Posts Tagged ‘Great Potato Famine’

Book on the Bloody Reality of the British Empire

February 9, 2020

John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (London: Bookmarks Publications 2006).

John Newsinger is the senior lecturer in Bath Spa University College’s school of History and Cultural Studies. He’s also a long-time contributor to the conspiracy/ parapolitics magazine Lobster. The book was written nearly a decade and a half ago as a rejoinder to the type of history the Tories would like taught in schools again, and which you see endless recited by the right-wing voices on the web, like ‘the Britisher’, that the British Empire was fundamentally a force for good, spreading peace, prosperity and sound government around the world. The book’s blurb runs

George Bush’s “war on terror” has inspired a forest of books about US imperialism. But what about Britain’s role in the world? The Blood Never Dried challenges the chorus of claims that British Empire was a kinder, gentler force in the world.

George Orwell once wrote that imperialism consists of the policeman and soldier holding the “native” down while the businessman goes through his pockets. But the violence of the empire has also been met by the struggle for freedom, from slaves in Jamaica to the war for independence in Kenya.

John Newsinger sets out to uncover this neglected history of repression and resistance at the heart of the British Empire. He also looks at why the declining British Empire has looked to an alliance with US imperialism. To the boast that “the sun never set on the British Empire”, the Chartist Ernest Jones replied, “And the blood never dried”. 

One of the new imperialists to whom Newsinger takes particular exception is the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson. Newsinger begins the book’s introduction by criticising Ferguson’s 2003 book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, and its successor, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Newsinger views these books as a celebration of imperialism as a duty that the powerful nations owe to their weaker brethren. One of the problem with these apologists for imperialism, he states, is their reluctance to acknowledge the extent that the empires they laud rested on the use of force and the perpetration of atrocities. Ferguson part an idyllic childhood, or part of it, in newly independent Kenya. But nowhere does he mention that the peace and security he enjoyed were created through the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau. He states that imperialism has two dimensions – one with the other, competing imperial powers, which have driven imperial expansion, two World Wars and a Cold War, and cost countless lives. And another with the peoples who are conquered and subjugated. It is this second relationship he is determined to explore. He sums up that relationship in the quote from Orwell’s Burmese Days.

Newsinger goes on to state that

It is the contention here that imperial occupation inevitably involved the use of violence and that, far from this being a glorious affair, it involved considerable brutality against people who were often virtually defenceless.

The 1964 film Zulu is a particular example of the type of imperial history that has been taught for too long. It celebrates the victory of a small group of British soldiers at Rourke’s Drift, but does not mention the mass slaughter of hundreds of Zulus afterwards. This was the reality of imperial warfare, of which Bush’s doctrine of ‘shock and awe’ is just a continuation. He makes the point that during the 19th and 20th centuries the British attacked, shelled and bombed city after city, leaving hundreds of casualties. These bombardments are no longer remembered, a fate exemplified by the Indonesian city of Surabaya, which we shelled in 1945. He contrasts this amnesia with what would have happened instead if it had been British cities attacked and destroyed.

He makes it clear that he is also concerned to celebrate and ‘glorify’ resistance to empire, from the slaves in the Caribbean, Indian rebels in the 1850s, the Irish republicans of the First World War, the Palestinian peasants fighting the British and the Zionist settlers in the 1930s, the Mau Mau in the 1950s and the Iraqi resistance today. He also describes how radicals and socialists in Britain protested in solidarity with these resistance movements. The Stop the War Coalition stands in this honourable tradition, and points to the comment, quoted in the above blurb, by the Chartist and Socialist Ernest Jones in the 1850s. Newsinger states ‘Anti-imperialists today stand in the tradition of Ernest Jones and William Morris, another socialist and fierce critic of the empire – a tradition to be proud of.’

As for the supporters of imperialism, they have to be asked how they would react if other countries had done to us what we did to them, such as Britain’s conduct during the Opium War? He writes

The British Empire, it is argued here, is indefensible, except on the premise that the conquered peoples were somehow lesser being than the British. What British people would regard as crimes if done to them, are somehow justified by supporters of the empire when done to others, indeed were actually done for their own good. This attitude is at the very best implicitly racist, and, of course, often explicitly so.

He also attacks the Labour party for its complicity in imperialism. There have been many individual anti-imperialist members of the Labour party, and although Blair dumped just about everything the Labour party stood for domestically, they were very much in the party’s tradition in their support for imperialism and the Iraq invasion. The Labour party’s supposed anti-imperialist tradition is, he states, a myth invented for the consumption of its members.

He also makes it clear that the book is also concerned with exploring Britain’s subordination to American imperialism. While he has very harsh words for Blair, describing his style as a combination of sincerity and dishonesty, the cabinet as ‘supine’ and Labour MPs as the most contemptible in the party’s history, this subordination isn’t actually his. It is institutional and systemic, and has been practised by both Tory and Labour governments despite early concerns by the British to maintain some kind of parity with the Americans. He then goes on to say that by opposing our own government, we are participating in the global fight against American imperialism. And the struggle against imperialism will go on as long as it and capitalism are with us.

This is controversial stuff. When Labour announced that they wanted to include the British empire in the school history curriculum, Sargon of Gasbag, the man who wrecked UKIP, produced a video attacking it. He claimed that Labour wanted to teach British children to hate themselves. The photo used as the book’s cover is also somewhat controversial, because it’s of a group of demonstrators surrounding the shot where Bernard McGuigan died. McGuigan was one of the 14 peaceful protesters shot dead by British soldiers in Derry/London Derry in Bloody Sunday in 1972. But no matter how controversial some might find it, it is a necessary corrective to the glorification of empire most Brits have been subjected to since childhood, and which the Tories and their corporate backers would like us to return.

The book has the following contents:

The Jamaican Rebellion and the Overthrow of Slavery, with individual sections on the sugar empire, years of revolution, overthrow of slavery, abolition and the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865.

The Irish Famine, the great hunger, evictions, John Mitchel and the famine, 1848 in Ireland, and Irish republicanism.

The Opium Wars, the trade in opium, the First Opium War, the Taiping rebellion and its suppression, the Second Opium War, and the Third Opium War.

The Great Indian Rebellion, 1857-58, the conquest of India, company rule, the rebellion, war and repression. The war at home, and the rebellion’s aftermath.

The Invasion of Egypt, 1882, Khedive Ismail and the bankers, demand for Egyptian self-rule, the Liberal response, the vast numbers of Egyptians killed, the Mahdi’s rebellion in the Sudan, and the reconquest of Egypt.

The Post-War Crisis, 1916-26, the Irish rebellion, 1919 Egyptian revolt, military rule in India, War in Iraq, and the 1925 Chinese revolution.

The Palestine Revolt, Zionism and imperialism, the British Mandate, the road to revolt, the great revolt, and the defeat and aftermath.

Quit India, India and the Labour Party, towards ‘Quit India’, the demand for the British to leave, the final judgement on British rule in India and the end of British rule.

The Suez Invasion: Losing the Middle East, Iranian oil, Egypt and the canal zone, Nasser and the road to war, collusion and invasion, aftermath, the Iraqi endgame.

Crushing the Mau Mau in Kenya, pacification, the Mau Mau revolt, war, repression, independence, the other rebellion: Southern Rhodesia.

Malaya and the Far East, the First Vietnam War, Indonesia 1945-6 – a forgotten intervention, the reoccupation of Malaya, the emergency and confrontation.

Britain and the American Empire, Labour and the American alliance, from Suez to Vietnam, British Gaullism, New Labour, and the Iraq invasion.