gary Oldman... he was BRILLIANT as Winston Churchill. And can I just say, how badly we need a Winston Churchill right now!” she tweeted.

Bonnie can say it – but should she? Although her sentiment was undoubtedly anti-Trump in intention, Fuller’s President shares more unpleasant views with Churchill than she may know.

Churchill supported clearances in Kenya’s highlands of the local Kikuyu people, who he called “brutish children”. During the suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising under Churchill’s post-war premiership, 11,000 Kenyans died. Around 100,000 were forced into detention camps, where brutal torture took place: Obama’s own grandfather is believed to have been among them.

In 1895, the young Winston Churchill joined the British Army as an officer, and for the next five years was an exemplar of the gung-ho English imperialist adventurer, taking part in what he called “jolly little wars against barbarous peoples”. In the Swat valley, he joined raids that destroyed communities; in Sudan, he claimed to have personally shot three “savages”.

He defended British use of concentration camps in South Africa, which he claimed produced “the minimum of suffering” – the death toll has been estimated at 42,000 amongst Boers and black South Africans.

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As Home Secretary, he caused controversy in January 1911 with his bizarre “photo opportunity” at an armed siege in London’s East End. Two hundred police were surrounding a gang of Latvian anarchists who had killed three policemen in an earlier attempted robbery, when Churchill rocked up; footage shows an incongruous figure in a top hat, staring straight at the camera with an eerily Trump-like “serious face”.

A long gun battle ended with the deaths of two of the gang. But former PM Arthur Balfour told the Commons this had been a dangerous meddling in police operations: “He and a photographer were both risking valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing, but what was the Right Honourable gentleman doing?”

Later that same year, Churchill sent troops to quell the 1911 railway strike in Llanelli, at the request of local magistrates. Soldiers lost no time in launching brutal bayonet charges against unarmed workers, and then opened fire, shooting indiscriminately, when protesters stood firm. Two men were killed on the spot: local rugby star Jac John and Leonard Worstell, home on leave from a TB sanatorium. Worstell had simply walked into his back garden to see what was happening.

In January 1919, as newly appointed Secretary of State for Air, Churchill deployed the infamous “Black and Tans”, temporary constables with a reputation for extreme violence, in the Irish War of Independence, refusing repeated requests to stand them down.

In 1920, during the Iraqi revolt against British Mandate in Mesopotamia, he declared in a government memo that he was “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”. Although he appears to have been referring to non-deadly gasses, he was also in favour of using mustard gas, which caused horrific burning and could be fatal, against Ottoman troops in the First World War.

His views on race, meanwhile, were shocking even to his contemporaries. In 1902 Churchill opined: “Aryan stock is bound to triumph.” In 1937, to the Palestine Royal Commission, he stated: “I do not admit... a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race... has come in and taken their place.”

His grandson, Nicholas Soames, has refuted charges of racism on the basis that he was simply speaking as “everyone” did in his time – but not all historians agree. Cabinet ministers had in fact urged then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin not to appoint him to the Exchequer in 1924 because of his extreme views. Biographer Richard Toye quotes his personal physician, Lord Moran, saying that when it came to other races, “Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin”.

It’s impossible not to conclude the man remembered as one of the greatest defenders of democracy in fact saw it as a privilege to be granted only to white races.

During Indian resistance to British rule, Churchill declared that he “hated” Indians, “a beastly people with a beastly religion”.

In 1943, a deadly famine would kill between two and three million Indians, mainly in Bengal. Journalist and writer Madhusree Mukerjee has laid the blame directly at the door of imperialist policy, which forced India to continue large-scale exports of its precious rice harvest to feed the European war effort. British officials begged Churchill to send emergency food supplies into Bengal, but he refused, even blaming the local population for causing food shortages by “breeding like rabbits”. At the same time, tons of Australian wheat were passing India to be stockpiled for future European use.

Although Britain eventually sent aid, it was too late for millions.

A fervent Zionist, Churchill was not above criticising Israel either: as Colonial Secretary he traduced Palestinians as “barbaric hoards who ate little but camel dung”, but also complained the Israelis “[took] it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience”. Of Islam, he had said: “Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.”

However, the never-less-than-contradictory man was also fascinated with Islam to the extent that his family once feared he might convert.

His legacy is equally contradictory: having played a vital role in freeing the world from Nazism, his stirring words in the Second World War would go on to inspire the very people he didn’t want to attain democracy. As Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah wrote: “All the fair brave words spoken about freedom that had been broadcast to the four corners of the earth took seed and grew where they had not been intended.” Churchill lived to see British rule overthrown by several of what he would have termed “barbarous peoples”.

In 2016, Boris Johnson wrote (erroneously) that Barack Obama had asked for a bust of Churchill removed from the Oval Office because he harboured an “ancestral dislike of the British empire”. Obama revealed later that this wasn’t true, and added: “I love Winston Churchill. I love the guy.” He may do – though some with Kenyan ancestry might find it surprising, given the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising – there are plenty of reasons why many of us may not.

Dr Louise Raw is a historian, broadcaster, author of ‘Striking a Light’ (Bloomsbury) on the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike and organiser of the annual London Matchwomen’s Festival, which takes place on 30 June in Bow

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