The good empire

REGARDLESS OF WHO succeeds George W. Bush, the incumbent US president will have to deal with an emboldened Pentagon, an engorged military-industrial complex, an empire of bases, and a fifty-year-old tradition of not revealing to the public what the US military establishment costs or the kinds of devastation it can inflict. History teaches us that the capacity for things to get worse is limitless. Roman history suggests that the short, happy life of the American republic may be coming to its end – and that turning it into an openly military empire will not, to say the least, be the best solution to that problem.

One common response to this view is that the United States is actually a "good empire" like the one from which it gained our independence in 1776. Whatever its faults and flaws, contemporary America – like England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – is said to be a source of enlightenment for the rest of the world, a natural carrier of the seeds of "democracy" into benighted and oppressed regions, and the only possible military guarantor of "stability" on the planet. We are, therefore, said to be the "cousins" and inheritors of the best traditions of the British empire – which was, according to this highly ideological construct, a force for unalloyed good despite occasional unfortunate and unavoidable lapses.

The expatriate Scot and now Harvard historian Niall Ferguson typically argues that the British empire was motivated by "a sincere belief that spreading 'commerce, Christianity, and civilization' was as much in the interests of Britain's colonial subjects as in the interests of the imperial metropole itself". He insists that "no organisation [other than the British empire] has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world" and that "America is heir to the empire in both senses: offspring of the colonial era, successor today. Perhaps the most burning contemporary question of American politics is: should the United States seek to shed or to shoulder the imperial load it has inherited?" The Los Angeles Times' right-wing columnist Max Boot argues: "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets."

According to Erik Tarloff, a British journalist: "Claims that the British Raj redounded to the economic benefit of India as well as the mother country [are], I should think, irrefutable." Given that for two centuries – between 1757 and 1947 – there was no increase at all in India's per capita income, that in the second half of Victoria's reign between thirty and fifty million Indians perished in famines and plagues brought on by British misrule, and that from 1872 to 1921 the life expectancy of ordinary Indians fell by a staggering 20 per cent, the idea that India benefited from British imperialism is at least open to question.


THE REWRITING OF history to prettify the British Empire has long been commonplace in England, but it became politically significant in the United States only after 9/11, when the thought – novel to most Americans – that their own country was actually an "empire" began to come out of the closet. Beginning in late 2001, approval of American imperialism became a prominent theme in the establishment and neoconservative press. "It was time for America unabashedly and unilaterally to assert its supremacy and to maintain global order," writes Joshua Micah Marshall, editor of an influential Washington internet newsletter. "After September 11th, a left-wing accusation became a right-wing aspiration: conservatives increasingly began to espouse a world view that was unapologetically imperialist."

Bernard Porter, a professor at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a recognised specialist on Britain's imperial past, likes to argue that his country acquired its empire unintentionally. Apologists for American imperialism also contend that the United States acquired its continental girth as well as its Caribbean and Pacific colonies in a fit of innocent absentmindedness. Despite his tendency to minimise the importance of the British empire, Porter is an acute observer of trends in the candour with which this history has been approached. In the twentieth century, he observes:

Imperialism – in the old, conventional sense – suddenly became unfashionable ... [New books] took an entirely different line on it from before: hugely downplaying the glorious military aspects of it; almost giving the impression that most colonies had asked to join the Empire; stressing Britain's supposed "civilising" mission; and presenting the whole thing as simply a happy federation of countries at different stages of "development" ... A new word was coined for it, which was thought to express this sort of thing better: "Commonwealth". A popular metaphor was that of the "family".

In Porter's view, the ordinary Victorian Englishman was never much interested in the empire, which was always a plaything of the military classes and those who wanted (or had) to get out of the British Isles. But in America, the idea that the British Empire was really nice – totally unlike its French, German, Russian and Japanese contemporaries – has long been well received by novel readers and latter-day fans of long-running televison series.

During the post-9/11 period of American enthusiasm for imperialism, one of its most influential proselytisers was Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard professor and self-appointed spokesman for "humanitarian imperialism", aka "Empire Lite". As the demand for his cheer-leading faded in light of the Iraq War, Ignatieff decided to return to his native Canada and became a politician. Back in Toronto, he acknowledged to a journalist that his many essays and op-eds had all been written as if he were an American, and he apologised for having used "we" and "us" some forty-three times throughout his essay entitled "Lesser Evils", which is a defence of official torture. In the New York Times Magazine of January 5, 2003Ignatieff proudly asserted:

Ever since George Washington warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements, empire abroad has been seen as the republic's permanent temptation and its potential nemesis. Yet what word but "empire" describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires.

In numerous one-liners, Ignatieff sings the praises of American imperialism: "Multilateral solutions to the world's problems are all very well, but they have no teeth unless America bares its fangs ... Regime change is an imperial task par excellence, since it assumes that the empire's interest has a right to trump the sovereignty of a state ... The question, then, is not whether America is too powerful but whether it is powerful enough. Does it have what it takes to be grandmaster of what Colin Powell has called the chessboard of the world's most inflammable region? ... The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike."


IMPERIALISM IS, BY definitiion, unpleasant for its victims. Even a supporter like Niall Ferguson acknowledges it is "the extension of one's civilisation, usually by military force, to rule over other peoples". Regimes created by imperialists are never polities ruled with the consent of the governed. Evelyn Baring (later known as Lord Cromer), who was the British consul general and de facto overlord of Egypt from 1883 to 1907 – officially, he was merely an "adviser" to the formally ruling khedive – once commented: "We need not always enquire too closely what these people ... think is in their own interests ... It is essential that each special issue should be decided mainly with reference to what, by the light of Western knowledge and experience ... we conscientiously think is best for the subject race." Lord Salisbury, Britain's conservative prime minister from 1886 to 1902, put it more succinctly: "If our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British empire would not have been made."

The British, however, have been exceptionally susceptible to believing in the "goodness" of their empire, and in this the United States has indeed proved a worthy successor. Actual, on-the-ground imperialists, as distinct from their political supporters and cheerleaders back home, know that they are hated – that is one of the reasons they traditionally detested imperial liberals, socialists, do-gooders and other social critics remote from the killing fields, who criticised their methods or advocated the "reform" of some particular imperial project or other. Whether the imperial power is itself a democracy or a dictatorship makes a difference in the lives of the conquered, but only because that tends to determine how far the dominant country is willing to go in carrying out "administrative massacres", to use Hannah Arendt's potent term, when perpetuating its rule in the face of resistance. A split between those who support imperialism and those who enforce it is characteristic of all imperialist republics. Both groups, however, normally share extensive rationales for their inherent superiority over "subject races", and the reasons why they should dominate and impose their "civilisation" on others.

Those who supply such rationales of domination belong to what I call the Jeanne Kirkpatrick school of analysis. As Reagan's UN ambassador, Kirkpatrick once said: "Americans need to face the truth about themselves, no matter how pleasant it is." Historians like Ferguson are of this persuasion. That Britons and Americans have proven so comfortable with the idea of forcing thousands of people to be free by slaughtering them – with Maxim machine guns in the nineteenth century, with "precision-guided munitions" today – seems to reflect a deeply felt need, as well as a striking inability to imagine the lives and viewpoints of others. While this, too, is typical of any imperial power, it has perhaps been heightened in the cases of Great Britain and the United States by the fact that neither has ever been defeated and occupied by a foreign military power.

On the other hand, even defeat in war did not cause the Japanese to give up their legends of racial, economic and cultural superiority. Although the Japanese after World War II "embraced defeat", in historian John Dower's memorable phrase, they never gave up their nationalist and racist convictions that, in slaughtering over twenty million Chinese and enslaving the Koreans, they were actually engaged in liberating East Asians from the grip of Western imperialism. All empires, it seems, require myths of divine right, racial pre-eminence, manifest destiny or a "civilising mission" to cover their often barbarous behaviour in other people's countries.

There is, in fact, nothing new about such self-enhancing American military campaign names as "Operation Iraqi Freedom", "Infinite Justice" (as Centcom called the 2001 US attack on Afghanistan until Muslim scholars and clerics objected that only God can dispense infinite justice) and "Just Cause" (Bush Snr's vicious 1989 assault on Panama). Such efforts reflect both justifications for imperialism and strategies for avoiding responsibility for its inevitable catastrophes. The first recourse in justification has long been racism – or at least a sense of superiority -– in all of its forms, including the belief that victory over the "natives" (including their mass deaths due to diseases introduced by the imperialists) is evidence that God or the gods have divinely sanctioned foreign conquest. As the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught: "The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan values is the source of all religious fanaticism." Then there has been the long list of what writer Sven Lindqvist, in his book Exterminate All the Brutes (Granta, 1996) – which is a gloss on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness – usefully terms pseudo-scientific "ideologies of extermination": eugenics, perversions of Darwinism, natural selection, survival of the fittest, Malthusian demography, and more.

Racist defences of imperialism have often been linked to the argument that the imperialists have bestowed some unquestioned benefits – often economic – on their conquered peoples, even as they pauperise or enslave them. Examples from the last two centuries include the benefits of "free trade", globalisation, the rule of (foreign) law, investor protection, "liberation" from other imperial powers or home-grown dictators, or "democracy". In supporting Bush's attack on Iraq, the Harvard historian Charles S. Maier notes approvingly:

Empires function by virtue of the prestige they radiate as well as by might, and indeed collapse if they rely on force alone. Artistic styles, the language of the rulers, and consumer preferences flow outward along with power and investment capital – sometimes diffused consciously by cultural diplomacy and student exchanges, sometimes just by popular tastes for the intriguing products of the metropole, whether Coca-Cola or Big Macs. As supporters of the imperial power rightly maintain, empires provide public goods that masses of people outside their borders really want to enjoy, including an end to endemic warfare and murderous ethnic or religious conflicts.


FINALLY, THERE HAS been simple amnesia: the systematic omission of subjects that are impossible to square with the idea of "liberal imperialism". For example, both Ferguson and the Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire neglect to mention that the empire operated the world's largest and most successful drug cartel. During the nineteenth century, Britain fought two wars of choice with China to force it to import opium. The opium grown in India and shipped to China, first by the British East India Company and after 1857 by the Government of India, helped Britain finance much of its military and colonial budgets in South and South-East Asia. The Australian scholar Carl A. Trocki concludes that, given the huge profits from the sale of opium, "without the drug, there probably would have been no British empire".

Racism has been the master imperialist rationale of modern times, one with which British imperialists are completely familiar. "Imperialism," Hannah Arendt wrote, "would have necessitated the invention of racism as the only possible 'explanation' and excuse for its deeds, even if no race-thinking had ever existed in the civilized world." But what exactly needed to be explained by racism? Initially, it was the growing dominance by small groups of well-armed, ruthless Europeans over societies in South and East Asia that in the eighteenth century were infinitely richer and more sophisticated than anything then known in Europe. As historian Mike Davis observes: "When the sans culottes stormed the Bastille [in 1789], the largest manufacturing districts in the world were still the Yangzi Delta [in China] and Bengal [in India], with Lingan (modern Guangdong and Guangxi) and coastal Madras not far behind." In the early eighteenth century, India was a "vast and economically advanced subcontinent" producing close to a quarter of total planetary output of everything, compared with Britain's measly 3 per cent. As the British set about looting their captured subcontinent, this reality proved an inconvenient one. It became indispensable for them to be able to describe the conquered populations as inferior in every way: incapable of self-government, lacking in the ability to reason, hopelessly caught up in "static" Oriental beliefs, overly fecund and, in short, not members of the "fittest" races. In other words, their subjugation was not only their own fault, but inevitable.

At its heart, British imperialist ideology revolved around the belief that history and human evolution – either divinely guided or as a result of natural selection – had led inexorably to the British empire of the nineteenth century. As a result, the British extermination of the Tasmanians ("living fossils"); the slaughter of at least 10,000 Sudanese in a single battle at Omdurman on September 2, 1898; General Rex Dyer's use of Gurkha troops on April 13, 1919 at Amritsar to kill as many Punjabis as he could until his soldiers ran out of ammunition; the sanctioned use of explosive dumdum bullets (meant for big-game hunting) in colonial wars but their prohibition in conflicts among "civilised" nations, and many similar events down to the sanguine, sadistic suppression of the Kikuyu people in Kenya in the 1950s, were not morally indefensible crimes of imperialism but the workings of a preordained narrative of civilisation.


WHAT CHANGED OVER time was the idea that a divine hand lay behind such work. As Sven Lindqvist comments: "During the nineteenth century, religious explanations were replaced by biological ones. The exterminated peoples were coloured, the exterminators white. It seemed obvious that some racial natural law was at work and that the extermination of non-Europeans was simply a stage in the natural development of the world. The fact that natives died proved that they belonged to a lower race. Let them die as the laws of progress demand." On this, Niall Ferguson concurs: "Influenced by, but distorting beyond recognition, the work of Darwin, nineteenth-century pseudo-scientists divided humanity into 'races' on the basis of external physical features, ranking them according to inherited differences not just in physique but also in character. Anglo-Saxons were self-evidently at the top, Africans at the bottom." In this scheme of things, welfare measures and ameliorative reforms of harsh colonial practices should not be allowed to interfere with natural selection, since this would only allow inferiors to survive and "propagate their unfitness". These ideas were much admired by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, where he wrote approvingly of Britain's "effective oppression of an inferior race": the Indians.

Racist attitudes spread throughout the British empire and retained a tenacious hold on English thought well into the twentieth century. As P.J. Marshall, editor of the Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire,observes: "The roots of South African apartheid, the most inflexible of all systems of racial segregation, can clearly be found in the period when Britain still had ultimate responsibility. The British were never inclined to condone racially mixed marriages, which were common in some other empires, and they rarely treated people of mixed race as in any way the equal of whites."

"The overt racism of the British in India, which affected the institutions of government, contributed powerfully to the growth of nationalist sentiment," recalls Tapan Raychaudhuri, an emeritus fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford. "All Indians, whatever their status, shared the experience of being treated as racial inferiors ... The life stories of Indian celebrities are full of episodes of racial insults." For all its alleged liberalism and the capitalist institutions it forced on its captive peoples, the British empire bred, inculcated and propagated racism as its ultimate justification. Even though it was history's largest empire, its rulers seemed incapable of functioning without thoroughly deceiving themselves about why, for a relatively short period of time, they dominated the world. For this reason alone, the British empire should not be held up as an institution deserving emulation – least of all by the earliest nation that broke free of it, the United States.


RACISTS THOUGH THEY may have been, Britons have long claimed that they bequeathed to the world the most advanced and effective economic institutions ever devised. "For many British people," as P.J. Marshall puts it, "it is axiomatic that their record in the establishment of colonies of settlement overseas and as rulers of non-European peoples was very much superior to that of any other power." The popular Niall Ferguson, author of Colossus (Penguin, 2004) – an admiring, if condescending, book on America's emerging empire – is primarily an economic historian, and his influential glosses on the British empire stress, above all, its contributions to what later came to be called "globalisation". He is on the same wavelength with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, best-selling author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization and The World is Flat, who also thinks that the integration of capital markets and investor protection contribute mightily to the wellbeing of peoples under the sway of either the British or the American empires. Though the idea does not survive close scrutiny, it has proved a powerful ideological justification of imperialism.

It is not news that somewhere around one billion people today subsist on almost nothing. With rare exceptions, the countries that the various imperialisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exploited and colonised remain poor, disease– and crime-ridden, and at the mercy of a rigged international trading system that Anglo-American propagandists assure us is rapidly "globalising" to everyone's advantage. But, as the New York Times pointed out: "The very same representatives of the club of rich countries who go around the world hectoring the poor to open up their markets to free trade put up roadblocks when those countries ask the rich to dismantle their own barriers to free trade in agricultural products." According to World Bank data, 390 million of India's 1.1 billion people – almost a third of them – live on less than one dollar a day. Typically, the former US colony of the Philippines, a resource-rich country with a large Sino-Malay population, remains the poorest nation in East Asia, the world's fastest growing economic region – a direct result of US imperialism. Similarly, impoverished Latin America still struggles to throw off the legacies of American "backyard" neo-colonialism. All this is among the best-known economic information in the world.

According to the apologists for the British empire, however, such bad economic news cannot be true, because these problems were solved over a hundred and fifty years ago. Ferguson maintains that: "The nineteenth-century [British] empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labor." After the Irish famine (1846-50) and the Indian Mutiny (1857), the British "recast their empire as an economically liberal project, concerned as much with the integration of global markets as with the security of the British Isles, predicated on the idea that British rule was conferring genuine benefits in the form of free trade, the rule of law, the safeguarding of private property rights and noncorrupt administration, as well as government-guaranteed investments in infrastructure, public health, and (some) education".

Unfortunately, this argument is an off-shoot of the old nineteenth century Marxist conception that politics are mere superstructural reflections of underlying economic relations, and that a single worldwide economic system is emerging that will usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity and peace for all. As the economic theorist John Gray observes: "It is an irony of history that a view of the world falsified by the Communist collapse should have been adopted, in some of its most misleading aspects, by the victors in the Cold War. Neoliberals, such as Friedman [and Ferguson], have reproduced the weakest features of Marx's thought – its consistent underestimation of nationalist and religious movements and its unidirectional view of history."


THE IDEA THAT the British Empire conferred economic benefits on any groups other than British capitalists is pure ideology, as impervious to challenge by empirical data as former Soviet prime minister Leonid Brezhnev's Marxism-Leninism or George Bush's belief that free markets mean the same thing as freedom. At the apex of those who profited from British-style "free trade" at the end of the nineteenth century was the Rothschild Bank, then by far the world's largest financial institution, with total assets of around forty-one million pounds sterling. It profited enormously from the wars – some seventy-two of them – during Queen Victoria's reign, and financed such exploiters of Africa as Cecil Rhodes.

Ferguson, who wrote a history of the House of Rothschild, knows these things and does not deny them when he turns from imperial panegyrics to history. "In the age before steam power," he writes, "India had led the world in manual spinning, weaving, and dyeing. The British had first raised tariffs against their products; then demanded free trade when their alternative industrial mode of production had been perfected." The result was poverty and dependence for India. As Oxford historian Tapan Raychaudhuri puts it: "Early in the nineteenth century India lost its export trade in manufactures and became a net importer of manufactured goods and a supplier of mainly agricultural products to Britain for the first time in its history ... In India the favourable terms granted to British exporters and the doctrine of laissez-faire meant that Indian industries received no protection and hardly any encouragement until the mid-1920s, and then only in response to persistent Indian pressure."

What we are talking about here is, in Mike Davis's phrase, "the making of the third world", the poverty-stricken southern hemisphere that is still very much with us today. "The looms of India and China," Davis writes, "were defeated not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium, and a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs." In a well-known formulation, the social theorist Karl Polanyi wrote in his seminal work The Great Transformation (1944):

The catastrophe of the native community is a direct result of the rapid and violent disruption of the basic institutions of the victim (whether force is used in the process or not does not seem altogether relevant). These institutions are disrupted by the very fact that a market economy is foisted upon an entirely differently organized community; labor and land are made into commodities, which, again, is only a short formula for the liquidation of every and any cultural institution in an organic society ... Indian masses in the second half of the nineteenth century did not die of hunger because they were exploited by Lancashire; they perished in large numbers because the Indian village community had been demolished.

Ferguson agrees; it is just that he, like Marx, sees all this chaos as "creative destruction", the birth pangs of a new world order, Lenin's famous willingness to break eggs in order to make an omelet. ("But how many eggs must you break," one wag famously asked, "to make a two-egg omelet?") "No doubt it is true that, in theory, open international markets would have been preferable to imperialism," Ferguson argues, "but in practice global free trade was not and is not naturally occurring. The British empire enforced it."

Thomas Friedman similarly acknowledges that contemporary American-sponsored globalisation is not a naturally occurring process. American imperialism enforces it: "The most powerful agent pressuring other countries to open their markets for free trade and free investments is Uncle Sam, and America's global armed forces keep these markets and sea lanes open for this era of globalisation, just as the British navy did for the era of globalisation in the nineteenth century." If small Mexican corn farmers are driven out of business by heavily subsidised American growers, and then the price of corn makes tortillas unaffordable, that is just the global market at work. But if poor and unemployed Mexicans then try to enter the United States to support their families, that is to be resisted by armed force.

After all their arguments have been deployed, how do analysts like Ferguson and Friedman explain the nineteenth century poverty of India and China, the several dozen Holocaust-sized famines in both countries while food sat on the docks waiting to be exported, and their current status as "late developers"? Students of communism will not be surprised by the answer. In India, Ferguson argues, the British did not go far enough in enforcing their ideas: "If one leaves aside their fundamentally different resource endowments, the explanation for India's underperformance compared with, say, Canada lies not in British exploitation but rather in the insufficient scale of British interference in the Indian economy."

When Mao Zedong introduced Soviet-style collective farms into China and did not get satisfactory results, he did not abandon them but turned instead to truly gigantic collectives called "communes". This Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s produced a famine that took some thirty million Chinese lives, a monument to communist extremism similar to the extremes of laissez-faire that the British dogmatically imposed on their conquered territories – and that Ferguson would have preferred to be even more extreme.

The historical evidence suggests a strong correlation exists between being on the receiving end of imperialism and immiseration. The nations that avoided the fates of India, China, Mexico and the Philippines did so by throwing off foreign rule early – as did the United States – or by modernising militarily in order to hold off the imperialists (and ultimately join them) – as did Japan.

Even so, the United States is the heir to the British empire in at least one sense: it is still peddling the same self-serving ideology that its London predecessors pioneered. In a speech from the White House on September 17, 2002, President George W. Bush typically said: "The United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world ... Free trade and free markets have proven their ability to lift whole societies out of poverty – so the United States will work with individual nations, entire regions, and the entire global trading community to build a world that trades in freedom and therefore grows in prosperity." This kind of rhetoric gives democracy a bad name.


SOME WHO DEPLORE the British Empire's racism and the fraudulent economic benefits it offered its imperial subjects are nonetheless willing to applaud its gentlemanly endgame, arguing that the way the empire dismantled itself after World War II was "authentically noble" and redeemed all that went before. Ferguson takes up this theme too: "In the end, the British sacrificed her empire to stop the Germans, Japanese, and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the empire's other sins?" Much of this is Anglo-American claptrap, but at its core there is a theoretical distinction that is important. First, let's take a look at the argument.

P.J. Marshall, editor of the Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire, asserts categorically: "The British entered into partnerships with their nationalists and extricated themselves from empire with grace and goodwill ... The unwillingness of the British government after 1945 to be dragged into colonial wars is irrefutable, even if its is not easy to explain." This idea, a staple of Anglophile romanticism, is simply untrue.

When he wrote in 1996, Marshall was surely aware of the Malayan Emergency, a bloody colonial war to retain British possession of its main rubber-producing South-East Asian colonies that lasted from approximately 1948 to 1960. It was the British equivalent of the anti-French and anti-American wars that went on in nearby Indo-China. Although the British claimed victory over the insurgents – much like the French did in Algeria – the long and deadly conflict led to independence for Britain's colonies and the emergence of the two successor states of Malaysia and Singapore.

The so-called Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya from 1952 to 1960 – in the immediate wake of the global war against fascism – was one of the most vicious colonial wars Britain ever fought. No one knows precisely what "Mau Mau" means, or even what language it comes from, but it was the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group, some 1.5 million strong, who led the rebellion for freedom from British oppression. Kenya's white settler population was different from similar groups in other colonies. A great many came from Britain's upper classes, and they assumed privileges in their new East African enclave that had long since been abolished in their homeland. Caroline Elkins, an American historian who has reconstructed the revolt against these expatriates, writes: "Kenya's big men quickly established a leisurely life-style aspired to by all Europeans in the colony. On their estates or farms or in European neighborhoods in Nairobi, every white settler in the colony was a lord to some extent, particularly in relationship to the African population ... [T]hese privileged men and women lived an absolutely hedonistic life-style, filled with sex, drugs, and dance, followed by more of the same."

When the Kenyans rebelled against ruthless land seizures by the settlers and their adamant refusal to share power in any way, the British retaliated – in the name of civilisation – by detaining, torturing and executing huge numbers of Africans. They imprisoned nearly the entire Kikuyu population – whom the British contended were not freedom fighters but savages of the lowest order – in concentration camps. This colonial war may have slipped the mind of the editor of the Cambridge History because the British government did everything in its power to cover up the genocide it attempted there, including burning its colonial archives relating to Kenya on the eve of leaving the country in 1963. Elkins writes:

On the dreadful balance sheet of atrocities ... the murders perpetrated by Mau Mau adherents were quite small in number when compared to those committed by the forces of British colonial rule. Officially, fewer than one hundred Europeans, including settlers, were killed and some eighteen hundred loyalists [pro-British Kikuyu] died at the hands of Mau Mau. In contrast, the British reported that more than eleven thousand Mau Mau were killed in action, though the empirical and demographic evidence I unearthed calls into serious question the validity of this figure. I now believe there was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead.

This was anything but an extrication from empire "with grace and goodwill".


WITHOUT DOUBT, NIALL Ferguson also knows about the way the British crushed the Mau Mau, since he and his family lived in Nairobi in the late 1960s, but he makes no mention of the rebellion in either of his books on the British empire. Instead he writes: "We had our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili – and our sense of unshakable security. It was a magical time, which indelibly impressed on my consciousness the sight of the hunting cheetah, the sound of Kikuyu women singing, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mango."

There are still other post-1945 colonial wars that contradict any claim of an honourable British abdication of empire – for example, the joint Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in November 1956 in retaliation for Gamel Abdel Nasser's act of nationalising the Suez Canal. Nothing came of it because the United States refused to join this exercise in gunboat diplomacy. Nonetheless, the incident revealed that, some eighteen years after the British occupation of Egypt had supposedly ended, Britain still had 80,000 troops based in the canal zone and did not want to leave. And then there is the British military's 2003 return to what Toronto Suncolumnist Eric Margolis calls "among the most disastrous and tragic creations of Britain's colonial policy" – namely Iraq. In 1920, following World War I, Britain violated every promise it had ever made to the diverse peoples of the Near East and created the hopelessly unstable country of Iraq from the Mesopotamian remnants of the Ottoman empire. The new country combined mutually incompatible Kurds, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims, whose struggles with each other were finally suppressed only by the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. In 1920, when the Iraqis revolted against the British, the Royal Air Force routinely bombed, strafed and used poison gas against rebellious villages. It is remarkable that the British dared show their faces there again.

There are other problems with the thesis that the British empire revealed its human greatness at its twilight. The bungled partition of India into India and Pakistan caused between two hundred thousand and half a million deaths, and laid the foundation for the three wars to follow between the two countries and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. Raychaudhuri explains: "The British perception that Hindus and Muslims were two mutually antagonistic monoliths, a notion not rooted in facts, became an important basis for allocating power and resources. Hindu-Muslim rivalry and the eventual partition of India [were] the end result[s], and the British policy makers, when they did not actually add fuel to the conflict, were quite happy to take advantage of it." In the partition, Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, openly sided with the Hindu-dominated Congress Party against the Muslim League.

An empire such as Britain's that remains a democracy at home and a tyranny abroad always faces tensions between its people in the field and the home office. The on-the-spot imperialists usually exercise unmitigated power over their subordinated peoples, whereas political leaders at home are responsible to parliaments and can be held accountable through elections. Writing about British imperialism, Hannah Arendt noted:

... on the whole [it] was a failure because of the dichotomy between the nation-state's legal principles and the methods needed to oppress other people permanently. This failure was neither necessary nor due to ignorance or incompetence. British imperialists knew very well that "administrative massacres" could keep India in bondage, but they also knew that public opinion at home would not stand for such measures. Imperialism could have been a success if the nation-state had been willing to pay the price, to commit suicide and transform itself into a tyranny. It is one of the glories of Europe, and especially of Great Britain, that she preferred to liquidate the empire.


EVEN THOUGH I believe Arendt overstates the achievements of Britain, her point is central to what I have tried to illustrate here. Over any fairly lengthy period of time, successful imperialism requires that a domestic republic or a domestic democracy change into a domestic tyranny. That is what happened to the Roman republic; that is what I fear is happening in the United States as the imperial presidency gathers strength at the expense of the constitutional balance of governmental powers and as militarism takes even deeper root in the society. It did not happen in Britain, although it was a closer thing and altogether less noble than either Arendt or contemporary apologists for British imperialism imply. Nonetheless, Britain escaped transformation into a tyranny largely because of a post-World War II resurgence of democracy and popular revulsion at the routine practices of imperialism.

The histories of Rome and Britain suggest that imperialism and militarism are the deadly enemies of democracy. This was something the founders of the United States tried to forestall with their creation of a republican structure of government and a system of checks and balances inspired by the Roman republic. Imperialism and militarism will ultimately breach the separation of powers created to prevent tyranny and defend liberty. The United States today, like the Roman republic in the first century BC, is threatened by an out-of-control military-industrial complex and a huge secret government controlled exclusively by the president. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, cynical and short-sighted political leaders in the United States began to enlarge the powers of the president at the expense of the elected representatives of the people and the courts. The public went along, accepting the excuse that a little tyranny was necessary to protect the population. But, as Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1759: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Rome and Britain are archetypes of the dilemma of combining democracy at home with an empire abroad. In the Roman case, they decided to hang on to the empire and lost their democracy. In the British case, they chose the opposite: in order to remain democratic, they dumped their empire and military apparatus after World War II. For the United States, the choice is between the Roman and British examples, and I am not at all confident about the outcome. 

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