10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters

Khalid Elhassan - July 19, 2018

In 1800, before the Industrial Revolution, Europeans controlled 35% of world. By 1914, on the eve of World War I, that figure had risen to 84%. European colonialism was transformative. Sometimes that was for the better, more often for the worse, but it was nearly always repressive, marked by brutality, massacres, and atrocities to cow the colonized into submission.

Following are ten atrocities committed by European colonial authorities.

British Suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising Was Marked by Systemic Torture, Rape, and Murder

Starting in the early 20th century, white British settlers began colonizing the fertile central highlands of Kenya, setting themselves up as coffee and tea planters. Prime lands were expropriated from the natives, and given to white farmers from Britain and South Africa. In the process, large numbers of the native Kikuyu tribes who had farmed those lands for centuries were displaced.

The influx of white settlers increased sharply after World War I, as the British government implemented a scheme to resettle ex-soldiers in the region. In 1920, the white settlers prevailed upon the colonial government to solidify their land tenure and hold on power by enacting restrictions on Kikuyu land ownership and agricultural practices. Kikuyu land ownership was restricted to reservations, and before long, about 3000 British settlers owned more land – and the best land at that – than 1 million Kikuyus.

Many Kikuyu who were kicked off their tribal homelands were forced to emigrate to Nairobi, where they lived in slums surrounding the Kenyan capital. Those who remained in the central highlands were reduced to an agricultural proletariat, working their ancestral lands as farm laborers for the white settlers. British settlers grew wealthy off their land holdings, and frequently treated the indigenous Africans with racist hostility and contempt.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
British soldiers rounding up men in a Kikuyu village during the Mau Mau Uprising. South African History Online

Kenyan nationalists such as Jomo Kenyata pressed the British in vain for political rights and land reforms, particularly a land redistribution in the central highlands, but were ignored. Finally, after years of marginalization as white settler expansion ate away at their land holdings, disaffected Kikuyus formed a secret resistance society known as the Mau Mau. In 1952, Mau Mau fighters began carrying out attacks against political opponents, raiding white settler plantations, and destroying their crops and livestock.

The British responded by declaring a state of emergency, rushing army reinforcements to Kenya, and conducting a savage counterinsurgency that lasted until 1960. British military units conducted sweeps in the Kenyan countryside, indiscriminately rounding up Mau Mau insurgents and innocents alike. Collective punishment was visited upon villages suspected of Mau Mau sympathies, and massacres became a frequent occurrence.

During the eight years of the emergency, 38 white settlers were killed. By contrast, British official figures for Mau Mau fighters killed in the field was 11,000, plus another 1090 hanged by the colonial administration. Unofficial figures indicate that many more native Kenyans were killed. A human rights commission estimated that the British tortured, maimed, or killed 90,000 Kenyans during a campaign of sustained official terror. An additional 160,000 were detained in camps for years on end, without trial and in atrocious conditions. The camp’s white officers subjected their African inmates to beatings, severe torture, and starvation. Women were routinely raped, while some men were castrated. They were not isolated incidents, but systemic – part and parcel of the wider counterinsurgency campaign intended to break the Mau Mau.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
Still from a movie scene depicting the Amritsar Massacre. Pintrest

The British Responded to a Peaceful Protest by Shooting Thousands in the Amritsar Massacre

On April 13th, 1919, a crowd of about 10,000 Indian civilians gathered in Amritsar, Punjab, to protest the colonial authorities’ recent arrest and deportation of two Indian nationalist leaders. In response, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer of the British Indian Army ordered his troops to open fire on the unarmed protesters. An estimated 1,000 were killed in the ensuing massacre, and an additional 1,500 were wounded.

During World War I, British India made significant contributions to the British war effort, and millions of Indians served their colonial overlords as soldiers or laborers in the war’s various theaters. Even as the Indians fought and toiled on Britain’s behalf, the British authorities in India enacted a series of repressive laws to counteract potential subversion, and gave the military and police broad emergency powers. When the war ended in 1918, Indians expected that the emergency powers would be repealed, now that the emergency was over, and that India would be granted more autonomy. They were sorely disappointed when the colonial authorities, rather than ease up, enacted new laws in early 1919 that not only cemented the repressive wartime measures, but expanded them even further.

That was not the reward many Indians had expected for their wartime patience and sacrifices in what had essentially been an intra-European conflict. Protests erupted throughout India, and the Punjab in particular became a hotbed of anti-colonial activity. Indians poured into the streets in massive protest rallies, strikes erupted, rail, telegraph, and communications systems were disrupted, and the local colonial administration was nearly paralyzed. Many officers in the British Indian Army believed that the protests were a prelude to an uprising, along the lines of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, or Revolt.

In Amritsar, protests were further fueled in April of 1919 when two popular Indian nationalists, adherents of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha nonviolent resistance movement, were arrested. In the days leading up to the Amritsar Massacre, troops had fired on protesters, killing several. Mobs retaliated by attacking Europeans in the streets, which led to yet more retaliatory fire from colonial troops, and a steady escalation of violence.

Brigadier Dyer was ordered to restore order, and he ordered a ban on public gatherings. On the afternoon of April 13th, 1919, about 10,000 Indian men, women, and children, gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh, a seven acre public garden in Amritsar. It is unclear how many had gathered to protest, and how many were simply passing through after celebrating Baisakhi, a religious spring festival, at a nearby temple. What is clear is that they were unarmed civilians, and that their numbers included many women and children.

The Jallianwala Bagh, measuring about 200 yards by 200 yards, was enclosed by walls on all sides, with one main entrance, and some smaller gated exits. At 4:30 PM, Dyer arrived with about 90 troops, and without warning the crowds to disperse, blocked the main exits. He then ordered his men to open fire, and they kept firing for the next ten minutes, until their ammunition was exhausted. The troops then withdrew, leaving the carnage behind.

As Dyer later explained it, his goal “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience“. A week later, an unrepentant Dyer issued an order to humiliate the locals and emphasize British racial supremacy. It required every Indian man using a street where a British missionary had been attacked to crawl its length on his hands and knees.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
A Boer woman and child in a concentration camp. Errol Lincoln Uys

Boer Civilians Perished by the Tens of Thousands in British Concentration Camps

In the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902), Britain had a rough go of it trying to subdue the Boers of the Orange Free State and of the Republic of Transvaal. The British initially assumed that the fighting would be quickly over after a swift campaign, but their opponents proved tougher and more resilient than expected. Although greatly outnumbered, the Boers flat footed the British by going on the offensive and achieving some remarkable early successes. Before they knew it, the British had a full scale war on their hands, that required the commitment of roughly 600,000 troops and auxiliaries to the fight.

The disparity in numbers forced the Boers to eschew pitched battles and rely instead on hit and run tactics and guerrilla warfare that caused the British no end of trouble. In late 1900, Herbert Kitchener was put in charge of the British effort, and he proceeded to defeat the guerrillas by depriving them of the civilian support upon which they relied. The British adopted a scorched earth policy of burning down Boer farms and homesteads, killing their livestock, poisoning their wells, destroying their crops, and salting their fields.

The British also adopted a new and ominous innovation that had recently been introduced by the Spanish while suppressing guerrillas in their Cuban colony: concentration camps. The British herded tens of thousands of Boer civilians from the countryside, mostly women and children, and interned their captives – “concentrating” them – in vast camps behind barbed wire.

Conditions in the concentration camps were atrocious. The administrators were incompetent, supplies were spotty, and the internees suffered from bad sanitation, poor hygiene, overcrowding, inadequate shelter, and often nonexistent medical care. Food rations were scanty, and the British targeted the families of Boer men who were still fighting, giving them even smaller rations than the meager portions provided the rest.

Malnutrition claimed the lives of many internees, and left many more vulnerable to contagious diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and measles, which swept the camps. Roughly 115,000 Boer civilians were herded into 45 concentration camps. In the 11 month period from June of 1901 to May of 1902, about 28,000 Boer internees perished, representing a tenth of the entire Boer population. The Boers’ African servants were held in separate concentration camps, where conditions were, if anything even worse. Those camps did not garner the same attention as the camps housing the white Boers, but an estimated 20,000 Africans perished in their camps.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
Piled up corpses from the Setif Massacre. 5 Pillars

The French Massacred Algerians by the Tens of Thousands in 1945

May 8th, 1945, the day of Germany’s surrender and the end of World War II in Europe, was a day of celebration in the victor nations. In the eastern Algerian town of Setif, thousands of native Algerian men, women, and children, held a parade to celebrate the victory. 200,000 Algerians had been conscripted by their French colonial overlords during WWII, and the marchers planned to lay a wreath at a monument commemorating the Algerians killed in the conflict.

The parade, whose numbers included many Algerian veterans recently returned from the front lines, angered French settlers and French police. The French feared both the march’s undertones of Algerian nationalism, and assertion of a right to equality with the French settlers. Some marchers carried placards stating “We Want Equality“, and “End the Occupation“, and others called for the release of Algerian political prisoners held by the colonial authorities. When those carrying the placards refused to get rid of them, French settlers and police opened fire on the marchers. That led to widespread rioting, followed by attacks on French settlers in the surrounding countryside in which about 100 were killed.

The head of government in Metropolitan France, General Charles De Gaulle, ordered the colonial authorities in Algeria to restore order by all means possible. The French military needed little prompting, and responded with a campaign of collective punishment that entailed the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons of war against Algerian civilians.

French battleships and cruisers opened fire on native Algerian neighborhoods in Setif and its surrounding environs. French dive bombers struck and flattened over 40 Algerian villages. French soldiers carried out a ratissage, or “raking over” of Algerian rural communities suspected of involvement in the unrest, in which thousands were shot in summary executions. French settlers went on a rampage in which they lynched Algerians seized from local jails, randomly shoot natives out of hand, tortured them to death, or doused them in fuel and set them on fire.

Humiliation routinely accompanied the repression. Algerian men were frequently rounded up and forced to kneel in front of a French flag, then made to shout “We are dogs” before being led away, never to be seen again. By the time the orgy of killing and repression finally came to an end weeks later, thousands of Algerian natives had perished. The exact numbers are unknown, but most historians put the death toll within a range of 6000 to 20,000, while some contemporary news sources put the figure as high as 45,000.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
Victims of the Setif Massacre. Pintrest

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
Starving Irish during the Potato Famine. NPR

British Handling of the Irish Potato Famine

England began colonizing Ireland in the 12th century. In succeeding centuries, the colonists exploited the island, dispossessed the natives of the best lands, and literally lorded it over the locals. By the 19th century Ireland was an agricultural nation, populated by about eight million people who were amongst the poorest in the Western World. Most Irish were illiterate, life expectancy was short, and infant mortality was high.

A predominately Protestant Anglo-Irish hereditary ruling caste owned most of the land, which had been confiscated over the years from the native Irish Catholics. Most landowners were absentee landlords who seldom visited their estates, but simply lived off their rents, often quite lavishly, in London or Europe. Their tenants were poor Catholic farmers who scratched a subsistence living from plots that kept shrinking over the generations.

The potato became an appealing crop to such subsistence level farmers because it was hardy, nutritious, calorie-rich, and easy to grow on Irish soil. It became a staple crop, and by the 1840s, about half the Irish population, and especially the poor farmers, had come to rely almost exclusively on potatoes for their diet. That left them vulnerable to catastrophe should the potato crop fail, which it did in 1845 when a blight caused much of that year’s crop to rot in the field. It was followed by even worse blights in subsequent years, and famine ensued.

While the Potato Famine was not caused by Britain, British policies and reactions ensured that it became far more deadly than it otherwise would have been. The British government’s response ranged from inadequate to outright incompetent. Among other things, its Conservative government continued to allow the export of grain from Ireland to mainland Britain, even as starvation loomed over millions of Irish. A Liberal government replaced the Conservatives in 1846, and continued its predecessor’s policies of allowing grain exports from a starving Ireland to a well-fed Britain.

The authorities in London also adopted a hands off laissez-faire approach towards the starving Irish. The burden of relief efforts was shifted to local Irish resources, mainly in the form of local poor relief paid for by the landlords. However, because the starving peasants were unable to pay the rents, the landlords soon ran out of money to pay the taxes for poor relief.

Additionally, the British imposed work requirements on the indigent and starving Irish in need of relief, which backfired spectacularly as many were too debilitated by hunger to work. Additionally, many of those who managed to get some form of food relief were given cornmeal that Irish stomachs were unaccustomed to, and that was nutritionally deficient, anyhow.

As a result, about a million Irish starved to death during the Potato Famine, and another million were forced to emigrate from Ireland, reducing the island’s population within a few years by 25%. The famine became a watershed in Ireland’s history, greatly altering its demographics, politics, and culture, and boosting Irish nationalism and republicanism in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora. The population continued to decline due to emigration in subsequent decades, and the by the time Ireland became independent in 1921, its population was only half of what it had been in the 1840s.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
Congolese children punished by amputation for the parents` failure to meet work quotas. All That is Interesting

Belgian King Leopold II Turned the Congo Into a House of Horrors

Belgium’s king Leopold II is usually not one of the first names people associate with massive atrocities. However, his name belongs in the same league as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao: from 1885 to 1908, Leopold ran a colonial empire so vile and cruel that it rivals or exceeds the worst of most 20th century tyrants. The Belgian king’s colonial victims numbered in the millions, with ten million dead being the most commonly cited figure, although some scholarly estimates go as high as fifteen million.

It began in 1885, when Leopold painted himself as a humanitarian philanthropist and convinced the European powers then gathered at the Berlin Conference to award him a large state in central Africa – today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. He named the new colony the Congo Free State, but did not uplift the locals and develop the region as he had promised. Instead, the Belgian king transformed his African colonial possession into a living nightmare that claimed millions of lives in atrocities that were referred to by European contemporaries as the “Congo Horrors”.

Leopold consolidated his power in the Congo basin by making an alliance with a powerful Arab slave trader named Tippu Tip. That was awkward, given that the Belgian king had convinced the Berlin Conference to award him the Congo by promising to combat its endemic slave trade. Leopold made Tippu a provincial governor in the eastern Congo, and gave him a free hand in exchange for the slaver’s promise not compete with the king in the western Congo. Unsurprisingly, Tippu ramped up his slaving activities in his province, until Leopold, under pressure from European public opinion, turned on his slaver ally. He double crossed Tippu, and raised a mercenary army which expelled him from the Congo.

The Belgian king then reorganized his mercenaries into an occupation army named the Force Publique, and turned it loose to visit a reign of terror and horrors upon the natives. Leopold turned the Congo into a massive dystopian plantation, and the Congolese into de facto slaves. The natives were given quotas of rubber, ivory, diamonds, or other goods, to produce, and men who fell short of their quotas were mutilated by having their hands or feet amputated. If a man escaped, or it was deemed necessary that he keep his limbs to continue producing, the Belgian king’s goons would mutilate his family instead, amputating the hands of his wife and children.

Millions were mutilated for failure to meet production quotas. Millions more were murdered, starved, worked to death, or perished from various forms of mistreatment and misgovernment under Leopold’s colonial regime. Numerous villages were wiped out, with all their inhabitants massacred, for daring to protest their colonial overlords’ tyranny.

When the Belgian king was awarded the Congo in 1885, it contained an estimated 20 million people. When a census was conducted in 1924, that figure had fallen to 10 million. The exact number of victims is unknown and likely unknowable, but with estimates going as high as 15 million deaths, the Belgian king qualifies as one of history’s worst monsters.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
Native Africans mutilated for failures to meet work quotas in the Congo Free State. Wikimedia

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
`Storming of the Teocalli` by Emanuel Leutze, 1848. Pintrest

The Depredations of Spanish Conquistadors in Mexico

In February of 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes landed with a small force on Mexico’s eastern coast. After subduing the region surrounding today’s Vera Cruz, he proceeded to march inland towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, defeating and allying with natives en route. Natives who refused to join Cortes were massacred, as occurred in the city of Cholula. As Cortes described it in his letters, after capturing the city, he destroyed it and burned it to the ground, while the conquistadors ran riot, killing about 3000 Cholulans in a few hours. Another Spanish eyewitness put the actual number of massacred Cholulans as high as 30,000. By the time he reached Tenochtitlan, Cortes had a large native army, surrounding a core of Spaniards.

The Aztec ruler Montezuma II grew indecisive upon learning of the Spaniards’ landing. He invited Cortes and his conquistadors into Tenochtitlan in November of 1519, in the hopes of better understanding them and their weaknesses. He then foolishly plied his guests with lavish gifts of gold, which only excited their lust for plunder. Cortes treacherously seized Montezuma in his own palace, and keeping him a hostage, ruled Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire through the captive emperor.

In April of 1520, Cortes had to speed back to Mexico’s east coast in order to ward off another Spanish expedition sent to oust him. He left behind a Spanish garrison of 200 men under a trusted deputy. In Cortes absence, however, his deputy massacred thousands of Aztecs in Tenochtitlan’s Great Temple, triggering an uprising. Cortes rushed back to Tenochtitlan and trotted out the captive Montezuma in hopes that he would placate the natives, but the livid Aztecs stoned the Spaniards’ puppet ruler to death.

Cortes fled Tenochtitlan, then returned with a powerful native army to subdue the city. After vicious street by street fighting that wrecked much of the Aztec capital, Cortes finally subdued the city, whose population had been decimated by Old World diseases against which the natives had no immunity. According to sources: “On the day that Tenochtitlán was taken, the Spaniards committed some of the most brutal acts ever inflicted upon the unfortunate people of this land. The cries of the helpless women and children were heart-rending“.

The Spanish built Mexico City and their colony of New Spain atop the ruins of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire. The Natives – former allies and enemies alike – were reduced to de facto serfs, working the large estates, or haciendas, which the conquerors apportioned to themselves. Between massacres, mistreatment, overwork, and Old World epidemics, the native population of New Spain crashed from an estimated 30 million when Cortes arrived, to a mere 3 million by 1568.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
A hanging party during the Herero and Nama Genocide. All That is Interesting

The Herero and Nama Genocide

In the 1880s, Germany established a colony in South West Africa – today’s Namibia – that was home to African pastoralists such as the Nama people, numbering about 20,000, and the Herero, a grouping of about 75,000 cattle herders. The German colonists ruled with a heavy hand and a deliberate brutality that stood out even amidst the brutal norms of European colonization. As the German commander in charge of subduing the region put it in 1888: “only uncompromising brutality will lead to victory“.

The African natives’ livestock and best lands were confiscated and given to German settlers, and the Africans themselves were frequently seized and used as slave labor. Racial discrimination was rife, and most German settlers viewed the natives as a source of cheap labor, while others simply called for their extermination. The Africans’ resentment was further exacerbated by the frequent rape of native women and girls by settlers – a crime that the German authorities rarely addressed, let alone punished.

Unsurprisingly, such abuses alienated the natives. When the Herero and Nama learned that the Germans planned to further divide their lands and herd them into reservations, they rose up in rebellion. In January of 1904, they launched a surprise attack that killed about 125 Germans. In response, the Germans sent an expeditionary force of about 14,000 soldiers, led by a General Lothar von Trotha.

Trotha stated his intent to end the uprising by exterminating the Herero. As he put it: “I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country“. In August of 1904, Trotha’s men defeated about 3000 Herero combatants. As a guide employed by the Germans described what happened next: ” After the battle all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside and in the sandveld were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men were unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance“.

The Germans pursued the survivors into the desert, and prevented them from accessing water by placing armed guards on water sources, or poisoning the wells, leading to the deaths of thousands from thirst. On October 4th, Trotha wrote his superiors: “I believe that this [Herero] nation as a nation must be exterminated… I prefer for the nation to disappear entirely rather than allow them to infect our troops with their diseases“.

As to the Nama, the German settlers called for their extermination. Those who did not flee were sent to concentration camps, with one third of the captives dying en route before reaching the camps. Once in the camps, many more died of epidemics and mistreatment. The captives were subjected to forced labor, beaten, whipped, and tortured, while many of the women were raped or made into concubines. In total, about 65,000 Herero, 80% of their total population, perished in the genocide. 10,000 Nama, 50% of that people, were also killed.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
`Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru`, by John Everett Millais. Fine Art America

The Spanish Subjugation of the Incas

Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro managed to repeat against the Incas in South America what Hernan Cortes had visited upon the Aztecs of Mexico. Indeed, Pizarro’s dealings with the Incan emperor Atahualpa were even more dramatic and venal than those of Cortes with Montezuma a decade earlier. Pizarro’s efforts also led to genocide, the destruction of a native empire, and its replacement by a new Spanish domain.

Atahualpa had inherited the northern half of the Incan Empire from his father in 1525, while the southern half went to his brother Huascar. Five years later, Atahualpa attacked Huascar, and by 1532, he had defeated his brother and reunited the empire. However, his reign over the united Incan Empire, would prove brief, as Pizarro showed up soon thereafter.

Pizarro landed in Peru in 1532, and after establishing a small colony, he set off to conquer with a small force of about 200 men. En route, he was met by an envoy from Atahualpa. The Inca ruler invited the Spaniard to visit him at his camp, where he was resting with his army of about 100,000 men after his victory over Huascar and the reunification of the Incan Empire.

A meeting was arranged for November 16th, 1532, in a plaza in the town of Cajamarca. Pizarro set off to meet Atahualpa with 110 infantry and 67 cavalry, armed and armored with steel, plus three arquebuses and two small cannon. On the eve of the meeting, Pizarro outlined for his men an audacious plan to seize Atahualpa, inspired by Cortes’ seizure of Montezuma.

Atahualpa failed to take precautions for his own security. On the appointed day, he left his army camped outside Cajamarca, and arrived at the town’s plaza on a fine litter carried by 80 high ranking courtiers. He was trailed by about 5000 Inca nobles and other courtiers, richly dressed in ceremonial garments, and unarmed except for small ceremonial stone axes.

The Spaniards were concealed in buildings surrounding the plaza, with cavalry hidden in alleys leading to the open square. They fell upon Atahualpa and his party at a signal from Pizarro, and a massacre ensued. The unarmored natives proved no match for the Spaniards’ steel swords, pikes, bullets, or crossbow bolts, while the Incans’ ceremonial stone axes proved useless against Spanish plate armor. Thousands of natives were killed, with the remainder fleeing in panic, while not a single Spaniard lost his life.

Atahualpa was captured, and he sought to buy his life by offering to fill a room measuring 22 by 17 feet, up to a height of eight feet with gold, and twice with silver. Over the next eight months, the Incas gathered gold, silver, jewels, and other valuables to placate the Spaniards, who proved insatiable and kept upping their demands. After the payments were made, Pizarro reneged on the deal, and put Atahualpa through a staged trial. The Inca ruler was convicted of rebellion, idolatry, and murdering his brother, Huascar. Atahualpa was sentenced to death by burning, but was spared that fate by agreeing to get baptized as a Catholic, and was executed by strangulation instead.

The Inca were left leaderless, but put up what resistance they could, mostly in the form of guerrilla warfare. In the ensuing decades, massacre, murder, rape, and torture became commonplace as the Spaniards systematically overcame native opposition, reducing the Inca and conquering their cities. Between Spanish depredations and Old World epidemics such as smallpox and measles, an estimated 50-90% of the Inca population perished within a few decades of Pizarro’s arrival.

10 of History’s Worst Colonial Disasters
Victims of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Facts Legend

The Bengal Famine of 1943

Britain’s greatest wartime leader, Winston Churchill was one of the giants of the 20th century, and a hero of the modern era. He is rightly celebrated for his tenacity and steadfastness in the early years of World War II, when he rallied a reeling Britain and kept it in the fight against Nazi Germany – the first step in the Third Reich’s defeat. However, Churchill was a complex man, and there was far more to him than the year or so when he and Britain held the line against the Nazis, until joined by the USSR and USA. During a public career that lasted more than half a century, Churchill had no shortage of missteps, or outright villainous misdeeds, that contrast jarringly with the nobility of his heroics against Hitler. One such misdeed was the decisions he took during WWII regarding food distribution in India, which led directly to the deaths of roughly 3 million Indians in Bengal.

The British Empire had long justified itself by claiming to govern for the benefit of its colonized subjects, but its conduct during the Bengal Famine of 1943 gave the lie to such pretenses. In the years leading up to the famine, many Bengalis had barely eked out a subsistence from their lands, supplemented by imported rice, mainly from Burma. When the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, Bengal was cut off from those imports, and the precarious existence of millions of Bengalis was tipped over into famine.

It was made worse by the British colonial authorities’ decision in 1942 to adopt a preemptive scorched earth policy in parts of Bengal that they feared the Japanese would overrun after conquering Burma. That entailed a “Denial of Rice” policy, which came down to the British removing or destroying rice and other foodstuffs in Bengali districts that had a surplus.

With traditional rice imports from Burma cut off, and home grown surpluses destroyed by the British, famine roared through Bengal. Relief efforts were hampered by Churchill’s decision to divert food shipments intended for the starving Bengalis to already well-supplied British soldiers in the Mediterranean. Ships loaded with wheat sailed past Indian cities whose streets were littered with the corpses of those starved to death, in order to add to the stockpiles of food in Britain.

Simultaneously, offers of Canadian and American food aid to the starving Indians were turned down by Churchill’s government, even as it prohibited India from using its own sterling reserves or its own ships to import food. Indeed, India was made to export over 70,000 tons of rice in the first half of 1943, while millions of Indians were starving to death. When the government in Delhi sent the Prime Minister a telegram informing him of the devastation and that millions of Indians were dying, Churchill churlishly replied: “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?

The Viceroy of India described Churchill’s attitude towards India as “negligent, hostile, and contemptuous“. Churchill was unrepentant, however. In addition to being shockingly callous about the millions of deaths sure to result from his orders, he seemed viciously gleeful about the predictable consequences when they actually occurred. As he put it, referring to the deaths of millions of Bengalis under his watch: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits“.

That was colonialism in a nutshell: an imbalance of power between colonists and colonized. It created dynamics whereby respected figures such as Winston Churchill, widely praised for their moral virtues, could engage in morally reprehensible conduct without any qualms. It allowed the government that ruled both Indians and Britons to callously tolerate famine in India, yet remain sensitive to British views that bread rationing in wartime Britain was an intolerable imposition.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

All That is Interesting – Why Isn’t Belgium’s King Leopold II As Reviled As Hitler or Stalin?

American Historical Association – The Conquest of Mexico

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Pizarro & the Fall of the Inca Empire

BBC – How Churchill Starved India

Encyclopedia Britannica – Great Famine

Encyclopedia Britannica – Massacre of Amritsar

Guardian, The, December 9th, 2001 – ‘Spin’ on Boer Atrocities

History Place – Irish Potato Famine

Imperial War Museum – What Was the Mau Mau Uprising?

Irish Times, May 8th, 2015 – Post War Massacre Sparked Algerian Independence

Ranker – The Most Devastating Atrocities Committed by Every European Colonial Empire

Smithsonian Magazine, October 28th, 2015 – A Brutal Genocide in Colonial Africa Finally Gets its Deserved Recognition

South African History Online – The Mau Mau Uprising

Time Magazine, November 29th, 2010 – The Ugly Briton

Wikipedia – Atrocities in the Congo Free State

Wikipedia – British Concentration Camps