Recent Black Lives Matter protests in Britain have thrown a light on the country’s history of colonialism, racism and slavery. Throughout the 17th century, and much of the 18th, the British Empire was a leading force in the transatlantic slave trade. The trade was imposed by Europe on Africa, and was a centuries-long system of barbarism unparalleled in history.
Experts estimate that between 1526 and 1867, around 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped, enslaved and forcibly shipped to the Americas and the West Indies where they were sold as chattels. Out of those 12.5 million slaves, only 10.7 million survived the Atlantic crossing. The rest died in transit due to their brutal and inhuman treatment at the hands of the slave traders. These human “cargos” would often be dumped alive into the sea if they rebelled against their treatment, or even if the ships’ captains thought it unprofitable to keep them alive.
According to C. L. R. James in The Black Jacobins, his magisterial study of the Haitian revolution, “A captain held up by calms or adverse winds was known to have poisoned his cargo. Another killed some of his slaves to feed the others with the flesh.”
These 1.8 million victims of what has been termed the African holocaust are only the tip of the iceberg. Through the centuries, untold millions suffered and were tortured on the plantations maintained by European colonists in the Americas and the West Indies.
Britain played a leading role in all of this. The much-touted British abolition of slavery was enacted very late and did not come into full force until 1838. By then, former-slaves in Haiti had already liberated themselves by force from the yoke of European oppression.
Slavery was increasingly seen by capitalists as an outmoded system and it was not bringing in the profits it once did. The British government’s support for abolition was also motivated by the fact that it was damaging to its main imperial rival and slave trader, France.
The toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol this month was, therefore, a glorious moment of liberation and defiance against this legacy of violence and white supremacy. The removal of symbols of public veneration and praise for the slave trader was long overdue.
We are also long overdue a review of the malign legacy of the British Empire. An honest history of the empire is not taught to any significant extent in British schools, probably because it was so horrific. Britain’s imperial legacy around the world was so bloody that it is extremely difficult to speak in its favour, although propagandists try their best. Hence, it is for the most part covered up and simply not discussed.
A recent poll revealed that a third of British people are proud of the empire and more than a quarter wish that it still existed. While there is no doubt that there is a large core of white supremacists in this country, these figures arise mostly out of ignorance. Accurate and critical teaching of the history of the empire in British schools and universities would undoubtedly lead to a swift reduction in such numbers.
The toppling of the Colston statue received wide support across the country, but the defacing of the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square did not. Churchill is still regarded as a mythic national figure; the man who saved the country from Nazi invasion during the Second World War.
However, a wider reckoning with Britain’s imperial past and a dismantling of and reparations for our colonial legacy must start with an accurate portrayal of our political and military leaders, past and present. In many ways, Churchill’s views were not very different from those of Adolf Hitler, astonishing as that may sound. They both led countries which were rival imperial powers, and Hitler had no qualms about the British Empire’s colonial rule; he fell out with Britain over Churchill’s refusal to allow Germany to expand its borders within Europe.
Hitler attempted in vain to forge an Anglo-German alliance. In a 1936 speech he explained why: “This white race has been ordained to govern, to lead and to rule the rest of the world.”
On this point, Churchill reciprocated, expressing in 1935 his “admiration” for Hitler and “his long weary battle for the German heart.”
Churchill also shared some of Hitler’s repugnant anti-Jewish views. In 1920 he promoted an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory very similar in outlook to the fantasy of global Jewish control which was long central to Hitler’s outlook. “Some people like Jews and some do not,” Churchill opined, warning that “international Jews” were leading a “world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation.”
This anti-Jewish sentiment was translated easily into support for the European settler-colonial project of Zionism. Under Zionism, European Jews would be removed from their home countries and transferred to Palestine where they could have a “national home”. That is why European anti-Semites have always been happy to support Zionism; put simply, it leads to the removal of Jews from the continent.
However, the Jewish people around the world overwhelmingly rejected Zionism. They considered it rightly as a threat to their civil rights in their home countries, as well as inimical to the rights of the Palestinians.
As such, the Zionist project was always imposed at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population, without even “consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country,” to repeat the infamous phraseology of Arthur Balfour, the British imperial Foreign Minister responsible for the eponymous 1917 Declaration.
In 1921, Churchill was the government minister in charge of Britain’s colonies. With Britain having occupied Palestine during the so-called Great War, and imposed its own “Mandate” administration, he approved of a racial bar favouring European Jewish settlers and discriminating against Palestinian Arabs. “In the interests of the Zionist policy,” he wrote, “all elective institutions have so far been refused to the Arabs.”
After the 1936 Palestinian revolt against such British discrimination and oppression, and the fact that they were being pushed out by Zionist settlers, the Peel Commission was dispatched from London to get to the bottom of “the disturbances”.
Churchill’s testimony to the commission revealed his racist, colonial outlook. It is unambiguously the case that he considered white people to be the “superior” race, while he denigrated Black and brown people as “inferior”.
Speaking of the indigenous Palestinians, who had risen up against the Zionist settlers, he said: “I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger… even though he may have lain there for a very long time.” He denied that “a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the Black people of Australia” by their replacement with “a higher grade race.”
Winston Churchill’s anti-Semitism did not prevent him from supporting the idea of Zionism and its objective of a “Jewish home” in Palestine. Indeed, it had the opposite effect, and Zionism was viewed by many British imperial planners as a useful colonial tool. This project — the Zionist state of Israel —has always depended on the support of Western powers, anti-Semites and all, and still does today.
Without continued US and European backing for Israel, even from those deemed to be on the far right of politics, its Zionist apartheid structures would be unsustainable. Zionism depends on anti-Semitism to survive, which is why it was easy for Churchill to be an anti-Semite and still support Israel’s founding ideology.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.