The glory that was the British Empire exposed

The Rhodes Colossus, 1892, by Edward Linley Sambourne

While condemning Russia over Ukraine, Dave Lister highlights some uncomfortable truths about Britain’s recent colonialism

Sections of the hard left appear to be more interested in attacking NATO than in criticising Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. Blaming NATO for Putin’s war crimes is a bit like blaming the invasion of the Sudetenland on the Allies in World War Two because of the harsh measures inflicted on Germany by the Versailles Treaty. There is a connection, but it is not the prime cause of either aggression. However, condemning the mass murder, rape and wanton destruction in Ukraine should not stop us from recognising that there are clearly some pretty dreadful stories that can be told about UK imperial history.

The Tories would like to airbrush these stories from our past. One feature of the culture wars has been an attack on teachers who want to tell the truth about them. Clearly, there are many things in Britain’s history that people can be proud of; but equally, there are others of which we ought to be ashamed. It should also be recalled that one of the stated aims of Brexit was to ‘make Britain great again’, as if working people really benefited from the empire.

Here, we’ll focus on a few incidents in the late history of the British Empire which occurred within the lifetime of our older readers.

We start with the recent release of some pamphlets from Britain’s National Archives written secretly by British agents to foment mass murder in Indonesia in the period 1965-66. This confirmed known events that occurred when Harold Wilson’s Labour government was in power. Were any Labour ministers aware of what was being done covertly in Britain’s name?

President Sukarno of Indonesia was concerned about Britain’s plans for its Malaysian colony, and there had been some incursions over the border into Malaya. There had also been a failed coup by some left-wing army officers. Also of concern to the British authorities was the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) which, with about three million members, was regarded as a greater threat by Britain and the US in terms of the ‘domino theory’ than even Vietnam. There is no evidence, though, of any involvement by the PKI in the attempted left-wing coup.

A British agent, Ed Wynne, was sent to Singapore by the Foreign Office to coordinate a campaign of misinformation. Newsletters were sent to about 1,500 prominent Indonesians in the army and elsewhere who were potential opponents of Sukarno, purporting to be written by Indonesians in exile, advocating the elimination of the Communist ‘cancer’. A later pamphlet stated that “the work started by the army must be carried out and intensified”. The propaganda included invented stories of atrocities by rebel women. The result was the mass murder of perhaps 500,000 Communists and other leftists and a coup by General Suharto which removed Sukarno from power. Its legacy was a reactionary military dictatorship that lasted for 32 years.

The head of the Indonesian Institute for the Study of the 1965-66 Massacre has demanded an apology and full explanation from the UK Government. However, the British Government has always denied any involvement in or responsibility for the right-wing coup.

Kenya was under the direct rule of the British in the 1950s. There was an uprising by the Kikuyu people, known as the Mau Mau uprising, although there is no such phrase in the Kikuyu language. The British response was brutal. Large numbers of people were arrested, detained, tortured in the most horrific way, appallingly mutilated and murdered. George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian in 2012: “Interrogation under torture was widespread. Many of the men were anally raped… Women were gang-raped by guards. People were mauled by dogs and electrocuted.” Men were also castrated, others were tied to Land Rovers and pulverised to death.

This information was not entirely unknown at the time. Barbara Castle wrote in Tribune about the mistreatment of prisoners in Kenyan detention camps: “Murder, rape and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished [and] the authorities… connive at [justice’s] violation.”

It is estimated that around 300,000 people were either killed or unaccounted for at this time. For many years, all this was covered up. Thousands of documents about this and similar repression in other British colonies were destroyed by Foreign Office officials. Other documents were illegally concealed, finally to be published in 2012. Colonial secretary Iain Macleod had directed that post-independence governments should not be handed on any material that might embarrass Her Majesty’s Government. In the end, the British Government paid out nearly £20 million in costs and compensation to over 5,000 victims of colonial rule in Kenya.

Similar events occurred in British-ruled Cyprus, although perhaps on a smaller scale, in response to the EOKA uprising against British rule. A case came to the High Court in London in 2018 brought by 34 Greek Cypriots who had been tortured by the British, including a 16-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by British troops. There is also direct evidence of at least 14 people being tortured to death. Many people were held in detention camps, and the colonial authorities blocked visits to them requested by MPs and journalists. In 2019, the British Government finally paid damages to some victims of British mistreatment.

We could also reference French crimes in Algeria, the Belgian monarchy’s appalling history of mass murder in the Congo, German genocide in South West Africa, etc. – all within the modern era. In our struggle for a better world, we need also to honour the countless victims of man’s inhumanity to man (women were of course rarely guilty of these crimes).  We can hardly look forward to a greater focus on truth and justice under our new premier.

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