5 of the worst atrocities carried out by the British Empire

Mau Mau detainees (Photo Credit: Getty Images/Getty) 

A YouGov poll found 43 per cent of Brits thought the British Empire was a good thing, while 44 per cent were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism        

A new YouGov poll has found the British public are generally proud of the British Empire and its colonial past.

YouGov found 44 per cent were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism, with 21 per cent regretting it happened and 23 per cent holding neither view.

The same poll also found 43 per cent believed the British Empire was a good thing, 19 per cent said it was bad and 25 per cent said it was “neither”.

British people are proud of colonialism and the British Empire - poll

At its height in 1922, the British empire governed a fifth of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s total land area.

Although the proponents of Empire say it brought various economic developments to parts of the world it controlled, critics point to massacres, famines and the use of concentration camps by the British Empire.

1. Boer concentration camps

Armed Afrikaners on the veldt near Ladysmith during the second Boer War, circa 1900

During the Second Boer War (1899-1902), the British rounded up around a sixth of the Boer population - mainly women and children - and detained them in camps, which were overcrowded and prone to outbreaks of disease, with scant food rations.

Of the 107,000 people interned in the camps, 27,927 Boers died, along with an unknown number of black Africans.

2. Amritsar massacre

A young visitor looks at a painting depicting the Amritsar Massare at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar

When peaceful protesters defied a government order and demonstrated against British colonial rule in Amritsar, India, on 13 April 1919, they were blocked inside the walled Jallianwala Gardens and fired upon by Gurkha soldiers.

The soldiers, under the orders of Brigadier Reginald Dyer, kept firing until they ran out of ammunition, killing between 379 and 1,000 protesters and injuring another 1,100 within 10 minutes.

Brigadier Dyer was later lauded a hero by the British public, who raised £26,000 for him as a thank you.

3. Partitioning of India

British lawyer and law lord Cyril Radcliffe, 1st Viscount Radcliffe (1899 - 1977) at the Colonial Office, London, July 1956

In 1947, Cyril Radcliffe was tasked with drawing the border between India and the newly created state of Pakistan over the course of a single lunch.

After Cyril Radcliffe split the subcontinent along religious lines, uprooting over 10 million people, Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India were forced to escape their homes as the situation quickly descended into violence.

Some estimates suggest up to one million people lost their lives in sectarian killings.

4. Mau Mau Uprising

Mau Mau suspects at one of the prison camps in 1953

Thousands of elderly Kenyans, who claim British colonial forces mistreated, raped and tortured them during the Mau Mau Uprising (1951-1960), have launched a £200m damages claim against the UK Government.

Members of the Kikuyu tribe were detained in camps, since described as “Britain’s gulags” or concentration camps, where they allege they were systematically tortured and suffered serious sexual assault.

Estimates of the deaths vary widely: historian David Anderson estimates there were 20,000, whereas Caroline Elkins believes up to 100,000 could have died.

5. Famines in India

Starving children in India, 1945

Between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation while it was under the control of the British Empire, as millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain as famine raged in India.

In 1943, up to four million Bengalis starved to death when Winston Churchill diverted food to British soldiers and countries such as Greece while a deadly famine swept through Bengal.

Talking about the Bengal famine in 1943, Churchill said: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”


Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther 1809-1891

A former Nigerian slave who was rescued and converted to Christianity. He later became a missionary worker, and in 1864, was ordained as the first African Bishop of the Church of England where he translated the bible to Yoruba

His grandson Herbert Macaulay became one of Nigeria’s first Nationalist and played an important role in ending British colonialism in Nigeria. Photo taken in 1861

Why claim reparations only from the British?

It was not just the Prime Minister who applauded Shashi Tharoor’s demand from Britain for reparations for colonialism at an Oxford University debate last month, but the entire social media and press too. 

Ironically, a public sphere otherwise marked by petty and superficial political battles and a base form of majoritarianism which strangles any form of dissenting opinion, unites to make Tharoor’s speech “viral”. The further irony is that when Modi agrees with Tharoor, as the historian Rohan D’Souza has pointed out, the reparations argument itself is built on the seminal scholarship of Left-nationalist and Marxist historians whose material and secular history tradition the Hindu Right is otherwise trying to viciously demolish. However, behind the unity lies the mythology of nationalism which papers over serious cracks of caste, class, religion, gender, language etc. This homogeneous and essentialist view of the nation is a feature of both colonial and postcolonial nationalisms.

The horrors and costs of colonialism and imperialism and the “psychological damage” as outlined by Tharoor now and countless others like Aimé Césaire, Amílcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon decades ago can only be denied by the most fanatic of Empire worshippers. How can the colonised reorganise their present without recovering their history mutilated by the coloniser? As an African proverb has it: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Despite this, what the speech and its reception demonstrate is a staggering application of different moral standards when it comes to the question of reparations. If India deserves reparations for the injuries inflicted during colonialism, why not the Dalits, who have suffered centuries of caste oppression and in addition, slavery in regions like Kerala? Slaves, who have suffered the grossest form of violations have a bigger moral claim to reparations than Indians. Why is it that we continue to plunder, pillage and oppress Dalits and Adivasis without a moral dilemma while believing that they do not even deserve reservations? The same upper caste, educated classes who are enthusiastically affirming the demand of reparations to correct a historical wrong are the ones who symbolically protested against reservations by mimicking “degraded” occupations like sweeping the floor or shining the shoes. While the prime minister affirms the patriotism of the reparations demand, his government refuses to publish the caste data from the socioeconomic census. One kind of exploitation demands reparations, but not the other; the logic of this differentiation is merely that in the first, the oppressor is external, and in the second, internal. The first is morally repugnant and the second is not. This is what Frantz Fanon had warned about: postcolonial national consciousness, instead of being an “all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the whole people” becoming “only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been”. In India, this is more complex as it has to contend with the unique nature of caste oppression. That is why the binary of India versus Britain is hardly enough to understand colonialism or the issue of reparations. Jyotirao Phule, Ambedkar and a whole range of anti-caste revolutionaries have seen British colonialism in a different light from that of the nationalists and even the Left which critiqued the nation from the point of view of class, but ignored caste. For them Brahminical colonialism is a bigger colonialism than that of the British. As Ambedkar famously told Gandhi, “Mahtamaji, I have no country.”


The mythology also ignores how merely 1, 50,000 Englishmen ruled over the whole subcontinent. The answer lies in the millions of native collaborators, especially the ruling classes, who benefited immensely from the Raj at the expense of their peasants and workers. Should we not be asking reparations from them also for participating in the enslavement of their own people?

The mythology of nationalism would not recite these facts for it wants to perpetuate the notion that the enemies of the nation are only outside and not within. To complicate the narrative of colonialism is not to argue that ultimately it was a good thing, but to point out nationalisms are mythical and essentialist constructions and that for oppressed sections like the Dalits, even English colonialism appeared benign compared to the colonialism that they faced until then. Grievously, these oppressions — which predate colonialism — persist even now, but in conjunction with capitalism.

Liberation would mean dismantling not only old colonialism but also new forms of it. And liberation would also mean uniting the oppressed across nations which would require the dismantling of the mythology of nationalism which perpetuates a selective amnesia when it comes to colonialism or reparations.

- Nissim Mannathukkaren, Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 12 Issue 35, Dated 5 September 2015.

Caroline Elkins, a professor at Harvard, spent nearly 10 years compiling the evidence contained in her book Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. She started her research with the belief that the British account of the suppression of the Kikuyu’s Mau Mau revolt in the 1950s was largely accurate. Then she discovered that most of the documentation had been destroyed. She worked through the remaining archives, and conducted 600 hours of interviews with Kikuyu survivors – rebels and loyalists – and British guards, settlers and officials. Her book is fully and thoroughly documented. It won the Pulitzer prize. But as far as Sandbrook, James and other imperial apologists are concerned, it might as well never have been written.

Deny the British empire’s crimes? No, we ignore them | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian

Elkins reveals that the British detained not 80,000 Kikuyu, as the official histories maintain, but almost the entire population of one and a half million people, in camps and fortified villages. There, thousands were beaten to death or died from malnutrition, typhoid, tuberculosis and dysentery. In some camps almost all the children died.

The inmates were used as slave labour. Above the gates were edifying slogans, such as “Labour and freedom” and “He who helps himself will also be helped”. Loudspeakers broadcast the national anthem and patriotic exhortations. People deemed to have disobeyed the rules were killed in front of the others. The survivors were forced to dig mass graves, which were quickly filled. Unless you have a strong stomach I advise you to skip the next paragraph.

Interrogation under torture was widespread. Many of the men were anally raped, using knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels, snakes and scorpions. A favourite technique was to hold a man upside down, his head in a bucket of water, while sand was rammed into his rectum with a stick. Women were gang-raped by the guards. People were mauled by dogs and electrocuted. The British devised a special tool which they used for first crushing and then ripping off testicles. They used pliers to mutilate women’s breasts. They cut off inmates’ ears and fingers and gouged out their eyes. They dragged people behind Land Rovers until their bodies disintegrated. Men were rolled up in barbed wire and kicked around the compound.

The Fruit and Leaf of a Fig Tree, Opaque watercolor on European paper. Artist/maker unknown, Indian. Made in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), West Bengal, India, c. 1795-1800. Bequest of Dean Walker, 2006. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

From the label:

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, British officials living in India commissioned Indian painters to make images of local flora and fauna. Following the precedents of British wildlife and botanical illustration, these pictures document species with scientific precision. Usually the subject floats on a plain paper background and several views are included in the same illustration. Identified in the English inscription on the reverse, Ficus macrophylla is a type of fig tree common in central and western Nepal as well as other parts of Asia, which bears fruit in clusters from spurs that protrude from the branches.

Natural history drawings were not only beautiful works of art, but also an effective way to promote the wonders of the subcontinent. As a result, a whole range of actual specimens were imported to European parks and gardens, and Indian flora and fauna were transformed into favorite ornamental motifs for British fabrics and decorative objects.

List of (Former) British Colonies in Asia
  1. Brunei
  2. Malaysia/British Malaysia
  3. North Borneo
  4. Kingdom of Sarawak
  5. Singapore
  6. Western Samoa
  7. The Phoenix Islands of Kiribati
  8. Hong Kong, China
  9. Aden Protectorate
  10. Bahrain
  11. Kuwait
  12. Oman
  13. Palestine
  14. Qatar
  15. South Arabia
  16. Transjordan
  17. Trucial Coast (United Arab Emirates)
  18. Burma (Myanmar)
  19. Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
  20. Bhutan
  21. British India: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh
  22.  Philippines
British people are proud of colonialism and the British Empire, poll finds

The Empire’s history is not widely taught in detail in British schools        

Kenyan Mau Mau suspects in a British detention camp in 1953

The British public are generally proud of their country’s role in colonialism and the British Empire, according to a new poll.

At its height in 1922 the British Empire governed a fifth of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s total land area, but its legacy divides opinion.

Common criticisms of the empire include its policies causing millions of famine deaths in British India, its running of brutal detention camps in occupied territories, and massacres of civilians by imperial troops.

The British Empire was also a dominant slave-trading power until the practice was outlawed in 1807, after which the Empire played key a role in ending the practice internationally.

The Empire’s proponents say it brought economic development to parts of the world and benefited the countries it controlled.

David Cameron has previously said the Empire should be “celebrated”.

YouGov found 44 per cent were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism while only 21 per cent regretted that it happened. 23 per cent held neither view.

The same poll also asked about whether the British Empire was a good thing or a bad thing: 43 per cent said it was good, while only 19 per cent said it was bad. 25 per cent responded that it was “neither”.

In 2006 Tony Blair apologised for the empire’s early role in the slave trade, describing the practice as a “crime against humanity”.

Mr Cameron has struck a different tone, however – refusing the apologise for the Amritsar massacre of 1919 in which nearly 400 innocent Indians were killed by imperial troops.

He has also refused to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond of British crown jewels to the country.

“I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for,” Mr Cameron said in 2013 on a visit to India.

“But of course there were bad events as well as good events. The bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate

“In terms of our relationship with India is our past a help or a handicap? I would say, net-net, it is a help, because of the shared history, culture, and the things we share and the contributions that Indians talk about that we have made.”

The British Empire is not widely taught in detail in British schools, with history lessons tending to focus on other areas.

Former education secretary Michael Gove has said the British Empire should be taught in schools, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said children should also be taught about the suffering it caused


The Victoria Falls Bridge

A close-up of one of the frontier crossings between Zimbabwe and Zambia, this is the only bridge crossing and is sited next to the spectacular Victoria Falls.  It was nearly the front line in a narrowly averted war between Zambia (previously Northern Rhodesia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)  - led by breakaway Premier, Ian Smith in 1965.  These days things are more peaceful here, so much so, that tourists bungee jump from the bridge as part of the leisure activities in this area.

Zambia, Africa  September 2012.

Nikon D300 17-55 f2.8G   Shot at 38mm f14 1/200th sec

I’m tired of people asking me to smooth my name out for them. They want me to bury it in the English so they can understand. I will not accommodate the word for mouth. I will not break my name so your lazy English can sleep its tongue on top. Fix your lips around them. No you can’t give me a stupid nickname so that you can replace this gift of five letters.
—  Hiwot Adilow

So Boris Johnson has just been appointed Foreign Secretary for Britain. This means he is in charge of Britain’s interests around the world. This includes everything from trade agreements to green energy targets.

To understand why his appointment is another low for Britain after the disaster that was the Brexit vote, just read the above. This is a man who openly says he believes colonisation of Africa and the enslavement of its people was a good thing.

I’ve pretty much been conditioned into thinking that Britain is this great place and the Royal Family are wonderful. We learnt about the Royals from William the Conquerer up to The Queen. We learn about how Britain won both the world wars and how they triumphed over nazism. We never learned about how Jewish refugees were refused entry into Britain or how Churchill knew about the death camps and refused to do anything about it.

Churchill is glorified as a true British hero in the media, by the government and through our education system. The British empire is rarely mentioned, and when it is it’s only about how it “blessed” the colonies with independence.

When we learn about racism, slavery, segregation and the civil rights movement, we only learn about how it happened in America. My British parents are convinced that “we Brits were never as bad as those yanks” when the subject is brought up. That’s their defence.

We talk about the brave, British white soldiers who fought for our country but rarely mention the soldiers from British colonies that had no choice but to fight for a country that had committed the most violent atrocities against them, and drained them of their resources for centuries.

We vilify countries like Nigeria and Uganda for their record on LGBT rights but conveniently forget to mention the British colonial origins in their anti-LGBT laws.

We act as though this country is a melting pot of multiculturalism and tolerance, even though our ultra-right wing tabloid media has been compared to the press of early Nazi Germany in the wake of the current refugee crisis.

And we’ve had the Royal Family pushed on us every day of our lives, told that we need to celebrate them, that we need to be made aware of their every move. We are called traitors for refusing to sing “God save the Queen” and lectured about how nice british White men fought under the British flag so that we may have the freedom to express our distaste for it.

And then we have the nerve to turn around and say that America is brainwashed.