On June 7th 2020, a number of Bristolians toppled the statue of 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. Far from the arbitrary outburst of vandalism that the media depicted this to be, residents of Bristol had actually spent years lobbying for Colston’s statue to be taken down, but to no avail. So when this group of civil protestors finally decided to take matters into their own hands, and defiantly topple Colston’s statue for themselves, it galvanised many others to do the same to memorials of racist skengmen all over Europe and North America.
Particular attention has been paid to statues of racist, imperialist, white-supremacist Winston Churchill. As expected, the nation that voted Churchill as the Greatest Briton of all time, and memorialised him on their national currency (the £5 note) have been foaming at the mouth about it. Britons up and down the country have expressed a deep indignation at the mere idea that there could be any deemable cause for Churchill’s memorials to be taken down because he was, after all, a ‘hero’ that single-handedly won us the war against Nazi Germany. Whilst the systematic erasure of Britain’s colonial past is partly responsible for the historical amnesia that has precluded the average Brit from gauging Churchill’s true legacy, what’s become increasingly, and rather harrowingly, apparent is that a lot of people are actually defending Churchill precisely because they second his views. In order to unpack exactly why Britain’s ardent defence of Churchill is so problematic (in all honesty, I am flabbergasted that anything beyond the point of establishing that he was a white-supremacist even needs explaining), I must first embark on a short history lesson to get everyone properly familiar.
In 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, the region of Bengal (present day Bangladesh and Indian state of West Bengal) faced a famine, with a staggering death toll of over 3 million people. This was a famine that was orchestrated by Churchill’s colonial rule and practise in Bengal. In 2019 the Geophysical Research Letters released a study, where they analysed a soil moisture database to reconstruct agricultural droughts. Their final conclusion was: "The 1943 Bengal famine was not caused by drought but rather was a result of a complete policy failure during the British era”. To explain: Rice harvests were extremely important to Bengal, making up 75-85% of daily food consumption. When Japan invaded Burma (modern day Myanmar) in 1942, it exacerbated the threat of a Japanese invasion of British India. In anticipation of this, the British launched the ‘denial of rice’ policy in March 1942 wherein they destroyed any stocks of unmilled rice that were deemed to be surplus- however, evidence shows that far more rice was removed than what was officially required or recorded. Then there followed the ‘boat denial’ policy, which mandated the British army to confiscate and/or destroy approximately 45,000 rural boats, severely disrupting movement of labour, supplies and food. Additionally, Churchill’s cabinet increased grain prices so that Bengalis could not afford them, therefore allowing the grain to be shipped to Europe- not to feed the troops, not even to create reserves, but specifically to boost already existing reserves.
Towards the end of 1942, when guilt-stricken colonial administrators began requesting food imports for India, not only did Churchill’s cabinet ignore them, but they also forbade India from using its own money and own ships to import wheat. Whilst millions of Bengalis continued to starve to death, Britain’s own stockpile of food and raw materials reached an all-time high at 18.5 million tons. Churchill’s systematic starvation of Bengalis becomes even more sinister in light of the fact that he ordered Australian ships which had already docked in Bengal, to bypass the starving Bengalis and instead send the wheat to more stockpiles in Europe. His cabinet also denied an offer of 100,000 tons of Burmese rice, wheat from Canada, and rice and wheat volunteered by the United States.
Many defend Churchill by claiming that he was unaware of the severity of the situation in Bengal, but the truth is that, in July 1943, when Viceroy Linlithgow sent a memorandum to the War Cabinet asking for wheat imports to stop people dying en masse, instead of obliging, Churchill just wrote on the side of the file: “Why has Ghandi not died yet?” Churchill also claimed that the famine was the fault of the Bengali people, for “breeding like rabbits”. A case can be made that Churchill’s deliberate refusal of famine aid was genocide given that he has stated “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Indeed, Churchill hated Indians so much that he wished Arthur Harris, the head of British bomber command, could “send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.” He was also so convinced of the racial inferiority of Indians that he advocated for the forced sterilisation of Indians. Furthermore, Churchill’s racist and imperialist practises did not end with Indians:
- In Afghanistan: whilst serving in the British army, Churchill found his love for war and said “all who resist will be killed without quarter” because the Pashtuns need to “recognise the superiority of race”.
- In Greece: under the guidance of Churchill, the British Army perpetrated a massacre on the streets of Athens in December 1944, killing 28 protesters and injuring a further 128. The victims were members of Greek People’s Liberation Army and National Liberation Front, who Churchill killed because he was paranoid that they would ally with the Soviet forces.
- In Kenya: Churchill believed that Kenya’s highlands should be reserved for white settlers, therefore forcing the displacement of local Kenyans that he described as “brutish children”. Following the Mau Mau Uprising, 150,000 Kenyans were forced at gunpoint into detention camps- known as “Britain’s gulag”. Historian Caroline Elkins exposed the horrors of these camps: “Electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire. The screening teams whipped, shot, burned, and mutilated Mau Mau suspects.”
- In Iraq: Whenever local Kurds would rise up against the British, Churchill ordered for the air force to indiscriminately bomb civilian areas so as to subdue the population. Following the 1920 revolt, Churchill advocated for the use of tear gas as a means of controlling rebels: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”.
- In South Africa: Thousands of Black South Africans were tortured in British run concentration camps during the Boer wars. Recounting his time there, Churchill claimed “it was great fun galloping about”, and that his only “irritation” during the Boer war was “that Kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men”.
- In Ireland: Churchill created the Black and Tans, a constabulary that became notorious for terrorising civilians at will. It was also Churchill who conceived the idea of forming the Auxiliaries who carried out the Croke Park massacre that ended in the murder of 14 civilians.Further examples of Churchill’s white-supremacist views include the fact that he demanded endless British conquests, based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph” (I thought that was Hitler’s thing?). He called China a "barbaric nation" and advocated for its partition (and therefore imperial control over it). He also described the Arabs as a "lower manifestation of humanity", a belief that punctuated his involvement in the Mandate for Palestine- which has created the genocidal Zionist state of Israel today.
The point is, not only did Churchill repeatedly and decisively express his white-supremacist views throughout the entirety of his political career, but this often manifested in unimaginable violence against non-white races. A lot of his defenders, including our own Prime Minister Boris Johnson, claim that he was simply a product of his time. However, Andrew Roberts, a biographer of Churchill’s has written that “Although racist views were almost universally held until the 1950s, Churchill was more profoundly racist than most”. Unless you are also a white-supremacists, there is no amount of logistical acrobatics that can be done to defend him. This then leads us to interrogate, exactly why is he so widely revered by Brits? In my estimation, the answer is three-tiered.
Firstly, there is a dire lack of colonial education in the British curriculum. I personally have studied History up to A2 level, and have learnt nothing of the reality of British colonialism that I did not teach myself. I was taught about Hitler’s concentration camps for almost every year of high school, yet not once was I taught about the British concentration camps in South Africa or Kenya. The truth is so fervently hidden that 44% of Britons believe colonialism to be a good thing. Significantly, Britain’s refusal to teach its colonial history is not a mere oversight as many would purport it to be; instead it is a fundamental and constitutive detail of British history-making, upon which the national character of modern Britain as being one of good virtue and integrity is both founded and contingent upon.
This leads to the second reason for Churchill’s veneration: the grappling for a strong British public consciousness in light of the country’s declining relevance and power within the global political landscape. At the height of the British Empire in 1922, Britain controlled a quarter of the world’s land and population. For centuries, Britain’s entire national character had been formed in line with the success of its overseas conquest and the proof of racial superiority that this touted. It follows then, that when Empire collapsed towards the end of the 20th century, Britain subsequently faced an identity crisis. Instead of moving on from Empire, the country held on to it even tighter. Britain’s imperial past underwent a re-baptism of mythological nature, emerging as this great odyssey of commendable strength and power, collapsing not before defeating the final, despicable enemy of Nazi Germany. Churchill became the symbol upon which all of this was projected. And this is exactly what far-right extremists are holding on to today: claiming to honour Churchill for his defeat of Nazism when really, he is simply an arena of contextualisation for their racial anxieties towards a ‘multicultural’ Britain that threatens white power. As such, to denounce Churchill would be to denounce Britain’s ‘glory days’, forcing the country to confront the uncomfortable truths of its dark past- which clearly, not many are willing to do.
Finally, I reach the third reason for Churchill’s idolisation and this time, it’s just good old-fashioned fascism. Clearly there are some people that know what Churchill stood for, and they agree. Here, I refrain from dignifying this stance with any further analysis.
Whilst educational reform is the most effective means through which to appropriately reconcile with this country’s horrific imperial past, what also requires interrogation is the way that this history should be taught. There are already huge numbers of people defending the sustained erection of Churchill’s statues on the basis that it is ‘educational’. A split second of honest reflection would tell us that statues are not there to ‘educate’ but to glorify. Memorials do not elucidate Churchill’s legacy, they eulogise it. As mentioned, I have learnt about Nazi Germany all throughout school and yet, I have never felt my education to be lacking because of an absence of Hitler memorials. The cognitive dissonance that is required to indict Hitler and then in the same breath, laud Churchill as his antithesis, is truly astonishing given that in reality they both stood for the same thing: white-supremacy. It is an insult to the Black community to expect them to walk past statues of slave-traders and not feel it to be an attack on their basic human dignity. As a Bengali, I have refused to keep the £5 note in my purse ever since it came into circulation. We must yield our grasp of history as being a static fixture that is told as an unchanging narrative, in an unchanging dimension, through an unchanging framework that we have no control over. The past is constructed in the present; it is absolutely imperative that our modern political sensibilities punctuate historical narratives of the past. Only in doing so, can we have hope for Britain’s future to be a genuine departure from its white-supremacist past and present.
Article by Halima Nashir. See more from Halima here
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