British guards pointing guns at suspected Mau Mau rebels, Central Province, Kenya

Popperfoto/Getty Images

British guards and suspected Mau Mau rebels, Central Province, Kenya, 1954

In the heyday of colonialism decades ago, when the British Empire controlled so much of the world, it was tempting to think of it as more benign than its rivals. Surely those civilized Brits did not turn their African or Asian subjects into forced laborers, as the Belgians did in the Congo, or wage genocidal warfare, as the Kaiser’s Germany did in what is today Namibia.

The empire’s foot soldiers had fewer illusions. “I was in the Indian Police five years,” wrote George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, “and by the end of that time I hated the imperialism I was serving…. Every Anglo-Indian is haunted by a sense of guilt which he usually conceals as best he can.” He spoke of “the wretched prisoners squatting in the reeking cages of the lock-ups…the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos, the women and children howling when their menfolk were led away.” On an overnight train in Burma, Orwell found himself with another colonial officer

whose name I never discovered. It was too hot to sleep and we spent the night in talking. Half an hour’s cautious questioning decided each of us that the other was “safe”; and then for hours, while the train jolted slowly through the pitch-black night, sitting up in our bunks with bottles of beer handy, we damned the British Empire…. It did us both good. But we had been speaking forbidden things, and in the haggard morning light when the train crawled into Mandalay, we parted as guiltily as any adulterous couple.

Legacy of Violence, Caroline Elkins’s enormous history of the British Empire, is partly grounded in personal contact with some of its victims: elderly African veterans of prison, torture, rape, and castration at the hands of British forces fighting one of the country’s last colonial wars. She interviewed many for her prize-winning book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005) and later testified in a lawsuit that won damages for more than five thousand of them. This experience—and a huge stash of British government documents uncovered by her sleuthing and the legal case—has given her an awareness of the empire’s cruelty shared by too few European and American historians. (Those from the Global South often know better.)

Warfare was integral to the growth of Britain’s empire, just as it was to the Spanish conquest of Latin America, to tsarist Russia’s takeover of the Caucasus and Central Asia, to the brutal American crushing of the Philippine independence movement, and to the European seizure of sub-Saharan Africa. However, Elkins notes:

Many British officials, like other European colonizers, refused to acknowledge publicly that their armed conflicts through[out] the empire were wars…. Instead, they cast them as internal revolts, police actions, or states of emergency.

Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is taking a page from that playbook. After all, if their battles against African and Asian rebels were not wars, then the British did not have to obey international law regarding the use of poison gas, the treatment of prisoners of war, the taking of civilians as hostages, and more.

Elkins also points out another question of nomenclature. When a Communist insurgency against British rule broke out in Malaya in 1948, the colony’s powerful rubber planters discovered that their insurance covered “riot and civil commotion” but not “insurrection.” The Colonial Office, not wanting to get stuck with covering the planters’ losses, immediately denied that there was any kind of political rebellion underway and blamed the upheavals first on “gangsters” and then on a “secret society complex.”

Whatever they were labeled, colonial wars were brutal. A young officer serving under the aptly named Major General Sir Bindon Blood described an attack on rebellious Pathans in British India’s North-West Frontier Province in 1897:

We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs…. At the end of a fortnight the valley was a desert, and honour was satisfied.

The writer of those lines was Winston Churchill, who, nearly half a century later, refused to allow food imports to ease the 1943 Bengal famine that killed some three million people. Again and again, Elkins shows us heroes of World War II—a conflict enshrined as the ultimate battle against tyranny—who carried out tasks no less tyrannical in maintaining British colonialism. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the celebrated victor of El Alamein in 1942, only a few years previously had used Palestinian prisoners as human minesweepers and imposed a complete blackout on press coverage of such actions. Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, who won medals from his American and Soviet allies for orchestrating the British bombing of Germany, learned to fight from the air by subduing Arab and Kurdish rebels against British rule in Iraq in the 1920s. “Within forty-five minutes,” he proudly declared, “a full-sized village…can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines.”


Despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s insistence on including in the Atlantic Charter, which he and Churchill signed in 1941, “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live,” to most leaders on both sides, World War II was about whose empires would prevail. As soon as the fighting ended, Allied troops made sure that colonies such as Malaya, Indochina, and what is now Indonesia were swiftly restored to their former British, French, and Dutch masters. Both Germany and Japan (which attacked several British colonies in the Pacific on the same day it bombed Pearl Harbor) envied Britain’s empire as the greatest of them all. “What India was for England,” said Hitler, “the territories of Russia will be for us.”

Elkins repeatedly refers to “legalized lawlessness,” meaning the vast range of decrees and regulations that laboriously justified everything from martial law to detention without trial to collective punishment of people in rebellious districts. Indeed, the 149 pages of emergency regulations promulgated during the Malayan uprising empowered the territory’s high commissioner, in his own words, “to take any action he wished.” She quotes Sri Aurobindo, a perceptive Bengali nationalist writing in 1907:

These…pretensions were especially necessary to British Imperialism because…a sanctimonious self-righteousness…refused to indulge in injustice and selfish spoliation except under a cloak of virtue, benevolence and unselfish altruism.

True, but is there anything distinctively British here? Other imperial powers have also cloaked their conquests in rhetoric about virtue and benevolence. France described its colonialism as la mission civilisatrice. Belgium’s rule over the Congo, in the words of one governor-general, was a case of dominer pour servir. President William McKinley declared that God told him to “uplift and civilize and Christianize” the Filipinos (never mind that millions of them were already Catholics). Nor were the British alone in legalizing whatever they wanted to do. America’s rule over the Philippines rested on a blizzard of laws, including a sweeping 1902 bill criminalizing “every person who shall utter seditious words or speeches, [or] write, publish, or circulate scurrilous libels against the Government of the United States.” (When Congress tightened the penalties for dissent against American participation in World War I, it virtually borrowed that language to insert into the Sedition Act of 1918.)

What made the British Empire unique, however, was its global span, which meant that methods of repression, and the officials who wielded them, could be easily moved from one restive territory or counterinsurgency to another. This is where Elkins really shines, especially since she largely focuses on less familiar twentieth-century wars. The average reader of history is much more likely to be aware of the Indian Mutiny or the Boer War than the later ruthless British wars in Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, and Kenya. When we picture British imperialism, we usually imagine a sun-helmeted man on horseback or in a palanquin carried by dark-skinned servants, rather than someone in a helicopter calling in air strikes.

Again and again, people and techniques from one British imperial war were moved across the world to fight another. Hundreds of the notorious “Black and Tans” who had battled Irish independence fighters were, in the 1920s, transferred to Palestine, where both Arabs and Jews faced two full divisions of British troops. One senior civil servant who oversaw the Black and Tans in Ireland ended up as the highly repressive governor of Bengal during the Indian independence struggle.

When Britain finally pulled out of Palestine, Elkins writes, “nearly fourteen hundred disbanded Palestine policemen soon fanned out across the empire.” Some arrived in Singapore still wearing their Palestine Police uniforms. Innumerable commanders served in multiple campaigns. General Sir Gerald Templer, who became known as the “Tiger of Malaya,” was a veteran of both Palestine and the British bombing of Iraq. And the 30,000 troops he deployed included the King’s African Rifles from Kenya and Tanganyika, Gurkhas from Nepal, and white volunteers from Southern Rhodesia. Officers who had battled uprisings in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus, Aden, and elsewhere were among those rushed to Northern Ireland when its Troubles began in the 1960s.

As a result of all this repression, however, something moving happened. The victims of Britain’s harsh hand in different parts of the globe often took inspiration from one another. When the imprisoned lord mayor of the Irish city of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, embarked on a hunger strike in 1920, he inspired the Bengali revolutionary Jatindranath Das to later do the same thing. Dan Breen’s memoir, My Fight for Irish Freedom, was translated into Hindi, Tamil, and Punjabi.* In turn, a civil disobedience campaign in Egypt and Sudan was modeled on Gandhi’s tactics in India.


Legacy of Violence is important but uneven. Its dense cavalcade of names is a powerful prosecutor’s brief but sometimes overwhelms the reader. Although Elkins rightly declares that “economic extraction is a cornerstone of any story of Britain’s empire,” she gives surprisingly few details of exactly which riches the country was seeking in so many corners of the world. At the same time, when she does venture into economics to talk about sterling balances, convertibility, reserves, and exchange rates, the discussion can be opaque to a noneconomist.

She is also sometimes too sweeping in holding the British responsible for problems not entirely of their own making, quoting, for instance, one former official as saying, “The whole of the troubles in the Middle East which have affected the world since 1948, can be laid fairly and squarely at Britain’s door.” Similarly, she cites another writer blaming “the follies of empire” for the vast explosion of violence when India and Pakistan became independent as separate countries in 1947. Follies there were aplenty, but Britain was not the only nation to encourage Jews to settle on contested land in Palestine, and Muslims and Hindus had battled long before the British arrived in India. It does not require colonialism to turn ethnic or religious tensions into warfare.

All wars are brutal, of course, but colonial wars especially so. For one thing, they are always a matter of trying to cow a people into submission. For another, human beings seem to be more ruthless toward those of a different ethnicity or religion. And finally, armies fighting guerrillas often use torture to find out where the elusive enemy is. Elkins’s catalog of British interrogation methods is extensive and horrifying: inserting needles under fingernails (Malaya); stuffing oil-soaked sand into a man’s mouth (Palestine); inserting “gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, sticks, and hot eggs up men’s rectums and into women’s vaginas” (Kenya); pouring large quantities of water up someone’s nose (Palestine); applying electric shocks from car batteries (Kenya); tightening iron rings around a person’s head (Cyprus); subjecting prisoners to intense noise (Northern Ireland); and applying a lighted cigarette to the testicles (Palestine).

And this does not even include ordeals inflicted on huge groups of people. In suppressing the Malayan revolt, Elkins notes, the authorities carried out “the British Empire’s largest forced migration” since the slave trade. More than half a million people were marched out of rural areas into 480 resettlements surrounded by 770 tons of barbed wire. In battling the Mau Mau, Britain forced more than a million people to leave their homes.

Significantly, Britain’s late colonial wars provided a partial template for America in Vietnam, for there too vast numbers of people were placed in “strategic hamlets” to remove them from Viet Cong influence, and captured guerrillas were tortured (a job usually outsourced to the South Vietnamese army) to obtain information. And in Malaya, the British had used aerial spraying of an early version of Agent Orange, later used by the US military in Vietnam, to wipe out enemy crops. Robert Thompson, one of the architects of the Malayan war, became the influential chief of the British Advisory Mission in South Vietnam.

How did the officials who carried out this litany of terror justify it all? They were never short of rationalizations. Perhaps the most bizarre came from Hugh Trenchard, who soldiered around the world in various colonial outposts before heading the Royal Air Force. When defending the bombings of Arab and Kurdish villages in Iraq in the 1920s, he told members of the House of Lords, “The native[s] of a lot of these tribes love fighting for fighting’s sake. They have no objection to being killed.”

This sorry history makes us ask: Why did Britain fight with almost religious zeal against these mid-twentieth-century independence movements in the first place? After all, Ireland had become self-governing in the 1920s, and India and Pakistan fully independent—something clearly coming for years—in 1947. Did the British assume that their rule over the rest of their colonies would last forever? Churchill and other die-hard empire enthusiasts probably did, but not everyone.

Elkins does not deal with this question, nor with the softer, shrewder side of British colonialism visible in some parts of the empire—something worth a book in itself. Britain even seemed to prepare early on for its eventual departure from Africa, for instance, by setting up elite boarding schools in several colonies, along the lines of Eton and Harrow, to train the continent’s future leaders in British ways. No fewer than six later heads of state—of Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Gambia—graduated from one such school, Achimota, in what was then the Gold Coast.

The exposure of Britain’s misdeeds in Legacy of Violence is commendable, but it leaves us wondering why they were so appalling in some places and absent in others. The answer is at least partly economic. The threat of communism, for example, was guaranteed to produce a violent response, as in Malaya. If the British were to eventually pull out of such colonies, they wanted to leave them to governments that wouldn’t confiscate their plantations and businesses. Kenya’s Mau Mau movement, by contrast, was decidedly not Communist. Nonetheless, in addition to the torture, officials there created “the largest archipelago of detention and prison camps in the history of Britain’s empire.” Surely a major motive must have been to ensure an independence deal that would preserve white ownership of much of the territory’s most fertile farmland.

In fact, a good way of escaping the brutal side of British colonial rule may have been to appear not to have any assets. For instance, the British departure in 1966 from what is now Botswana, most of which is desert, was peaceful. Only afterward did the country discover that it had some of Africa’s richest diamond deposits. The government has retained a major share of these and used the proceeds to give its citizens one of the continent’s best social welfare and education systems. Would Botswana’s transition to independence have been so smooth if the British had known of these resources and invested in them?

Sometimes such riches are illusory. Another good new book about empire, J.P. Daughton’s In the Forest of No Joy, zeroes in on one such case in French Equatorial Africa. Brazzaville, its capital, lay at the downstream end of a network of thousands of miles of navigable waterways. Below the city, however, the river tumbles over miles of giant rapids before it flows into the Atlantic. French officials had long been jealous of the Belgians on the river’s opposite bank, who had a railroad that got around this barrier and connected their capital, Léopoldville, to the coast. The French wanted their own railroad, and between 1921 and 1934 they built it. Officials did not keep count of something that mattered as little to them as African deaths, but constructing tracks across thick, mosquito-ridden forests, mountains, and gorges cost at least 15,000 lives—and possibly as many as 60,000. One of the rare medical studies done at the time showed that 37 percent of the workers died in a single year.

In the Forest of No Joy, as tightly focused as Legacy of Violence is sweeping, documents this tragic project. As with most public works throughout colonial Africa at the time, the railroad’s builders used forced labor. Terrified villagers fled into the rainforest to avoid conscription, disrupting the local food supply. Those who did not escape were corralled a thousand miles or more away in the colony’s interior and transported, sometimes chained at the neck, to the construction site. Many died before they even arrived. Working conditions were horrible, food scanty, toilets and medical care often nonexistent. Africans who disobeyed or tried to flee were severely whipped, but one white colonial administrator found guilty of negligent homicide was merely fined 500 francs and given a suspended sentence.

For decades after the deadly railroad was finished, however, it proved largely useless. Its enthusiasts had claimed that it would in its first year alone carry 100,000 metric tons of minerals and other goods to the coast for export. But nothing like that happened because, as Daughton writes, the colony had never “produced riches in such amounts in the first place.” Furthermore, the project’s vast expense—the equivalent of well over $2 billion in today’s dollars, including a guaranteed 20 percent profit for the line’s French construction company—drained the colonial budget of money that might otherwise have gone toward education, medical care, and development. In the end, this particular imperial dream only added to the resentment that helped force European powers out of Africa.

Orwell, as usual, summed it up best: “The truth is that no modern man, in his heart of hearts, believes that it is right to invade a foreign country and hold the population down by force.” After all these years, however, empire builders are still reluctant to learn this lesson. Did the United States learn it in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will Putin learn it in Ukraine?