The Empire Strikes Back

IN FOCUS, 15 Oct 2012

George Monbiot – TRANSCEND Media Service

Imperialism did almost as much harm to the ruling nations as it did to their subject peoples.

Over the gates of Auschwitz were the words “Work Makes You Free”. Over the gates of the Solovetsky camp in Lenin’s gulag: “Through Labour – Freedom!”. Over the gates of the Ngenya detention camp, run by the British in Kenya: “Labour and Freedom”(1). Dehumanisation appears to follow an almost inexorable course.

Last week, three elderly Kenyans established the right to sue the British government for the torture they suffered – castration, beating and rape – in the Kikuyu detention camps it ran in the 1950s(2).

Many tens of thousands were detained and tortured in the camps. I won’t spare you the details: we have been sparing ourselves the details for far too long. Large numbers of men were castrated with pliers(3). Others were anally raped, sometimes with the use of knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels and scorpions(4). Women had similar instruments forced into their vaginas. The guards and officials sliced off ears and fingers, gouged out eyes, mutilated women’s breasts with pliers, poured paraffin over people and set them alight(5). Untold thousands died.

The government’s secret archive, revealed this April, shows that the attorney-general, the colonial governor and the colonial secretary knew what was happening(6). The governor ensured that the perpetrators had legal immunity: including the British officers reported to him for roasting prisoners to death(7). In public the colonial secretary lied and kept lying(8).

Little distinguishes the British imperial project from any other. In all cases the purpose of empire was loot, land and labour. When people resisted (as some of the Kikuyu did during the Mau Mau rebellion), the response everywhere was the same: extreme and indiscriminate brutality, hidden from public view by distance and official lies.

Successive governments have sought to deny the Kikuyu justice: destroying most of the paperwork, lying about the existence of the rest, seeking to have the case dismissed on technicalities(9,10). Their handling of this issue, and the widespread British disavowal of what happened in Kenya, reflects the way in which this country has been brutalised by its colonial history. Empire did almost as much harm to the imperial nations as it did to their subject peoples.

In his book Exterminate All the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist shows how the ideology that led to Hitler’s war and the Holocaust was developed by the colonial powers(11). Imperialism required an exculpatory myth. It was supplied, primarily, by British theorists.

In 1799, Charles White began the process of identifying Europeans as inherently superior to other peoples(12). By 1850, the disgraced anatomist Robert Knox had developed the theme into fully-fledged racism(13). His book The Races of Man asserted that dark-skinned people were destined first to be enslaved and then annihilated by the “lighter races”. Dark meant almost everyone: “what a field of extermination lies before the Saxon, Celtic, and Sarmatian races!”(14).

Remarkable as it may sound, this view soon came to dominate British thought. In common with most of the political class, W.Winwood Reade, Alfred Russell Wallace, Herbert Spencer, Frederick Farrar, Francis Galton, Benjamin Kidd, even Charles Darwin saw the extermination of dark-skinned people as an inevitable law of nature(15). Some of them argued that Europeans had a duty to speed it up: both to save the integrity of the species and to put the inferior “races” out of their misery.

These themes were picked up by German theorists. In 1893, Alexander Tille, drawing on British writers, claimed that “it is the right of the stronger race to annihilate the lower.”(16) In 1901, Friedrich Ratzel argued in Der Lebensraum that Germany had a right and duty to displace “primitive peoples”, as the Europeans had done in the Americas. In Mein Kampf, Hitler explained that the eastward expansion of the German empire would mirror the western and southern extension of British interests(17). He systematised and industrialised what the imperial nations had been doing for the past five centuries. The scale was greater, the location was different, the ideology broadly the same.

I believe that the brutalisation of empire also made the pointless slaughter of the first world war possible. A ruling class which had shut down its feelings to the extent that it could engineer a famine in India in the 1870s in which between 12 and 29 million people died was capable of almost anything(18). Empire had tested not only the long-range weaponry that would later be deployed in northern France, but also the ideas.

Nor have we wholly abandoned them. Commenting on the Kikuyu case in the Daily Mail, Max Hastings charged that the plaintiffs had come to London “to exploit our feeble-minded justice system”(19). Hearing them “represents an exercise in state masochism”. I suspect that if members of Hastings’s club had been treated like the Kikuyu, he would be shouting from the rooftops for redress. But Kenyans remain, as colonial logic demanded, the other, bereft of the features and feelings that establish our common humanity.

So, in the eyes of much of the elite, do welfare recipients, “problem families”, Muslims and asylum seekers. The process of dehumanisation, so necessary to the colonial project, turns inwards. Until this nation is prepared to recognise what happened and how it was justified, Britain, like the countries it occupied, will remain blighted by imperialism.


1. Caroline Elkins, 2005. Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Page 189. Random House, London.


3. Caroline Elkins, as above.

4. Caroline Elkins, as above.

5. See also Mark Curtis, 2007. The Mau Mau war in Kenya, 1952-60. From Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.



8. Caroline Elkins, as above.



11. Sven Lindqvist, 1997. Exterminate All the Brutes. Republished in 2012 in the collection Saharan Journhey, Granta, London.

12. An Account of the Regular Graduations in Man.

13. He was disgraced because he was suspected not merely of grave robbing but commissioning murders in order to supply the cadavers he wanted.

14. Quoted by Sven Lindqvist, as above, p280.

15. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote that “At some future period not very distant as measured in centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.” Quoted by Sven Lindqvist, as above, p261.

16. Volksdienst, Quoted by Sven Lindqvist, as above, p302.

17. Cited by Sven Lindqvist, as above.



Published in the Guardian 9th October 2012.


About George Monbiot: Here are some of the things I try to fight: undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, environmental destruction, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency. Here is what I fear: other people’s cowardice.

Go to Original –


Share this article:

DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

One Response to “The Empire Strikes Back”

  1. A very necessary piece for which George Monbiot is to be congratulated. Interesting that it elicited over 900 comments on the Guardian website.

    However, as a pattern of logic and a system of denial, what is indicated evokes an even more relevant question, namely how that pattern is active today. This may not take the form of castration with pliers, etc — but rather other forms of violence and injustice.

    Missing from the analysis is how to recognize analogous denial and cover-up — in the light of how that relating to the problematic aspects of “Empire” have been handled. Missing also are the questions in which George Monbiot himself is active in processes of denial and cover-up. What is it that the future will find equally scandalous that is currently ignored — as has been the Kenyan cover-up?

    Should the logic of “Growth” now be understood as the reframing of the logic of “Empire”? Is anything critical of “Growth” now treated in the same way as has been that of “Empire”? Are there cases (yet to come to light) in which “pliers” are used to advance the cause of “Growth” as an unquestionable good?

    With respect to unconstrained population increase and resource overshoot, is George Monbiot’s position (previously articulated) analogous to that of officialdom in framing such concerns as something in which old men indulge — like the Kenyan plaintiffs? With respect to that dynamic, is there any current crisis that is not exacerbated, if not engendered, by increasing population pressure? Who is complicit in its cover-up and in prevention of continuing debate on how to discuss the matter, whether or not remedies are possible?

    Would reference to population increase as a crisis-driver be dismissed in a manner analogous to that relating to the questionable aspects of “Empire”? At the age of the Kenyan plaintiffs, will George Monbiot then be making a case for consideration of the matter?.