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The Empire Strikes Back
Posted: 08 Oct 2012 12:38 PM PDT
Imperialism did almost as much harm to the ruling nations as it did to their
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 9th October 2012
Over the gates of Auschwitz were the words “Work Makes You Free”. Over the gates
of the Solovetsky camp in Lenin’s gulag: “Through Labour – Freedom!”. Over the
gates of the Ngenya detention camp, run by the British in Kenya: “Labour and
Freedom”(1). Dehumanisation appears to follow an almost inexorable course.
Last week, three elderly Kenyans established the right to sue the British government
for the torture they suffered – castration, beating and rape – in the Kikuyu detention
camps it ran in the 1950s(2).
Many tens of thousands were detained and tortured in the camps. I won’t spare you
the details: we have been sparing ourselves the details for far too long. Large
numbers of men were castrated with pliers(3). Others were anally raped, sometimes
with the use of knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels and scorpions(4). Women had
similar instruments forced into their vaginas. The guards and officials sliced off ears
and fingers, gouged out eyes, mutilated women’s breasts with pliers, poured paraffin
over people and set them alight(5). Untold thousands died.
The government’s secret archive, revealed this April, shows that the attorney-general,
the colonial governor and the colonial secretary knew what was happening(6). The
governor ensured that the perpetrators had legal immunity: including the British
officers reported to him for roasting prisoners to death(7). In public the colonial
secretary lied and kept lying(8).
Little distinguishes the British imperial project from any other. In all cases the purpose
of empire was loot, land and labour. When people resisted (as some of the Kikuyu did
during the Mau Mau rebellion), the response everywhere was the same: extreme and
indiscriminate brutality, hidden from public view by distance and official lies.
Successive governments have sought to deny the Kikuyu justice: destroying most of
the paperwork, lying about the existence of the rest, seeking to have the case
dismissed on technicalities(9,10). Their handling of this issue, and the widespread
British disavowal of what happened in Kenya, reflects the way in which this country
has been brutalised by its colonial history. Empire did almost as much harm to the
imperial nations as it did to their subject peoples.
In his book Exterminate All the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist shows how the ideology that led
to Hitler’s war and the Holocaust was developed by the colonial powers(11).
Imperialism required an exculpatory myth. It was supplied, primarily, by British
In 1799, Charles White began the process of identifying Europeans as inherently
superior to other peoples(12). By 1850, the disgraced anatomist Robert Knox had
developed the theme into fully-fledged racism(13). His book The Races of Man
asserted that dark-skinned people were destined first to be enslaved and then
annihilated by the “lighter races”. Dark meant almost everyone: “what a field of
extermination lies before the Saxon, Celtic, and Sarmatian races!”(14).
Remarkable as it may sound, this view soon came to dominate British thought. In
common with most of the political class, W.Winwood Reade, Alfred Russell Wallace,
Herbert Spencer, Frederick Farrar, Francis Galton, Benjamin Kidd, even Charles
Darwin saw the extermination of dark-skinned people as an inevitable law of nature
(15). Some of them argued that Europeans had a duty to speed it up: both to save
the integrity of the species and to put the inferior “races” out of their misery.
These themes were picked up by German theorists. In 1893, Alexander Tille, drawing
on British writers, claimed that “it is the right of the stronger race to annihilate the
lower.”(16) In 1901, Friedrich Ratzel argued in Der Lebensraum that Germany had a
right and duty to displace “primitive peoples”, as the Europeans had done in the
Americas. In Mein Kampf, Hitler explained that the eastward expansion of the German
empire would mirror the western and southern extension of British interests(17). He
systematised and industrialised what the imperial nations had been doing for the past
five centuries. The scale was greater, the location was different, the ideology broadly
I believe that the brutalisation of empire also made the pointless slaughter of the first
world war possible. A ruling class which had shut down its feelings to the extent that it
could engineer a famine in India in the 1870s in which between 12 and 29 million
people died was capable of almost anything(18). Empire had tested not only the long-
range weaponry that would later be deployed in northern France, but also the ideas.
Nor have we wholly abandoned them. Commenting on the Kikuyu case in the Daily
Mail, Max Hastings charged that the plaintiffs had come to London “to exploit our
feeble-minded justice system”(19). Hearing them “represents an exercise in state
masochism”. I suspect that if members of Hastings’s club had been treated like the
Kikuyu, he would be shouting from the rooftops for redress. But Kenyans remain, as
colonial logic demanded, the other, bereft of the features and feelings that establish
our common humanity.
So, in the eyes of much of the elite, do welfare recipients, “problem families”, Muslims
and asylum seekers. The process of dehumanisation, so necessary to the colonial
project, turns inwards. Until this nation is prepared to recognise what happened and
how it was justified, Britain, like the countries it occupied, will remain blighted by
1. Caroline Elkins, 2005. Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Page
189. Random House, London.
3. Caroline Elkins, as above.
4. Caroline Elkins, as above.
5. See also Mark Curtis, 2007. The Mau Mau war in Kenya, 1952-60. From Web of
Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World. http://markcurtis.wordpress.
8. Caroline Elkins, as above.
11. Sven Lindqvist, 1997. Exterminate All the Brutes. Republished in 2012 in the
collection Saharan Journhey, Granta, London.
12. An Account of the Regular Graduations in Man.
13. He was disgraced because he was suspected not merely of grave robbing but
commissioning murders in order to supply the cadavers he wanted.
14. Quoted by Sven Lindqvist, as above, p280.
15. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote that “At some future period not very
distant as measured in centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly
exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.” Quoted by Sven
Lindqvist, as above, p261.
16. Volksdienst, Quoted by Sven Lindqvist, as above, p302.
17. Cited by Sven Lindqvist, as above.