One Hundred Years Ago, someone kept his New Year’s Resolutions, but didn’t care about the Lives of Others – February 1921: Winston Churchill

Zur deutschen Fassung.

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.


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in History, India, UK and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to One Hundred Years Ago, someone kept his New Year’s Resolutions, but didn’t care about the Lives of Others – February 1921: Winston Churchill

  1. Pingback: Vor hundert Jahren hielt jemand zwar seine Neujahrsvorsätze ein, kümmerte sich aber einen Dreck um das Leben Anderer – Februar 1921: Winston Churchill | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Several recent studies indicate that this famine was very likely to have been monocausal. There are economic studies by Amartya Sen and his collaborators, historical documentation detailed in a book by Madhushree Mukherjee, and a palaeoclimate study. Tharoor’s book cites sources, and this newspaper report can also lead you to the sources:

    The number of people who died in the famine was between 2 and 3 million. Also, the British empire “relocated” workers from India to other colonies after slavery was forbidden in 1833. This probably started with the transportation of indentured Indian workers to the Caribbean starting from 1844. It continued into the 20th century, when the British empire began to build railroads in Africa.

  3. Thank you! I get very tired of these horrible people being rewritten as saints and saviors. Even Ronnie Reagan is getting glossed over with a rosy glow. Ridiculous and disgusting!

    • “But he could tell jokes so well.”

    • endean0 says:

      Perhaps if you were to study your european history a little better, you would know that Churchill was never held up to be a saint, but funnily enough he was the saviour of the British Isles during WW2. To compare him alongside Regan is an analogy that shows you have little grasp of of what the man did for his country and the wider world.

    • I would hope that we could enrich each other’s knowledge on this blog without personal attacks, except against me, if necessary. As the author, I can live with that.

    • I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of European history is limited to my US education and what I’ve learned on my own, and from people like Andreas.
      The point I was trying to make is that society tends to remember only the accomplishments and glosses over the negative aspects of a leader.
      I wasn’t comparing Reagan’s accomplishments to Churchill’s. I was using Reagan as an example of someone whose history is being rewritten.

  4. Ilinca says:

    Thank you for the most interesting post you wrote!

    • Oh, thank you very much!

      But this series will become much more interesting in March 1921, when we will hear about the story of a Baltic Baron, entangled in the Russian Civil War, seeking solace in reincarnation and founding a kingdom that didn’t last long.

  5. endean0 says:

    This is a well thought out and written article so thanks for posting, it gave me quite a lot to think about. My generation of Brits were brought up and schooled on the fact that Churchill was the saviour of our country (which he undoubtedly was). It is for me and I expect many others of my generation very painful to have such a great British hero chipped away at over the years. However, the facts, quotes and sentiments, some of which you’ve used in your piece are well documented. And so over time the “Well it was different back then” attitude does get eroded and you start to see things in black and white. However the dichotomy of this man is that had it not been for his efforts (along with many others) then perhaps the UK and most of europe would have been subjected to a much more venomous and all encompassing kind of racist doctrine. On balance I think I would prefer to still hold this man in high esteem, while at the same time never forgetting the things he said and did we’re wrong, no matter which age he lived in.

    • Absolutely. I don’t want to belittle anything about the fight against the Nazis.
      And Churchill was spot on and saw the threat clearly and early, when most people in the world were still duped into believing that Germany could somehow be tamed.

  6. Alan says:

    Churchill was a genius, and boy, what a hero he was, obviously he had his flaws but his virtues stood out more. I’m sure he made joking racist comments probably. But to make racist laws or extermination plans I don’t think so.
    This does not detract from your good post.

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