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 historical self-justification and 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.
Ian Cobain in The History Thieves (2016) reveals how, as Britain was compelled to abandon its colonies, in the wake of growing independence insurgencies, many thousands of boxes of documents in administrative offices across the splintering Empire were flown home to be stored in an enormous secret repository at Hanslope Park, a country estate near Milton Keynes. Thousands more which, due to the speed of Britain’s retreat from Empire, could not be flown out in time were hastily destroyed.
In 1956, a reporter in Cairo recalled how, as the Suez Crisis broke, he stood on the neatly manicured lawn of the British Embassy ‘ankle deep in the ashes of burning files.’ In 1957, less than two weeks prior to Malaya’s independence, soldiers drove lorry loads of files 220 miles from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore where they were, to cite the smug words of an official report, ‘destroyed in the Navy’s splendid incinerator’ and in 1961, the last governor of Trinidad and Tobago was advised by the Colonial Office to “get an early start” on the burning and that if any documents remained intact on the eve of independence day, that they could be packed into weighted crates and dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. Such was Whitehall’s fear in each case as well as several others Cobain details that the full extent of Britain’s crimes might be revealed.2
The mainstream media and popular culture also play a pivotal role in how we perceive our past. Heroic military engagements such as the Battle of Trafalgar, Waterloo, the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Dambusters Raid and the D-Day landings are endlessly revisited in glorious detail in books, museums and in films. The carefully scripted retelling of such events helps to reassure ourselves that since the early days of the Empire, our role in the world has been unlike that of most other major powers, that our primary mission was to liberate and educate, even if sometimes we made mistakes. It is only natural that we linger beside the mirror of history whenever we see a reflection of what we hope to see, but when we glimpse anything ugly we quickly move on.
There is an occasional exception to this general rule when we are forced to acknowledge our involvement in patently nefarious activities of such enormous magnitude and scale that they cannot be entirely expunged from history, such as the forced shipment of three million Africans across the Atlantic into slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas. However, we Brits, like other former colonial powers who hold their imperial past dear, have a perverse and paradoxical habit of using such crimes to celebrate our own moral superiority.
In the case of slavery, the anniversary commemorated is usually 25 March 1807, when a supposedly newly enlightened nation led the way, in spite of its own commercial interests, belatedly putting principle above profit and abolishing the trade. Some things are discreetly left unmentioned: that fear of slave rebellion was the preeminent consideration, that slavery within the Empire continued for three more decades, that the plantation owners, not the slaves, were compensated, and that for many of the slaves, the subsequent years of bonded labour were even worse than the period of chattel slavery.
A few historians have begun to expose these truths and measure the horrific impact of the slave trade in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the enormous financial benefits the accumulated profits brought to British financiers, shipping merchants and plantation owners. Yet while these new histories have inspired and armed activists calling for the toppling of statues, they have only had a limited impact on the mainstream media and wider public perceptions, with one third of the British public, according to a Yougov poll taken in March 2020, still convinced that colonial populations benefited from the Empire, and fewer than one in five feeling that its legacy was something to be ashamed of.3
It is this paradox between a Britain depicted as “a force for good in the world” and a far uglier truth that has motivated my research for this book – Burned by the British: 365 Forgotten Crimes of Empire. The idea being a simple but challenging one – to uncover at least one forgotten crime of Empire for every day of the year, focusing in particular, though not exclusively, on war crimes and the use of collective punishment.
So far, I have written brief accounts for well over six hundred such events, which I eventually intend to narrow down to 365 – at least for any printed version of the planned book. In the meantime, I am publishing this initial 230,000 word draft online in the hope of getting some constructive criticism and feedback. You should find the website simple to navigate, just choose a month or a year or select from a list of countries – all from the top menu.
It was difficult to decide on a date from which to include such accounts. Britain didn’t become a fully unified state until the act of union with Scotland in 1708. At the same time England, with London as the nation’s capital and including a large majority of Britain’s population and much of its wealth, was always the dominant partner, and Britain’s overseas military conquests from the eighteenth century onwards, were presaged by earlier brutal campaigns in Scotland and Ireland. So while focusing mostly on the period since 1708, I have included occasional earlier examples of military violence and ‘war crimes’ by the English in Scotland and Ireland.
I use the term ‘war crimes’ cautiously. The precise legal concept of a ‘war crime’ was not even defined until the Hague conventions of 1898 and 1907 and the phrase only entered popular usage in Britain after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. That autumn the press were quick to denounce German soldiers as ‘savages’ for the ‘burning of homes and the massacre of inhabitants,’ even though only a few months later the British Army felt justified in inflicting far greater punitive horrors on Arab villages in Mesopotamia who dared to side with the enemy Turks.4 However, although the precise legal concept of a ‘war crime’ dates from the beginning of the twentieth century, the British had long claimed to uphold the highest standards when it came to the treatment of civilian populations in war, but providing those civilians lived within the so called ‘civilised’ world. There had long been, as the historian of war crimes David M. Crowe noted ‘customs, regulations, and laws’ governing ‘the behavior of armies in the field, particularly when it came to the treatment of individuals during times of war, be they combatants or civilians.’5
The British felt that such restraints need not always apply when subduing insurgencies against their colonial Empire, partly because across much of Africa and Asia they did not see their opponents as deserving of such consideration and partly because they felt that punitive operations by well armed expeditions or RAF bombing could strike fear into entire populations, pacifying vast areas with greater cost efficiency than attempting to locate an elusive guerrilla enemy. Imperial forces were normally sparsely stretched and so such punitive measures targeting the homes, crops, livestock and valuables of entire populations afforded a more profitable means of colonial rule.
The shelves of bookshops are groaning from the weight of ‘Today in history’ books, so you would be right to ask why yet another one ? It’s because those which include accounts of the British empire or foreign policy all spotlight Britain’s more magnificent moments, while mostly ignoring our country’s long history of rogue actions across the world, from infecting Native Americans with smallpox to our direct support for Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of Yemen. There might be the occasional reference to British war crimes or peace time massacres committed by ‘an errant officer,’ but these are usually the smaller crimes and represent only the tiniest fraction of the human suffering caused by Britain’s attempt to achieve and maintain hegemonic influence across large regions of the world.
It’s not usually a case of deliberate political propaganda. Many of the authors are professional historians who have for years studied at universities which themselves have benefited from Britain’s exploitation of less developed nations, their construction and expansion in many cases funded directly or indirectly by the profits of slavery, empire and the opium trade. Institutions of enormous power, prestige and privilege, which with increasing privatisation depend more and more on links with wealthy corporate and overseas sponsors. Such an environment tends to encourage a certain view of the world, internalized by those working within it, so that the lecturers and those students wishing to advance their career prospects instinctively understand that there are certain things it just wouldn’t do to say or write.
It is understandable that there should be hundreds of publications, many of them best sellers, in celebration of ‘heroic’ Brits from Admiral Lord Nelson to Winston Churchill. It is a gratifying and self-righteous approach, also reflected in the many statues and memorials to ‘British valour’ and the relative absence of similar references to uglier episodes. The corporate media also panders to the desire to behold ourselves in the best possible light, but the danger, again borrowing the eloquent words of Chomsky, is that such a selective memory of the past ‘not only… undermines moral and intellectual integrity but it also… lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.’6 The journalist James Felton, reflecting on our own history, expressed a similar concern with typical British humour. ‘If we’re ever going to move on and figure out what’s best for our country as we are now, it’s time we started remembering all the other stuff that takes us down a peg or two by reminding ourselves we’re basically just bellends with top hats. And we don’t even wear top hats any more.’7
I have devoted many hours to combing through newspaper and other archives to provide new details on many of the events detailed here. It covers a vast area of history, so if you do notice any mistakes or anything you think I’ve missed please message me to let me know. The project, is also still far from complete, with only an initial draft written for 646 forgotten anniversaries so far, and I would greatly appreciate suggestions and comments. I would also love to have any quotable contributions from anyone who can actually remember any of these less glorious moments and in so doing help shine a light on this hidden history.
I found myself deeply moved as I began to read recollections of witnesses to these crimes, often at the time acknowledged openly by reports published in the press or in military memoirs but at a time when we believed the wholesale burning or destruction of villages and even entire cities to be “a salutary lesson” to ‘uncivilised natives’ to submit passively to British hegemony. What I read changed the way I thought about Britain, the legacy of Empire and our past and present role in the world. I hope these forgotten anniversaries “retrieved from unhistory,” might have the same impact on others.
- Noam Chomsky in Truthout.
- Ian Cobain, The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation, Portobello Books, London, 2017.
- Robert Booth, UK more nostalgic for Empire than other ex-colonial powers, The Guardian, 11 March 1920.
- Major Redway, ‘Today’s Operations Land and Sea: The Globe, 2 September 1914, p. 8.
- David M. Crowe, Crimes of War: Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
- Noam Chomsky, Who Rules The World, Penguin, London, 2016, p. 43.
- James Felton, 52 Times Britain was a Bellend, Sphere, London, 2019, p. 105.