A Book Debunking White Man’s Burden
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A Book Debunking White Man’s Burden

October 12, 2022
  • Title:  Legacy of Violence:  A  History of the British Empire
  • Author: Caroline Elkins
  • Pages: 896
  • Price: Rs.  2,564
  • Publisher:  Knopf
  • Year:  2022 (March 29)

By Bhamy V. Shenoy

First reaction of any Indian seeing the title of the book is likely to be why waste time reading another book on British Empire. We are familiar with atrocities, cunning behaviour, deep-rooted corrupt practices, explicit expression of white supremacy of British Imperialism in India. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Caroline Elkins has accomplished a superb task of narrating such riveting stories for all countries of the British empire which accounted for 25 percent of the globe at its peak.

Robert Clive through bribery established British Empire in India by winning the Battle of Plassey on 23rd June 1757. Despite the overwhelming evidence against the brutalities and corrupt practices of Warren Hastings, he was exonerated by the British Parliament. Even the butcher of Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer  became a hero of the British Empire.

By some estimates, 200 years of British Raj’s oppressive and dehumanising policy might have resulted in killing of 35 millions. One such often quoted policy is of India’s anti-hero UK’s former Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He diverted ample food stocks from famine-hit Bengal to Europe resulting in the cruel deaths of four millions and then he had the audacity to blame Indians for “breeding like rabbits”. All these and much more are covered by Elkins’ book in                              greater details.

Elkins’ well-researched book will convince even the last remaining few Indians to change their positive feelings of British Empire. Far from being benevolent as claimed by some historians, it was downright repressive as conclusively argued by Elkins. 

Most of us were taught in schools how British Raj  showered civilisational gifts of democracy, rule of law, human rights, scientific temper, etc. In other words, the list of benefits from Raj was longer than the harm inflicted on us. It is high time, our historians rewrite our history books based on facts.

Elkins has covered all the countries under the British Empire to develop her thesis how it was ‘legalised lawlessness’ though the often stated goal was to bring order to ‘savage’ landscapes and populations and never was Britain to the modern world what the Romans and Greeks were to the ancient as claimed. British Empire while indulging in violence rationalised its purpose of reforming ‘uncivilised’ and ‘backward’ subjects who, like children needed to be brought along with a firm hand.

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In every major country — Jamaica, Palestine, South Africa, Malaya, Ireland — Elkins discusses Jallianwala Bagh (though not comparable in terms of senseless killings) type of brutal repression. In many ways what British Raj did was comparable to fascism of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. In every case, perpetrators were exonerated by the “liberal imperialism” after conducting extensive inquiries and royal commissions. In fact all such enquiries showed the atrocities committed by the British Empire. But the British Parliament found ways to justify such horrific ways as they did with Hastings and Jallianwala Bagh. 

Just to give an idea of atrocities, let me give a quote from the book. “Is said to have had his tongue cut out alive, and an attempt is said to have been made to skin him alive. One person — was ripped open, and his entrails taken out. One gentleman — is said to have been pushed into an outbuilding, which was then set on fire, and kept there until he was roasted alive. Many are said to have their eye scooped out and the brains taken out. Indeed, the whole carnage could only be paralleled by the atrocities of the Indian mutiny.”

For Jamaica, Morant Bay rebellion is one such event in 1865. Spark was the arbitrary justice awarded against blacks in favour of whites. Governor Edward John Eyre boasted that “the retribution has been so prompt and so terrible that it is unlikely to be forgotten”. A royal commission of inquiry investigated the events and found Eyre guilty. However, the Parliament exonerated him.  In this case I was surprised to learn that celebrated authors, Charles Dickens, Mathew Arnold, John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle supported Eyre while Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and John Mill wanted to prosecute Eyer. According to his supporters, English common law applied to only British-born subjects!  Is this imperial liberalism?

Equally scandalous was the appalling violence against Kikuyu people in  Kenya during the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952-60). Partly thanks to Elkins’ book on the rebellion, claimants who suffered on account of the Mau Mau Rebellion succeeded in getting justice from the Britishers only in 2015. In this case some long lost files discovered in British Archives helped the cause. It is possible these files may have some secrets about the Raj in India also. It is worth stating here that some experts have claimed that Elkins might have exaggerated some of her numbers of killings. Mau Mau Rebellion was also not totally accepted by Kenyans and other researchers. Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta stated, in one of his speeches, “Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.”

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Like Mau Mau heroes, Elkins gives in some details the role played by Subhas Chandra Bose. It is only recently India has started to recognise his significant contribution to India’s freedom struggle. While discussing Britain’s accelerated departure, the book quotes UK’s the then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, “Erosion of loyalty to the British crown among the Indian Army and Navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Netaji Bose.”

Elkins has attempted to support her comments and arguments with hard data and documents like any researcher. Still there is no denying that she has a soft corner for the long suffered subjects of the second British empire which consisted of colonies. I wish she had very briefly covered the violence in the first empire of settlers like in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where some indigenous populations were more or less wiped out or were forced to take refuge in distant corners.

Elkins devotes many pages to discuss the history of the current Israel-Palestinian dispute. Seeds of today’s insurmountable problem were sown by the British Empire when they acquired Palestine as mandated colony soon after the first world war. Like in other colonies, they used divide and rule policy along with ruthless violence to govern. Without considering all the possible scenarios, Balfour Declaration of British Empire allowed a “national home” for Jews while safeguarding the rights of Palestine’s indigenous population. And thus the state of Israel was born in violence where there were just 60,000 Jews living along with 7,00,000 Arabs.

We often wonder how a small country with no superior civilisation or wealth was able to take over with few second rate soldiers a country like India (over 400 million) with a far larger                       population and managed to rule for over two hundred years again with less than 1,00,000. Is it the VIOLENCE that Elkins vividly discusses in 875 pages ?

Let me conclude by quoting George Santayana: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” From Elkins’ Legacy of Violence, we have many lessons to learn not to repeat our historic blunders. One is not to allow leaders to DIVIDE US TO RULE.

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