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Dark truths about Britain’s imperial past


Despite the ambitious title, it only really begins its story in the 19th century, with a series of colonial rebellions from Ireland to India. In 1865 an uprising in Jamaica was put down and Edward Eyre, the Governor, boasted that “the doom has been so swift and so terrible that it is probable that it will never be forgotten”. Nor was it: a Jamaican committee – including John Stuart Mill, John Bright, Darwin and Dickens – investigated and condemned this terrible punishment. But Elkins finds such human concern dubious: his particular target is “liberal imperialism,” with its belief in the benevolent power of empire to improve subject peoples.

Although Rudyard Kipling, the bard of empire, warned against imperial hubris in “Recessional”, George Curzon, the viceroy of India, could assert that “imperialism is becoming less every day less the creed of a party and more and more the faith of the nation.” During the 20th century, writes Elkins, “British security forces deployed increasingly intense forms of systematic violence which made the empire look like a recurring state of conquest”.

A sinister new factor was what its proponents called “air power.” From 1919 the planes of the new Royal Air Force were a much cheaper means of subjugation than armies. They bombed and machine-gunned defenseless people in Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Palestine, with no officer more enthusiastic for the task than “Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris”, as Elkins anachronistically calls him (the nickname has conferred by the popular press two decades later when he led Bomber Command in a far greater campaign of destruction against Germany).

After the Great War, the empire had reached its territorial peak with the acquisition of the vast new territories of Iraq and Palestine. After bombing Iraqi villages, Harris moved on to bombing Palestinian villages, and here a trickier question emerges. “The Pax Britannica in Palestine was creating a conflict with the auspices of the rule of law,” writes Elkins, but what she means by that is not entirely clear. The British can be said to have “created a conflict” by granting the Balfour Declaration in 1917, favoring the creation of a national home for the Jews, while insisting in contradictory terms that “nothing shall be done which may violation of the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. This was the origin of today’s tragic and insoluble conflict. Does Elkins, like the prominent Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, for example, think the Balfour Declaration was a disastrous mistake?

In November 1942, in words considered for reason so amusing that Ronald Reagan borrowed and adapted them in his first inaugural speech, Churchill declared: “I did not become Prime Minister of the King to preside over the liquidation of the Empire British”. But he had done it, since this liquidation was the result of the war in which he had led his country. It was immediately followed by the miserable last years of British Mandatory Palestine. Elkins gives a colorful narrative, but she fails to see the ironies in the story. As she writes, “Truman had asked Churchill in Potsdam to lift restrictions on the immigration” of desperate Jewish survivors to Europe. Restrictions on immigration to Palestine, ie: Truman had no intention of lifting restrictions on immigration to the United States.

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