This is a very long – 777 pages – but very important book. Subtitled “A History of the British Empire”, it not only exposes the violence on which the Empire was built but also reveals the way in which systematic attempts were made to conceal it from journalists and historians.
Caroline Elkins, based at Harvard University, is one of the historians who were determined to reveal the truth. She is not inhibited about naming those historians who have accepted the Colonial Office version of past events – “two towering scholars of British imperialism, Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher” whose “histories rarely questioned the archive.” Elkins also refers to “the empire’s former servants holding forth in Oxbridge seminars where they schooled imperial historians and eager graduate students on the civilizing mission, joining the sherry hours that followed to offer twilight codas to their day’s lessons on colonial rule.”
The book moves from a retelling of the much-exaggerated Black Hole of Calcutta story through the inglorious history of what became by 1897, Victoria’s fiftieth year on the throne, the largest empire in the world. Key phrases regularly recur – “liberal imperialism”, “paternal despotism”, “legalised lawlessness” – and the reader discovers what the term “dilution” meant in recent imperialist jargon – systematic torture techniques, as used in Palestine, Malaya and Kenya in the century after 1897.
Labour governments do not emerge well from this book, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin arguing that “the possession of an empire has been widely regarded as a condition for the improvement, or even the maintenance of the standard of life of the British people.” But there are honourable exceptions – Fenner Brockway “who had been part of the parliamentary vanguard demanding self-determination, equity and justice in the empire for decades” and Barbara Castle, speaking out on the horrors of what was going on in Kenya.
Caroline Elkins writes well, vividly conveying the time for Britons after 1945 – “a present and a future where the empire was just there, like the tattered but comforting wallpaper in their living rooms.” As a historian she is particularly angry about “Britain’s carefully constructed national archive”, its “archival double-book-keeping”, achieved by “the burning and laundering of their nation’s past.” It is clear now that there was a systematic destruction process at the time of each decolonisation.
One substantial file was somehow missed in that process and this enabled Caroline Elkins to appear at the Old Bailey in 2011 during the trial of the Mau Mau survivors and speak on the way in which “Britain had made a mockery of international humanitarian law” during which time “countless Africans had been murdered, tortured and starved to death.” Her testimony together with that of David Anderson and Huw Bennet enabled the Kenyan detainees to win their case.
It is not often that historians emerge as heroes but at the Old Bailey in 2011, these three did. The government’s QC eventually conceded – “I do not dispute that terrible things happened” – and the four Kenyan claimants won their case.
For more on the mass destruction and secret archives of British colonial records uncovered by Elkins see BRHG article: Some Hidden Histories of the British State Revealed in 2013