The Death Toll from Italian Colonialism: Why Johnson’s Comments about Libyan Corpses Is Not Funny

Mike yesterday and today has put up two pieces, reporting and commenting on condemnations of Boris Johnson’s remarks about British investors turning Sirte in Libya into ‘the next’ Dubai, as soon as they’ve cleared the bodies away’. Mike reported yesterday that a member of the Libyan House of Representatives, Saleh Suhbi, criticized the remark, saying

“It is cruel and unacceptable that the head of British diplomacy speaks and behaves in such a manner.

“Is this is a reflection of the British Government’s current views on Libya? Because this is not the UK that I know.”


Today Mike’s reported that the Libyan House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee has demanded a clarification from the government and an apology for Johnson’s remarks, stating that they are a violation of the sovereignty of the Libyan people.

Mike makes the point in the title and text of his article that by her refusal to sack Johnson, May is risking an international incident.

Clearly she is. And Mike’s article also has another great Tweet about Johnson’s crass remark from Owen Jones, and Johnson’s audience having a good guffaw at his ‘joke’. Or rather cavalier disregard for mass death.

The Libyans, whose country is still torn apart by civil war six years after Gaddafy was overthrown, don’t think Johnson’s comments about a battle with Islamists in which hundreds of police officers and innocent civilians caught in the crossfire died. I dare say that Johnson probably thinks this is another case of ‘foreign johnnies’ or whatever other disrespectful term he has for citizens of another country being touchy or oversensitive.

They aren’t. And if we had their history, we’d be exactly the same.

From the late 19th century until the 1950s, Libya was ruled by Italy, including the period of Fascist rule from 1921-1942 or so. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the exact dates. During this period, the country lost 1/3 of its people in resisting the Italians. The Italians, especially under Fascism, used the full arsenal of modern warfare on them, including poison gas. They also sterilized some of those they considered particularly dangerous, though Roman Catholic morality prevented them from carrying out this policy to the same extent as the Nazis in Germany.

I was also told at school by a former member of my old school, who had gone to work over there in the oil industry, that while Gaddafy was a brutal dictator, he had given his country independence and prosperity. The oil companies could extract the oil, but they had to pay for it. Thus the country had schools and proper roads, which it had lacked previously, when the country had been exploited by the oil industry, and kept desperately poor. Other things I’ve read recently have said that in Libya, schooling and healthcare were free.

Libya and its people under Gaddafy therefore had self-respect, something like a welfare state and prosperity. They were also a major power in African politics, and while the Mad Dog of the Middle East was quite prepared to use Islamist terror groups to assassinate his African and Arab enemies, they were firmly kept out of the country itself.

Now, with the country still mired in a bloody civil war, the last thing its people need is a return of European imperialism. And the last thing its democratic politicians need is to be seen to be collaborators with another set of European imperialists, who find the deaths of their citizens nothing more than a joke.

Johnson’s comment was never funny. It was crass and insensitive. But when you find out a little about the way the country’s people were maltreated under Italian imperialism, and the colossal death toll this took, it becomes deadly serious.

Johnson isn’t a lovable oaf. He’s a right-wing thug, who cares only for the bloated prosperity of his own class, and is entirely indifferent about the sufferings of the poor and marginalized in Britain, and the feelings of the peoples of foreign nations. His comments in Myanmar show he’s so obsessed with his rosy Kiplingesque view of empire, that he’s incapable of understanding that the peoples of former colonized countries may find them insulting and offensive.

This insensitivity is actively harming British interests abroad. They may have very serious consequences as this country tries to build business and trading relationships after Brexit. May has to sack him. Now.

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3 Responses to “The Death Toll from Italian Colonialism: Why Johnson’s Comments about Libyan Corpses Is Not Funny”

  1. Florence Says:

    I recall a conversation with a comrade from South Africa, who was newly arrived, and full of the rhetoric of anti colonialism. He, like so many, was totally unaware of the class issues in the UK. He disbelievingly blinked when told the “white rulers” of the Empire had several hundred years of practice on the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish working classes before exporting their cultural ideology of superiority, dominance and eugenics-based disregard for the “lower orders”. Despite the post WWII settlement, Johnson (and his entire family) and their class are simply the unacceptable face of a class war that never went away. It just festered away behind the closed doors of the aristocracy and establishment, and perpetuated inside the public schools. Its time were rid of them. But how? As long as the Royal family are able to be packaged and sold to the masses, will we ever be able to rid our institutions, politics and commerce of those riding on their power?

  2. vondreassen Says:

    Quite right Florence; i’ts not that long since our indigenous women and kids were used to drag coal loads along mining tunnels (they were smaller and cheaper that men;) etc etc etc…
    I get very pissed off when people talk about how “we” oppressed colonial natives – That “we” was a minority of “them” which did not include the ordinary poor who were the majority.

  3. Beastrabban Says:

    I don’t deny that there’s been a lot of racism amongst the working class, but when you read about the abolition movement, it’s clear that there was a lot of working class support for the enslaved people of the Caribbean and elsewhere. And it really annoyed the upper classes, particularly in Scotland.

    Although the Mansfield judgement of the 1770s ruled that slavery didn’t exist in English law, it still existed in one form in Scotland. Scots miners weren’t free. They were ‘bondmen’, owned by their employers. And so there was considerable sympathy amongst the Scots working class for escaped slaves. The factory masters and aristocracy complained that their Blacks slaves were helped to escape by the White slaves down the mines and elsewhere. And once the Blacks had escaped, they were impossible to recapture because the traditional working people hid them.

    And I still remember an edition of one of Tony Robinson’s documentaries, where he described the terrible conditions endured by working people in Manchester, as well as the factories throughout Britain in the industrial revolution. Apart from people forced to live in filthy, overcrowded cellars, the factory masters also got their employees by buying, and here Robinson emphasized it, ‘yes, buying! – children from the workhouses’.

    The grinding poverty and deprivation of the industrial revolution is notorious. But they don’t tell you that slavery still existed for White Brits, as well as Black, in the Scots mines, or that children were bought and sold from workhouses. It helps to explain how slavery persisted so long in the British Empire, and why the description of the industrial working class was very apt.

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