Was British Imperialism Less Violent Than other Europe

Imperialism is defined as ‘a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other means’, whilst violence is defined as ‘using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something’. When assessing the violence British imperialism entailed it is most prevalent in the colonisation that was the driving force behind British imperialist ambitions. This essay will explore whether British imperialism can in reality be considered less violent than that of its European neighbours, particularly in relation to the development of concentration camps between 1896 to 1907, as well as the attitudes of British citizens at home in regard to their acceptance of the use of violence to achieve Britain’s foreign policy, a view mirrored by the citizens of other European powers.

Furthermore this essay will question whether it is possible to categorically assess the posed question, in light of the recent revelations pointing to the extent of the violence perpetrated in Britain’s former colonies.

In specific, the implications of the Hanslope disclosure in April 2011 would suggest the extent of the violence inflicted by British imperialism was indeed as great as that of Britain’s European rivals.

When assessing the extent of the violence associated with British imperialism in comparison to that of other European powers, one of the most notable examples is the formulation of concentration camps during the Boer war. The violence inflicted on the South African population in the form of internship, in what would become known as concentration camps, led to mass fatalities numbering ‘up to 45,000 deaths, approximately 25 000 Boers and 14 000 to 20 000 Africans’ .

The historian Jonathon Hyslop explores this and suggests that the ‘introduction into state practice and political discourse of extreme forms of militarised brutalism against civilians’ which led to concentration camps, was a phenomenon shared by Britain and other European powers. The historical debate as to which European power initiated the use of concentration camps is laid out by Hyslop, who tells us they were ‘identified as emerging either in the policies of the Spanish government in response to the revolt in its Cuban colony from 1894, or in the British policies in the South African war of 1899-1902, or both.’ This ambiguity indicates that we cannot consider either colonial power as more or less violent than the other, in addition the Spanish internship of Cuban citizens amounting to ‘a quarter of the whole population of the island’ resulted in excess of 100,000 deaths. The brutality displayed by both powers would suggest that levels of violence between the two cannot be compared, a suggestion enforced by historian Giorgio Agamben who argued ‘the camp is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet’.

Furthermore the parallels between the British publics reaction to acts of colonial associated violence and that of other European citizens arguably suggests Britain’s capacity for violence in the context of its imperial ambitions, was equal to that of other prominent European powers. In specific the British publics reaction to the Amritsar Massacre between 1919 and 1920 as described by the historian Derek Sayer indicates how violence as a means of projecting Britain’s influence abroad was normalised in the British state. Sayer describes how Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer fired on unarmed crowds ‘for ten minutes in all, 1,650 rounds were spent… 379 people were killed and over 1,200 wounded.’ Following this event the majority of the House of Lords condoned Dyers actions as well as much of the press. Sayer asserts that for the public ‘who gave in their droves to Dyer’s defence fund…the massacre was no aberration.’ Whilst it may be the case that the House of Commons disavowed Dyer’s actions and Winston Churchill the secretary of state for War during the crisis described the incident as ‘an episode… without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British empire’ this was not in line with the majority of Anglo- Indian opinion. In addition Churchill’s analysis of the Amritsar massacre as ‘an event, which stands in singular and sinister isolation’ is in itself an admission of tolerance for the violence enacted on Indian citizens predating 1919, such as the violent extinguishing of the Sepoy mutiny in 1857. The British publics acclimatisation to violence in the name of imperialism and the parallels between British sentiment towards violence and that of other European powers can be most clearly seen in the annihilationist ideas that became commonplace in Germany in the early 19th century as described by the historian Benjamin Madley. Following the colonisation of German South West Africa now known as Nambia, which resulted in genocide against the Herero and Nama locals, annihilationist ideas became increasingly widespread. Madley describes how Rohrbach an influential German writer asserted that, ‘No false philosophy or race- theory can prove to reasonable people that the preservation of any tribe of nomadic South African Kaffirs… is more important for the future of mankind than the expansion of the great European nations’. Britain and Germany’s mutual contempt for the lives of the citizens living in their colonies would suggest that British imperialism was no less violent than that of other European partners.

In addition it could be argued that our incomplete access to evidence regarding the violence associated with British imperialism, as well as the British governments attempts to conceal information pertinent to the levels of violence exercised in the pursuit of imperial ambitions, mean that it is difficult to conclude that British imperialism was more or less aggressive. The historian David M. Anderson discusses the hearing at the High Court in London in April 2011, which was preceded by the revelation ‘that the British government had removed some 1,500 ‘sensitive’ government files from Kenya at independence’. The extent of the attempted cover up was epitomised by the discovery of ‘a further tranche of 8,800 historical files relating to the decolonisation of 36 other former British Colonies.’ It is therefore plausible to suggest that the revelation of these documents pertaining to potentially violent aspects of British imperialism could ‘lead to a significant revision of the history of British decolonisation’.

To conclude, whilst there is no doubt that the violence exhibited by other European powers imperialist campaigns was brutal and extreme, it would be incorrect to argue that Britain was any less malicious. All European powers, including Britain, were primarily reliant on the use of force and violence as a means of subjugation of local peoples. As Hyslop points out the ‘instrumental logic of violence led to the… reorganisation of civilians on a mass scale, as a means of containing and controlling subject.

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