Review of Caroline Elkins’s Legacy of Violence — A History of the British Empire: Holding Empire to account

A historian catalogues numerous atrocities committed by the British in its colonies

Updated - March 24, 2023 12:28 pm IST

Published - March 24, 2023 09:02 am IST

Vintage engraving of British Colonial Troops, Mounted Infantry company of the 2nd Regiment, 1891.

Vintage engraving of British Colonial Troops, Mounted Infantry company of the 2nd Regiment, 1891. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Caroline Elkin’s book Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire is furious, fast-paced and deeply disturbing. Its raw and detailed cataloguing of the numerous atrocities committed by Britain in territories under its control across the world includes sadistic torture, sexual violence, brutal internment practices, deportations and executions on an industrial scale. To go with the unbelievable stomach-churning details, Elkins has furnished all the evidence.

Despite its length, Elkin’s book is unputdownable. It is clearly a sequel to her 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, in which she first highlighted “legalised lawlessness, where the state often rendered the lawless behaviour of its security forces and civil servants legal by amending old regulations and creating new ones”.

‘Crimes against humanity’

The extraordinary depth and quality of Elkins’ research is impressive and evident through the book. It graphically captures the numerous instances of imperial Britain’s brutalisation of its subjects in various parts of the world. She acquaints us with those who committed the atrocities in the name of the state as well as the political leadership — Prime Ministers Churchill, Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan included — which provided cover. She also brings out how the British establishment fought successfully in Parliament and in international forums like the UN not to hold it responsible for its many “crimes against humanity”.

Vintage engraving of The Battle of Miani (or Battle of Meeanee) a battle between British East India company forces and the Talpur Amirs of Sindh. The Battle took place in 1843 at Miani, Sindh.

Vintage engraving of The Battle of Miani (or Battle of Meeanee) a battle between British East India company forces and the Talpur Amirs of Sindh. The Battle took place in 1843 at Miani, Sindh. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The most interesting portions of Elkin’s book are those where she tracks intelligence officers, administrative and security personnel as they move from one part of the empire to another, India, Ireland, Palestine, Cyprus, Kenya, Malaysia, to carry on with their task of smothering dissent and crushing revolts right up to the 1960s after which, as we all know, the Americans took over that job.

In its time the British Empire straddled the globe. By 1900, it had more people under its sway than any other country or empire in the world — 403 million to China’s 400 million, the Russian Empire’s 136 million and a mere 79 million in the U.S. Its territories covered around 36 million square km, 13 million square km more than Russia.

Colonial office records at the British Library and the National Archives in London establish that for Britain to run such an empire it had to develop systems and provide legislative cover for its civil servants and security personnel. This, as Robert Crews, author of For Prophet and Tsar attests, was true of the Russian Empire. If one were to aggregate all the violence states inflict on their peoples, as Elkins does for the British Empire, no country will come out clean — not China, not America or today’s Russia or even India.

‘Capture of the guns at Banda, a scene from the Indian Mutiny of 1857.’ Engraving from 1858.

‘Capture of the guns at Banda, a scene from the Indian Mutiny of 1857.’ Engraving from 1858. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Elkins needs to convince us that the British were the most brutal of European colonialists. They were not. That distinction should rightfully go to Leopold and the Belgians in the Congo, the Spanish in South America and the Dutch in Indonesia. The global reach and control of the U.S. has been sustained at much higher human cost and more mass misery for non-whites than the British Empire ever inflicted on its subjects and that too in a much shorter timespan as Daniel Immerwhar’s book How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of The United States, read along with Brown University’s Cost of War Project, bring out. As colonialists, the British were very bad but not as rotten as Elkins would have us believe.

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire; Caroline Elkins, Bodley Head, ₹1,666 (Kindle price).

The reviewer teaches public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bengaluru.

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