Last week marked the day in which Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1940. As with many historical events, the press and public look back and ponder the ‘what ifs’, we see montages of his greatest moments and we idolise the man who led a nation in its darkest hour, Britain’s saviour one could say.
When considering Churchill’s legacy, we think of the Second World War, his grand speeches in parliament, his defiance in the face of overwhelming adversity and how it emboldened the people of the United Kingdom to fight fascism. What is often overlooked however is his immense role in the ghastly actions of Imperial-Age Britain.
Many do not include the British Empire in the club of murderous, tyrannical empires of the past. We are not the Mongols, or the Romans, we are not the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. We modernised more than half the world and established democracies that still remain to this day, albeit independent from our rule. These are all wonderful aspects of the British Empire, aren’t they? It is for that reason we can soundly proclaim we were the ‘good guys’, right?
Unsurprisingly, it is not that simple. For every road paved, for every child literate and for every clean water well there are hundreds of dead, incarcerated and oppressed people’s. The blood shed by the British Empire throughout its centuries-long history is unfathomable, yet we are blind to these realities – A selective view of history instilled in our minds from the moment we enter the education system.
Winston Churchill is a product of this time in our history. A man who firmly believed the British Empire was the moral authority around the globe. A civilised nation whose god given right it was to spread British values, democracy and culture. He was an imperialist, plain and simple. In recent years, many have argued that by modern definitions he was a white supremacist as throughout his career there are examples of his contempt for supposedly ‘lesser’ cultures.
Speaking of the indigenous peoples of America and Australia, Churchill claimed:
“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.”
As well as a contempt for indigenous populations, Churchill had spoken in an almost Nazi-esque fashion, claiming: “The Aryan stock is bound to triumph.”
A statement more at home in Mein Kampf than a biography of Britain’s most celebrated leader.
Let us examine a selection of his darkest actions.
In 1919 during Britain’s third occupation of Afghanistan, Churchill advocated the use of chemical weapons against the insurrectionist tribes of the region. These surely are not the actions of a moral and just individual, are they? Even more sordid when considering the devastating affects gas had upon British troops during the First World War.
“We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells…burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”
As a young officer, Churchill witnessed – and perhaps acquired his taste for – great brutality against indigenous populations in South Africa during the Boer War, where concentration camps were pioneered. He even claimed this method ‘reduced suffering‘.
Over 28,000 white Boers died as well as anywhere up to 14,000 black South African peoples.
These methods were also used in Kenya during the 1950’s, where over 100,000 black civilians – which Churchill labelled ‘blackamoors’ – were interred in concentration camps. Britain’s actions at this time were particularly brutal, and focused firmly on maintaining the control of the minority white population in the country.
One of the worst atrocities carried out by the United Kingdom, and often erased from our history books, is the Bengal famine of 1943. At the height of the Second World War, Britain’s resources were stretched beyond breaking point. Food supplies throughout the Commonwealth and in Britain were dangerously low, and one may be forgiven for assuming that the defence of mainland Britain was a priority.
When famine struck however, Churchill it seems disregarded the gravity of the situation, and is even claimed to have placed the blame at the feet of the Indian population, saying they ‘breed like rabbits’ – A callous remark met with an equally callous response. Wheat shipments from Australia were bypassed to the European theatre of war and this led to increased suffering in the Bengal region.
Churchill’s actions, or there lack of, appear to have aggravated the situation further, and it is believed that over three million people died. His disregard for the people of India is evident during his time in politics and is likely due to his contemptuous view of the people. The Viceroy of India claimed:
“Churchill’s attitude towards India and the famine is negligent, hostile and contemptuous”
A topic still hotly debated to this day is British involvement in Iran. Western meddling in the Middle-East is often acknowledged as one of the main factors of numerous problems. Churchill had long meddled in the affairs of the Iranian people and viewed the mineral wealth of the nation as a massive prize for the British Empire, so much so that he helped orchestrate the complete seizure of the nations oil supply.
Speaking of the seizure of oil, he claimed it was “a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams”
His meddling did not relent, and during his post-war term as Prime Minister he enabled the Shah to overthrow the popular nationalist government under Mohammad Mosaddegh, thus setting off a cataclysm of events that would shock the Middle-East for decades. The Shah committed atrocities against the Iranian people for over two decades, supported by Britain and United States, until the Islamic Revolution of 1979 ushered in a dark new era of regional politics.
There are numerous other examples of Churchill’s callous actions throughout his political career, but there simply is not enough room in this article to delve further, a few other examples are:
- The partitioning of the Near East, an issue that still plagues global politics to this day.
- State endorsed violence in Ireland through the ‘Black & Tans’.
- Violent suppression of civilian protesters in Greece in 1944.
- The appalling treatment of workers in the UK. (See the Tonypandy Riots)
What can be said in an albeit futile defence of the man is that his views on race are not unique for the time. As a man born in Edwardian Britain it is likely these beliefs were held by a great deal more people in the UK. This does not exempt him from criticism however, and upon reflection we today find these views offensive and his actions deplorable.
He was a product of his time, and it must be said his views, although not too dissimilar, do not quite compare to Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini or others who believed in racial or societal hierarchies at the time. The great paradox of Winston Churchill is that he did champion the defence of western capitalism & democracy and he did rouse the people of the UK and other European nations to resist fascism. Whilst doing this however he stands as a living embodiment of what many today would view as the antithesis of modern democratic values; equality and tolerance.
A monumental figure in British and world history, but perhaps not for the supposedly noble reasons we believe. His legacy is one of blood and torment, with a gloss finish of glory.