Churchill's Empire

The World That Made Him and the World He Made

Richard Toye

A John Macrae Book

Prologue

On 10 December 1954 a visitor from East Africa was waiting on a horsehair sofa in the hallway of 10 Downing Street. Suddenly, the small, frail figure of Winston Churchill appeared from behind a screen, said, 'Good afternoon, Mr Blundell,' and offered him a slightly stiffened hand to shake. The two men went together into the Cabinet Room. It was only three o'clock but Churchill — smoking his customary cigar — ordered them both a strong whisky and soda. As they sipped their drinks, their meeting, scheduled to take fifteen minutes, spilled out to last forty-five. The topic was the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya; and Michael Blundell, a prominent white settler with a somewhat spurious reputation as a liberal, was given an impassioned exposition of the Prime Minister's views.

Churchill began by recalling his own visit to the country in 1907. Then, he had found the Kikuyu group, from which most of the rebels were now drawn, to be 'a happy, naked and charming people'. He professed himself 'astonished at the change which had come over their minds'. He became animated over the problem of how settlers might be protected from attack, and he poured out a flood of ideas designed to defend farmers: trip-wires, bells and other early warning systems. But in his view the issue was not really a military one — the problem was to get to the rebels' minds. His eyes grew tearful as he told Blundell of the threat the situation posed to Britain's good name in the world. It was terrible that the country that was the home of culture, magnanimity and democracy should be using force to suppress Mau Mau. 'It's the power of a modern nation being used to kill savages. It's pretty terrible,' he declared. 'Savages, savages? Not savages. They're savages armed with ideas — much more difficult to deal with.'

Over and again he pressed on a reluctant Blundell the need for negotiation, arguing that the strength of the hold the Mau Mau had on the Kikuyu proved that the latter were not primitive, stupid and cowardly, as was often imagined. Rather, 'they were persons of considerable fibre and ability and steel, who could be brought to our side by just and wise treatment'. He offered an analogy with his own role in finding a solution for the problem of Ireland after World War I, when he had negotiated with the nationalist leader Michael Collins, once a hard-line terrorist opponent of the British. Churchill also deplored British brutality against the Kenyan rebels and the fact that so many of the local population were locked up in detention camps, before offering his views on race relations. He was old-fashioned, he said, and 'did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people'. All the same, 'If I meet a black man and he's a civilized educated fellow I have no feelings about him at all.' He showed some scepticism about the white settlers too, 'a highly individualistic and difficult people', although he put some of their attitude down to 'tension from the altitude' in the highland areas in which they lived. When Blundell asked him for a message of encouragement to pass on to them, he declined, but, as his visitor got up to leave, Churchill assured him that he was on the right path and had his support. Blundell wished him a slightly belated happy eightieth birthday, and the Prime Minister looked greatly touched. He was beginning to feel his age, he said. Then he revealed a secret that had been kept from the outside world: 'Hm. I've had two strokes. Most people don't know that, but it's a fact. I keep going.' Blundell deduced that this accounted for the stiffened handshake at the beginning. Churchill walked him to the exit of the room and then, when Blundell had gone about five steps into the hall, wished him goodbye and good luck.1

This conversation did not mark any great turning point in the history of Kenya. Churchill, just months from retirement, was no longer in a position to be a major influence on colonial policy. Nevertheless, it was highly revealing of his attitudes to race and Empire, touching numerous themes that had been present throughout his career. There were so many familiar hallmarks: the gift for a phrase ('savages armed with ideas'), the recollection of a happier, more innocent past, the emphasis on magnanimity and negotiating from strength. Also familiar was his unashamed belief in white superiority, a conviction which, for him, however, did not lessen the need to act humanely towards supposedly inferior races that might, in their own way, be worthy of admiration. Recognizable as part of this was his opinion that members of these races might earn equal treatment, if not exactly warm acceptance, provided they reached an approved cultural standard: a 'civilized educated' black man would provoke 'no feelings' in him. Overall, the striking thing is the complexity of his opinions. He emerges from Blundell's account of the discussion as a holder of racist views but not as an imperial diehard. He comes across in his plea for peace talks as a thoughtful visionary, but also, in his description of the formerly 'happy, naked' Kikuyu, as curiously navØve about the realities of imperialism. He was prepared to question the conduct of a dirty colonial war, but was in the end willing to assure its supporters of his backing.

Churchill's conversation with Blundell is a good starting point for consideration of his lifelong involvement with the British Empire, and the general attitudes to it from which his specific policies fl owed. In order to do this we need to contend with his reputation — or reputations — on imperial issues. The popular image of him, which draws in particular on his opposition to Indian independence in the 1930s and 1940s, is of a last-ditcher for whom the integrity of the Empire was paramount. Yet many of his contemporaries had viewed him differently. As a youthful minister at the Colonial Office in the Edwardian period, political antagonists had described him as a Little Englander and a danger to the Empire. ('Little Englandism', which today carries connotations of anti-European xenophobia, at the time implied opposition to imperial expansion and to foreign entanglements in general; it was often used as a term of abuse.) As late as 1920, even the wild-eyed socialist MP James Maxton would claim disapprovingly that 'the British Empire was approaching complete disintegration' and that 'it was not going too far to say that Mr Churchill had played a primary party in bringing about that state of affairs'.2 Such critics, it should be noted, were not alleging that Churchill was actively hostile to the Empire, more that it was not safe in his hands or that he was comparatively indifferent to it. By the time of Churchill's final term in office, this view was still maintained by a tenacious few. In 1953 the Conservative politician Earl Winterton wrote to Leo Amery, one of Churchill's former wartime colleagues, to congratulate him on the first volume of his memoirs. He told him: 'I am particularly pleased that you have, whilst paying a tribute to Winston's great patriotism, stated, which is indubitably the case, that he has never been an imperialist in the sense that you and I are; we suffered from this point of view during the war, whilst we were in opposition after the war and are still suffering from it to-day.'3

Although similar opinions can be found in the historical literature, such contemporary opinions of Churchill need to be treated with some caution.4 Those who accused him of not caring enough about the Empire often meant, underneath, that he did not happen to share their particular view of it. Nor is the conventional image completely misleading. Although during his post-1931 wilderness years Churchill publicly disclaimed the diehard label, it is clear that he came to revel in it. During the war, the topic of India frequently triggered such extreme reactions in him that he sometimes appeared not quite sane.5 Nevertheless, this man who could be so disdainful of non- white peoples — 'I hate people with slit eyes & pig-tails' — also had another side to him.6 In 1906, when criticizing the 'chronic bloodshed' caused by British punitive raids in West Africa, it was he who sarcastically wrote: 'the whole enterprise is liable to be misrepresented by persons unacquainted with Imperial terminology as the murdering of natives and stealing of their lands'.7 As his talk with Blundell shows, this concern for the welfare of subject peoples stayed with him until the end of his career. In 1921, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, he stated that within the British Empire 'there should be no barrier of race, colour or creed which should prevent any man from reaching any station if he is fitted for it'. Yet he immediately qualified this by adding that 'such a principle has to be very carefully and gradually applied because intense local feelings are excited', which was in effect a way of saying that its implementation should be delayed indefinitely.8 As one Indian politician put it the following year, when noting Churchill's seemingly inconsistent position on the controversial question of Asians in East Africa, it was 'a case, and a very strange case indeed', of the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.9

Therefore, in order to understand the origins and impact of Churchill's imperialism, we do not need to overthrow the conventional picture so much as to understand how it arose. We also need to see why, during the second half of his career, it came to crowd out the story in which he appeared as a conciliator and even as a Radical. In order to do these things, we need a firm grasp of the world in which he grew up and began to make his career at the end of the nineteenth century. The British Empire at that time was in a phase of rapid expansion, driven by multiple forces, from private trading and missionary activity to international great-power rivalries. At the time of Churchill's birth, in 1874, it was about to embark on its most triumphant phase. In 1877, amid great controversy, Queen Victoria was crowned 'Empress of India', in a symbolic adornment of the longstanding British control of the subcontinent. During the 1880s, Britain took part in the 'scramble for Africa', a race between Europe an powers for colonies, acquiring Bechuanaland, Nigeria, Somaliland, Zululand, Kenya, Rhodesia and (in 1890) Zanzibar. This was by no means the end point of the growth of the Empire; there were further acquisitions at the end of World War I and, if enemy colonies conquered during World War II are taken into account, it reached its maximum territorial extent only in 1945.10 At its zenith, around 500 million people, or about a quarter of the world's population, were British subjects.

The very speed of the expansion, and the multiplicity of motives behind it, helped ensure a great diversity in methods of rule. Terminology shifted throughout the period of Churchill's lifetime — for example 'Commonwealth' gradually replaced 'Empire', to his considerable chagrin — but for the period of his political maturity certain broad generalizations are possible. Loosely speaking, the 'dominions' were those territories such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada which had achieved a substantial (and progressively increasing) level of political autonomy.11 During the interwar years they gained the formal right to secede from the Empire if they wished. The 'colonies', by contrast, were overseas possessions where the Crown retained proprietorship. They might nonetheless be 'self- governing', which meant that the white settler elites had considerable control over local affairs. There were also other forms of governance, including the League of Nations 'mandates' granted to Britain after World War I, as for example in Palestine. India, anomalously, was neither a dominion nor a colony, British rule there being to a substantial extent based on cooperation with loyal Indian princes.12

Such distinctions were probably lost on the majority of the British population at the time.13 This, however, does not necessarily constitute proof that the masses were indifferent to the Empire. Churchill, for one, believed that the imperial zeitgeist of his schoolboy years had left 'a permanent imprint upon the national mind'.14 As Churchill's headmaster at Harrow school put it in 1895: if the Elizabethan era marks the beginning, it is not less true that the Victorian era marks the consummation of the British Empire. The seventeenth century may be said to be the age of individual explorers, the eighteenth of commercial companies, the nineteenth of the State. [ . . . ] It is not the expansion of Empire, it is the spirit of Empire, which is the characteristic of the reign of Queen Victoria.15

This new spirit may have been largely restricted to elites; but then, Churchill was one of the elite.

The observation that this background was important is hardly original. When Jawaharlal Nehru (who was to become the first Prime Minister of independent India) remarked during World War II that Churchill had 'a Victorian mind' it served as a convenient way of saying that he was a reactionary.16 Historians criticizing Churchill have often used similar shorthand.17 Churchill's defenders also point to his Victorianism, but present it in a different way. For example his former private secretary John Colville, in a foreword to a new edition of The River War, Churchill's 1899 work on Kitchener's Sudan campaign, wrote the following.

Churchill's imperialism, faithfully representing the feelings of his fellow-countrymen at this apogee of the British Empire, emerges clearly from this book: but it should be judged by the generally accepted standards prevailing at the end of the Victorian era and not by those in fashion today. [ . . . ] Churchill, for his part, was antagonised by Kitchener's ruthless treatment of the defeated Dervishes, whose courage he respected.18

Similarly, one sympathetic historian, seeking to explain Churchill's toleration of discrimination against black Africans, writes: 'Churchill was a Victorian by upbringing [ . . . ] and most Britons of his generation regarded black Africans as backward and relatively uncivilized.' But, he adds, 'Churchill's own outlook was more informed and relatively enlightened.'19

The defenders' pleas for contextualization are, on the surface, highly plausible. However, they are also problematic. References to 'generally accepted standards', and to the views of 'most Britons', do less than full justice to the range of opinion in Victorian Britain to which Churchill was exposed. Furthermore, we are being asked to believe two contradictory things simultaneously. On the one hand, it is suggested, the seemingly unpleasant aspects of his racial thinking can be excused on the grounds that he could not have been expected to escape from the mentality prevailing during his youth. On the other hand, we are told, he did escape it and is to be praised because he was actually unusually enlightened! We should not, in fact, use Churchill's Victorian background as an historical 'get out of jail free' card for him any more than we should use it as a blanket label of condemnation. In order to understand its true importance, it is necessary to appreciate that his Victorian heritage accounted for many of the apparently 'enlightened' elements of Churchill's thought as well as many of the 'reactionary' ones. At the same time, his attitudes in later life were not always a straightforward extension of the ones he held earlier. He himself said that he 'had inclined more to the right as he got older', but there were some changes in his views that cannot be easily located on a left-right spectrum.20 For example, although he showed much hostility to Islam in his early writings, this died away and was replaced during the interwar years with a near-fanatical hatred of Hinduism. In 1943 he remarked, 'I'm pro-Moslem — the only quality of the Hindus is that there's a lot of them and that is a vice'.21

This book aims at genuine explanation of these complex patterns, not tub-thumping or apologetics. Remarkable as it may seem, it is the first attempt to provide a comprehensive treatment of Churchill's relationship with the Empire within a single volume.22 There have been some excellent short overviews, and numerous books dealing with particular countries, periods, themes and individuals, but no one has tackled the problem as a whole at volume length.23 The task is indeed a daunting one, and it is not possible within the scope of this book to give an exhaustive treatment of every single imperial issue with which Churchill was involved. It is, however, feasible to investigate the key features of the most important episodes and questions. Furthermore, there is significant new evidence that can be brought to bear on many of them. For example, the unpublished letters of Lady Lugard cast fresh light on the first controversial months of Churchill's ministerial career, and the recently released Cabinet Secretaries' notebooks (preserved for the post-1942 period) increase our understanding of his involvement in episodes such as the Mau Mau uprising.

The treasures of the archives should not, however, lead us to neglect published sources, not least the many forgotten reviews of Churchill's early books. These help us reconstruct the ideological world in which Churchill was operating and improve our understanding of his arguments. They also remind us that, even if he himself viewed his youthful imperial adventures simply as a shortcut to a political career, they need to be considered more broadly.24 They were the means by which he established a reputation as the premier 'public journalist of the Empire'.25 As such, he did not merely represent the Empire to the British people but affected the way it was seen throughout the world. Churchill became a global brand, inextricably mixed up with the image of the Empire, a process that began in the 1890s and reached its culmination during World War II. In one propaganda film shown in Africa, for example, the war was portrayed as a jungle fight between a snake, labelled 'Hitler', and its deadly enemy the mongoose, labelled 'Churchill'.26 Not, of course, that the intended message always got through: in the 1960s one Zambian woman obtained a devoted religious following by playing an entirely worn-out record of one of Churchill's wartime speeches on an ancient phonograph. She persuaded the crowds that the incomprehensible rumbling was 'God's voice anointing her his emissary and commanding absolute obeisance'.27

Therefore, this book does not adopt a purely biographical approach but explores Churchill's career within the context of the experiences and opinions of his contemporaries. It looks at attitudes and ideas as well as events and policies; crucially, it also examines the way in which Churchill was perceived and his messages understood not only in Britain but throughout the Empire. He must be seen not only through his own words but also through the eyes of his contemporaries. One such figure who recurs repeatedly in our story is Leo Amery. It was said of him that had he been half a head taller, and his speeches half an hour shorter, he could have been Prime Minister.28 As it was, he ended up — after some vicissitudes in the two men's relations — as Churchill's Secretary of State for India in 1940—45. At the end of the war he was to suffer an appalling personal tragedy when his son was hanged for treason. For our purposes his career forms a useful counterpoint to that of Churchill. Moreover, for decades Amery maintained in his diary that Churchill was 'not really interested in the Empire'.29 In fact, they both shared a strong commitment to the Empire, but that commitment took a very different form for each of them. Other figures that recur in these pages include the Canadian politician W. L. Mackenzie King and the South African J. C. Smuts as well, inescapably, as two key founders of modern India: M. K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Opinion of Churchill in the non-white parts of the Empire is a neglected area of study.30 One insight that emerges from it is that colonial nationalist reactions to him were often far more subtle and nuanced than later criticisms from some individuals within the former Empire might lead one to expect.

Churchill's Empire — the picture he kept in his head and which he relayed in his speeches and writings — was a selective and sometimes superficial construct. This was in part because his direct experience of the Empire was incomplete. He saw much of Canada and the Middle East, and visited East Africa in 1907, but he did not return to India after the 1890s, or to South Africa after 1900, and never visited West Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or Britain's Far Eastern possessions.31 Nevertheless, by the standards of most people at the time, his experience was wide indeed. This book relates how it interacted with other influences — intellectual, social and political — to shape the man that he became. It also shows how he in turn shaped, for good and ill, the world in which we live today.