A fraught subject, this, and one which makes it difficult to sustain undiluted admiration for Churchill. Lawrence James is the doyen of empire historians, and has traced the great man’s engagement with the enormous fact of the British empire. What emerges is a sense of the individual nations being dealt with at the end of the day, when everything that really mattered had already been handled, and being subject to a series of trivial dismissals, outbursts of comic rage, and with little effort made to understand what might be an appropriate way to govern these immense territories. I am sorry to place a limit on anyone’s admiration for Churchill, but there it is.
It is important for historians to make an effort to understand individuals by the standards of their own day, and not ours. There is a dismal school that finds it rewarding to debate whether Napoleon was homophobic or not, but for the most part we have to try to understand where a figure’s standards of judgment and thought stood in relation to the spectrum of opinion of his own day. Churchill’s attitudes to the empire, and in particular to the races that the empire ruled, performed an interesting trajectory while not actually changing very much at all in the course of a long life.
Churchill, as a young officer and journalist in Sudan and South Africa, and subsequently as the Liberal under-secretary for the colonies from 1905, actually had some bien-pensant aspects. In an office where it was perfectly all right to talk of Jan Smuts as having ‘all the cunning of his race and calling’ or refer to a freedom fighter as ‘the Mad Mullah’, Churchill’s attitudes were relatively sound. Though he believed in ‘the gulf which separates the African negro from the immemorial civilizations of India and China’, he also stood up for the importance of treating Africans well, promising during the Transvaal crisis that ‘British influence will continue to be a kindly and benignant influence over subject races’. If this now sounds extraordinarily quaint, it is important to remember that Churchill, at this point, was within the main body of British political thought about race and empire. Compared with people like Prince Heinrich of Prussia, who airily said that Britain and Germany were natural allies because ‘the other large European nations are not white men’, Churchill was quite a generous thinker.
There is no question, however, that as Churchill’s career progressed, his thinking and his way of talking about these subjects stayed in an embarrassingly late-Victorian mode. Leo Amery observed that ‘the key to Winston is to realise that he is Mid-Victorian, steeped in the politics of his father’s period, and unable ever to get the modern point of view’. On questions of race, his way of talking would have been considered extreme even by many thoughtful Victorians, as an eye-opening paragraph of James’s demonstrates. A Kenyan delegation was ‘a vulgar class of coolies’; Arabs could be ‘as trustworthy as a King Cobra’ and ‘worthless’; black men could be ‘blackamoors’ and even ‘niggers’, a term which was never acceptable in Indian or African imperial circles; the Chinese were ‘chinks’ and ‘pigtails’, and so on. To say, of India, that ‘highly educated Hindus’ were planning to take it ‘into the deepest depths of Oriental tyranny and despotism’, shows how little Churchill had tried to understand even Nehru and Gandhi. ‘I hate the Indians,’ he observed in the 1940s. ‘They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ This attitude may very well have sharpened the hostility of the generation of Indian leaders, such as Bose, and strengthened the hand of individual factions in negotiation. Gandhi called some of the offers he was being given ‘a post-dated cheque on a bank which is obviously going bust’. The whole thing was made very much more straightforward by having to deal with a Prime Minister who, in 1941, was still talking about ‘Indian soldiers from all parts of Hindustan’.
Interestingly, the former colonies still maintain a great deal of interest and enthusiasm for Churchill. My own husband Zaved, who is a Bengali born in 1970, reports that his grandfather, a lawyer of exactly the grand argumentative Calcutta type Churchill had most difficulty with, gave his favourite grandson the nickname ‘Churchill’ — on the amused grounds that my husband cried excessively as a small child. The notion of Churchill as a lachrymose complainant is an unusual one, glimpsed by a remote, intelligent observer. But what were they supposed to think of him?
The most serious blot on Churchill’s imperial record, I think, is the Bengal famine of 1943-4. As Max Hastings describes in his All Hell Let Loose, the loss of Burma was followed by a series of floods and cyclones, wrecking the 1942 harvest. The suffering was immense. In his exceptional 2011 memoir, The World in Our Time, Tapan Raychaudhuri describes the Bengalis’ plight.
These people began to beg, very ineffectually at first. They asked for food and nothing else because cash was useless in a market where prices went up several points every day. Soon they realized that nobody had food to spare. The begging for rice, bhat, stopped. The hitherto unheard of plea, ‘give us some gruel’ (phyan dao go) — the water one throws out when cooking rice — was now heard on every street in the city. The half-dead soon began to join the ranks of the dead.
An incomparably harrowing series of drawings from the famine by the great Bengali painter Zainul Abedin are among the masterpieces of Indian art. For Churchill at the time, the Indians ‘must learn to look after themselves as we have done… there is no reason why all parts of the British empire should not feel the pinch in the same way as the Mother Country has done’. Still more disgracefully, he said in a jocular way that ‘the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks’. Lawrence James, though generally very fair-minded, comes close to excusing this by saying that ‘shortening the war would and did reduce suffering everywhere… famine relief in Bengal was never given high priority’. Three million people, perhaps more, died of starvation. I don’t believe that if three million Welshmen died, the same criteria would have been used by Churchill to avert his eyes.
James has addressed this difficult and disappointing subject with tact and eloquence. The attention Churchill paid to the empire was, for so much of the time, fairly incidental, and much of the book has to be a discussion of foreign policy questions which had implications for the empire. He very sensibly avoids laying blame on the empire as a whole, remarking that ‘the quantification of one bad deed against a good one achieves nothing’, and that anyone can balance the Amritsar massacre against the establishment of a medical school at Agra. Still, you have to ask how well Churchill did in this area, and despite an unusual degree of first-hand experience of Africa and India, his record, in this scrupulously fair telling, is disappointing.
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