Legalized Lawlessness

‘Legacy of Violence’
British policemen hold villagers from Kariobangi, Kenya, at gunpoint while searching for Mau Mau rebels, 1952 (Getty Images/Bettman).

Caroline Elkins, a professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard, won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005). Grounded in documents and interviews with elderly survivors of internment and torture, Imperial Reckoning is a masterly case study of how Britain “used violence and repression to maintain rule over its twentieth-century empire.” The book received wide praise, but it was also criticized for relying too heavily on oral evidence or for adding only details about what was already known. Elkins said she felt “roasted over the coals.” Then a lawsuit for reparations in a British court led to the discovery of voluminous colonial files preserved from destruction and sent to the UK in advance of Kenyan independence. As Elkins recounts in her new book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, those files vindicated her account of widespread “violence and repression” and helped win reparations for the survivors. The number of Kenyan victims and the extent to which officialdom in London controlled the destruction of incriminating evidence are still disputed.

Legacy of Violence extends the basic contention of Imperial Reckoning that “violence and repression” maintained the British Empire during the last century. Once again Elkins’s approach is what social scientists call “emic”—concerned above all with the point of view of colonial subjects. But in the new book, that means writing from the perspective of people about whom she has read rather than people she has interviewed. She has read widely but also selectively. We hear relatively little from colonial subjects who have good things to say about the British Empire. The Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, for example, once said, “What I felt as a colonial young man or boy was that I was part of this Civis Brittanicae or sum idea, you know, we’re all one; New Zealand, Egypt, you know, one-seventh of the world.” He is absent here. In contrast, Elkins devotes four pages to the rage of Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright who won the Nobel Prize for Literature six years before Walcott did. Soyinka was as unsparing of “liberals, humanitarians and reformers [who] had taken up the cause of justice for victims” as of imperialist victimizers: “kindly keep your comfortable sentiment to yourselves.”

Elkins’s style is raw, accessible, and often deeply moving, and the cruelties she evokes are horrifying. Occasionally, her method tempts her into a prosecutorial stance. Of Hersch Lauterpacht, a prodigy reared in a Galician shtetl, she writes: “he left continental Europe’s anti-Semitism for that of Britain, where he let his Jewish identity fade into the background as he assimilated.” The comparison fails. Lauterpacht was nonobservant but never disguised his ethnicity and enjoyed the patronage of the American Jewish Committee. That did not keep him from earning a knighthood. Among his family in continental Europe, only a niece survived the Shoah. To note Elkins’s omission of voices like Walcott’s or her misunderstanding of cases like Lauterpacht’s is not to urge balance, much less to defend the smug boast that the empire was actually a “Good Thing.” It is simply to note that her book’s scope is not as broad as it might have been.            

Elkins cites a famous passage in Max Weber’s lynx-eyed “Politics as a Vocation”:

The early Christians knew full well the world is governed by demons and that he who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as means, contracts with diabolical powers and for his action it is not true that good can follow only from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.

In politics the stimulus is power—desiring it, competing for it, exercising it, and retaining or losing it—and power is always shadowed by the threat or use of violence. St. Augustine knew as much. Elkins acknowledges that “all empires are violent” and that anti-colonial insurgents and postcolonial regimes can also act diabolically. But the ruthlessness of the latter is sometimes slighted in these pages, as if it were only a legacy of the empire’s “use of state-directed violence.” Elkins’s account of the IRA’s assassination of Louis Mountbatten is riveting, but she does not mention its collateral damage, which included two boys and an old woman.


Between 1802 and 1902 the British Empire engaged in twenty-nine conflicts or wars outside Europe.

Elkins begins her grim story with the failure in 1795 of the impeachment of Warren Hastings for oppressing Bengal. As the nineteenth century unfolded, imperialists learned to be more discreet about the human toll required to fulfill Britain’s civilizing mission. In 1838, Thomas Macaulay regretted Oliver Cromwell’s unfinished conquest of Ireland: “It is in truth more merciful to extirpate a hundred thousand human beings at once, and to fill the void with a well-governed population, than to misgovern millions through a long succession of generations.” Macaulay succeeded in stifling the newborn Aborigines’ Protection Society, founded by abolitionists looking for a new cause “to ensure the health and well-being and the sovereign, legal and religious rights of the indigenous peoples while also promoting the civilization of the indigenous people who were subjected under colonial powers.” As late as 1853, Karl Marx hailed England’s “double mission in India”: “The annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” In 1897 Joseph Chamberlain, then colonial secretary, used a culinary metaphor to justify imperial violence: “You cannot have omelettes without breaking eggs; you cannot destroy the practices of barbarism, of slavery, of superstition, which for centuries have desolated the interior of Africa, without the use of force.” During the twentieth century, talk of “breaking eggs” went the way of “extirpate” and “annihilation.” 

An emanation of the Aborigines’ Protection Society was liberal imperialism. Elkins describes it as “radically both” for coercion and reform. On the ground, reform prospered symbiotically with acquiescence, even enthusiasm, for imperialism. Informing this liberal imperialism was a common faith in “Universal Onward and Upward Progress,” a this-worldly misappropriation of providence. The bloodbath of the Great War leached some of the credibility and appeal of Progress and empire (though faith in capital-P Progress still refuses to die). There had been foreshadowings of the twentieth-century regime of “violence and repression” in the face of colonial resistance in India, Jamaica, and South Africa, but in the nineteenth century the “diabolical” power of imperial Britain was still mainly directed toward expansion rather than maintaining rule. Between 1802 and 1902 the British Empire engaged in twenty-nine conflicts or wars outside Europe—from Washington D.C. to Bhutan—and it usually won.

Elkins stresses that World War I “was pivotal to the institutionalization of coercion and reform” in the empire, beginning with the suppression of the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland. This rebellion was a prototype of anti-imperialist nationalist movements from Palestine to India. Because Elkins’s focus is colonial, she slights the paradoxical result of the Great War. It diminished the British Empire’s military, wealth, and prestige, but the peace settlement actually added new territory to the empire. It gained 1,800,000 square miles and thirteen million new subjects. The Covenant of the League of Nations demarcated much of this imperial expansion. The covenant’s article twenty-two exuded paternalism toward “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” Britain and France, the chief mandatory powers, were to obey “the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilization.” There would be some reforms, usually too little and too late, along with increasing coercion. Elkins calls this “legalized lawlessness.” Carl Schmitt, a German legal theorist of sinister genius, called it “a state of exception.”


Edward Gibbon described the decline of the Roman Empire as

the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principles of decay, the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest, and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial support, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.

This could also serve as a decent description of the British Empire’s trajectory in the twentieth century. The dissolution was sudden and largely unanticipated. Elkins rightly insists that in 1947 “India’s pending freedom did not portend a sweeping moment of liberation for the rest of the empire.” Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives wanted or foresaw this moment. The Great War was a trauma, but the Second World War brought devastation. Bombed at home, humiliated by the Japanese in Singapore, effectively bankrupt, Britain was no longer a great power. Elkins aptly calls World War II “An Imperial War.” Richard Overy’s recent magisterial Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931–1945 complements and amplifies Elkins’s account. Refusing to accept that Britain and its empire were now dependent on the United States, Britain’s leaders were slow to recognize their diminished position. They misunderstood the significance of Indian independence. As it turned out, the end of the Raj exemplified the pattern of imperial collapse: widening alienation of Indigenous elites; eroding enthusiasm and acquiescence among increasingly politicized subjects; growing cruelty, incompetence, and denial on the part of their imperial overlords; and breakdown.

So much had changed so quickly. In the spring of 1918, with the Allies teetering on the western front, Britain’s viceroy in India appealed to Indian leaders to rally volunteers for the war. Mohandas K. Gandhi, sometime barrister of the Inner Temple, London, and future leader of the Indian National Congress, became an energetic recruiter. He believed that Indian troops embodied a token of loyalty to Britain that would hasten the grant of self-rule. By the end of the war, nearly 1.3 million Indians had volunteered for military service. Within months Gandhi was calling for nonviolent noncooperation with the Raj. A massacre by British forces in the Punjab was followed by widespread rioting. Things were falling apart quickly. During the interwar period, London employed both carrots and sticks in its doomed effort to maintain control. By the Second World War, Gandhi was urging the British to “quit India,” but more than 2.5 million Indians still volunteered for military service. More than 87,000 of them were killed.

In 1943 a famine in Bengal claimed millions. Economists and historians continue to debate its origins. Initially, Winston Churchill, an old India hand, was dismissive of the appeal for relief from his secretary of state for India, a close friend whom Elkins calls “a bellicose imperialist”: “Winston, after a preliminary flourish on Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing about the war [sic], asked…[the minister of war transport] for his view.” Months later, fifty thousand tons of food were offered, but it was too late. Just as the Russian famine of 1891–1892 helped delegitimize tsarist rule, the Bengal famine accelerated the end of the Raj. On August 15, 1947, India became independent.

Britain’s imperial dreams and exertions persisted even after 1956, when the United States pulled the plug on the Anglo-French-Israeli campaigns to regain control of the Suez Canal by invading Egypt. As Elkins writes, the new line in London was that “Britain didn’t have to be a superpower to retain its empire.” This was, among other things, a case of the sunk-cost fallacy: Britain’s leaders felt that huge past investments and gains, not present self-interest or future prospects, should determine its policy. If this seems implausibly foolish, recall our project of “Vietnamization,” the Iraqi Surge, and the recent redeployment of troops in Somalia. But, to repeat Gibbon’s judgment, eventually the stupendous fabric yields to the pressure of its own weight.

Legacy of Violence
A History of the British Empire

Caroline Elkins
$13.50 | 896 pp.

Published in the January 2023 issue: 

Robert E. Sullivan teaches history at the University of Notre Dame.

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