J.M.W. Turner – The Slave Ship – 1840

Some anniversaries in British history are deemed worthy of any orgy of commemoration. They are often royal occasions favoured by round the clock live media coverage, while other darker moments are either forgotten or deliberately suppressed. We routinely 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 always to liberate and educate, even if sometimes we made mistakes.  We linger beside the mirror of history whenever we see a reflection of what hope to see, but when we glimpse anything ugly we quickly move on. That is why this book is devoted to reclaiming some of those uglier events which have been expunged from the nation’s memory bank, but it is also illuminating to briefly consider a couple of anniversaries which are routinely revisited, along with earnest pronouncements on our crusading role as defenders of civilised values.

Every 6 June, we dutifully remind ourselves of that fateful day, three generations ago, when British paratroopers led the D-day invasion to liberate Europe from the terrors of the Nazi occupation.  The 6 June 1944 was indeed a world changing day.  In the words of the BBC, ‘a powerful reminder of courage and endurance’ and a battle which at the cost of many lives, ended a serious threat to our hard won freedoms.’1  However, there is rarely any mention of the preceding decade of British economic and diplomatic collusion with Nazi Germany, when investors in the City of London and corporations such as Shell, ICI and Thomas Cook enriched themselves and publicly defended Hitler’s regime, until Nazi crimes and expansionist goals became so extreme that they threatened Britain’s political and economic independence.

On 7 July every year,  we are reminded of another anniversary of enormous significance,  so significant that it only needs to be referred to as 7/7 for anyone to instantly understand the event you are referring to, a hideous crime in 2005 when four Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 men, women and children in central London. There are interviews with survivors recounting how they overcame their appalling injuries and with the bereaved relatives of the victims explaining how the attack impacted their lives forever. Commentators rightly affirm our determination never to surrender our secular democratic values. Some also use the occasion to argue that Britain has gone soft on terror, demanding a heightened security vigilance and a greater readiness to resort to preemptive military strikes in regions of the world deemed to be ‘unfriendly.’

There is, however, no comparable commentary on 8 March every year, although it is an anniversary of another equally horrific terror incident, this time involving British agents and a car bomb which killed eighty people, most of them women and children, and injured at least 175.  It had been timed to go off outside a mosque in West Beirut just as Friday prayers were finishing. According to Lebanese journalist Nora Boustany, writing for the Washington Post, the blast ‘burned babies in their beds. It killed a bride buying her trousseau in a lingerie shop. It blew away three children as they walked home from the mosque and it left a nine year old girl permanently disabled with a chunk of shrapnel in her brain that cannot be removed.’2 The hope of the perpetrators was that Sheikh Hussein Fadlallah, an author and scholar who called for armed resistance to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, would be among those killed,  but he was one of the few who escaped without injury.

The veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward later revealed that the attack was carried out on the orders of CIA director William Casey, but with the willing cooperation of MI6.3 Unfortunately, we do not know much more, since neither the British or US government has seen any need to set up any inquiry.  Why ? Because unlike 7 July, we did it, so it must have been necessary.  For the same reason, the anniversary is deemed unworthy of any commemoration. There is no solemn roll call of the victims and no interviews with survivors or bereaved relatives. Nor does it seem likely there will ever be any automatic public recognition of the significance of 8/3.

On the other hand their are some tentative signs of a willingness to be a little more honest about our history.  So, 25 March is now occasionally mentioned as a significant anniversary, despite it necessitating an admission of one of the most serious crimes imaginable of forcing over a million Africans into slavery.  Typically, apologetic documentaries on the slave trade stress how despite the earlier savage exploitation of Africa, in March 1807 a more enlightened nation led the way, supposedly in spite of its own commercial interests, belatedly putting principle above profit and abolishing the slave trade. Some things are however usually 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.

However even such reluctant and partial admissions of past crimes are rare and far outnumbered by accounts of British might as a supposed force for good in the world.  If I walk down to my modest local public library in south east London, I find several biographies lauding the life of Winston Churchill, the latest by historian John Kelly entitled Never Surrender, and rows of shelves groaning under the weight of books celebrating the heroism of the SAS and other British soldiers in numerous fields of conflict from Iraq to Afghanistan and of our incredibly brave agents parachuted into Nazi occupied Europe sacrificing their lives for freedom.

Meanwhile on a section on Indian history during the period of British rule, I find only two books on display. One recounts the lives of the British Viceroys in India, admitting how they occasionally made mistakes, but always with the noblest intentions, while another, Massacre at Cawnpore, is a reprint of a Victorian classic by W.J. Shepherd which tells of the escape of the author from the cruel murder of the surrendering British soldiers, women and children at Kanpur on 15 July 1857 by Indian mutineers ‘yelling for blood.’  The book was, in the words of one contemporary review, ‘an illustration of the proverbial gallantry of Englishmen.. (and) an example of calm heroic endurance.’4

Almost entirely absent, from these bookshelves and media coverage, and certainly not mentioned in any official commemorations, are the numerous examples of how our own war crimes across the world killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and how millions more died as a predictable consequence of carefully calculated decisions, whether among those rounded up in concentration camps, like the Boers in South Africa or the Kikuyu in Kenya,  or the unknown number who died in all the many catastrophic famines within the Empire, while the affected colonies continued to collect taxes from even the poorest and refused to allow the desperate needs of the starving to get in the way of the smooth flow of agricultural products to Britain.

The 1964 film Zulu depicts the ‘heroic defence’ of Rorke’s Drift.

Neither do we commemorate any of the many anniversaries associated with such crimes. Take for example the 1964 film Zulu, staring Michael Caine, which depicts the purportedly heroic British stand at Rorke’s Drift military outpost in South Africa on 22 January 1879 against thousands of Zulus obsessed by the crazy notion of defending their homeland. It still remains a Christmas television favourite today and naturally omits any reference to what occurred on the day after the battle. Hundreds of helpless wounded Zulus were slaughtered, some of them burned alive where they lay, in what was a shocking war crime, although by the standards of British nineteenth century military victories it was merely routine. [ see 23 January 1879 ]

Despite significant progress over the last hundred years in winning civil liberties within Britain, and the increasing public pressure for a foreign policy in which human rights is a central concern, we still continue to act overseas in opposition to democratic forces and in support of murderous dictators. There is a reason for this apparent inconsistency. In recent decades, as wealth has become more unequal and increasingly concentrated in a small number of corporations and as our foreign policy has become more and more under the influence of dark money, it is only natural that Britain has acted increasingly in pursuit of short term financial gain. This has often meant economic alliances with authoritarian regimes where labour costs have been kept low by repressive laws which intimidate or imprison union activists and where regulations have been relaxed to allow the easy plundering of strategic resources. However, most of the public remain unaware of the extent to which we continue to operate as a rogue nation.

As to what we might expect in the coming years, we can learn a lot  by unearthing those anniversaries which we fail to commemorate and this book’s aim is to throw open the closet doors of Britain’s history to reveal the skeletons within.  The assassinations, the war crimes, the secret agreements with terror groups and dictators and the covert actions to undermine democracy around the world.   Successive British governments continue to keep the public in the dark about Britain’s true role in the world. Only by exposing past crimes to the light do we stand a chance of preventing future governments continuing to perpetrate acts of terror against civilians in forgotten faraway places and risking Britain’s involvement in unimaginably catastrophic wars.


  1. ‘D-Day anniversary: “World changing” day remembered,’ The BBC, 6 June 2014, accessed online at url
  2. Noura Boustany, ‘Beirut Bomb’s Legacy Suspicion and Tears,’ The Washington Post, 6 March 1988 accessed online on 27 December 2018 at url
  3. Bob Woodward and Charles Babcock, Anti-terrorist Unit Blamed in Washington Bombing, Washington Post, 12 May 1985 and Noam Chomsky, Who Rules The World, Hamish Hamilton, New York, p. 26
  4. Cited in W. J. Shepherd, A Personal Narrative of the Outbreak and Massacre at Cawnpore, Longman, Brown and Co, London, 1858, accessed online at url

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