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Liberal Imperial History

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 benevolent purpose and the vicious repression of often modest demands from indigenous peoples.


On the downside, the methodological focus upon violence is open to the charge that Elkins has assumed as the outset what it is she is looking for, and, with that approach, has gone on to fulfill her own prejudices.


That is not to say that the great weight of evidence of violence is untrue, but it might not be the entire picture. It is a challenge for all political history that attention is properly drawn to those points where conflict breaks out — in violence — as the key turning points. But that ought to be qualified with the knowledge that for four hundred years the British Empire governed up to four hundred million people overseas, and many of those lives, for much of the time were lived under the more mundane struggles of everyday life — finding work and shelter, even the joys of family life, and social success. That is not to make a case for the Empire or to argue that colonial rule did not often frustrate those prospects, but it would be unreal to see only violence, which, after all, is an irruption, an overturning of the ordered life.

Not sufficiently thought through in this argument is that often Elkins is telling the story of the violence of the oppressed struggling against the oppressor, to which we might well respond — good, the existing order is exploitative and unjust and deserves to be overthrown, even with violence. Elkins does tell us about the violent attacks that Chin Peng’s forces made on rubber planters and also on Chinese and Malay supporters of the colonial regime, and also of the attacks that the Mau Mau made on Chief Waruhiu (a collaborator) and, with less detail, on those they thought were breaking their oath of struggle. Having established a moral framework against violence, Elkins is driven at these points to admonish the violence of the oppressed as if it was somehow a departure from their general practice — largely, though, she simply minimizes anti-colonial violence as if it were exceptional. English propaganda of the time — which, on most other points, Elkins analyzes and critiques — made great play of the violence of the Mau Mau, Chin Peng’s rebels, and other opponents of the Empire. It was a fundamental claim of the colonial authorities that they were the alternative to violence and that, if they used it in extremes, that was overall in the pursuit of peace and order.


At the end of the Second World War, Justice Radhabinod Pal, in a dissenting judgment in the trial of Japanese military leaders in Tokyo for war crimes, argued that it would be wrong to make waging war a crime, since it was often necessary to pursue violence against an unjust order. Anti-imperialists like George Padmore were also critical of that kind of elite pacifism (so characteristic of Imperial Britain) that enjoined the oppressed to suffer their oppression, rather than take up arms against it. Plainly Elkins is largely sympathetic to the struggles of the Mau Mau, the Malayan National Liberation Army, and other opponents of the Empire. But, in that case, “violence” is not the differentia specifica that will allow her to distinguish between oppressor and oppressed. It is a circle Elkins squares by abandoning her own condemnation of violence to argue that “those who have lived the experience of liberalism’s ‘inhuman totality’ must demand universal rights and unfettered inclusion, sometimes peacefully and other times forcefully” — that is, sometimes violence is justified.


Elkins prioritization of violence as the defining feature of Empire tends to assimilate very distinctive moments and eras to one another, as if there was no difference between the distinctive policies of mercantilism, free trade, the “New Imperialism,” or decolonization. All are subsumed under this one governing analytical tool, violence. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing a history of techniques of repression in the Empire, though it does make for a relentless litany of torment that flattens out historical difference. Largely, it orients us to the Empire from the standpoint of moralism, as an evil, and tends to close off any investigation of the dynamics of change. Though she identifies “liberal imperialism” as fundamental to the history of the Empire, she is open to the charge that her own standpoint is liberalism, in that it is a moralistic critique rather than a historical one. She is not trying to identify the forces for progress within a conflicted whole, but stands outside of that totality in condemnation.


Pointedly, and damaging to her case, Elkins leaves out any account of the campaign to abolish slavery within the Empire (indeed slavery overall seems to fall out of this account, which is peculiar) and the role of the Royal Navy’s Africa Squadron in suppressing the slave trade. She ignores the extensive reordering of the Empire following the 1835 Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes and the policies of aborigines’ protection they set in place. These are important not because they make the case for the Empire, but because her case would be stronger if it integrated and explained those aspects that seem to contradict it.

(It is tempting to consider that, had Elkins made economic extraction the focal point of her investigation, that might have pointed to changes in the way that extraction took place, since exploitation implies development. Elkins truncates Eric Williams’ historical argument — that free trade displaced mercantilism at the point that it became a barrier to further exploitation — to say that slavery was abolished to make money.)


At least some of the limitations of Elkins’ account would seem to be a much stronger grasp of a few specific conflicts — in Kenya, Malaya, and Palestine most pointedly — and in-depth one specific era of colonial policy (the postwar emergencies and decolonization), rather than a historical understanding of the different iterations of the British Empire. This compromises the book’s claim to be a history of the British Empire.


It is quite a truncated account that says very little about transatlantic slavery, or the pre-abolition plantation economies of the West Indies. The colonization of India is only really described through the colonization of Bengal, and then fast forwards to the full-blown Raj and Subhas Chandra Bose’s struggle to overthrow British rule with Japanese support. That is hardly surprising since the first three hundred years of the British Empire are told in the first fifth of the book, while four-fifths is taken up with the period from the 1920s to the 1960s. Even the colonization of British Africa is effectively reduced to the Boer War, leaving out the Conferences in Brussels (1879) and Berlin (1884–85) that divided the continent between the European powers (under the pretext of fighting slavery). Though Elkins writes about Kenya, there is no account of how it became British East Africa, nor how Egypt became the “veiled protectorate.” Neither the colonization of Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand, nor the struggles of those conquered Pacific peoples are part of this history of the British Empire.


So selective an approach puts a lot of weight on the conflicts and periods that Elkins does dive deep into, if they are to stand in for the rest. Here, though, she shows much greater understanding of the British Empire in the era of the Cold War than of its formation and development. The wars in Kenya, Malaya, and Palestine are far more characteristic of the way that Britain re-motivated its Empire in the context of an emerging Pax Americana than they are of the preceding eras, in particular the New Imperialism of the 1880-1914 expansion. Elkins takes the phenomenon of white settlers as a fact but has little interest in what it was that took them there (on which score, see James Belisch, To Replenish the Earth).


In particular Elkins’ chapters on Palestine, while excellent in their own right, are in danger of giving too much importance to that region’s role in the history of the Empire. Though Palestine has become much more important in the history of the region since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, the British mandate only lasted for thirty years from 1918 to 1948. Certainly, the British policy of playing Arab and Jewish claims off one another played a role in the further developments, but German persecution of Jews and, later, American support for Israel in the Cold War were more decisive. Elkins certainly tells a fascinating story of the Zionists’ campaign of collaboration and then conflict with the British Empire (who knew that the Irish Republican Army helped the Zionist militants of Irgun plan a bombing campaign in Britain?). It is intriguing that Elkins has a lot more to say about Irgun’s terror campaign against Britain’s Palestine Police than she does about the violence of other anti-colonial insurgents. On the whole, Legacy of Violence gives the impression that Palestine was more important to the British Empire than Egypt or Iraq, which is not the case.


Elkins has a lot of interesting things to say about the divided legal regimes of colonies under the European Convention of Human Rights and where their rights are derogated (features of the postwar rights terrain). But throughout the nineteenth century and up to 1939, both India and British Africa were governed by wildly divided legal orders, where commercial urban centers were placed under English law, but villages and reserved areas were placed under native administrations, under selected chiefs or sponsored princes largely outside of the purview of British courts. These bifurcated legal and administrative systems and what they said about the qualified liberalization within the British Empire have been analyzed by Mahmood Mamdani in Africa and Ranajit Guha in India and would surely have shed light on the later, off-on human rights regimes that Elkins describes. (See Guha’s Dominance without Hegemony and Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject.)


What she does particularly well is to show how Britain both supported the development of the European Charter of Human Rights while at the same time exercising its right to “derogate” (suspend) rights in cases of public emergency under Article 15 of the Charter when undertaking repressive measures against anti-colonial insurgents in Kenya and Malaya. One could take issue with Elkins’ claim that the European Convention on Human Rights was “one of the world’s most progressive and enforceable conventions” (489), not least because of all the grotesque violence that Elkins sets out carried on under it. Elkins tends to portray Article 15 as alien to the ECHR, but that is to misunderstand its purpose. The ECHR was drafted to provide a legal basis for the Allied invasion of occupation of the Axis powers in Europe. Its authors envisaged continuing hostility to the Allied occupation from the subject populations of Germany and Italy, which is why they included the suspension of rights under Article 15. Pointedly, the ECHR is not a democratic constitution, but only a charter of rights: It is in fact a document of occupation and so rather well-suited to the hypocrisies of colonialism.


Elkins finds Paul-Henri Spaak to be an ardent champion of human rights, though much of his case for European integration was a defensive moan about a Europe “grossly mutilated. . . against which Asia and Africa have risen in revolt,” to the extent that “the largest among us [UK] is at this moment being defied in Iran and Egypt.” (See Spaak’s The Continuing Battle: Memoirs of a European, 1936-1966, 222.)


Elkins’ final chapter “Empire Comes Home” brings the story up-to-date, but it is here that her political judgments seem most contentious. In keeping with a lot of recent liberal commentary on Britain, Elkins thinks that the popular vote to leave the European Union in 2016 is evidence of a revanchist imperialistic sentiment in Britain. To make her case she cites a 2014 poll to show that 59% of Britons when asked agreed that the British Empire was something to be proud of. What she misses is that the same question was put by the polling organization YouGov in 2016 and again in 2020, that is, over the period that Britain debated and then left the European Union. In 2016 positive endorsement of the Empire had fallen dramatically to 44% and by 2020 to 32%. (Similarly, and against Elkins interpretation, Britons polled much more favorable views of immigration from 2014 onwards.) Elkins recounts a television debate with the leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage over the Mau Mau trial, but the claim that this shows the imperialistic sentiment abroad in Britain is undercut by Farage’s acknowledgment that Britain had indeed got it wrong in Kenya.

Elkins charges that (now outgoing) Prime Minister Boris Johnson was planning an “Empire 2.0” as his relaunched foreign policy after Brexit, but she misses out of the account that “Empire 2.0” was not the government’s characterization of the policy but the sarcastic dismissal of it by skeptical Foreign Office mandarins, resentful at the Leave Vote.

It makes sense to try to understand the Brexit debate in Britain as a debate about the country’s role in the world, but missing from Elkins’ account is that the fundamental driver of the upset to official policy was a popular revolt against the mainstream political establishment. Not to put too fine a point on it, the less well-off people were the more likely they were to vote to Leave the European Union, while the better off they were, the more likely they were to vote to Remain. The aspiration to have British laws made by British legislators is not imperialistic, it is an essentially democratic aspiration.

There is nothing wrong with trying to relate Britain’s imperial past to its present-day attitudes but the dash from the Hola Camp to the Brexit referendum leaves a significant gap in Elkins’ history of the British Empire. In her rush to excoriate the Brexiteers, Elkins seems to make very little of the fact that between the end of Empire and Brexit there was a significant, quarter century of British military interventionism overseas from 1990 to 2015 that came to be called “humanitarian imperialism” (dismissed here in half a page, prefaced with the guilty acknowledgment “lest we forget. . .”).


Britain’s post-Cold War wars in the Persian Gulf (1990–91), Bosnia (1992–95), Iraq (1998), Kosovo (1999) Sierra Leone (2000–2) Afghanistan (2001–14), Iraq (2003–9), Libya (2011) and Operation Shader in Iraq and Syria (2014–present) raise interesting questions for the history of Empire. Since withdrawing from Hong Kong in 1997 Britain has surrendered almost all of its imperial possessions (apart from Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, the Chagos Islands, British Antarctica, and a handful of small islands around the world). Against expectations, the end of the Cold War led to an upsurge in Western military intervention around the world, in which Britain played a significant role, albeit far smaller than the USA’s. Elkins would have been within her rights to leave the era of humanitarian intervention out of a history of the British Empire, on the grounds that these were not in pursuit of territorial possessions but motivated instead as multilateral policing operations to defend human rights. By the 2003 invasion of Iraq, though, the case for humanitarian intervention looked pretty threadbare, and to many radical critics these interventions looked much like the old imperialism. In so far as she writes anything about this protracted period of British intervention overseas, Elkins does portray the Iraq War as a continuation of liberal imperialism. Even so, it seems strange, then, to pay so little attention to what clearly was a more violent and destructive episode than the long constitutional argument about Britain’s membership of the European Union.


Perhaps one clue as to why the era humanitarian intervention disappears from Elkins’ view is that it was largely motivated as an extension of human rights activism, and, in that sense at least, in keeping with her own campaign on behalf of the Mau Mau survivors. A marked feature of the humanitarian intervention era was that its motivations were distinct from the preceding era of British colonialism. The key protagonists of humanitarian intervention were unabashed in their condemnation of the old imperialism. Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for Britain’s role in the Irish famine of 1845–52, David Cameron apologized for the British paratroopers who killed thirteen civilians on “Bloody Sunday” in Derry in 1972, and Theresa May’s government expressed its deep regret for the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in India. While they were expressing their regrets about the old imperialism, these same leaders rallied support for destructive interventions in Iraq, Kosovo, Syria, and Libya. That was how the new humanitarian intervention worked.


It does not diminish Elkins’ heroic campaign for redress for the Mau Mau survivors to note that British Foreign Minister William Hague’s eventual (and, no doubt, reluctant) acknowledgment that Britain had done wrong created no difficulties for him when it came time to sign off on the destructive overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi’s government in Libya in 2011 and the air strikes against Syria in 2013. The point about human rights diplomacy was that you had to accept the condemnation of past British colonial injustices to lay claim to the humanitarian motivation of military intervention in the present. Elkins challenge to Britain’s imperial past could be accommodated to the case for British militarism in this new iteration. Sharing some of the moral outlook of the new interventionism, its focus on human rights discourse, it seems that Elkins’ critical approach was blunted when it came to the British interventions under that rubric.

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