Reviewed by Wally Brooker

July 2024  People’s Voice (Canada)


Legacy of Violence, a History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins. (2023 Vintage, 896 pp.)


When the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020 sparked an explosion of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the US, the protests included the toppling of public statues of prominent figures from the pre-Civil War slaveholding regime. Statues were toppled in other countries as well during the wave of popular protests. At Canada’s Ryerson University, a statue of Egerton Ryerson, acknowledged architect of the country’s residential school system, was taken down by protesters and the administration was compelled to change the school’s name to Toronto Metropolitan University.

In Britain, a similar incident took place in the city of Bristol, where BLM demonstrators toppled the statue of notorious slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in the city’s harbour. The dramatic event in Bristol is described by American historian Caroline Elkins in the introduction to her book Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. It serves as an apt prologue, as descendants of slaves, indentured workers and other oppressed peoples deliver a timely moment of reckoning in the imperial motherland.

Legacy of Violence is a deeply researched and convincing indictment of the crimes of British imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Elkins’ method acknowledges the economic motives behind imperialism and discusses several important Marxist activists in the narrative but is not, strictly speaking, a historical materialist analysis. Her approach is to explore the dubious cloak of legality, the justification of never-ending “states of exception”, that characterized the British ruling ideology in both the ascending and descending stages of the Empire. It is her methodical and dispassionate exposure of the violent, frequently sadistic, reality behind the ever-changing but always obfuscating strategies of the British state that makes the book so valuable.

While Legacy of Violence begins in 1788 with the impeachment trial of despotic East India Company ruler Warren Hastings (he was acquitted) and ends in the neoliberal era of Tony Blair, most of the book is concerned with the period from the 1890s to the 1970s. In the late Victorian period, Britain’s reign as the “workshop of the world” was challenged by the rising power of Germany and the United States. After the cataclysmic war of 1914-1918, a declining Britain nevertheless still possessed a vast empire and was planning to leverage that empire – including its special
relationship with former settle state colonies Canada, Australia and New Zealand – to remain along with the US and Germany at the centre of world affairs.

After the Second World War, Britain still possessed its empire but everywhere the “natives” were in revolt. The writing was on the wall for even die-hard imperialists to see. How to maintain its privileged place in a world where decolonization was increasingly seen as inevitable was the question that British imperial strategists pondered. Their characteristic solution to growing demands for independence involved the “creative” development of constitutional reforms on one hand, and doctrines of “legalized” illegality (i.e. endless states of emergency) on the other.

Elkins takes the reader on a grand tour through decades of ever-changing imperial hotspots as subaltern peoples everywhere struggle for sovereignty and liberation. As one imperial crisis is succeeded by another, one finds governors, chiefs of police, MI5 intelligence officers and special services characters popping up in different parts of the empire, as they are assigned and reassigned to the latest crisis zone to do their work of containment and “counterterrorism.”

Concentration camps, and what in the Vietnam war era became known as “strategic hamlets,” were British specialties. Elkins’ narrative of British counterinsurgency campaigns fully encompasses that vast empire on which “the sun never set” – Ireland, South Africa, India, Burma, Palestine, Jamaica, Egypt, Iraq, Kenya, Gold Coast (Ghana), Malaya (Malaysia), Cyprus and Guyana.

The author’s rogues gallery includes the arch-imperialist himself, Winston Churchill, post-war Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, RAF commander Arthur “Bomber” Harris (whose nickname says it all), and Orde Wingate whose counterinsurgency unit in Palestine – dubbed the “Special Night Squads” –
was permitted to violate the terms of the British mandate when it recruited Jewish settler paramilitaries into death squads that terrorized Palestinian villages in the 1930s.

On the side of the insurgents, Elkins chronicles the struggles of nameless freedom fighters, the leaders of whom, in many cases, had been hitherto forgotten. Particularly fascinating, though, are portraits of two world-famous revolutionary activists and thinkers, George Padmore and C.L.R. James, both of whom emerged from Trinidad and played a central part in the worldwide anti-colonialism struggle.

The ideological stratagems of “liberal imperialism” by and large consisted of legalistic linguistic euphemisms and constitutional “exception” clauses to mystify critics, dampen liberation movements, justify continued colonial exploitation and racial oppression, and ultimately, to cover up massacres, assassinations, torture, rape and other atrocities including aerial bombing of peaceful villages.

The legacy of the British Empire is all around us today, in the era of its senior collaborator and declining heir. We witness the “legalized illegality” of the long-ascendant US-NATO bloc with its “rules-based order” and its collective institutions of structural domination, namely the IMF and the World Bank. Most obvious, as a contemporary legacy, is the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestine by a genocidal Zionist regime in Israel, which uses techniques of repression pioneered by Britain when it ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate from 1919-1948.

Elkins closes her history in 2011, as a group of former prisoners of 1950s Kenyan concentration camps (built to contain hundreds of thousands of Mau Mau fighters and sympathizers) take to the British courts to demand compensation for their sufferings. The positive verdict that they receive from the Crown owes much to the secret cache of incriminating documents carried away to Britain by the departing colonial regime after Kenyan independence in 1963 – documents unearthed by none other than the author, Caroline Elkins, and presented as material evidence in the court proceedings. They had formed the basis of her award-winning 2006 book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.

Not least among the merits of Legacy of Violence is its further exposure of the retreating empire’s destruction and/or hiding of its incriminating archives and the accompanying manipulation of public records. It’s an important contribution to the demystification of Britain’s liberal imperialism and its latter-day offspring, the lawless “rules-based order.”