The Bloody British Empire

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28/03/2023 by socialistfight

By Marki Brown

Alan Cumming: actor, presenter, screenwriter, producer, director, cabaret performer, novelist and gay-rights campaigner. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

THE SCOTTISH ACTOR Alan Cumming recently announced he has given back the OBE he received 14 years ago, citing “the way the British Empire profited at the expense (and death) of indigenous peoples” had “opened my eyes.” [1]

The British Empire was the largest empire ever known. Vast and extensive, at it’s height at the end of the First World War it encompassed a quarter of the land surface of the planet, colonising hundreds of millions of people, all commandeered by this small island nation at the edge of the European land mass, and so small in relative proportion of size to the extent of the lands it seized (rather like Venice was to the operation of trade and finance across Europe in the 16th century).

Through vicious military conquest, it used enslavement, massacres, famines and partitions to create profit. The West Indian colonies such as Barbados and Jamaica ran slaves run into the ground on plantations which grew cotton, tobacco and sugar cane that made vast profits for their owners, with vicious slave codes to deter rebellions.

With the transatlantic slave-trade, Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas – a third of all those transported across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, slave merchants pocketed £12 million on the sale of African people. [2]

Between 1761 and 1807 British ports banked £60 million (around £8 billion today) from slave sales. [3] When slavery was abolished, all slave owners were thoroughly compensated for their forgone income. Meanwhile when slavery ended, forced labour came to pass.

Each of the different European powers targeted their own well-established spheres of influence on the continent, which they’d developed by virtue of centuries of trade. In South Asia, elaborate regional trading patterns, developed over at least two millennia, were ruthlessly commandeered as the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British carved out their own areas of control through military force and subsequently, by imposing a system of monopolies.

Thousands of native traders and seafarers, deprived of their livelihoods, resisted by turning to piracy, giving the imperial powers an excuse for further intervention. All European empires have invited harsh scrutiny, notably Belgium’s conduct in Congo. All used similar methods within the overall colonisation process through a combination of exploitative trade relations predicated based on ‘unequal exchange’ [4], taxation, and as well as of course brutal force (with a multi-faceted variety of strategies starting with military occupation).

However, as compared to the worst excesses of Nazi Germany, it was Britain who first made use of concentration camps during the 2nd Boer War. The list of crimes by the British Empire are extensive. Here are the main highlights: firstly and foremost, the utter barbarity of the slave-trade (1562-1807), the state-sanctioned attempts to eradicate Aboriginal people in Australia, the Opium Wars on China (1839-43 and 1856-60), the Irish holocaust (famine/genocide, 1845-52), the killing of 25,000 Afrikaners and an unknown number of South African ‘Blacks’ in the concentration camps during the 2nd Boer War (1899-1902), the disappearance and mistreatment of thousands of indigenous children in Canadian schools between 1819 and 1969, the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919, the plane-dropping of poison gas on the Kurdish town of Sulaimaniya in Iraq by Bomber Harris in 1925, Churchill’s Bengal Famine (1943), the Anglo-Egyptian War (1951–1952) the war in Cyprus (1955–1959) the Malayan war (1948–1960), and the brutal clampdown on the Mau Mau rebellion (1952-1960).

The shocking atrocities against Mau Mau captives in Kenya after World War II is the reality which exposes the disturbing duality and hypocrisy of the time; the pretence of Britain’s benign appearance represented by the show of dignity and grace of the queen whilst the vicious thuggery of subjugation and power was wielded with ruthless intent.

Remember Elizabeth was in Kenya in 1952 when her father died and she became queen. The slaughter of the Mau Mau from the Kikuyu tribe had already begun and she was there to support it. The British mindset of the colonialist was unambiguous to the inferior (usually darker-skinned) other; from the short, sharp crack of the whip to the indentured servitude of the Indian Coolie. That duality still exists, but is more in the shadows, such as unofficial nefarious interventions abroad such as in Libya and Syria.

It is not a mere murmur of disquiet to suggest that there is a suspicion that the history of Empire in the UK is glossed over. In the more recent past, if one ever wanted to explore crucial poignant truths from this island’s past, the British stiff-upper lip response was either at worst glacial and unyielding, or at best a slight diversion, akin to the painting over previous successive layers of paint beneath which a now concealed truth was hidden. Underlying hidden truths hiding beneath a veneer of respectability.

In our television, radio and newspaper media and even within academia, we do now get a more considered appraisal of past events, though at times in this analysis we can still get deftly calibrated sophistry in the downplaying or skirting-over of reasoned argument and honest discussion amounting to an in-effect tangential departure from the real truth when an issue of past significance is brought out into the light. And then there is the suppression of information about past events.

In 2012, it was revealed that thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments. It is thought some were documents concerning the British army’s use of torture against Mau Mau rebels from 1952 in Kenya. [6]

A nation’s cultural landscape is formed by its education system. In the UK, it remains not compulsory for primary or secondary school students to be educated on Britain’s role in colonisation, or the transatlantic slave trade, for instance.

Where Britain’s role in colonialism is taught, the suspicion is that the positive aspects of its legacy such as the spread of the rule of law, and the spread of education is disproportionately covered in relation to the many negative aspects. At a superficial level, the Empire is credited with having provided peace and security amongst all the colony subjects. The harsh truth is that the legacy of colonialism is one of underdevelopment across the ex-colonies we exploited for centuries.

The UK’s cultural landscape is evolving over time, but within sections of it, there remain undercurrents of racism (for example, the government’s disgraceful treatment of some of the Windrush generation).

The Empire is long gone, but patriotism and nationalism remain. It is a long time since the sun didn’t set on the British Empire without asking permission first; and yet, some of the politics around Brexit showed that some right-wing politicians and the right-wing media have illusions of grandeur in regard to Britain’s status in the world, and in so doing, remain in denial of its past.

Harvard historian Caroline Elkins in her book Legacy of Violence has spent more than two decades trying to undermine that carefully constructed stage backdrop of Britain’s glory days having transitioned to the benign beacon of liberal democracy we now possess. Elkin’s contention is that as the sole imperial power that remained a liberal democracy throughout the twentieth century, Britain claimed to be distinct from Europe’s colonial powers in its commitment to bringing rule of law, enlightened principles, and social progress to its colonies. Elkins contends that Britain’s use of systematic violence was no better than that of its rivals. She suggests the British were just simply more skilled at hiding it.


[1] Source: Metro, Fri 27th Jan 2023 – Alan Cumming hands back OBE after conversation around ‘toxic’ British Empire ‘opened my eyes’, By Rachel O’Conner & Emily Bashforth,

[2] S.I.Martin, Britain and the slave trade, Channel 4 Books, 2000, 167 pages, £3.39 lowest price.

[3] Isabel Ringrose, Socialist Worker, Issue 2720, 29 August 2020 – Title: Cruel Britannia: the bloody history of the British Empire;

[4]. Walter Rodney (1972): How Europe underdeveloped Africa, (p-160)

[5] BBC, [6] Ian Cobain, Owen Bowcott and Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, Wed 18 Apr 2012, Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes 1records-colonial-crimes.

Caroline Elkin’s book “Legacy of Violence” is an astringent new history of the British Empire in which Elkins has traced the Empire’s arc across centuries and theatres of crisis. In researching for the book, having drawn on the work of social historians and political theorists, the author is reported to have gone through numerous archives in a dozen countries over four continents and examined hundreds of oral histories.

But the British government’s “sincere regret” for colonial abuses of Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s and its agreement to pay $30 million in compensation to surviving victims was the first time Britain has admitted guilt over colonial era abuses, not just in Kenya but anywhere, according to Elkins.

Quisling Reuben Ciugu (above) makes a sweeping gesture as he tells fellow tribesmen how the Mau Mau terrorists have been responsible for impeding the progress of the country

The lying propaganda of the Empire: (Original Caption) To offset propaganda spread by Mau Mau terrorists in the British colony of Kenya, loyal Kikuyu are presenting the government’s view of the tense situation to fellow tribesmen. Main weapon in the war of words is an information van equipped with loudspeaker. Here, at a market place above a new village in the Kikuyu preserve (i.e. concentration camp), Reuben Ciugu makes a sweeping gesture as he tells fellow tribesmen how the Mau Mau terrorists have been responsible for impeding the progress of the country. Newspapers and leaflets also are distributed to combat the influence of the Mau Mau, who have recruited many of their adherents from the tribe. (ENDS)

There is no agreement on the numbers killed. British official statistics give the number of Mau Mau and other rebels killed at 11,000. 1,090 rebels were hanged by Britain as against 32 white settlers who were killed from 1952-60; Pathé News and the mass media expressed great outrage at these Mau Mau killings, but remained silent or dismissive on the slaughter of the natives, as the mass media does today on Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians.

David Anderson, professor of African Politics at Oxford University, says the death toll in the conflict may have been as high as 25,000. He said: “Everything that could happen did happen. Allegations about beatings and violence were widespread. Basically you could get away with murder. It was systematic.” [5]

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