Liberal Imperial History

James Heartfield

September 12, 2022

Book Review: Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (London: Bodley Head, 2022).

Harvard historian, professor Caroline Elkins’, exposure of British torture of “Mau Mau” insurgents in Kenya led to a great redress for the survivors in the courts when, in April 2011, the Westminster government agreed to compensate them and donate to a monument to the victims. The case she helped to prepare also laid bare the destruction of tens of thousands of documents detailing British rule in its former colonies, and even led to the rediscovery of similar records locked away in secret – or forgotten – vaults. She wrote up her remarkable research in a previous book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, and in the BBC documentary, Kenya: White Terror, and in this volume expands her critical approach to tell the overall story of the Empire.

Legacy of Violence is an excellent book that shows how the crushing violence that the British army visited upon the Kikuyu protestors opposing British rule was not isolated but characteristic of the Empire when challenged. As well as a compelling account of the war against the Mau Mau insurgency, Elkins gives exhaustive accounts of the conflicts between Britain’s Palestine police force (when Palestine was governed by Britain under a UN Mandate) and both the Palestinian Arabs and the emerging Zionist insurrection; and also a similarly in-depth account of the British war against Chin Peng’s Malayan People’s Army between 1948 and 1960. Here Elkins’ focus on the expanding techniques of repression shows the development of the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centres, first put together for the interrogation of German prisoners at Bad Nennsdorf in 1946 and then carried over into these colonial wars. The use of barbaric torture, mutilation, and killings were routine in the CSDICs, and as chilling was the bureaucratic sifting of categories of insurgents under black (hostile), grey (wavering), and white (broken).

There are also excellent accounts of the Second World War as seen by the anti-imperialists gathered around Trinidadian George Padmore’s International African Service Bureau and the many Third World liberation platforms that it spawned. Elkins’ telling of the debates within the postwar Labour government is particularly useful, showing how the commitment to the Empire was not qualified but, in their determination to raise dollars from the sale of Malaysian rubber, strengthened under the socialist governments of 1945–52. Elkins explains the interaction between Washington’s shifting position (from liberation propaganda in wartime to the exigencies of the Cold War) first put the British Empire under pressure, but then offered up an anti-communist rationale to Britain’s counterinsurgency measures around the world. She is good, too, on the debates that led Macmillan to accede to the movement for decolonization (the “winds of change”) and how those began very much as a holding operation designed to forestall liberation movements. Informing much of the narrative is an examination of what Elkins characterizes as a “liberal imperialist” ethos at work, and also an examination of the tension between human rights and the recurrent violence of the Empire.

Before proceeding, then, it should be clear that any criticisms of Elkins’ history ought to be qualified by acknowledging not only her achievements in the fight for justice for the Mau Mau survivors but the significant research in these key areas.

The biggest drawback in Legacy of Violence is that Elkins tries too hard to assimilate a vast range of historical events under a singular explanation — the inherent violence of the Empire. She has not chosen economic extraction, which she acknowledges at the outset is fundamental to the history of the Empire, but violence, which, in an interestingly paradoxical argument she puts (16), is intrinsic to liberalism (where most political theory would see liberalism and violence as antithetical). It is an interesting focus that does help her to examine some of the more pointed hypocrisies of imperial rule, the switching between the grand claims of b