The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

Should the British government pay compensation to the victims of British imperialism?

On July 24, 2015 the Oxford Union held a 'Reparations Debate' and one of the speakers was an Indian MP Dr Shashi Tharoor who said that India deserved reparations in principle for what he described as the looting by Britain over a 200 year period. His words were supported by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who said that Tharoor's words reflected the feelings of patriotic Indians.  Tharoor went on to describe the famines of the c19th and c20th in which 15-29 million died as a result of British policies and blamed Churchill for the deaths of four million Bengalese following his diversion of essential supplies from civilians in Bengal to British soldiers.

He quoted Churchill as having said that, 'the starvation of underfed Bengalese mattered much less than that of sturdy Greeks.'


In recent years the British government has acknowledged the atrocities that happened during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya (1952-1960) and has begun to pay compensation to victims of British torture. The rebellion began as a violent campaign against white settlers in 1952 and was eventually put down by the British colonial government The Kenya Human Rights Commission says that 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed during the rebellion and that 160,000 people were detained in appalling conditions.


Between 1952 and 1956 Kenya was effectively a police state with the Governor declaring a State of Emergency. Of 1499 people convicted of capital offences under Emergency regulations, 1070 were executed. When fighting was at its fiercest British soldiers, white Kenyan settlers, African soldiers and 'loyalist' Kikuyu 'Home Guard' all committed atrocities, as did their Mau Mau opponents. On 3 March 1959 eleven Mau Mau detainees were beaten to death by their British guards in what has since become known as the Hola Camp Massacre.


The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague announced in 2011 a payout of £20 million for the victims of British torture, saying that the government' sincerely regrets' the abuses that took place, and the construction of a permanent memorial to the victims to be placed in Nairobi. Mr Hague though made it clear that the government was not legally liable for the actions of what was a colonial administration in Kenya.


Two years later in February 2013, David Cameron the British Prime Minister travelled to Amritsar, India, to visit the scene of the British massacre of 1919 when 379 people were shot dead by British forces and 1500 wounded - all from just 1650 rounds of ammunition. He was the first British Prime Minister to visit the scene of the massacre which had marked a turning point in the movement for Indian independence.


Amritsar in 1919 as the centre of much anti-British sentiment the result of Muslim concerns about British intentions for the caliphate, distress as a result of the recent flu epidemic, inflation and general concerns about the future of the Middle East. General Dyer who had 1,100 troops under his command was determined to restore British rule in the area and quell all disturbances. Arriving in Amritsar he found that there were over 100 terrified  European women and children crowded into the fort and that there was looting and further murders of Europeans. A British missionary was brutally attacked by Indian youths and Dyer was determined to teach the local [population a lesson and bring the city back under British control. He gave orders that there were to be no mass meetings and when he heard of a meeting taking place in a large public square he determined to take action. There were between 15,000-20,000 in the  Jalianwala Bagh when Dyer and his Gurkha forces burst in to the square surrounded by a wall and with just a narrow entrance. He ordered his men to open fire without giving a warning and the accurate firing had a devastating effect. Dyer left the scene without providing any first aid to the wounded.


Dyer believed that he had saved the Raj and when the news eventually trickled back to Britain the popular view was that he had indeed saved the Raj and taught an important lesson. Eventually following a report on the affair, Dyer was sent back to Britain on sick leave. On arrival he was interviewed by the Daily Mail and he expressed no remorse for his actions. He was then forced to resign his command but a campaign by the Morning Post raised 26,000 for him in recognition for his 'prompt and stern measures' which had the effect of having saved India. The matter was debated in the Commons and he had much support by MPs who regarded him as a man who had done his duty. The government though condemned him believing that India could only be ruled with the goodwill of the Indian people.


Despite the brutality of what had happened and the condemnation of the British government at the time, David Cameron would not go as far as making an apology. He said the right thing to do was to remember the events, acknowledge what had happened, show respect for the victims and learn the lessons of the past. Although he described the massacre as 'a truly shameful event' he did not believe that it was appropriate to apologise on behalf of a government that was in office 40 years before he was born.


Violence was an intrinsic part of the British Empire. Without the use of violence Britain would not have been able to extend her empire or keep what she had under control. The British Empire of the c19th was claimed to be an Empire of liberty and to be about the exporting of western civilisation and democratic values. Government was with the consent of the governed as far as possible but there were times when the use of violence was necessary. When Indian soldiers of the Indian East India Company army mutinied in May 1857, the British reprisals were severe in the extreme. Although up to 10,000 British men, women and children were killed, sometimes in quite brutal fashion at when over 100 women and children were literally butchered at Cawnpore and thrown down a well, the British killed nearly 100,000 in putting down the rebellion and in restoring British authority. As well as these reported cases there was the everyday violence which resulted from the British imposing an alien system of justice and the continual threat of violence through the colonial police and military patrols.


The continued existence of violence and the ever present threat of its use highlighted one of the many contradictions of the British Empire. It was claimed in the late c19th that the British Empire was different from other empires in that it had a moral dimension - that of bringing development and civilisation to underdeveloped lands yet it only existed by turning to violence. Often when the use of violence was heavily criticised by critics of empire in Britain, the violence was portrayed as being an exceptional use of violence not condoned and not authorised. All too often though the perpetrators of such violence were quietly removed from positions of command and 'pensioned off'. The popular mood was always to support those governors of military commanders who had taught local natives a lesson. The use of violence was also glorified by the press and in the new adventure novels of the time written by empire pioneers such as Rider Haggard. The exploits of men such as General Wolseley and Cecil Rhodes in defeating local tribes were regarded as providing evidence that Britain was still a nation to be proud of and that could hold her own against the emerging new European states and the USA. General Kitchener used the maxim gun to slaughter 11,000 warriors at the battle of Omdurman and wound a further 16,000 for which he was given a £30,000 reward by the government whilst Governor Eyre was congratulated for launching a campaign of terror in Jamaica in 1865. He was brought home to England and then sacked by a Liberal government but its Tory successor refused to indict him. Both the cases of Dyer and Eyre would seem to suggest that the use of violence in the colonies was condoned by the London government even though it could not always publicly admit it. There was a view held by a large section of British society that natives were not capable of advancement and that they needed the use of violence to keep them in check. Sir Michael O'Dwyer, Governor of Punjab at the time of the Amritsar massacre campaigned for Dyer until he died in 1927. More recently Caroline Elkins in her book 'Imperial Reckoning' which covers the Mau Mau rebellion writes about the behaviour of the British Colonial Office, the British administration in Kenya, the Kenya settlers who were in the police and the army reserves and how there was a culture of violence in Kenya at the time.


Millions suffered throughout the time of the British Empire as a result of the use of violence. Millions more also suffered from the mal-administration and the economic policies of the Empire. When Britain rapidly withdrew from India and divided the Raj into India and Pakistan in the process millions died in the subsequent communal violence. Britain must take some of the blame for the hasty way she withdrew and for the division that was introduced.

In the last quarter of the c19th when Britain's place in the world was being challenged by the USA and European powers who were rapidly industrialising and developing their own empires, Britain expanded her empire to ensure her control of areas deemed essential for British trade. Much of the expansion was done on the cheap with charters being given to private companies to exploit local resources and manage their territories as they saw fit. India was developed as a cash cow for Britain, and with the imposition of free trade became a market for British goods to the detriment of local industry.


With the rise in competition from European rivals and from the USA after 1870 and with these powers adopting protectionist policies to protect their infant industries, former British markets were lost. To compensate for this loss Britain developed India as a market for British goods, particularly cotton goods so that by 1913 60% of all Indian imports came from Britain and it also absorbed £380 million in British investment, a tenth of the total British investments overseas. India rescued Britain from a potential economic depression. To achieve this India had to be modernised and successive Viceroys set about developing and improving the railway system, transport infrastructure (roads and bridges), and bringing more land into cultivation through irrigation schemes. It was claimed that this was being done in order to develop a backward people but much of the improvements were to develop India for the benefit of the British. The railway system was used to transport goods for export to Britain through the great ports of Bombay and Calcutta whilst much of the expansion of agricultural land was for the growing of cotton for the Lancashire mill towns. Indian cotton mills  accounted for just 8% of Indian cloth consumption in 1913. Poverty levels in India did not change much in the hundred years of the Raj and millions died in what Dr Tharoor described as British induced famines. The monsoons may not have been delayed by the British but the inadequate response by the British led to millions dying.


In 1876 and 1877, inadequate rainfall from Mysore to the Punjab led to food shortages which affected 58 million. The government was reluctant to interfere with the market and failed to deal effectively with the situation. Moreover railway lines did not go to the most affected places so help did not get to those who most needed it. there was official relief but the amounts given were based on the rations a Bengali prisoner would eat and were totally insufficient for farm labourers. Work camps were set up but thousands died trying to reach them. In the Madras Presidency alone, some four million died. Irrigation schemes (10 million more acres under irrigation) and more railways (25,000 lines of railway in 1900) were built but in 1895 and 1896 there were delayed monsoons which led to 53 million facing starvation. 33 million were kept alive in government camps but the Viceroy did not believe in interfering with the market and he did nothing to stop the hoarding of grain or the export of grain to Britain. By 1900 relief when needed was being distributed through the villages but still 800,000 died in the Bombay Presidency. Gradually local authorities began to ignore the rules and adopted a more flexible attitude to providing help and there were no further droughts until 1942. Despite the suffering and deaths, humanitarianism in the Raj took second place to economic orthodoxy and the need for the Raj to pay its way. Of the Raj, the Viceroy Lord Curzon, said 'British rule may be good for us; but it is neither equally, nor altogether good for them'.


Niall Ferguson in his book on the British Empire, 'Empire, how Britain made the modern world' claims that the drain on the Indian economy was not much more than 1% of net domestic product a year and not as bad as has been made out. he also points out the benefits to India of British led development. By 1880 Britain had invested £270 million in India and by 1914 £400 million. Britain increased the land under irrigation by eight times so that by 1947 25% of land was irrigated. A coal industry was introduced by the British which by 1914 was producing 16 million tons a year and the number of jute spindles increased by tenfold. For Ferguson there is little doubt that the Raj reduced inequality by a tax regime which levied less tax on local villages than the previous rulers.


Ferguson also maintains that there were marked health improvements brought about by the British which led to life expectancy going up from 21 to 32 in the years 1820 to 1950 although British life expectancy went up in the same period from 40 to 69. Quinine and anti-malarial programmes were introduced as was vaccination against small pox. Water supplies were improved and all done by a civil service that was largely free from corruption. The imposition of free trade and globalisation did mean though that Indian industries were exposed to foreign competition before they were in a position to properly compete and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 led to the use of indentured labour, often Indians, living in conditions akin to slavery. In the century after 1820 1.6 million Indians left India for places like Fiji, the west Indies, and Africa.


It is clear that under the rule of the  British Empire millions died unnecessarily or suffered deprivation. Does this mean though that the British government should now begin to pay compensation for those who were mal-treated? Should  the payout to victims of the Kenyan atrocities be just the beginning of the British government bringing justice to the families of victims of British imperial rule?


For me the answer to both questions is a clear 'NO' and I will outline the reasons why.


We cannot judge the actions of governments and people of the past using the standards of the present day. To do so is to make a moral judgement. It is to assume that we have the right answers and past societies had all the wrong answers. The prevailing orthodoxy at the end of the c19th was to believe in Social Darwinism and the 'survival of the fittest' as the popular British philosopher, Herbert Spencer put it. All the major powers believed in establishing empires to control their markets. People and politicians in these countries were either racist or racialist. The natives of colonies were regarded as backward. Racists like Cecil Rhodes believed that colonial people were inherently inferior whilst racialists or paternalists like Kipling believed that it would take time for these peoples to develop and it only be done with the help of more advanced powers, hence the belief in the British 'mission to civilise'. We may believe otherwise but that is what people believed then. Similarly attitudes towards the use of violence were different in the c19th. Atrocities like Amritsar were condemned publicly but as said above, the use of violence was justified to keep the empire together. Gradually the view of the minority that believed in governing with the consent and goodwill of the governed prevailed and with a growing educated class in the colonies, imperialism was questioned but this process took time.


When Dr Tharoor blamed the deaths from famine in India in the c19th on the British, would the number of deaths have been any less if someone else had been in power. If the British had not ruled India, it might have been the Russians or the Mughals. Would they have been any more successful in dealing with the famines? India still has huge levels of poverty and struggles to improve levels of sanitation and the position of  untouchables. For much of the c19th the Raj struggled to improve the lives of women and in particular to outlaw sati. Was this though Britain trying to impose its own values on another people? I do not think the governments of today can be held responsible for the actions of their predecessors for the reasons outlined above. Governments reflect the attitudes and views of their people.


Even if we were to try to assess culpability we have to take into account the benefits the imperial power brings. How do we balance the benefits against the economic exploitation and the destruction of local cultures?  Britain laid the basis for an industrialised state in India with a network of railways, a coal industry and in English and links to Britain  the means of taking part in the global economy. A parliamentary system was established which India and most former colonies retain giving people a say in their government.


David Cameron refused to apologise when he went to Amritsar. I believe he was right. Apologies can only be made by those directly responsible for a wrong in order to demonstrate contrition. Politicians can only express regret and bring the wrongs of the past to the attention of the world today so that they are a lesson for future generations. They cannot be held responsible for the actions of previous governments. It is right that survivors of atrocities be compensated although that begs the question as to whether the settles who were also victims of atrocities should be compensated. It is a complex matter. The peoples of colonies had an imperial system of justice imposed on them and settlers were representatives of an imperial power but under any system of law the atrocities suffered by settlers would have been illegal acts. What is important now is that governments acknowledge the wrongs of previous governments and achieve reconciliation and move forward.




Dr Tharoor wants compensation from Britain for the victims of British induced famines.

British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in Amritsar

A scene from the Gandhi film of the Amritsar massacre

The attack on the British contingent at Cawnpore as they try to leave the town under a flag of truce.

The Battle of Omdurman and the maxim gun used in the battle.

Victims of communal violence following the division of India in 1947.

Indian railways

Hangings in India 1858

A British camp in Kenya