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To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Most Liberal Empire in History

More Fun Facts about the Good Old Days, so beloved of Max Boot, Niall Ferguson, and their ilk. Lenin writes:

Yesterday I opened up a book just out in paperback called Britain's Gulag by Caroline Elkins. It details how in the dying days of the British Empire, the Kikuyu people of Kenya began to rise up in armed rebellion. In response, Britain detained almost the entire population (of one and a half million people!), either by placing them in concentration camps (the British called them 'reception pens') or by ring-fencing their villages with barbed wire. Perhaps over a hundred thousand detainees died - from starvation, disease, beatings and so forth. Vast purges were launched, especially during Operation Anvil, which saw almost the entire Kikuyu population driven from Nairobi, the capital. The brutality was astonishing, and terror was a tool widely used to control and intimidate: one woman describes how she was attacked in her house by a group of British soldiers, who informed her that they'd just killed her husband. Then they started to hammer her with the butts of their guns, shoving her from one person to the next. Her two year old child, hearing her scream, clambered out of his bed, between the legs of the soldiers and tried to cling to his mother's ankles. The woman was told she was being given the independence her husband had set out to get. The child was being trampled. When at long last she had been beaten numb and dragged out of the house, she remembered that the last thing she saw was her son's dead body on the floor of her house.

5 Comments:

Blogger jomama said...

Here I thought the Brits were so civilized.

I guess Gandhi did it.

November 09, 2005 6:54 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Wow, there are so many ways to interpret that title...

1) Sarcastic: "See how 'liberal' the brits were?"
2) Anti-liberal: "See what liberalism is?"
3) Anti-empire: "See what empire is, even when it is done by liberals?"

I think I emphasize the third definition.

November 09, 2005 9:23 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

There are several confusions here, each with a grain of truth. Liberal had nothing to do with it, but in the 19th century both liberal thinking and the Liberal Party had influenced the philosophy and administration of empire erspectively.

It had little to do with empire anyway, but with bungled decolonisation done too fast under adverse pressures. The Mau Mau threat was very real, very urgent and very savage. (I experienced the same personally as a child, in the former Belgian Congo.)

The real harm done probably was a case of poor attitudes among soldiers, facing these exigent circumstances; the blame for that in turn sheets home to their officers and the political masters, for previous failure, but they too had been rushed and were reacting. That's not apology as excuse but as explanation.

In fine, the whole story is a generalised tragedy, not specifically British abuse. To suppose the comments above are fully representative is a bit like listening to a Zionist account of British conduct in Palestine - it's both partial and selective. Of course, six year old whites sliced up by rebels - as I nearly was in the Congo, and would have been but for the Belgian paratroops - do not in turn justify further reacyion, but they do explain the exigency.

To say otherwise is to order non-reponse by the soldiers, the way the Belgian paratroop colonel was ordered not to intervene. I am personally glad he acted according to his conscience.

November 10, 2005 3:59 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

jomama,

But they are! Haven't you seen Commander McBragg?

Adam and Peter,

The phrase "most liberal empire in history" was simply a comment on the neocon's nostalgic portrayal of the British Empire as a progressive, liberating force.

November 10, 2005 8:17 AM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Actually, the British Empire was all those valuable things, at least as compared with the alternatives, right up until the time that a conscious imperialism emerged from the achievements of empire. That substituted ideas like "progressive" etc. for simply getting on with what was thrown at you, and the likes of Cecil Rhodes could see a higher purpose in whatever matched their own inclinations.

But none of that applies to Kenya in the '50s at all.

November 10, 2005 7:21 PM  

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