Britain's Noxious History of Imperial Warfare

By Newsinger, John | Monthly Review, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Britain's Noxious History of Imperial Warfare


Newsinger, John, Monthly Review


In his recent widely praised Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain, John Darwin, Professor of History at Oxford University, complains that even today there are historians of empire who "feel obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it." Apparently, he laments, there are still historians who consider it "de rigueur to insist that for them, empire was evil." And, even more incredibly, there are some historians who "like to convey the impression that writing against empire is an act of great courage," as if the supporters of the empire were lying "in wait to exact their revenge." The mistake these anti-imperialists make is to assume that "empires are abnormal, a monstrous intrusion in the usually empire-free world."1

It is, of course, difficult to call to mind any particular historian who actually believes that the world has usually been "empire-free," but there you go. Indeed competition between empires is more generally seen as one of the driving forces of this dreadful history, that in the last century consumed millions of lives. More to the point though, Darwin seems to believe that his new book is responding to some sort of anti-imperialist consensus, that the belief that the British Empire was a criminal enterprise has actually won the day and this has to be challenged.

This will come as something of a surprise to most people who are under the distinct impression that the exact opposite is the case-that there is a pro-imperialist consensus very much in place. The few thousand copies sold of the handful of books arguing an anti-imperialist case are completely swamped by the massive sales of the books of Niall Ferguson and company, some of which have been conveniently accompanied by successful television series. At Westminster senior politicians from both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party happily proclaim that the British Empire was a good thing and the time for apologizing is over. These same politicians are still absolutely addicted to intervening in other people's countries, with Afghanistan and Iraq now having been joined by Libya and Mali.

Far from an anti-imperialist consensus, what we have actually seen in recent years is a revival in the celebration of empire very much inspired by British participation in U.S. imperial wars. The context for contemporary studies of the British Empire is the fact that, even as I write, British troops are killing and being killed in Afghanistan. It is these wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq and the celebration of empire that has accompanied them that have prompted those few histories attempting to mount the sort of fundamental indictment of the British Empire that Darwin finds so ill-judged. The problem is not that there is too much anti-imperialist history, but that there is not enough. The fact remains that imperial history is still taught, researched, and written about within a comfortable consensus that extends from celebratory apologetics to the supposedly realistic "this is the way the world is" mode of apology. This consensus has to be challenged.

A useful test for any general history of the British Empire is its treatment of the Bengal Famine of 1943-1944. How does Darwin deal with this catastrophe in a book of over 400 pages? On page 346 it is referred to in passing thus: "(the Bengal Famine of 1943 may have killed more than 2 million people)." Hardly adequate! But this is still an improvement on his award-winning The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System 1830-1970, which does not mention it at all in over 600 pages of text. And similarly with his earlier Britain and Decolonisation: The Retreat from Empire in the Post-War World. Once again the famine escapes attention.2 To be fair, Darwin is far from alone in this neglect; indeed he is typical. Professor Denis Judd, for example, is the author of Empire, an acclaimed general history of the British Empire. …

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