It’s the end of February. If you are like me, most of your New Year’s resolutions have already dissipated, been forgotten or pushed to March or April. The smarter ones among you won’t have made any resolutions in the first place.
But if you want to feel really bad, consider young Winston Churchill’s New Year’s resolutions, as reported in his autobiography My Early Life:
I therefore planned the sequence of the year 1899 as follows: To return to India and win the Polo Tournament: to send in my papers and leave the army: to relieve my mother from paying my allowance: to write my new book and the letters to the Pioneer: and to look out for a chance of entering Parliament.
These plans as will be seen were in the main carried out.
After all, a year has 365 days. Why limit oneself to resolutions regarding exercise, diet or learning a new language?
As we all know, Churchill’s career did take off, both in literature (he won a Nobel Prize) and in politics (he won a World War). Apparently, he was so multi-talented that he was not only a Member of Parliament and eventually Prime Minister, but served as President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Minister of Air, Minister of Defence, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretary of State for the Colonies.
It is the latter office that we shall focus on, because Winston Churchill assumed it in February 1921, exactly a hundred years ago. I also want to focus on it because it puts a rather different light on the “savior of the free world”. As always in this series, the centenary serves merely as a starting point and we will explore Churchill’s view on colonialism before and after that.
The River War, the product of Churchill’s above resolution was, rather shocking for a 24-year old, already his third book. It was also, even more shocking, full of crudely racist and anti-Islamic passages. This was not some youthful sin which he cared to rectify with advancing age and increasing responsibility. Quite the contrary. Churchill held deeply racist views that would put him in the camp of white supremacists today.
In 1937, for example, when he was already warning the world about the Nazis, Churchill said:
I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.
Again and again, his thinking reveals this belief in a racial hierarchy, with white Protestants being superior to white Catholics (i.e. the Irish), Jews superior to Muslims, and Anglo-Saxons superior to everyone else.
Apologists will say that this was the thinking of the day. But it wasn’t. Not for many people. Even in the UK, even at the time and even within his own Conservative Party, Churchill was regarded as an extreme racist.
And as late as 1954, he said about the Chinese:
I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them.
Surely no accident for someone known for his gifted oratory.
Among all the people insulted, humiliated and treated horribly, I want to turn the focus on India, a British colony until 1947.
At one point, Churchill explicitly told his Secretary of State for India that he “hated Indians” and considered them “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. (I am not sure if he didn’t know that there were Indians of different religions, or if he didn’t care.) He was particularly imbued with hatred against Mahatma Gandhi, suggesting that Gandhi “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”
When the Atlantic Charter, proclaimed by Churchill and US President Roosevelt in 1941, named self-determination of the peoples as one of the guiding principles for the post-war world, Churchill explicitly declared that this would not apply to India. And that despite Indians contributing to the Allied war effort with over 2.5 million men, back then the largest volunteer force in the world.
The low point in a life filled with low points was probably the Bengal Famine of 1943. More than 3 million people starved to death, while Churchill ordered the diversion of grain from starving Indians to British soldiers and to build up buffer stocks in Greece and Yugoslavia.
“The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks,” Churchill applied his racial hierarchy. And, he said, it was the Indians’ own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. (Churchill had five children himself.)
Again, this is not some retroactive application of modern morals. People at the time realized the inhumanity. British officials pleaded with Churchill, but to no avail. Canada and the USA offered to send help, but Churchill turned it down. The Indian colony was not allowed to spend its own reserves or use its own ships to import food. Vessels bringing wheat from Australia were not allowed to unload in Indian ports and were ordered to continue to Europe instead.
Considering that British rule was sought to be justified on the ground that “it keeps the people from killing each other”, this was rather cynical. All this makes me wonder about the people, textbooks, novels and films that still romanticize colonialism, which is not a problem pertinent only to the United Kingdom. Or maybe it doesn’t make me wonder, because it’s the same old European feeling of racial superiority. (“But we brought them the railroad.”) That’s why I welcome any debate, and if a few statues need to be toppled or spray-painted for that, so be it.
Obviously, a famine is not a monocausal event. But if I had tried to get any deeper into the course and the causes of the famine, my complete lack of knowledge about India would have become even more evident.
In this article, I have drawn on Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India by Shashi Tharoor. Thanks to Dieter for sending me the book! More books are always welcome, as would be an expert on Mongolian history, on the history of chess, on Irish history and on the Tulsa massacre – especially those willing to take over for one episode of this series.