Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins - review by Bernard Porter

Bernard Porter

Bloody Britain?

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire


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Britain didn’t invent imperialism, of course – it goes back to the Cro-Magnons, at least – but the country could be said to have invented anti-imperialism: anti-imperialism in principle, that is, as distinct from opposition to the particular form of imperialism that is currently oppressing you (that rules the American revolutionaries out of the race – they just wanted freedom to indulge in some pretty brutal colonisation of their own).

The Harvard historian Caroline Elkins fits nicely into the anti-imperial tradition. She won her historical spurs with Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005), an account of the horrors and atrocities of the British campaign against the Mau Mau in the 1950s that was revelatory to those of us ‘imperial’ historians who were aware that something deeply unpleasant had gone on in Kenya but didn’t yet have the full, gory details. We were particularly indebted to her for discovering, with the help of lawyers representing victims of British atrocities (lawyers have more pull than historians), a secret cache of highly incriminating official documents from that time which should have gone to the Public Record Office but were instead hidden away in a country house in Buckinghamshire we weren’t meant to know about. That was done in order to preserve what was called the empire’s ‘legacy’: that is, the historical myth of its beneficence – protecting primitive peoples, pacifying warlike tribes, spreading ‘civilisation’, and the like. Many on the Right still cling to this myth today. (See, if you can bear to, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s dreadful The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain, described in the Daily Telegraph, no less, as a ‘clichéd, lazy history [that] often reads like it was written by a baboon’. Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World is more nuanced, but similarly positive – if, that is, you think that spreading free-market liberalism globally was a good thing.)

The nastiness of British rule in Kenya clearly coloured Elkins’s view of the entire British Empire, the history of which forms the subject of these 800-odd pages. She sees violence as the central factor in the empire’s history, hence the title. There are other works that offer roughly

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