Just How Rotten Was the British Empire?


Across ye olde ponde, the ever-entertainin' Johann Hari is mixing it up with a couple of British historians who he says are apologists for the good old days when the sun never sat and all that. Contrary to the relatively sunny assessments of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, Hari (a Scot born to a welfare worker and a cook, as he notes in his bio) is having none of it, guvner:

We are still a nation locked in denial. If you point out basic facts about the British Empire–that the British deliberately adopted policies that caused as many as 29 million Indians to starve to death in the late nineteenth century, say–you smack into a wall of incomprehension and rage. The historian Niall Ferguson called me "Hari the horrible" for writing about this in my column last week. Another neo-imperialist historian, Lawrence James, accuses me in the Sunday Times of being a "twerp" who writes "twaddle". The Daily Mail says I should "check your facts"….

Lawrence James brags, "Unlike Stalin's Russia, the British empire was always an open society." If you implicitly think of only whites as people, then he is of course correct. People coloured like him or me could condemn anything they liked. But how "open" did the British Empire seem to a Mau Mau rebel being doused in paraffin and burned alive for trying to reclaim land stolen by the British? How "open" was it to an Irishman being tortured by the Black and Tans for advocating a free Ireland? How "open" was it to Indians who were jailed for trying to organise relief efforts in the middle of a famine? No wonder James jeers at "the carping of African and Asian historians focused on [the Empire's] imperfections". Odd, isn't it, how the natives seem so ungrateful?

More lapidary prose and withering personal-ish attacks in the service of historical accuracy here.

A while back, I talked with the economic historian David Levy about another ugly mark on the empire's history, the case of Jamaica Gov. John Eyre, who beat hundreds of blacks to death and received the support of "progressives" such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and John Ruskin. That's online here.