The Guardian Weekly July 23, 2002, page 11

Heart of smugness

In contrast to Belgium, Britain is still complacently
ignoring the callousness and brutality of its empire

Maria Misra,3604,761626,00.html

So the Belgians are to return to the Heart of Darkness in an attempt
finally to exorcise their imperial demons. Stung by another book
cataloguing the violence and misery inflicted by King Leopold's
empire on the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th century, the
state-funded Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has
commissioned a group of historians to pass authoritative judgment on
accusations of genocide: forced labour, systematic rape, torture and
murder of the Congolese, around 10 million of whom are thought to
have died as a consequence.

This is not the first time that the Belgian empire has been singled
out for censure. Back in the Edwardian era, British humanitarians
spilled much ink over its excesses, and Conrad's novella was
corralled into service to show Leopold's Congo as a sort of horrific
"other" to Britain's more uplifting colonialism.

Complacency about Britain's imperial record lingers on. In the
post-September 11 orgy of self-congratulation about the West's
superiority, Blair's former foreign policy guru, Robert Cooper, and a
host of journalistic flag-wavers were urging Britain not to be
ashamed of empire. Cooper insisted empire was "as necessary now as it
had been in the 19th century". The British empire was, we were
assured, a generally well-intentioned attempt to inculcate notions of
good government, civilised behaviour and market rationality into less
well-favoured societies.

Is such a rosy view of British imperialism justified? Many argue that
it is. After all, surely the British have less blood on their hands
than the French and the Belgians. Wasn't the British addiction to the
free market a prophylactic against the horrors of forced labour? And
didn't their peculiar class obsessions make them less racist than the
rest? And isn't India not only a democracy, but, thanks to the
British, one with great railways? Perhaps there is a kernel of truth
in some of this, but there's also much wilful smugness. While the
complex consequences of colonial economic policy require extended
analysis, it is possible to dispel more swiftly the myth that the
British Empire, unlike King Leopold's, was innocent of atrocities.
While everybody is aware of the horrors of nazism, popular historians
have been surprisingly uninterested in the dark side of the British

There are exceptions, such as Mike Davis's powerful Late Victorian Holocausts,
but much else still lies buried in the academic literature. Davis and others have
estimated that there were between 12 and 33 million avoidable deaths
by famine in India between 1876 and 1908, produced by a deadly
combination of official callousness and free-market ideology. But
these were far from being a purely Victorian phenomenon. As late as
1943 around 4 million died in the Bengal famine, largely because of
official policy.

No one has even attempted to quantify the casualties caused by
state-backed forced labour on British-owned mines and plantations in
India, Africa and Malaya. But we do know that tens of thousands of
often conscripted Africans, Indians and Malays were either killed or
maimed constructing Britain's imperial railways. Also unquantified
are the numbers of civilian deaths caused by British aerial bombing
and gassing of villages in Sudan, Iraq and Palestine in the 1920 and

Nor was the supposedly peaceful decolonisation of the British Empire
without its gory cruelties. The hurried partition of the Indian
subcontinent brought about a million deaths in the ensuing
uncontrolled panic and violence. The brutal suppression of the Mau
Mau and the detention of thousands of Kenyan peasants in
concentration camps are still dimly remembered, as are the Aden
killings of the 1960s. But the massacre of communist insurgents by
the Scots Guard in Malaya in the 1950s, the decapitation of so-called
bandits by the Royal Marine Commandos in Perak and the secret bombing
of Malayan villages during the Emergency remain uninvestigated.
One might argue that these were simply the unfortunate consequences
of the arrival of economic and political modernity. But does change
have to come so brutally? There are plenty of examples of wanton
British cruelty to chill the blood even of a hardened Belgian. Who,
after all, invented the concentration camp but the British? The
  scandalous conditions in British camps during the Boer war, where
thousands of women and children died of disease and malnutrition, are
relatively well known. Who now remembers the Indian
famine-relief-cum-work camps, where gentlemanly British officials
conducted experiments to determine how few calories an Indian coolie
could be fed and still perform hard labour? The rations in these
camps amounted to less than those at Buchenwald.
There is Churchill's assiduous promotion of schemes to cut the costs
of imperial defence in India and the Middle East by using aerial
bombing, machine gunning and gassing for the control of rebellion,
political protest, labour disputes and non-payment of taxes. There is
the denial of free food to starving south Asians on the grounds that
it would simply hasten a population explosion among India's "feckless
poor". There is the extraordinary British justification for bombing
Sudanese villages after the first world war: Nuer women were,
officials claimed, of less value to their community than cattle or

  Does it matter that the British are smug about their imperial past,
that British atrocities have been airbrushed from history? One can't
help thinking that Jack Straw's pious missions to India to broker
solutions to the Kashmir crisis might have more credibility if the
British had the good grace to apologise for such imperial crimes as
the Amritsar massacre. But a more worrying symptom of this rosy
glossing of the imperial past is the re-emergence of a sort of
sanitised advocacy of imperialism as a viable option in contemporary
international relations.

The point of cataloguing Britain's imperial crimes is not to trash
our forebears, but to remind our rulers that even the best-run
empires are cruel and violent, not just the Belgian Congo.
Overwhelming power, combined with a sense of boundless superiority,
will produce atrocities - even among the well-intentioned. Let's not
forget that Leopold's central African empire was originally called
the International Association for Philanthropy in the Congo.

Maria Misra is lecturer in modern history at Keble College, Oxford