Deny the British empire's crimes? No, we ignore them

Tony Gosling tony at
Sun Apr 29 01:50:34 BST 2012

Good to see George has stopped banging 
destructively on about the planetary 'benefits' 
of ionizing gamma pollution and is back on form this week

Deny the British empire's crimes? No, we ignore them

New evidence of British colonial atrocities has 
not changed our national ability to disregard it

George Monbiot -, Monday 23 April 2012 20.30 BST

There is one thing you can say for the Holocaust 
deniers: at least they know what they are 
denying. In order to sustain the lies they tell, 
they must engage in strenuous falsification. To 
dismiss Britain's colonial atrocities, no such 
effort is required. Most people appear to be 
unaware that anything needs to be denied.

The story of benign imperialism, whose overriding 
purpose was not to seize land, labour and 
commodities but to teach the natives English, 
table manners and double-entry book-keeping, is a 
myth that has been carefully propagated by the 
rightwing press. But it draws its power from a 
remarkable national ability to airbrush and disregard our past.

Last week's revelations, that the British 
government systematically destroyed the documents 
detailing mistreatment of its colonial subjects, 
and that the Foreign Office then lied about a 
secret cache of files containing lesser 
revelations, is by any standards a big story. But 
it was either ignored or consigned to a footnote 
by most of the British press. I was unable to 
find any mention of the secret archive on the 
Telegraph's website. The Mail's only coverage, as 
far as I can determine, was an opinion piece by a 
historian called Lawrence James, who used the 
occasion to insist that any deficiencies in the 
management of the colonies were the work of "a 
sprinkling of misfits, incompetents and bullies", 
while everyone else was "dedicated, loyal and disciplined".

The British government's suppression of evidence 
was scarcely necessary. Even when the 
documentation of great crimes is abundant, it is 
not denied but simply ignored. In an article for 
the Daily Mail in 2010, for example, the 
historian Dominic Sandbrook announced that 
"Britain's empire stands out as a beacon of 
tolerance, decency and the rule of law 
 Nor did 
Britain countenance anything like the dreadful 
tortures committed in French Algeria." Could he 
really have been unaware of the history he is disavowing?

Caroline Elkins, a professor at Harvard, spent 
nearly 10 years compiling the evidence contained 
in her book Britain's Gulag: the Brutal End of 
Empire in Kenya. She started her research with 
the belief that the British account of the 
suppression of the Kikuyu's Mau Mau revolt in the 
1950s was largely accurate. Then she discovered 
that most of the documentation had been 
destroyed. She worked through the remaining 
archives, and conducted 600 hours of interviews 
with Kikuyu survivors ­ rebels and loyalists ­ 
and British guards, settlers and officials. Her 
book is fully and thoroughly documented. It won 
the Pulitzer prize. But as far as Sandbrook, 
James and other imperial apologists are 
concerned, it might as well never have been written.

Elkins reveals that the British detained not 
80,000 Kikuyu, as the official histories 
maintain, but almost the entire population of one 
and a half million people, in camps and fortified 
villages. There, thousands were beaten to death 
or died from malnutrition, typhoid, tuberculosis 
and dysentery. In some camps almost all the children died.

The inmates were used as slave labour. Above the 
gates were edifying slogans, such as "Labour and 
freedom" and "He who helps himself will also be 
helped". Loudspeakers broadcast the national 
anthem and patriotic exhortations. People deemed 
to have disobeyed the rules were killed in front 
of the others. The survivors were forced to dig 
mass graves, which were quickly filled. Unless 
you have a strong stomach I advise you to skip the next paragraph.

Interrogation under torture was widespread. Many 
of the men were anally raped, using knives, 
broken bottles, rifle barrels, snakes and 
scorpions. A favourite technique was to hold a 
man upside down, his head in a bucket of water, 
while sand was rammed into his rectum with a 
stick. Women were gang-raped by the guards. 
People were mauled by dogs and electrocuted. The 
British devised a special tool which they used 
for first crushing and then ripping off 
testicles. They used pliers to mutilate women's 
breasts. They cut off inmates' ears and fingers 
and gouged out their eyes. They dragged people 
behind Land Rovers until their bodies 
disintegrated. Men were rolled up in barbed wire 
and kicked around the compound.

Elkins provides a wealth of evidence to show that 
the horrors of the camps were endorsed at the 
highest levels. The governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn 
Baring, regularly intervened to prevent the 
perpetrators from being brought to justice. The 
colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, repeatedly 
lied to the House of Commons. This is a vast, 
systematic crime for which there has been no reckoning.

No matter. Even those who acknowledge that 
something happened write as if Elkins and her 
work did not exist. In the Telegraph, Daniel 
Hannan maintains that just eleven people were 
beaten to death. Apart from that, "1,090 
terrorists were hanged and as many as 71,000 detained without due process".

The British did not do body counts, and most 
victims were buried in unmarked graves. But it is 
clear that tens of thousands, possibly hundreds 
of thousands, of Kikuyu died in the camps and 
during the round-ups. Hannan's is one of the most 
blatant examples of revisionism I have ever encountered.

Without explaining what this means, Lawrence 
James concedes that "harsh measures" were 
sometimes used, but he maintains that "while the 
Mau Mau were terrorising the Kikuyu, veterinary 
surgeons in the Colonial Service were teaching 
tribesmen how to deal with cattle plagues." The 
theft of the Kikuyu's land and livestock, the 
starvation and killings, the widespread support 
among the Kikuyu for the Mau Mau's attempt to 
reclaim their land and freedom: all vanish into 
thin air. Both men maintain that the British 
government acted to stop any abuses as soon as they were revealed.

What I find remarkable is not that they write 
such things, but that these distortions go almost 
unchallenged. The myths of empire are so 
well-established that we appear to blot out 
countervailing stories even as they are told. As 
evidence from the manufactured Indian famines of 
the 1870s and from the treatment of other 
colonies accumulates, British imperialism emerges 
as no better and in some cases even worse than 
the imperialism practised by other nations. Yet 
the myth of the civilising mission remains untroubled by the evidence.
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Fear not therefore: for there is nothing covered 
that shall not be revealed; and nothing hid that 
shall not be made known. What I tell you in 
darkness, that speak ye in the light and what ye 
hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. Matthew 10:26-27

Die Pride and Envie; Flesh, take the poor's advice.
Covetousnesse be gon: Come, Truth and Love arise.
Patience take the Crown; throw Anger out of dores:
Cast out Hypocrisie and Lust, which follows whores:
Then England sit in rest; Thy sorrows will have end;
Thy Sons will live in peace, and each will be a friend. 

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