10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books

Larry Holzwarth - March 17, 2018

It was said that the sun never set upon the British Empire, which stretched across North America, the Pacific, across Asia to Africa, and throughout the Atlantic, girdling the world under the Union Jack. The British Empire at its peak controlled 13,700,000 square miles, nearly a quarter of the land area on earth. It was the largest empire in history and despite the vast distances which separated its territories from the Colonial Office in England, it was dominated by the British Navy. Britain controlled the sea lanes of the world and with them access to the trading ports. This provided trading advantages enjoyed by British manufacturers and merchants.

Over time, many of the nationals controlled by the British exhibited displeasure with British Colonial rule. Rebellions, uprisings, and outright revolution against British authority took place throughout the life of the empire, and with the outstanding exception of the thirteen American colonies were put down harshly. During many of these revolts the British dealt with natives in terms which were often unbelievably cruel, rivalling the worst atrocities of the Romans before them, and the Nazis after. In 2012 the British Foreign Office admitted that thousands of records documenting atrocities committed by the British Army and colonial service were deliberately destroyed, and the records which remained were illegally kept hidden from the eyes of the media and the public.

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
The sovereigns of the competing empires gather with King George V of England at the funeral of his predecessor, Edward VII. The British Empire was at its zenith just before WWI. Imperial War Museum

Here are just a few of the atrocities committed during the reign of the British Empire, known to history as the Pax Brittanica.

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
Imperial troops of the East African King’s Rifles escort a supply train during the Mau Mau Uprising.Imperial War Museum

The Mau Mau Uprising and the Kikuyu

What is now Kenya had the honor of being under the control of the British Empire beginning with the arrival of the Imperial East Africa Company in 1888. The British built a railroad through the country, which became known as British East Africa, using imported labor from India, and built large agricultural estates taking advantage of the fertility of the soil and the tropical climate. In 1920 the country was designated as a British colony and named Kenya for its tallest mountain peak. British farmers grew wealthy over the production of coffee and tea, using the native Kiyuku people as itinerant laborers.

As early as the 1890s there was resistance to the British opening of the lands and oppression of the natives. British troops stationed in the colony suppressed these uprisings harshly. In 1908 Winston Churchill expressed concern about the violence in East Africa, but not over the nature of the resistance or the harsh methods used by the British to control the natives. Instead he was concerned over the reputation of the British should word of atrocities being committed reach the House of Commons. Churchill did refer to the many victims as “helpless people”.

Through the 1920s and 1930s the British Colonial government classified the native workers as being in one of three categories; squatters, contractors, or casual. The British enacted ordinances which eliminated the rights of squatters, effectively forcing them to work for British settlers rather than for themselves, and kept labor costs low. Most of the laborers were of the Kikuyu people, and among them there was rising discontent with the British settlers, who paid them poorly, offered little in the way of medical care, and housed them in primitive conditions.

The Mau Mau were both a political organization and a paramilitary group which rose in revolt during the 1940s, eventually breaking into open warfare with the British and other Imperial troops in 1952. The majority of the Mau Mau revolutionaries were Kikuyu. After declaring an emergency the British pursued a policy of divide and conquer. Civil liberties were suspended. Kikuyu were rounded up into “work camps.” One and a half million people were held in camps or villages surrounded and fortified by British troops. The camps bore signs which read, “Labor and Freedom.” Torture and mass executions were common, including men being anally raped with bottles and other devices by guards.

Some Kiyuku were dragged by military vehicles until their bodies broke into pieces. Others were mauled by guard dogs before being executed. How many died in the British camps is unknown because the Colonial Office and Foreign Office connived to destroy the documentation. Officially released British records indicated that there were only 80,000 Kikuyu and other tribesmen incarcerated in the camps during the Mau Mau uprising, but recently discovered documents and other records indicate that nearly the entire civilian population was placed in the camps.

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
The Raj continued to export food from India as the Indian people starved. Wikimedia

Famine in India

In the 1870s while under British rule, India was swept with several famines which led to the deaths of over five million of its people. Simultaneously with these deaths from starvation, malnutrition, and disease India’s exports of grain to the rest of the world, ordered and supervised by officials of the British Empire, increased, in some cases to record levels. Under British rule India provided food to the rest of the world as its own people starved. While the direct cause of the famine was weather related, the British response and the policies they enacted created the conditions which allowed for the death of millions, while British officials did little to alleviate the suffering.

Since grain exports increased during the famines it is evident that the problem was not the availability of food but its distribution. Another major contributor to the famines was the British mandated shift of millions of acres of land to other crops, grown specifically for export, much of it intended for China. These exports generated hard cash for the British treasury, needed to support colonial wars around the globe. Rather than producing food for the starving Indian population, these acres produced opium, indigo, cotton, and jute, as well as wheat and rice for export primarily to China.

The leading British colonial official adopted a hands-off policy towards the ravages of the famines which occurred under his administration. Although there was sufficient food available in many areas affected by the famine the Indians had little money – due to oppressive British taxation policies – with which to purchase it, and the British offered little in the way of relief. The Viceroy, Lord Lytton, let it be known that, “…there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food.” Lytton directed officials in the affected districts not to provide additional relief.

Despite Lytton’s obvious unconcern with the state of the starving Indian people (he held a banquet with 60,000 guests during the height of the famine, to celebrate the anniversary of the Queen), several British colonial officials took some steps to ease the suffering. Sir Richard Temple supervised the relief in the Mysore state, where relief kitchens were established. Those who resorted to them for food were required to work on the Bangalore Mysore Railway then under construction. Earlier Temple had reduced wages in Madras for residents of the relief camps, reducing the amount of food available to them with the argument that it necessary to do so to “reduce dependency.”

The British Colonial Office’s attitude toward the Indian people as demonstrated by Lytton and Temple’s callous behavior towards them was best expressed by another British government authority, during a much later famine in 1943. Then again, food needed to feed the starving Indian people was exported to other areas, to feed British troops fighting in Europe and Africa, and the supporting Empire troops around the globe. In response to pressure to do more to alleviate the situation in India, where millions were again dying, Winston Churchill remarked, “Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.”

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
Indian stretcher bearers serving in the British Army during the Boer War. Mahatmas Gandhi is in the middle row, third from right. Wikimedia

The Destruction of Ventersburg

The Boers were the descendants of the early Dutch settlers who resided in the Dutch colonies in the southern areas of Africa, including the Cape of Good Hope. Conflicts between the Boers and the British Empire began in 1806, when a British Army captured the colony from the Dutch, and it became a formal British colony at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Many Dutch settlers left the colony and established two independent states in Africa, the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal and not to be confused with today’s South Africa) and the Orange Free State. Wealth in the form of gold and diamonds induced the British to attempt to take over both.

War between the Boer states and the British began in 1899 and at first went well for the Boers. The arrival of additional British troops and attrition among the Boers led to the British gaining the advantage by the fall of 1900, and the Boers adopted a strategy of guerrilla warfare. In order to control the guerrillas, the British began to round up anyone suspected of guerrilla activities, supporting the guerrillas, or knowledge of where they could be found and incarcerated them in concentration camps. The British adopted a scorched earth policy of systematically destroying farms, poisoning the water supplies by dumping salt down wells, and incarcerating the civilian population and refugees.

Ventersburg was a town in the Orange Free State in 1900 with a significant population of British settlers, and a judge there noticed an increase in the number of armed Boers in the vicinity. He dispatched a note to a nearby British garrison that Boer commandos were apparently mustering in the town. The garrison commander, Major Pine-Coffin, alerted his commanding officer, Field Marshal Frederick, Lord Roberts, who decided that Ventersburg would be used to set an example to other areas which may harbor guerrillas. Roberts commanded General Bruce Hamilton to burn down all houses in the town which were owned by absent men.

Roberts went his commander one further, burning down the houses as instructed, the Dutch Reformed Church, and the farms surrounding the town, after confiscating all of the food and other supplies he could find. He then posted a notice in the remains of the town, telling the residents and the guerrillas that they could find food with the Boer commandos or starve, and that the railroads to the town would be henceforth closed. Within days the civilians of the town, including all of the women and children, were sent to concentration camps after all families had been separated, in order to make it more difficult to find each other following their release.

When General Roberts’s actions were reported in the British press, David Lloyd George, then a Liberal Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, rose to protest against the cruelty of his actions. Lloyd George called Roberts a brute and, “…a disgrace to the uniform he wears.” The authorities of the British Empire disagreed and for his actions in the Boer War General Roberts was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) when he returned to England following the Boer War. He was also made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
Boer civilians in a concentration camp in a photograph staged to counter reports of the conditions in the camps. Wikimedia

The Boer Concentration Camps

The British Empire did not invent the concentration camp during the Boer War, which is often suggested. The Spanish used them in Cuba during the Ten Year War. But the British use of them in an attempt to end the guerrilla warfare which erupted during the third year of the Boer War was an atrocity on a vast scale, essentially making war on a civilian population rather than an enemy army. The camps, which consisted of tents as the only shelter for the prisoners, eventually numbered over 100, with 45 erected for the Boers and over sixty for Africans unfortunate enough to live in the territories “controlled” by the British army.

The first camps were developed to shelter refugees from the war who had lost their homes to the fighting. In 1900 the British, under Lord Kitchener, adopted the policy of using scorched earth tactics, destroying anything which could be conceived as being of use to the Boer guerrillas, and imprisoning the families of guerrillas as well as anyone suspected of giving them shelter or support. As the British exploited this tactic the displaced families were rounded up and sent to the concentration camps, where the families of suspected guerrillas received less food than those merely displaced.

Within the camps there was little available to support healthy hygiene, sanitation facilities were often non-existent, and food was of poor quality. There was not enough food nor enough variety to support nutritional needs. Nearly 30,000 Boers died in the camps, more than two thirds of them children, of typhoid, measles, other communicative diseases, as well as scurvy and dysentery. In the camps for Africans, another 20,000 died for many of the same causes. Africans for the most part were not involved in the conflict between the Boers and the Dutch, but were displaced nonetheless by British policy.

The British authorities, including Lord Kitchener on the scene and officials in the Foreign Office in London, were aware of the atrocities as they occurred and discussed the differing methods which could be used to keep the British public from learning of it and expressing its outrage. The British dispatched Lord Milner to the scene to try to make the system less deadly and keep it as quiet as possible. One letter from Milner to British officials in London reads, “…however blameless we may be in the matter, we shall not be able to make anybody think so…”

One theory that Milner proposed, rather than taking steps to stem the death rate, was to wait, and after the weaker of the prisoners died the stronger ones would be better able to recover and the death rate would drop. Those numbers, rather than the earlier, would then be reported to British officials and the press. When the numbers continued to rise his theory was abandoned. Before the camps were closed about 10% of the entire Boer population died in them. The Boer War ended with the former Boer states becoming a dominion of the British Empire, which gained great wealth from the gold and diamond mines which they acquired from the Boers. Limited self-government was granted to the Boers following the war.

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
A mural depiction of the Amritsar Massacre in Punjab, in what is now Pakistan. Wikimedia

The Amritsar Massacre

One of the common themes throughout the life of the British Empire was its proclivity for taking portions of the civilian population, arming and training them as an Army, and using them to control the remaining civilian population, as well as fight the Empire’s battles in other regions. The British exploited ethnic differences in its many domains in this manner. In India, the British created the British Indian Army, which was commanded by a British officer who reported to the Governor-General of India. The British Indian Army served in many of the wars which were fought by the British during the Pax Brittanica, including the Second and Third Afghan war and the Boxer Rebellion in China.

Following the First World War and the ensuing influenza pandemic many officers of the British Indian Army – both Indian and British – were concerned with the possibility of a revolt within the Indian populace. Gandhi’s demands for protests against British policy were causing unrest across India, especially in the region of Punjab. Telephone and telegraph communications were frequently disrupted and the administration believed that many of these events were the preliminary steps of an organized rebellion. In the early days of April, 1919, several acts of violence against English owned property and upon persons occurred in Amritsar, a city in Punjab, and the administration declared martial law.

Under martial law a public gathering of more than four people was illegal. On April 13, the festival of Baisakhi (a religious and historic festival of the Sikh and Hindu) a crowd of unknown size but at least several thousand gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden in Amritsar. The garden was walled on all sides. At the time all entries but the wide main entrance were locked. A contingent of the British Indian Army was led to the site that afternoon and deployed on top of one of the embankments which walled the garden. Another detachment was sent to block the main entrance, preventing anyone from entering or leaving the garden.

The British Indian Army troops were under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer. Dyer later explained that his direction to block the exit from the garden was justified because he was there not to disperse the Indians under martial law but to punish them for their violation. For the same reason he did not order the crowd to disperse. Instead he ordered his troops to fire into the trapped crowd and they continued firing until most of them were out of ammunition. The official death count reported by the British government was 379. Local Indian authorities and many British witnesses reported it to be well above 1,000, with another 1,100 wounded.

One of the attacks on English persons which preceded the Amritsar Massacre had been on an English schoolteacher named Marcella Sherwood. She had been attacked on the street, stripped naked, and left for dead, before being rescued by the Indian father of one of her students. Six days after the massacre Colonel Dyer decreed that any Indian man traversing the street in which she was recovering must do so crawling on their hands and knees. He explained that since Indians crawled before their god they must do so before her because an English girl to them was, “…as sacred as any god.”

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
A Malayan New Village, product of the Briggs Plan. National Army Museum (UK)

The Briggs Plan in Malaysia

The Nazi regime during the Second World War forever gave the term concentration camp a name symbolic of atrocity, so when the British once again visited the idea of forced relocation of indigenous peoples to isolate them they needed another name for the enclaves. They came up with New Villages. The New Villages were created under the Briggs Plan, which was developed to combat the communist insurgency in Malaya during the 1950 Malayan Emergency. The plan was prepared by Sir Harold Briggs, a British General who was the Director of Operations in Malaya.

Britain lost the Malayan Peninsula and their fortress at Singapore to the Japanese during the Second World War, and reoccupied their former dominion after the fall of Japan. Among the many difficulties the British encountered was the presence of roughly a half million Chinese in rural Malaya, most working as farmers working small plots of land for their own sustenance on land they did not own or lease. The British administration regarded these Chinese as squatters and found them a problem because they were physically distant from the machinery of British authority, which most of the Malayan population was not happy to see return to their country.

When the Malay Communist Party received support from armed guerrillas from Malaya and China, the British, intent on restoring Imperial rule to the peninsula, looked with additional distrust upon these rural Chinese. While some of the Chinese were certainly sympathetic to the communists, most were indifferent. The British concern was that the communist insurgents would receive support from the squatters in the form of food, neglecting the fact that the majority of the Chinese squatters were barely able to grow enough to support themselves. The Briggs plan required the forced relocation of the Chinese.

The New Villages isolated the Chinese, and they were guarded by Malayan police and British Military Police and some troops. The Chinese could not leave the villages except under escort and nobody was allowed in without the permission of the guards, making them effectively prisons. The villages were built with running water and electricity, amenities absent from most Malayan villages, and health care and some educational facilities were provided. This caused resentment towards the British from the Malay outside the villages, who didn’t received the same amenities, and the Chinese, who resented the forced relocation settlement.

Although the New Villages, of which 450 were built, were an improvement over the forced detention camps of the Boer War, and death rates in the villages were roughly the same as for the rest of the country, there were racially motivated collective punishments directed towards the Chinese population in the villages. Deportation without trial by the administration was a common punishment for the Chinese. Law within the villages was the decision of the British. Many of the villages are still standing and in recent years have been restored to serve as tourist destinations by the Malaysian government with support from China.

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
As in India, exports of food from Ireland increased as its people starved, enriching the British Empire. Wikimedia

The Irish Potato Famine and Charles Trevelyan

The British did not cause what we know as the Irish Potato Famine, which affected potatoes across the continent of Europe as well as Ireland. It was caused by a potato blight which destroyed the potato crops. But the starvation in Ireland and the deaths which resulted from the famine were wholly preventable and the British Empire did little or nothing to prevent it other than assign a man with a near psychotic hatred of the Irish in general and the poor in particular, Charles Trevelyan to direct their policy. As the rate of deaths from the famine were nearing their peak, the man tasked with providing aid to the suffering wrote to Lord Monteagle that the famine was an, “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.”

In 1845, the year the famine began, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. For several decades Ireland had grappled with poverty and unemployment in its cities, and though there was ample Irish representation in the British Parliament, few workable solutions to the Irish problem were proposed. Irish resentment of the British, and British contempt for the Irish, was palpable. Most of the Irish, 80% of whom were Catholics, lived as tenant farmers on estates owned by absentee landlords, who used middlemen to collect their rents.

The crops the tenant farmers grew were for export and the profits went to the landlords. They were allowed to grow a few crops for themselves and their families, and the potato was one crop favored for this due to its yield and, unlike wheat, the fact that it could be used without further processing. When the potato crops failed they were left with no food, little money, and spent their days working crops which would provide no food for themselves. In response to the famine the British government attempted to provide aid to these tenant farmers by removing tariffs on grain to lower the price of bread (the Corn Laws). This act led to the fall of the British government and the new government adopted the attitude of laissez-faire towards the crisis.

Charles Trevelyan was assigned to administer the new government’s response to the famine. Trevelyan believed that the famine was, “the judgment of God…to teach the Irish a lesson”, and did little to provide help to the starving. What aid was sent to Ireland from the British Government and from British and other charities around the world was his responsibility to distribute, and he delayed the delivery as much as possible, or tied its distribution to labor requirements. In 1847 Parliament passed the Irish Poor Laws, which established both workhouses and soup kitchens.

As it would do later in India, the export of food from Ireland during famine reached new heights as the Irish people starved. In the case of the starving Irish, the food they grew for the profit of the landowners was too expensive for them to purchase. At a minimum, the famine led to over a million deaths and over that number of Irish emigrated, many to the United States and Canada. In 1860 one of the founders of the Young Ireland Movement wrote, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
Badagry was a slave trading port established in the east coast of Africa. Both the English and Dutch built trading posts there. Wikimedia

The Slave Trade

The British weren’t the first, nor the last European nation to participate in the Atlantic slave trade. Nor was England the only nation of the British Empire to participate. The first British ship to transport slaves was captained by John Hawkins during the reign of Elizabeth I in 1562. There were no English colonies in North America at the time, Hawkins sold the Africans he had captured or purchased to the Spanish colonists in the New World. Over the next six years he made six such voyages, from England to the African coast, whence to the Spanish possessions, and then back to England.

Hawkins’s profits were enormous, a fact noted by other English merchants and trader-captains, and the Spanish appetite for forced labor ensured paying customers. Gradually slavery took hold in the British Colonies in America, notably in Virginia beginning in 1619. As the British gained possessions in the West Indies, sugar cane became a valuable crop. The merchants added another leg to the voyages. Ships left England laden with goods to pay for the Africans, transporting them to the sugar plantations. There they were exchanged for sugar and molasses. The molasses often was shipped to the English colonies, where it was exchanged for tobacco and other products of the growing English settlements, which were returned to England. The ships dispatched from the ports of the Empire never sailed with empty holds.

Trading stations were established on the African coast and the British ships acquired their cargoes by trading for them, usually with other African Chieftains who captured members of rival tribes and villages. By the 1700s specially designed slave ships were being produced by British shipyards. These vessels had maximized deck space and smaller holds, designed to carry human cargo lying on the deck. The voyage from the African coast to the America’s or the Caribbean was known as the Middle Passage, and took weeks depending on the winds and weather.

In 1672 the Royal African Company was chartered and London acquired a monopoly on the British slave trade. The loss of the highly lucrative trade caused Bristol and Liverpool to lobby for the charter to be amended and it was in 1698, allowing smaller British ports to participate. There was competition from merchants in other countries but by the end of the French and Indian War in North America British ships carried more than half of the 80,000 Africans transported across the Atlantic to slavery each year. Some British ship owners realized profits of more than 50% for each voyage. Nearly half of the textiles produced by the British city of Manchester was destined to be used as barter for slaves on the African coast.

The money realized from the slave trade was used to establish the Bank of England by merchants and landowners made wealthy from their involvement. The British Empire abolished the slave trade and used Royal Navy’s ships to discourage smuggling beginning in 1807. Slavery remained in place throughout the British Empire until the 1830s, when it was finally abolished. During the British Empire’s participation in the slave trade an estimated 11 – 12 thousand ships departed from British and other Empire ports for the purpose of carrying slaves to the British possessions in North America, as well as to Spanish and Portuguese colonies during times of peace.

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
The British Government encountered difficulties with the public when news of the slaughter of Tibetans reached England. Wikimedia

The British Expedition in Tibet

In 1903 the British used the British Indian Army to invade Tibet, then ruled by China, to enforce their demands regarding the border between Sikkim and Tibet and to receive assurances from the Dalai Lama and Chinese government that Tibet would not be placed under the influence of the Russian Empire. The reasons for the invasion were based on rumors that the Chinese intended to allow the Russians to occupy Tibet, which had no basis in fact. The British had recently acquired Burma and Sikkim (which bordered Tibet) through military conquest, and wanted to ensure that the Russian Empire’s interests in East Asia were held at bay.

In the summer of 1903 the Russian government informed the British Empire that it had no interest in Tibet, but the British preparations for the invasion were well underway, and they saw no reason to call it off. This was in part a response to the decision of the Dalai Lama not to negotiate the border with Sikkim with British officials in India. British army officer Francis Younghusband was placed in command of the expedition. In December 1903 the Tibetans discovered some Nepalese yaks that had strayed over the border into Tibet, and they sent the animals and their drovers back to Nepal. To the British this was a sufficient provocation to invade.

The expedition was undertaken by units of the British Indian Army, which carried modern machine guns and repeating rifles. They were opposed by Tibetan militia, armed with muzzle loading matchlock muskets of ancient vintage, and amulets which their priests had assured them would protect them from harm. When the advancing British encountered about 3,000 of the Tibetans who were blocking the road but refused to either move or open fire, they used a feint to induce a shot from the Tibetans and then opened fire, continuing to fire and advance as the Tibetans fled, following the urging of one British officer who told his men to “…bag as many as possible.” Over 700 Tibetans were killed, the British had twelve wounded.

When word of the massacre reached England the public reaction was dismay, and the government remained as quiet as possible over the event, which had been witnessed by several reporters. The Expedition reached Chang Lo and went into garrison to await representatives from the Dalai Lama. The Tibetans attacked the garrison and were repulsed. This was received in London with alarm and additional troops were dispatched to support the expedition. As the British Indian Army moved through Tibet its troops looted and pillaged, which though banned by the rules of warfare under the Hague Convention was largely ignored by the Expedition’s officers.

The Expedition came to an end when the representatives of the Dalai Lama (who had fled to China) were forced to sign the terms dictated by Younghusband, which included the Tibetans paying an indemnity for the privilege of being invaded by the British, and a proviso that Tibet could not establish diplomatic relations with any other foreign power, making Tibet a protectorate of the British Empire. The treaty was later amended through a treaty between Britain and China in which the British agreed not to annex Tibetan territory in exchange for cash from the Chinese Qing Dynasty. Despite the receipt of the payment, British Indian Army troops continued to occupy parts of Tibet until 1908.

10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books
Lord Mountbatten (left) and his wife meet with Jinnah, soon to be the leader of Pakistan, in 1947. Wikimedia

The Partition of India

In the 1940s, following the end of the Second World War, the Empire which Winston Churchill had fought so hard to preserve began to crumble. England no longer had the resources to control its Empire and nowhere was this more evident than in India, which rapidly descended into horrific religious and ethnic violence. Realizing that it was rapidly becoming impossible to maintain any semblance of order in what had once been considered the Jewel of the Imperial Crown, the British decided to grant independence to India by first partitioning it into a pair of dominions, Pakistan and India.

The British tried to make their action appear as a noble and well planned exit strategy. In fact it was a rushed departure with their proverbial tail between their legs. Hindu and Muslim sectarian violence was out of control. When Lord Mountbatten arrived to finalize the negotiations which created what became known as the Partition of India one of his first announcements was one which accelerated the British departure by ten months. Mountbatten’s announcement gave the British official charged with developing the new border between the two nations, Cyril Radcliffe, forty days to complete his task.

As they worked, violence in Lahore, a city in the Punjab province which would become part of Pakistan, led to the deaths of thousands of fleeing Hindus. British officials leaving Lahore saw dead Hindus on the railway platforms, killed as they were waiting for a train to escape to what would become the Dominion of India. Officially the British Raj was still the governing body of the region but it did little to stop the violence. Instead it destroyed documents which recorded many of the British activities in India under the Raj Government and fled. Similar unrest occurred in Delhi, as Muslims fled to what would become Pakistan.

In 1941 Karachi had held a Hindu population which exceeded 47% of the city’s total. By 1950 the percentage of Karachi’s population which were Hindu was negligible. Karachi was the first capital of Pakistan following partition. Delhi saw the opposite. More than 200,000 Muslims were forced to leave Delhi as refugees, fleeing to Pakistan by whatever means they could. Across the Indian subcontinent refugees streamed in opposite directions. What had been Hindu villages in Punjab were burned, forcing their inhabitants to seek shelter while under the attack of extremists. The British accelerated the pace of their withdrawal.

The hastily drawn border between Pakistan and India left the region of Kashmir in dispute between the two nations, and wars have been fought between the two nations created out of the British Empire’s largesse. Wars over the secession of Bangladesh in 1971 and over the Kashmir region of Kargil in 1999 were also a result of the British Empire’s hasty departure. India and Pakistan were officially created at the stroke of midnight on the night of August 14, 1947. The official borders for the two countries weren’t announced until two days later, an indication of the speed with which Britain wished to divest itself of the problem which nearly 300 years of British presence in India had created.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Colonial secret papers to be made public”, BBC News, May 6, 2011

“Taking Sides in the Boer War”, by Byron Farwell, American Heritage Magazine, March, 1976

“The South African War 1899 -1902”, South African History Online, November 10, 2011

“The Last Lion: Winston S. Churchill, Visions of Glory (1874 – 1932)”, by William Manchester

“The Great Irish Potato Famine”, by James S. Donnelly

“Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India”, by Lawrence James

“The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can be revealed”, by David Olusoga, The Guardian, July 11, 2015

“Officers, Gentlemen, and Thieves”, by Michael Carrington, Modern Asia Studies, 2003

“The Bloody Legacy of the Indian Partition”, by William Dalrymple, The New Yorker, June 29, 2015

“The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire”, edited by PJ Marshall

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