History books tend to embrace a gratifying, but often misleading, view of Britain as a 'force for good' in the world.
Historians tend to embrace a gratifying, but often misleading, view of Britain as a ‘force for good’ in the world.

BURNED BY THE BRITISH: 365 FORGOTTEN CRIMES OF EMPIRE

Injustice. Resistance. Collective Punishment. Discover the grim realities behind the myth of Britain as ‘a force for good’ in the world and the hidden history of extreme colonial violence. Alisdare Hickson sets out to expose at least one forgotten crime of Empire for every day of the year, focusing in particular on war crimes and the use of collective punishment.

Across Britain’s vast empire, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, there were thousands of communities that were the target of vicious punitive campaigns and raids, whenever local populations showed the slightest unwillingness to cooperate. Determined to extend imperial rule wherever they could expropriate vital commodities for profit, the British routinely resorted to a strategy of terror to ‘teach’ any unruly natives ‘a salutary lesson,’ The towns and villages of ‘recalcitrant tribes’ were burned, bulldozed, shelled or bombed, their dwellings ruthlessly ransacked and their inhabitants rendered homeless or slaughtered. The merciless methods intimidated many into submission, but many others were roused to resist, often at great personal cost.

These now forgotten acts of colonial terrorism were occasionally mentioned in contemporary British press reports but were justified on the grounds of racial superiority and advancing ‘civilisation’. This has allowed the author to rely extensively on newspaper archives and military memoirs to gradually piece together the stories and pretexts behind hundreds of acts of violent collective punishment. This is history that you won’t have been taught at school.

INTRODUCTION

When considering how we learn about and remember British history, it is worth considering some comments by the linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, who is well known for being unusually critical of American foreign policy and its long record of military interventions overseas. He makes an incisive observation about the fate of historical anniversaries, that ‘important ones’ like Pearl Harbour are commemorated with ‘due solemnity,’ while those that would mar self-assurance and pride are either expunged or if too big, like Vietnam in the 1960s or Iraq in 2003, they are downplayed and excused as mere ‘mistakes.’1

This phenomenon of self-justification and historical amnesia is equally if not more true here in Britain, where a few carefully chosen anniversaries are deemed worthy of national celebration. They are often royal occasions favoured by round the clock live media coverage, while other darker moments are either downplayed, forgotten or deliberately suppressed, sometimes even before reports of them reach the public archives.