Johann Hari: The truth? Our empire killed millions

Roundup: Talking About History

We are still a nation locked in denial. If you point out basic facts about the British Empire - that the British deliberately adopted policies that caused as many as 29 million Indians to starve to death in the late 19th century, say - you smack into a wall of incomprehension and rage.

The historian Niall Ferguson called me "Hari the horrible" for writing about this in my column last week. Another neo-imperi-alist historian, Lawrence James, accuses me in The Sunday Times of being a "twerp" who writes "twaddle". The Daily Mail says I should check my facts.

I have. Many times. And the truth is still there, no matter how much sound and fury is vomited at it. If you check the claims of the defenders of Empire against the historical record, it becomes clear there is a howling gap between them. For example, Lawrence James says the British imperial rulers of India "were humane men and, although hampered by inadequate administrative machinery and limited resources, they made a determined effort to feed the hungry" during the El Nino famines of the 1870s and 1890s.

His evidence for this? "Between 1871-1901 India's population increased by 30 million," he says. This is a classic piece of deficient reasoning. The population of Russia grew during the Soviet Union, and the population of China exploded under Mao -does James think there was no mass death there either?

Keep going back to the record. There were indeed some decent men among the imperial rulers, whose instinct was to feed the starving Indians. One colonial administrator, Sir Richard Temple, reacted at first by importing massive amounts of rice from Burma. The official record shows that only 23 people died under this enlightened policy. If James and Ferguson were right, Temple would have been held up as a beacon of the way British chaps do things. But in reality, he was severely reprimanded by London for his "extravagance". The Economist savaged him for allowing the lazy Indians to think "it is the duty of the Government to keep them alive".

Temple learned his lesson. He slammed into reverse, and began to conduct experiments to see how little food Indians could survive on, noting coldly in his book when "strapping fine fellows" were reduced to "little more than animated skeletons... utterly unfit for any work". In the average British labour camp that Temple was ordered to set up, inmates were given fewer daily calories than if they had ended up in Buchenwald 80 years later. This new Temple was praised by his imperial masters as a fine example. If you study the records, you can see this pattern practised as deliberate policy all over India.

Niall Ferguson is marginally less extreme than his defender James. He admits, "In the case of Lord Lytton, Viceroy during the disaster of 1876-8, there is clear evidence of incompetence, negligence and indifference to the fate of the starving." But even this grudging concession presents the behaviour of the British as essentially a passive crime -the failure to act.

The evidence shows something much darker. Far from doing nothing during the famine, the British did a lot - to make it worse. They insisted that the Indian peasants carry on shipping out grain for global markets, and enforced this policy with guns. (Stalin did exactly the same thing in the 1930s, during the famines caused by collectivisation). This meant, as the historian Professor Mike Davis has noted, "London was eating India's bread" at the height of a famine. They even stepped up taxes on the starving, and insulted them as "indolent" and "unused to work".

And that's not all. Lord Lytton ordered that all relief operations would be punishable by imprisonment. One dissident civil servant, Lt-Colonel Ronald Osborne, described staggering through the horror: "Scores of corpses were tumbled into old wells, because the deaths were too numerous for the miserable relatives to perform the usual funeral rites. Mothers sold their children for a single scanty meal. Husbands flung their wives into ponds, to escape the torment of seeing them perish by the lingering agonies of hunger.

"Amid these scenes of death, the government of India kept its serenity and cheerfulness unimpaired. The [newspapers] of the North-west were persuaded into silence. Strict orders were given to civilians under no circumstances to countenance the pretence that civilians were dying of hunger."...

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Darren Michael Peterson - 6/24/2006

You have my sympathy. Historians are caught in a real no-win situation where they cannot please everyone.

Our world today is created from the events of yesterday. The people today who call terrorists were not born terrorists. Nor, did they sit around with a desire to kill and to die and picked someone at random. However, if you listen to the people who refuse to examine the truth about our past you would think that this was so.

The harm caused to another people does not just "go away". Telling them to "just get over it" won't work. It is impossible to deal with countries that have been victimized until complicity in the past events is acknowledged.

This is not saying that restitution needs to be made, but that the harm done was real, it would not stand up to our level or morality today and that, as a nation, it is not something that we are proud of.

Isn't it funny that parents strive to teach their children to take responsibility and say they are sorry when they have harmed someone, yet as a nation it is considered treasonous? It is ironic that we hold children to a higher standard then we do our out country.

President Clinton:
On Nov. 23, 1993, Clinton signed a resolution acknowledging, and apologizing for, the U.S. role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.
On March 25, 1998, he apologized to Rwanda for our failure to intervene to prevent the genocide that occurred there.
On May 10, 1999, he apologized to Red China for our accidental bombing of their embassy in Belgrade, despite their failure to apologize for, much less acknowledge, their theft of our nuclear secrets.
On March 10, 1999, he apologized for U.S. involvement in the civil war in Guatemala. "United States ... support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression ... was wrong."

He also apologized to the people who were victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, but the person compiling the list was conveniently ignored that one.

Interestingly... the person who wrote the above quotes was more interested in attacking President Clinton than whether or not the apologies were constructive in repairing relationships. Partisanship trumps morality every single time.

In a personal relationship, I would refuse to have anything to do with anyone that has abused me or my family without their admitting it and at least apologizing. Their denial would only poison any attempt to work with them. Why are nations any different?

Even a factual analysis of the past misdeeds can be misconstrued as being anti-patriotic for some reason. It isn't that we did the deeds, but we dared mention them!