Guide Book to Life
Guide Book to Life

The British Empire - The Dark Chapters

July 28, 2018 Admin 5 min History, Literature and Artist
The British Empire Iraqi revolt against the British Great Iraqi revolt Jallianwala Bagh massacre Mau Mau Uprising Second Boer War Bengal Famine of 1943

The modern world, arose from the ashes of the old, by lots of upheavals in history of the different countries. Maybe the most important was the rise of imperialism in Europe, thanks to the rise of ambition in merchants and political aspirations in ruling class of Europe. In age of Old Imperialism, a period extending from 16th to 19th century, European merchants and explorers, found new trade routes to Asia and Americas, established colonies and trading centres, and established diplomatic ties with the local rulers, to further their business interest. By the time, the Age of New Imperialism started, which started around mid 19th century, the European merchants and businessmen, were no longer just that, but had become a part of the ruling elite, and governance of most of the Asian and African countries, had changed hands to the Government of European Countries.

 

When the race for getting a slice of Asian and African countries started, there was hardly any country in western Europe, which did not try it’s best to get the upper hand from their neighbours. Slowly a pattern began to emerge, Spain took control over a majority of American nations/tribes and the British took over the major part of Africa and Asia. But somehow, it is the British who left a extensive longer lasting legacy; thanks to their former colonies like the US and Canada achieving considerable importance in the modern world .

 

The proponents of the British Empire often championed the fact, that the modern world would have never come into existence, without contribution of the British Imperialistic policies. They claim that most of the previous colonies of the British Empire were divided factions till their respective governments were united under the British. It has also been claimed, that the Empire brought different people together and helped in spreading communications and interaction, between people, in different parts of world. Many institutes of modern education were built, in the colonies under the empire and it helped in spreading knowledge and information worldwide. Although all of them are true, but the facts remains that whatever the Empire did, was done was for propagation of it’s own interest, and the extent to which it was done, is also exaggerated most of the times. But there are also many dark chapters of the Empire’s history that grossly overshadows the good deeds (there were certainly some). Although their colonial subjects may recount many such incidents (indeed their were many ) which caused severe embarrassment for the empire, but some of the handful incidents that the world, would never forget are –

 

British Concentration Camp in Second Boer War (South Africa, 1899 To 1902)

The war between the British and Boars (descendants of original Dutch setters, who controlled a great part of South Africa ) lead to severe loses in both sides. But it was the death of innocent women and children Boer civilians, that was particularly lamentable. The whole problem started when during the war, the Boers refused to surrender and the British started to put a lot of their enemy’s women and children in concentration camps, regardless of the fact that they were innocent civilians. Many people were put-up in small tents, under overcrowded unhygienic conditions and under severe intolerable heat. The food was scarce and unsuitable .Villages after villages ,were emptied and people shifted into those concentration camps. Around 28,000 Boer civilians died in those camps, including 50 % of Boer children population. Another 15,000 African Black people died in these camps. These deaths were due to unhygienic overcrowding and infections, compounded with tremendous heat & scare and inappropriate food .

 

Finally the exceeding human cost of innocent women and children dying forced the Boer soldier to surrender and brought an end to war; but it also brought a notoriety to the British, comparable to what happened to Germans during the holocaust in second world war and the Americans in Vietnam war. There are quite graphic descriptions of the occurring, thanks to narratives of a British Lady – Emily Hobson, who visited those concentration camps and later tried her best to persuade the British Government to pursue a more humane approach, but she was ignored(although there were massive outrage in certain sections) and even when finally actions were taken, they were too little and too late & the deaths continued, till the end of the war .

The British Empire
Rhodesians leaving Salisbury for Boer War

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (13 April, 1919—Punjab; Pre-independence India)

In city of Amritsar in Punjab, a western state of India, in 1919 an act of unprovoked indiscriminate shooting of innocent unarmed civilians, including women and children protesting peacefully against British Injustice happened, which brought shame to entire humanity. The people had rallied in Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden of almost 6-7 acres and were peacefully protesting, when they were surrounded by the British Army lead by General Reginald Dyer. The British Authorities had prior information about the planning of peaceful meeting, but did nothing to stop it. Even when the unarmed civilians started gathering on the garden, the British authorities did nothing to disperse them. It is only after the meeting started, that General Dyer arrived on the scene with his soldiers. He arrived with tanks, armoured cars with machine guns; to carry out his plans, against unarmed men, women and children. The entry of the park was blocked by a tank and all main exits were blocked , so that people could not escape. The intention was, on words of General Dyer – “To punish the Indians for Disobedience”. Dyer had openly stated that his intentions was to strike terror, throughout the Province of Punjab.

 

Dyer ordered his troops to shoot at the densest part of the crowd , without giving any prior warning. The shooting stopped only when the ammunitions were exhausted. The people died, both due to the shooting and also because of the stampede that followed. The injured could not be recovered from the site, as curfew was declared soon after, thus denying them medical facilities and thus increasing the mortality rate. There were more than 1000 dead and 1500 injured, when the count finally came in. The youngest casualty was a six week old baby. There was a tremendous outrage in India, after the incident and public contempt for the British Empire increased tremendously. Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to receive the Nobel prize, renounced his Knighthood as an act of Protest. On the British side, the reactions were mixed. Many Britishers though Dyer as an hero for championing the cause of British Empire. General Dyer ( who soon got the famous nickname of, The Butcher of Amritsar ) was left off, with only an official rebuke and was never tried and punished ,as the mass murderer, that he really was

The marks are the holes due to bullets fired by the troops of Gen Dyer on 13.4.1919
The marks are the holes due to bullets fired by the troops of Gen Dyer on 13.4.1919

Crushing of The Iraqi Revolt Against The British -1920

The Great Iraqi Revolt happened in 1920, by people protesting against the British Occupation of Iraq. In post world war 1 era, new power rearrangement happened around the world. In one of such power redistribution, Great Britain was allotted the task of governing Iraq, with promise of independence for the country, in the future .The British declared “we are here as liberators and not as occupiers”. But the local people, found it just another means by which their country would be subjected to the rule of British Imperialism. Discontent started spreading and soon started to manifest itself in form of mass meeting and demonstrations in Baghdad.

 

The beginning was peaceful. The armed revolt against the British, started initially by rather an benign looking act, in which tribal warriors stormed a prison, to set free their leader, who was being held by the British; but soon armed revolt spread to different areas, with the people wanting their freedom. People of different religious and ethnic groups joined together for the cause of freedom. The British brought reinforcement from Indian subcontinent in very large numbers. The tribal Iraqis fought bravely against the imperialist forces. But then the use of Royal air Force turned the tide in Britain’s favour. The Royal Air Force(RAF) used poisoned mustard gas, to inflict severe injuries on it’s enemies. Heavy damage to the Iraqi civilian population occurred. Finally the rebellion was put down but Britain’s credibility was eroded. It is estimated that 10,000 Iraqis were killed (in contrast to 400 British troops) during this period; which finally paved way for transfer of power to a member Arab monarchy – King Faisal Bin Hussain; a person put in power by British Government .

Faisal 1 of Iraq
Faisal 1 of Iraq

Bengal Famine of 1943

The Bengal Famine of 1943 was not caused by actual crop failure, but was caused by increase in urban demand that raised food prices for the rural poor. The main precipitating cause was that, the colonial British Government created censorship, so as not to divert resources from the war front (2nd World War). In addition to starvation; malaria, malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, displacement of people and lack of healthcare caused almost 3 million deaths. It was a time, when the second world war was at it’s peak and the British government took care that the vital supplies should be prioritised for the military, civil servants and the British Nationals. The import of Burmese rice into India had stopped after fall of Rangoon to the Japanese. There was a severe price inflation in Bengal compounded with sudden increase in population, caused by influx of military and other support personnel , in urban areas of Bengal, as the war front had shifted very close to it’s borders. Troops came in from USA, UK and China into Bengal. Companies and vendors had to sell goods at very low prices or credit to the military and government, but no restrictions were imposed on selling things in domestic market; the result was the prices of essential things skyrocketed for the ordinary Indian citizens .

 

The government took over farmlands and the families living there, (more than 150,000 people were displaced and had become unemployed and found themselves in precarious condition. The British Government, to create problems for the advancing Japanese forces used scorched earth initiative; which is a military strategy, in which any resources that may be useful for the advancing enemy (food source, water supply, transportation ) is destroyed. John Herbert, the governor of Bengal, ordered denial of rice policy, in which he ordered stored rice, to be either removed or destroyed from the coastal districts along the Bay of Bengal. The army also confiscated 46,000 rural boats; severely effecting movement of foods and supplies and also effecting the livelihood of boatmen and fishermen, which destroyed the affected people financially, who were already facing serious food problems. Transport of relief food material became extremely scarce. No steps were taken by the British government to provide any relief to the effected people, nor was any sympathy shown. Of particular note was the role of Winston Churchill, as head of government of the biggest empire of the time. Churchill ordered diverting food from starving Indians, to already full British supplies and other countries of Europe like Greece and Yugoslavia .It has been reported, that Churchill told at a war cabinet meeting, that “The famine was their own fault(of Indian’s) for breeding like rabbits” .These events increased the nationalistic sentiments, and strengthened the Indian Independence movement, which gained momentum in form of Quit India movement launched by Indian National Congress .

Orphans Who Survived Bengal Famine 1943
Orphans Who Survived Bengal Famine 1943

Suppression of Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1964 Kenya)

Mau Mau were the patriotic freedom fighters of Kenya, who waged an armed rebellion against oppressive colonial rulers and their atrocities ( British Government ). It was the rich agricultural soil, that had attracted the Britishers to Kenya. In order to take over the land and form British settlements, many atrocities, were committed against the native population; and so opposition to British Imperialism existed from the very start of the colonial days. As European settlers became masters of the land and country, the natives were relegated to the task of labourers and other menial jobs. The Kenyans always had grievances against low wages and the need to carry identification papers and inadequate land allotment. The ethnic group, which was most effected by the discriminatory land policies were the Kikuyu. These were the people who would dominate, the Mau Mau Uprising. Kenya African Union, one of the initial political parties formed, to find a diplomatic and peaceful solutions, by negotiations with British Colonial Government, failed miserably; and then the younger and more militant elements among the Kenyan people slowly started to take the upper hand of the resistance movement.

 

Initial beginning of the revolution was by isolated attacks against the European settlers. The British initially tried to portray the movement as that of violence acts of barbaric tribals. The actual grievances of African people was totally ignored. An effort was made by the imperialistic forces to divide the Africans, by selectively blaming certain ethnicities and thus furthering their own interest. At the initial stages the British Government mostly ignored the whole problem and did not take any active intervention but as time passed, more radical measures were taken .In October 1952, emergency was declared and all civil liberties suspended. Mass arrest of the rebel leaders was undertaken, but some managed to escape to the forest. Gradually there was a steady increase in violent activities from both sides. During this period excessive force was used by the imperialistic government. Between 320,000 to 450,000 people were held in concentration camps and more than a million people were held in enclosed villages and many people suffered beatings, castration and sexual violence .Torture of the prisoners was quite common. There are ample history of unarmed people being executed by the imperialistic forces. According to Kenya Human Rights commission, 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed during the government crackdown (The exact figures have always been controversial). These use of excessive force, helped ensure that Mau Mau uprising was finally crushed brutally .

Lieutenant General Sir George Erskine, Commander-in-Chief,East Africa (centre), observing operations against the Mau Mau
Lieutenant General Sir George Erskine, Commander-in-Chief,East Africa (centre), observing operations against the Mau Mau

Epilogue

Although of severe tragic importance, all of the above mentioned incidences have happened a long time back in the past, and in todays world, people certainly can’t be blamed for the actions of their forefathers. But it is only by reconciling the past, but learning lesson from them at the same time, we can move forward to a better future.

 

(Disclaimer – The article is describes real historical events, and certainly does not convey any kind of disrespect against any person of any national, cultural, religious or ethnic background. The only purpose of this article, is to learn from the events of history & not to repeat it’s mistake in future.)

( DECLARATION - All the images used in this site, are either from personal collection, or are images available in Public Domain. The owner of this website is grateful to all those, who donated their images to – Wikipedia, Wikimedia, Flickr, Deviant Art, Pinterest, Pixabay and all other sites; for free use, as images in Public Domain.)

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