“The Blood Never Dried: A People’s history of the British Empire” – Book Review

NAME OF BOOK: “The Blood Never Dried: A People’s history of the British Empire”

Author: John Newsinger

Reviewed by: Nirmal Laungani  

“Compared to the Nazi rule over Europe, the British rule in Bharat and elsewhere was almost like a picnic”

One of my acquaintances, a harsh critic of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s association with Hitler, had made this above remark. While clarifying that he was not supporting colonial rule per se, he claimed that the track record of the British rulers was much better than the Germans.

While not exonerating the Nazis for their brutality and genocide against the Jews, the suggestion that the British came to Bharat for a picnic-kind of outing is outrageous and shocking.

The European imperial powers from the 15th century onwards excelled one another in their brutality and cruelty – the Spanish, Portugese, British and French combined to perpetuate a massive genocide of the indigenous communities in North and South Americas (historian David E. Stannard in his book “American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World” describes how the native populations of these continents from 15th to early 20th century declined by as many as 100 million people).

Whether it was the atrocities committed by the Dutch in Indonesia, the massacres in Congo by the Belgians, and the killings of Ethiopians by the fascist Italians, or even the Soviet war crimes in the Baltic republics and against the Poles and others, all these colonial powers were “partners in crime”, and for anyone to claim that the British were less brutal or even benevolent is a travesty of truth.

John Newsinger’s powerful work, published some 10 years back, highlights the barbarity and savagery of the British rule in Jamaica, Ireland, China, Egypt, Palestine, Kenya and other parts of Africa, Malaya, Indonesia and Bharat.

To the oft-repeated boast that “the sun never set on the British Empire”, the British poet Ernest Charles Jones had added…..”And the blood never dried”.

    “The sun never set on the British empire

     And the Blood never dried.”

Many in Britain are blissfully ignorant of the major role played by the British in the slave trade, but historian Professor David Richardson has estimated that in the 245 years between the 16th century till the early 19th century when slavery was supposedly abolished,  British ships carried 3.4 million or more enslaved Africans to the Americas. And this is among the most conservative figures, with some claiming the actual figure to be as high as 15 million people. 

However, even after slavery was supposedly abolished in 1807, it continued in the Caribbean, where in 1814, 1000 slaves in Barbados, 200 slaves in Demerra and 400 slaves lost their lives when they demanded their freedom.

In the case of Ireland’s potato famine, which killed a million people,  Newsinger details how the British government relief measures to deal with the severe famine “were too little and too late because of a fatal and deadly interaction between the government’s economic ideology and Ireland’s colonial situation.”  John Mitchel, one of the leading intellectuals of that time, had accused the British of deliberately starving the Irish people, arguing that while the potato crop may have failed, there was sufficient grain, cereals and livestock in Ireland which could have solved the problem, but all these were exported to England. He had written in 1854  “how every one of those years ‘46, ‘47 and ‘48, Ireland was exporting to England food to the value of 15 million pounds sterling”.

Similar parallels to the Irish famine could be found in Bharat, where according to scholar Mike Davis, author of  “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World”, there were 31 serious famines during the British rule, as compared with the 17 in the 2,000 years before the British rule. According to Davis, the total number of Bharatiya casualties caused by the murderous British state policy was up to 29 million. An example was given that when drought affected the Deccan plateau, there was still sufficient rice and wheat in the country. But the Viceroy, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, insisted that the priority was not to feed the starving people, but to export grains to England. In fact, at the peak of the famine in 1877 and 1878, merchants were able to sell record quantities to England. While the peasants continued to starve, state officials were ordered to “discourage relief works in every possible way”.  

Famines during British Hegemony
31 major famines struck Bharat during British rule, from Tamil Nadu to Bengal to Bihar (more than the preceding 2000 years)

Most Bharatiyas are not even aware of all these man-made famines created by the British rule, except for perhaps the Bengal famine of 1943-44, considered as one of the greatest disasters to have fallen anywhere in the world. Up to 4 million people perished in this famine. Actually, Bengal had a bountiful harvest in 1942, but the British started diverting vast quantities of food grain from Bharat to Britain, contributing to a massive food shortage in Bengal and the areas surrounding it. Noted Australian biochemist and author, Dr. Gideon Polya called the Bengal famine “a man-made holocaust”.

In her monumental, well-researched book, “Churchill’s secret war”, Madhumita Mukherjee also reveals that at the same time that Churchill opposed the genocidal barbarism of the Nazis, he governed Bharat with total contempt for Hindu lives. Newinger’s book also echoes this point. Churchill told his secretary of state for Bharat, Leo Amery, that “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion”.

Amery, who was otherwise a great believer in British imperialism had this to remark about Churchill, “I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s”. Such comments were not isolated; in fact in February, 1945 Churchill had declared to his private secretary, John Colville that “The Hindus were a foul race……..and he wished Bert Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them”.  Churchill refused any plea of  help for the starving millions even from his Viceroy, Lord Wavell.  The Viceroy had pointed out the explicit racist policy of the British by his comments, “When Holland needs food, ships will of course be available, quite a different answer to the one we get whenever we ask for ships to bring food to India”.

That the British colonial rulers were absolutely racist is also borne out in the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya of 1952 – 1960, and which is considered by Kenyans as one of the significant steps towards their independence. The resistance fighters were mostly drawn from one of the major tribes, the Kikuyu, who had become increasingly marginalized economically as years of white settler expansion, sanctioned by the colonial government, saw their lands being seized. The British brutally crushed this rebellion, which according to their official version killed 11,000 people, though the Kenya Human Rights claims that upwards of 90,000 were executed, tortured or maimed during the crackdown, and 160,000 were detained in appalling conditions.

Newsinger writes “What happened in Kenya was far worse than anything revealed in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay but excited considerably less controversy. Certainly, racism was an important factor. The savagery of the repression in Kenya was possible because the victims were black and this undoubtedly constrained public concerns….”.

Mau Mau prisoner under guard in Kenya after a night raid organised by the British Army (Source: BBC)

The author describes the British Empire as “the largest drug pusher the world has ever seen”, and nothing can be exemplified better than the smuggling of opium into China, and causing the addiction of up to 12 million Chinese to this drug. The rich and poor, government officials and merchants, the common folk – the habit drew no distinctions. People gathered in opium dens and became lost in their world. The opium trade also ate into China’s foreign trade reserves. The scale of the abuse was so huge that it forced the Chinese government to take action to enforce the ban and eradicate the problem, however the British refused to follow China’s laws. It finally resulted in the Chinese destroying 20,000 chests containing opium. This so infuriated the British who used strong arm tactics.

The situation deteriorated tremendously, eventually leading to the First, Second and Third Opium Wars in which China was badly humiliated. Newsinger shows how top government officials in Britain were fully aware of the devastating consequences of the opium addiction on the Chinese people, and the merciless actions of their compatriots in China, yet never hesitated to defend the opium trade.  

The author also proves that the Labor Party in the UK, which was considered by many to be the moderate face of British politicians, was actually no better when it came to its treatment of revolutionaries either in Bharat, Kenya or elsewhere. It was in connivance with the Conservative Party as far as colonial brutality was concerned. In fact, many of the atrocities took place under Labor Prime Ministers. Newsinger writes about the disillusionment of freedom fighter, Lala Lajpat Rai with the Labor Party, which he had wrongly thought as sympathetic to human rights and democratic values for Bharatiyas. However his hopes were shattered as he didn’t find them to be any different. 

Where the book falters is in its Marxist interpretation of certain historical events, especially related to Bharat. For example, Newsinger quotes controversial leftist historian  Sumit Sarkar (on pg. 115)  to suggest that the Moplah Muslims of Kerala who killed Hindus did so because they were landlords.  It is a most preposterous statement. Actually, in 1921 the Moplahs, who were supporters of the Khilafat movement, declared “Jihad” against the British, and while it is true that initially they attacked and seized police stations, government treasuries and courts, it was eventually the Hindus who bore the main brunt of the Moplah ferocity. They were massacred, forcibly converted, temples broken and their women raped. It was not an agrarian revolt, but a barbaric, fanatic uprising, in which all non-Muslims, but especially the Hindus, suffered horrendously. Over 10,000 Hindus lost their lives (some say up to 30,000), and more than 100,000 became refugees in their own land.

The book also overestimates the role played by the Communists in the freedom movement in Bharat, though it concedes on page 150, that they took their orders from Moscow  – the Communists’ treacherous and sinister role has been brilliantly covered in Arun Shourie’s  exposé,  The Only Fatherland: Communists, Quit India and the Soviet Union”. On some other subjects also, the author’s own Communist sympathies interfere with a more balanced coverage, such as the Palestine conflict and the creation of Israel.

Actually, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, fathers of capitalism and communism respectively, were ardent supporters of colonialism, in general, and British colonialism, in particular. Karl Marx in particular was a great supporter of British rule in Bharat, and his derogatory words on ancient Bharatiya civilization are well known. But, less known is how Marx praised the Opium War for throwing China into chaos. He claimed that Britain was advancing civilization in China, by destroying China’s old culture, and opening up China to the international economy. He even reported, approvingly, that British policies were causing such unemployment in China, that displaced Chinese workers were being used as slave labor throughout the world!!!! Source: http://east_west_dialogue.tripod.com/id9.html

It is true that a more objective reporting on various topics would have made this book an even more valued guide on the subject of British colonial excesses. It is also true that the book would have been more comprehensive had British crimes on the Aborigines in Australia also been covered. However, it is not to deny that John Newinger’s book is indeed a great academic work and deserves to be read by all in order to better understand colonialism. 

It remains a fact that the constitutions of present – day Great Britain, as well as most other parts of Europe today are genuinely democratic where there is equality to all, irrespective of race and religion. However, it is important not to forget history, and especially not to romanticize on a supposed “golden” colonial period. That never existed. But such fondness towards colonialism is found not just in the former colonial powers such as England and France, but also in some of the ex-colonized countries, especially in Bharat (no doubt due to a lopsided educational policy, which neglects to teach children about the Ramayana and Mahabharat, as well as other glories of ancient Bharat, but just highlights, in true Marxist fashion, the story of the oppressors – the Mughals and the British rule)  

There are many in Bharat who claim that had the British not come, the country would not have had railways or even cricket. Such kinds of arguments are most pathetic. It has been clearly proven that the British created railways for their own self-interest; to move their troops from one place to another, as well as to easily transport commodities to and from shipping ports. It is a different thing that today, it also benefits Bharatiyas.

However, the argument that British rule was good for the country because the railways were built by them is completely absurd, and is like saying that the Irish famine was good because otherwise the Irish wouldn’t have migrated to USA and enriched that country’s culture,  or that discrimination against Jews was good because it ultimately helped in the creation of Israel. Just like these statements are ridiculous, so also are the various arguments propogating the benefits of British rule.

But, there are no ends to such silly and derisive comments. Another controversial historian, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, taking part in a debate organized by India Today in 1997, while not clearly extolling the virtues of colonialism, did remind Bharatiyas what their life would have been today if there were no tomatoes or chillies, because after all, these two food items along with potatoes, capsicum, groundnuts and tobacco came to Bharat as a result of colonial influence. It is a similar argument that others have also used to speak for the contributions of the Mughal rule – that we wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of tandoor, kabab or samosa.

So finally, the mayhem and destruction, the genocides and holocaust caused by 1,300 years of foreign rule in Bharat gets relegated and subordinated to the pleasures of culinary delights that the colonial powers brought with them!!! These are some of the statements that our so-called historians in Bharat give!!! A counter-argument in this regard can point out to the current craze in urban Bharatiya households for burgers, pizza and Maggi noodles.  But, the US, Italy and China never ruled over this country, so how did these junk foods become popular?  It just shows the hollowness in the ideas of some “intellectuals” who can’t seem to understand that no country in the world can be insular or static as far as dietary habits, fashion modes, or even societal mores are concerned. There can always be outside influences. Not just that. All these things change with the times. What was fashionable to wear or eat a few centuries back may not be so today. However, our nation’s core culture, rooted in Hindu civilization, remains everlasting and eternal. 

In conclusion, John Newsinger’s magnificent book should not leave any questions or doubts in anyone’s mind that British colonialism was a very brutal and dark affair that cannot be defended under any cost.

Link to the book”The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire

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About the Author

Nirmal Laungani
NIRMAL LAUNGANI is a Hong Kong businessman, vice president of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Hong Kong, and chief editor of Sandesh Bharati. Email: [email protected]