Editor’s Notice: Peter Bergen is CNN’s nationwide safety analyst, a vp at New America, an writer and a professor of follow at Arizona State College. Raised in London, Bergen has a level in trendy historical past from Oxford College. The views expressed on this commentary are his personal. View extra opinion on CNN.
Queen Elizabeth II was laid to relaxation final week at Windsor Citadel, house to monarchs for the previous thousand years. What was not laid to relaxation with the Queen’s internment was an necessary query: What does the longer term appear like for international locations of the Commonwealth, the place the British monarch stays the pinnacle of state?
Charles III is the King immediately of 14 “realms” exterior of the British Isles. In a few of these realms, equivalent to Australia, Canada and Jamaica, there are actually calls to jettison the monarchy and as an alternative set up a republic, simply as Barbados did final yr.
A associated query can be surfacing now: What’s the legacy of the British Empire writ massive? British schoolchildren have lengthy been taught comforting fairy tales concerning the beneficence of the most important empire in historical past, however latest historic scholarship is portray a fairly totally different image.
Main that cost is Harvard College historian Caroline Elkins, whose 2005 ebook, “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” discovered that the British detained some 1.5 million Kenyans in detention camps or in barbed-wire villages in the course of the Mau Mau rebellion in that nation within the Nineteen Fifties, 1000’s of whom died and a few of whom had been tortured. The ebook was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for basic nonfiction in 2006.
Some initially criticized Elkins’ findings as exaggerated, however they had been vindicated years later after Kenyan torture victims sued the British authorities for damages. Senior British officers ultimately conceded publicly in 2013 that British forces had certainly tortured Kenyans, and the UK authorities paid out a virtually 20 million-pound settlement to greater than 5,000 aged Kenyan victims.
Lately, Elkins has broadened the scope of her inquiries past Kenya, publishing a brand new ebook in March known as “Legacy of Violence: A Historical past of the British Empire.” I spoke to Elkins final week about her work. Our dialog was edited for readability.
Peter Bergen: When Queen Elizabeth died, what was operating by means of your thoughts?
Caroline Elkins: First, what a rare life. Seventy years as monarch. As an individual, as an historian, how can one not marvel at that? Second, the variations in public reactions in Britain and within the former empire. Unimaginable nationwide mourning and outpouring of grief in Britain, but within the former empire and now present Commonwealth there have been totally different reactions – that the Queen oversaw what was a violent and exploitative empire.
Bergen: King Charles III doesn’t elicit fairly the identical emotions as his mom did: How will this have an effect on the Commonwealth?
Elkins: There are 56 nations within the Commonwealth, most of whom had been former British colonies, and of these former British colonies, 14 are what we’d name “Commonwealth realms.” That’s, they’re not republics, they usually nonetheless acknowledge the British monarch as their head of state. So, Charles III can be King of Canada and King of Australia, and it’s in these international locations the place there’s a actual push for referendums to vary and to develop into republics.
After which there’s the query of, what’s the objective of the broader 56 nations on this Commonwealth? The Queen obsessed over the Commonwealth; it was the coda to empire. She oversaw in her reign the dissolution of a lot of the empire and the creation, with a type of monarchical mythmaking, of the Commonwealth as being a pressure of excellent, a pressure of peace, a pressure of democracy within the up to date trendy world of which she remained the pinnacle.
So, King Charles III is in a difficult state of affairs as a result of, in some methods, the Commonwealth is a confidence trick. How a lot do these nations immediately consider that they’re a part of one thing that’s higher than themselves? When these nations joined the Commonwealth within the ’50s and ‘60s, one might make that declare. However I believe there are actually a number of Commonwealth nations taking a look at this and asking themselves, “What’s the purpose?” Britain’s economic system is in unhealthy form; going it alone with Brexit was a mistake, and geopolitically it’s on the wane.
Bergen: Queen Elizabeth discovered that she was the brand new monarch in Kenya in 1952 when she was on a safari there. Inform us about your analysis in Kenya and mirror on the truth that the newly minted Queen Elizabeth was within the nation across the time that the anti-British Mau Mau revolt was beginning to get severe.
Elkins: There’s the well-known story that Elizabeth, staying at Treetops Resort in Aberdare Nationwide Park in Kenya, went up a tree as a princess and got here down a queen. On the identical time, simply past the place Queen Elizabeth was viewing sport, the Kikuyu, the most important ethnic group in Kenya, had been taking mass oaths to hitch a motion known as Mau Mau, whose said objective was, to kick all Whites overseas, which had been the British settlers and the British colonial administration.
Nearly from the get-go in 1952, there have been whistleblowers in Kenya. Missionaries had been saying that torture by the British was occurring. Finally, the Church Missionary Society printed a pamphlet known as “Kenya – Time for Motion!” describing the type of horrible issues that had been taking place.
After I began researching the historical past of the Mau Mau rebellion, there have been difficulties in writing the ebook as a result of on the time of decolonialization, Britain went by means of a really systematic means of destroying documentation concerning the empire. Within the case of Kenya, I estimate that about 3 1/2 tons of paperwork had been destroyed, and another paperwork had been repatriated again to Britain and stored beneath lock and key. So, what it meant for an historian like me is I needed to attempt to piece this story again collectively once more, and it took about 10 years to try this.
In my 2005 ebook, “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” I concluded that whereas the British authorities mentioned that that they had detained 70,000 to 80,000 Kenyans, the truth is my analysis revealed that 1.5 million Kenyans had been detained both in detention camps or in barbed-wire villages. These detention camps and villages weren’t the websites of “hearts and minds” campaigns however as an alternative websites of systematized violence condoned from the very high of the British authorities and executed in a routinized approach, and that each effort was made to cowl this up.
The ebook got here out to “crucial acclaim.” There was most likely extra emphasis on the “crucial” and fewer on the “acclaim” partially as a result of it was one of many first books that actually challenged this narrative of British exceptionalism within the empire. At the moment, in 2005, I used to be a younger tutorial historian. It was a moderately crushing reception.
After which I used to be requested to be an knowledgeable witness for a case involving Kenyans suing the British authorities for torture endured whereas they had been detained in the course of the Mau Mau rebellion. Throughout the discovery course of for this case, the British authorities mentioned for the primary time, “We’ve simply found bins of beforehand undisclosed information that we discovered at Hanslope Park.” Hanslope Park is the place all of the very extremely delicate British authorities paperwork are stored. And alongside these bins from Kenya, there have been additionally 8,800 information from 36 different British colonies equally packed up and spirited away on the finish of empire.
Having this documentation was essential to the case. I pulled collectively a bunch of Harvard college students, and we labored 24/7 going by means of these paperwork, and what turned clear is that we had 1000’s of pages of further proof supporting my analysis and claims about what had occurred in Kenya, and on the finish of the day, the British authorities settled the case that had been introduced by the Kenyan victims.
Bergen: Was Kenya distinctive within the British Empire?
Elkins: That took me about 15 years to reply and over 800 pages in my new ebook, “Legacy of Violence.” Not solely is Kenya not distinctive, it’s one second in an extended time period that exhibits how the British created techniques and practices to implement colonial management, equivalent to compelled labor, torture and homicide all through the British Empire.
Throughout the Boer Struggle from 1899 to 1902 was the primary time in historical past the place in depth focus camps had been used to restrict one ethnic inhabitants, on this case, the white Afrikaners, who the British thought-about uncivilized, though Africans had been additionally detained.
Britain undertook comparable confinement insurance policies for criminals, in addition to plague and famine victims, in India starting round 1857. One of many issues I spent a number of time doing was tracing how these insurance policies advanced – these practices of concentrating populations in addition to forcibly transferring them.
Bergen: This reassessment of British Empire: You’re main the cost. And in addition, William Dalrymple’s “The Anarchy: The East India Firm, Company Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire,” his historical past of the British East India Firm can be a part of this reassessment?
Elkins: There are a lot of historians engaged on this. When you consider the type of work that should happen for every colony, you might have lots of people who’re actual specialists specifically areas who may concentrate on Cyprus or may concentrate on India. A few of what I’m doing on this latest ebook, “Legacy of Violence,” is basically drawing off this big motion in the direction of revisionism.
Bergen: Is all historical past revisionist historical past?
Elkins: All the time. Historical past is all the time being revised by people like myself. I feel on this case, it’s actually a large revision insofar because it actually questions what continues to be a strongly held perception about British exceptionalism in the case of empire.
Bergen: So, are the British in highschool as they study British historical past being instructed a bunch of fairy tales?
Elkins: I feel they’re being instructed a really specific official narrative that has been rigorously cultivated, each by the British authorities and the monarchy. Historical past is all the time used for nationwide id to provoke a inhabitants, to think about itself as one thing higher than any particular person. And it’s necessary to keep in mind that starting within the nineteenth century, fairly deliberately beneath Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, there was an entwinement of nation, monarchy and empire that was the bedrock of British nationwide id, a type of British imperial nationwide id of which the monarchy is a component. And that continues down to the current day.
Ought to British faculty historical past textbooks be revised? There’s a battle over this in Britain now. It is going to be a giant second once we begin to see revisions throughout the textbooks of schoolchildren in Britain that mirror the type of bigger conversations which can be taking place now between historians and the broader public.
Bergen: “The Crown” on Netflix was a really well-executed TV drama. How does that contribute to the best way Britain and the world on the whole sees all this historical past?
Elkins: I’ve to say, full disclosure, I watched all of “The Crown.” It’s very compelling, and I used to be penning this ebook, “Legacy of Violence,” whereas watching it. One of many few instances that the Queen Elizabeth weighed in along with her authority is across the subject of apartheid in South Africa.
Bergen: To say what?
Elkins: To principally disagree with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to say that apartheid can not proceed, that Britain can’t be on the unsuitable aspect of historical past, and he or she used the Commonwealth as a car to make that identified.
The second of which that struck me was the dying of her cousin Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten was the final viceroy of India. He oversaw the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 wherein someplace between 200,000 to 2 million individuals died from brutal sectarian violence, based on estimates.
The Irish Republican Military, or IRA, which was a paramilitary group, shaped in 1919 to finish British rule in Eire and create a republic, engaged in a protracted battle to finish Britain’s continued rule in Northern Eire after 1922. There have been many terrorist assaults, together with the IRA planting a bomb on Mountbatten’s boat off the coast of Northern Eire in 1979, killing him and three individuals on the boat. And that scene is in “The Crown.” Mountbatten was most likely the closest confidant and mentor to Prince Charles, now King Charles III.
There’s type of a coda to this story when the Queen turned the primary British monarch in 100 years to go to Eire in 2011 and (later) prolonged her hand to one of many former leaders within the IRA.
4 years later Prince Charles met with former IRA chief Gerry Adams and did the same type of factor. That they had a non-public dialog. This exhibits you what the British monarchy can accomplish, the type of ethical authority that it does have, and situations of reaching out their arms to make reconciliation.
Bergen: Do the British pat themselves on the again as a result of they had been comparatively early to abolish slavery, and that has coloured their very own self-conception as empire builders?
Elkins: Sure, I feel it’s an necessary level. I feel it’s usually held up that Britain led the cost on the abolition motion within the commerce of enslaved individuals (in 1807) and many years later in the usage of enslaved labor (in 1833).
On the identical time, I feel it’s necessary to keep in mind that this is similar nation that amassed the most important empire historical past has ever identified, with 1 / 4 of the world’s land mass and 700 million individuals at its top.
On the heels of the abolition of the commerce in enslaved individuals and the usage of enslaved labor, the British launched what is called their “civilizing mission.” This concept was that, the truth is, empire just isn’t about nationwide profit and exploitation, however it’s actually our obligation, our “white man’s burden” to go and uplift and produce into the trendy world the “backward populations.”
The fascinating half to me is how is it that Britons on the whole can proceed to work and rework their understanding of what the empire meant. What was the civilizing mission? How are they in a position to accommodate all this into this broader narrative of what’s in the end British imperial exceptionalism, that in some way or one other – and it’s a story that endures to nowadays – that Britain obtained empire proper, significantly when in comparison with all the opposite European nations.
And so, to me that’s additionally wrapped up into how the Queen is being remembered immediately. By some, she’s being remembered because the matriarch of empire, an empire that was a pressure of excellent on the earth, that actually prolonged the notions of rule of regulation and free commerce – all these issues that we maintain pricey in liberal democracies – whereas others who say, no, that’s really not what occurred.
Have a look at all this violence within the empire. I feel we’re in a selected second as a result of previously colonized populations are demanding that there ought to be a reckoning, not simply by way of acknowledgement that sure issues occurred, but additionally how we write about and keep in mind the previous.
Bergen: The 1619 Venture has reframed the historical past of the US across the historical past of slavery within the nation. Are there similarities between the 1619 Venture and what you and different colleagues are doing in your reassessment of the British Empire?
Elkins: Sure, I do assume so. If we take a look at the methods wherein the battle to know who we’re within the current day and what the longer term holds can be a battle concerning the previous. What offers us legitimacy? How did we come to be who we’re immediately? In the US, it’s usually thought that the unique sin is the interval of enslavement, and we should take care of that if we’re going to maneuver ahead as a nation.
Now, the suggestion being made by many within the former empire is that the “unique sin” on a world scale was empire. They’re asking: How will we take care of this, and the way do you, Britain, handle this in such a approach that we will all transfer ahead, each from a societal standpoint and an financial one? And it’s not nearly reparations. It’s about taking a look at structural inequities on a world scale and the way and why the world is the best way it’s immediately.
Have a look at Bangladesh, one of many poorest international locations on the earth immediately. Within the mid-18th century, Japanese Bengal was one of many wealthiest elements of the world. What occurs in between? A really lengthy interval of wealth extraction and decimation engendered by British colonial rule.
Have a look at Jamaica and picture the truth that this nation was populated as a result of its residents had been actually chained and shackled beneath ships and introduced over. At first, this wasn’t even a self-reproducing inhabitants as a result of it was extra economical to work individuals to dying than it was to permit them to self-reproduce.
And so these nations are born out of the same type of cauldron of violence that has dramatic societal and financial penalties, and I feel that is coming to a head, simply because the 1619 Venture is basically elevating all these points concerning the type of structural inequities that now we have in the US immediately. We should perceive the previous and actually have a complete accounting of it. And I feel that’s what we’re seeing in several varieties of the way with the historical past of the British Empire.