In the days – long since gone – when British history was taught in schools as a chronological story, the Empire was treated as an unalloyed boon to the world, bringing enlightenment and civilization to millions of benighted “natives” who, without our selfless efforts would have continued to vegetate in heathen ignorance. Until the Second World War “Empire Day” was celebrated each year with street parties, bunting, and military parades, to remind the metropolitan populace, particularly the children, how fortunate they were to have been born British and to live in a “land of hope and glory” at the heart of an empire upon which the sun would never set. With the “end of Empire” in the two decades after 1945 came another myth; colonial independence had been granted magnanimously by Britain to the peoples of the Empire, who were now deemed ready to assume the burdens of civilization. The former empire would be transformed into a “British Commonwealth” of free and equal nations, all willingly embracing the British monarch as their sovereign. Elisabeth II was the first monarch since Victoria not to bear the title “Empress/Emperor” of India”.
Since the 1960s much has been written to expose this self-congratulatory nonsense. African-Caribbean academics, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, have been at the forefront of such efforts. An earlier generation of post-colonial leaders such as Nehru, Nkrumah, Cheddi Jagan and others contributed to debunking the myths of a benevolent imperialism. Nevertheless, an only-moderately revised version has survived. Nostalgia for empire permeates historian Niall Ferguson’s attempts to rehabilitate British imperialism. What minimal criticisms there are recall Churchill’s observation about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the alternatives; British imperialism, say its apologists, may have been responsible for much that was reprehensible, but what came before and after it were much worse. The most effective response to this is one the apologists are reluctant to face: hard facts.
New evidence has just emerged – or rather been dragged bit by bit from a reluctant Foreign Office – exposing atrocities committed between the 1940s and 1960s in Kenya, Malaya, Aden and Diego Garcia. The archive containing this evidence was concealed for 50 years and has only just come to light. Nothing revealed in it is entirely new, or rather, what has been revealed either adds to what was already known, or confirms what has long been suspected. Also, it has now become clear that large amounts of incriminating evidence have been destroyed. For example, it has long been known that during the Kenya “emergency” (1952 – 1960), the Kikuyu “Mau Mau” uprising against British rule, 11 detainees at the notorious Hola camp were clubbed to death by guards and another 77 were severely beaten, sustaining permanent injuries. What was not known before is that British government ministers were aware of the torture and murder of Mau Mau prisoners, one of whom was roasted alive. During the Mau Mau insurgency the British authorities hanged more than 1000 Kikuyu and detained 150.000. The documents released also show that many of the most sensitive, presumably containing the most incriminating evidence, were destroyed. The destruction of evidence was carried out thoroughly and systematically. Harvard professor Caroline Elkins, Pullitzer-prize- winning author of Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, says that “In the Mau Mau case, two years of countless document requests were met with FCO stonewalling…..In total, officials in Kenya estimated that some 3.5 tons of documents were marked for destruction.”
One of those jailed by the British in 1949 for involvement in the Kikuyu insurgency, was Onyango Obama , grandfather of the U.S. president. According to Onyango’s wife, Sarah, he was beaten and abused by the British, sustaining permanent injuries.
These documents confirm, in case there were in any doubt about it, that the “war on terror” did not begin with 9/11. During the period they cover- roughly the late 1940s to the 1970s – the counter-insurgency operations waged by Britain against colonial independence movements, were regarded as wars against “terrorists.” This was particularly the case in Malaya, where between 1947 and 1961, British forces were engaged in a war to defeat a communist-led guerrilla movement. All anti-colonial insurgents were treated as “communist terrorists”, agents in what the Western cold war propagandists described as a global struggle between the “Free World” and “Sino-Soviet Communism”. In their struggle to defend the free world, in 1948 the Scots Guards massacred 24 villagers in Batang Kali, in what, although it occurred 20 years earlier, has been described as Britain’s My Lai massacre. It is likely that the papers relating to this incident will have been among those destroyed. Also likely to have been destroyed is evidence about the overthrow of Cheddi Jagan’s administration in British Guiana in 1953, and that pertaining to a torture centre in Aden operated in the1960s by the army intelligence corps during counter-insurgency operations there.
Operations like these were the last gasps of British imperialism. They belie the official version which treats the transition to independence as a smooth, largely peaceful process. Britain was engaged in colonial wars of various kinds from 1945 to the 1960s. They were often conducted in close association with the United States. The “counter-insurgency expert”, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson, who was Britain’s Permanent Secretary of Defence for Malaya, was sent by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to Washington in 1961 to advise President Kennedy on counter-insurgency in Vietnam. The released documents make clear that in the mid-sixties through to the 1970s, successive U.K. governments secretly colluded with Washington to expel the Chagos islanders from Diego Garcia, a British territory in the Indian Ocean, in order to enable the U.S. to build a military base there. The islanders were summarily expelled and have never been allowed to return. The airbase is of great strategic importance for the United States and has been used by long range bombers in attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. Following a long campaign to be allowed to return to their ancestral homeland, both the High Court and the Court of Appeal upheld their right to do so. But in 2010 the government appealed to the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords and the Law Lords upheld the government’s appeal, by a vote of 3 to 2, denying the right of the Chagossians to return.
With the collusion of the British government the CIA has used Diego Garcia as a refueling stop in terror suspect rendition flights. It is highly likely that suspects have actually been held at the U.S. base itself, despite the fact that it is British territory. The New Labour Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, denied any knowledge of this in 2010, just as his New Labour predecessor, Jack Straw, now denies signing papers permitting the rendition by the CIA to Libya of Abdel Hakim Belhadj.
A striking feature of the post World War Two history of Britain’s imperial decline, is the role of both Labour and Conservative governments in resistance to anti-colonial and national liberation movements. The Attlee government first prosecuted the war in Malaya in 1947.and its last act before losing the election to the Tories in October 1951 was to send warships to the Gulf to pressurize Iran after Mossadeq’s nationalization of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company. In this respect it is worth recalling that this led to a course of events involving close British-U.S cooperation, resulting in the CIA sponsored coup which overthrew Mossadeq and restored the Shah in 1953. Arguably, had this not occurred, we may have had a democratic, secular Iran today. In 1953 Churchill’s Tory government overthrew the democratically elected Cheddi Jagan in British Guiana and, in 1956, following Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eden launched the disastrous attack on Egypt designed to topple him. This Anglo-French action did not meet with the approval of Eisenhower and Dulles as it did not suit U.S. strategic interestsin the area. Instead of toppling Nasser, it strengthened him, encouraged Arab nationalism and led to the resignation of Eden. After this, British Imperialism seemed a spent force. But, through the mid to late 1950s the Tory governments dispatched thousands of troops, many of them national servicemen, to quell the Eoka resistance movement in Cyprus, which finally won independence for the island in 1960. A British military base remains there. It was a Labour government, led by Harold Wilson that oversaw the final, violent stages of British rule in Aden, finally withdrawing in 1967.
When looking back on the decline of Britain’s imperial power it is worth recalling the stance of one of the Labour party’s leading theoreticians of the period, John Strachey. In the 1930s Strachey had been the one unequivocally Marxist theoretician in the party. Author of such books as The Coming Struggle for Power and Why You Should be a Socialist, he became a minister in the 1945 government, having moved steadily to the right of the party. In 1959 he wrote a widely acclaimed revisionist work entitled The End of Empire. In it, among much else, he makes a point of taking issue with the U.S. Marxist economist Paul A. Baran’s book The Political Economy of Growth.
Rather than prolong this column with a detailed account of Strachey’s arguments (interesting though that might be), a few quotes will have to suffice. On the war in Malaya he writes: “I have always taken the view that we were justified in refusing to allow the predominantly Chinese Malayan communist party forcibly to capture the government of Malaya, which it would almost certainly have done if we had not exerted a very considerable degree of force against it.” And on Kenya: “Nor must we dodge the implication that we cannot be sure that we shall be able to avoid the repugnant task of putting down rebellions, such as the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya: rebellions, that is to say, of people who, in our judgment, could not possibly take over the colony and govern it as a going concern.”