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Dark Truths About Britain’s Imperial Past

Despite the ambitious title, she really begins her story only in the 19th century, with a series of colonial rebellions from Ireland to India. In 1865 a rising in Jamaica was put down and Edward Eyre, the governor, boasted that “the retribution has been so prompt and so terrible that it is likely never to be forgotten.” Nor was it: A Jamaica Committee — including John Stuart Mill, John Bright, Darwin and Dickens — investigated and condemned that terrible retribution. But Elkins finds such humane concern dubious: Her particular target is “liberal imperialism,” with its belief in the benevolent power of empire to improve subject peoples.

Although Rudyard Kipling, the bard of empire, warned of imperial hubris in “Recessional,” George Curzon, the viceroy of India, could claim that “imperialism is becoming every day less and less the creed of a party and more and more the faith of the nation.” As the 20th century unfolded, Elkins writes, “British security forces deployed ever-intensifying forms of systematic violence that made empire look like a recurring conquest state.”

One grim new factor was what its proponents called “air power.” From 1919 onward, aircraft of the newborn Royal Air Force were a far cheaper means of subjugation than armies. They bombed and machine-gunned defenseless people in Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Palestine, with no officer more enthusiastic for the task than “Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris,” as Elkins anachronistically calls him (the sobriquet was conferred by the popular press two decades later when he directed Bomber Command in a far greater campaign of destruction against Germany).

After the Great War, the empire had reached its territorial zenith with the acquisition of the vast new territories of Iraq and Palestine. Having bombed Iraqi villages, Harris moved on to bombing Palestinian villages, and here a more fraught question emerges. “Pax Britannica in Palestine was creating conflict with the auspices of the rule of law,” Elkins writes, but it’s not quite clear what she means by that. The British may be said to have “created conflict” by granting the Balfour Declaration in 1917, favoring the creation of a national home for the Jews, while insisting in contradictory words that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” That was the origin of today’s tragic and intractable conflict. Does Elkins, like the eminent Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, for example, think that the Balfour Declaration was a disastrous error?

In November 1942, in words for some reason considered so amusing that Ronald Reagan borrowed and adapted them in his first inaugural, Churchill said that “I have not become the king’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” But he had, since that liquidation was the outcome of the war in which he led his country. It was immediately followed by the wretched last years of British Mandatory Palestine. Elkins gives a colorful account, but she doesn’t see the ironies of the story. As she writes, “Truman had asked Churchill at Potsdam to lift restrictions on immigration” of the desperate Jewish survivors in Europe. Restrictions on immigration to Palestine, that is: Truman had no intention of lifting restrictions on immigration to the United States.

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