The ‘Realist’ School of Apology

John Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

Allen Lane, 478pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781846140884

reviewed by John Newsinger

According to John Darwin, even today there are still historians of the British Empire who ‘feel obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it.’ There are still historians who consider it ‘de rigueur to insist that for them, empire was evil.’ And there are even some apparently who ‘like to convey the impression that writing against empire is an act of great courage, as if the supporters of the Empire were lying ‘in wait to exact their revenge’. Paradoxically, he suggests, that the further away we get from the time of Empire, ‘the more severe grew the verdict’. The mistake these sentimentalists make is in assuming that ‘empires are abnormal, a monstrous intrusion in the usually empire-free world.’ It is, of course, difficult to call to mind any particular historian who actually believes that the world has usually been ‘empire-free’, but there you go. More to the point, Darwin gives the distinct impression that he believes there is in place some sort of anti-Empire consensus to which he has been forced to respond.

This is, of course, news to most people who were under the impression that precisely the opposite was the case: that, in fact, a pro-Imperial bias consensus was very much in place. The few thousand copies of books arguing an anti-Imperialist case that have been sold in recent years have surely been completely overwhelmed by the massive sales of the works of Ferguson and Paxman that came conveniently accompanied by successful television series. And, of course, senior politicians from both the Labour and Conservative parties have happily proclaimed that the British Empire was a good thing and that the time for apologising was over. Indeed, a good case can be made that there has been a recent revival in Imperial celebration and that this is very much related to British participation in America’s Imperial Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The context for contemporary studies of the British Empire is very much the fact that British troops are at this very moment killing and being killed in Afghanistan (our fourth invasion of that country; they have still not managed to invade us even once!). It is these wars of Imperial occupation and the celebration of Empire that accompanied them that have prompted the less than a handful of histories that have mounted some sort of fundamental indictment of the British Empire that Darwin finds so ill-judged. The problem is that there is not enough anti-Imperial history and that too many historians still research and write within a comfortable Imperialist consensus. Darwin’s new book, for all its virtues, is very much in this mould.

Darwin does not, it has to be acknowledged, mount some Ferguson-style celebration. Instead, we have a much more self-consciously, tough-minded, no-nonsense approach. He presents what can be usefully described as a ‘realist’ apology for Empire along the lines of ‘they have always been with us so learn to live with it’. Although this is an improvement on Ferguson’s approach, the realist school still does not amount to an honest coming to terms with the crime that was the British Empire.

A useful test for any general history of the British Empire is its discussion (or more usually lack of discussion) of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Jawaharlal Nehru described this episode as ‘the final judgement on British rule in India’. How does Darwin deal with it? On page 346 it is referred to in passing thus: ‘(the Bengal famine of 1943 may have killed more than 2 million people)’. Now this is an improvement on his acclaimed and award-winning The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System 1830-1970 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), which doesn’t mention it at all in 655 pages of text, but one still cannot help feeling that it is somewhat inadequate. The low death toll that he gives is itself symptomatic (in her recent account of the Famine, Churchill’s Secret War, Madhusree Mukerjee gives a figure of over 5 million famine-related deaths), but, more generally, it really is no longer acceptable to treat this episode in such a dismissive and cavalier fashion.

This neglect is not accidental or idiosyncratic because too many other fine historians are guilty of the same offence. Rather it derives from the sheer enormity of what happened. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, described the Famine as ‘one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule’, which would certainly suggest that it merits at least some sort of extended discussion. Churchill’s pernicious intervention is similarly ignored. It is hardly accidental that the most written about Britain’s part in the disaster has been altogether ignored by a legion of biographers. In fact, it is the very scale of the catastrophe that is responsible for its neglect: it is incompatible with any benign interpretation of the British Empire, so that to give it the attention it deserves inevitably shifts the centre of gravity of any general history in an anti-Imperialist direction. Consequently, there is a widespread neglect of the episode, with many histories not mentioning it at all and others barely acknowledging it.

As I have argued elsewhere, this neglect is no better than the conduct of Soviet historians who ignored the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s, although at least they had the excuse of writing under the watchful eye of the secret police. It seems fair to say that many of the same historians who neglect or ignore the Bengal Famine would not hesitate to condemn as criminal any other 20th-century regime that presided over the deaths of so many of the people under its rule. What we confront here goes beyond any notion of individual failings on the part of particular historians and instead amounts to a kind of cultural amnesia. What we are looking at is the repression of the British Establishment’s guilty secrets.