The “Moral Effect” of Legalized Lawlessness

Violence in Britain’s Twentieth-Century Empire

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques


From 1930s Palestine to Kenya in the years following World War II, systematized violence shaped and defined much of Britain’s twentieth-century empire. Liberal authoritarianism, and with it the “moral effect” that coercion had upon colonial subjects, gave rise to the systematic use of violence against colonial subjects. The ideological roots of these tactics can be located in the twinned birth of liberalism and imperialism, together with metropolitan responses to imperial events in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite copious amounts of empirical evidence documenting the evolution of liberal authoritarianism, and the creation and deployment of legalized lawlessness throughout the British Empire, Steven Pinker either ignores this evidence, or implicitly denies its validity. In reframing Britain’s civilizing mission, and challenging liberalism’s obfuscating abilities, this article critiques not only the British government’s repeated denials of systematized violence in its empire, but also Pinker’s reinforcement of the myths of British imperial benevolence.

By the summer of 1938, the Arab Revolt in Mandatory Palestine had been raging for some two years and Britain had lost control of the situation. All sides of the imperial divide terrorized Arab villagers, and the rebels dominated the countryside, where they destroyed vast swaths of Palestine’s infrastructure. As Britain scrambled to reassemble a new leadership cadre to take charge and crush the rebellion once and for all, a lone intelligence officer, Captain Orde Wingate, stepped forward with an idea to “terrorize the terrorists …[to] catch them and just wipe them out.”1 Officials at the highest level endorsed Wingate’s brainchild—the Special Night Squads—and, with it, the plan “to set up a system and undetected movement of troops and police by night, across country and into villages, surprising gangs, restoring confidence to peasants, and gaining government control of rural areas.” For Wingate and his superior officers, translating Britain’s superior “national character” and prowess in training and natural aggression into a highly disciplined counterterror operation with the single goal of wiping out Arab rebels was the key to reestablishing British colonial control.2

Wingate’s Third Force took its brand of counterterrorism straight to the heart of the Arab villages. The Special Night Squads soon earned their legendary status when body counts and repression were the barometers for success. On their captain’s orders, Wingate’s men preferred inflicting bodily harm with blood-staining and dismembering bayonets and bombs rather than bullets; their leader’s “morality of punishment” also inspired them.3 Reprisals became part of the squads’ repertoire, with oil-soaked sand stuffed into the mouths of uncooperative Arabs. Wingate boasted how “anyone hanging about the line for an unlawful purpose was liable swiftly and silently to vanish away.”4

Britain’s empire would become as renowned for creating civil wars as they would be for leaving them in its wake, and Palestine was no exception. The Special Night Squads would become a training ground for future Jewish insurgents, both against Britain and eventually the Arab population. So, too, did the squads embrace a wide swath of British security forces, some of whom, like Corporal Fred Howbrook and Lieutenant Rex King-Clark, were professional soldiers trained to kill.5 Others, when the Special Night Squads expanded, were like the inexperienced, job-seeking Sydney Burr, who, on a policing contract in Palestine, only knew Arabs as “wogs” and casually recounted at the time how “most of the information we get is extracted by third degree methods, it is the only way with these people.”6 Many of these men were young, rough-and-ready recruits who were steeped in the Black and Tan traditions that suffused the Palestine Police Force after many within the Irish forces took up posts in the Mandate after 1922.

From the start, Arab politicians, including president of the Palestine Arab Delegation to the League of Nations Jamal al-Husayni, as well as European missionaries, local colonial officials, residents of Palestine, and military and police personnel, documented Britain’s repressive measures targeted primarily at the Palestinian Arab population—measures that were embraced not only by Special Night Squads, but also at every level of British military, policing, and colonial administrations.7 Accounts of torture and humiliation, murder, and systemized suffering were privately brought to Britain’s successive high commissioners in Palestine, as well as to the archbishop of the Anglican Church and Britain’s War and Colonial Offices.8 A common refrain emerged as official responses rebounded in liberalism’s echo chamber of denials—denials well rehearsed in previous imperial dramas. In this instance, such lies and exaggerations, according to myriad British officials, were the handiwork of Arab propagandists, fueled in no small way by the opportunistic inveigling of Europe’s rising fascist tide that sought to discredit the good name of Britain and its empire.9 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet went so far as to dismiss the flow of allegations from Palestine as “absolutely baseless,” and declared “the character of the British soldier is too well known to require vindication.”10

Still, al-Husayni persisted and appealed to the League of Nations. Gesturing to the situation’s gravity through historical analogy, he wrote: “Such atrocities of the dark ages, to which the human race, nowadays, look back with disgust and horror, of torturing men during criminal investigation and assaulting peaceful people and destroying their properties wholesale when peacefully lying within their homes are actions that have daily been perpetrated in the Holy Land during the greater part of the last three years.”

The letter’s analogous flair then gave way to specificity. Among other excesses, al-Husayni described the “scorching” of body parts with “hot iron rods,” “severe beating with lashes,” the “pulling out [of] nails and scorching the skin under them by special appliances,” and the “pulling of the sexual organs.” He detailed the British forces’ widespread ransacking and looting of homes, summary executions, disappearances, the denial of food and water to innocent civilians, the rape of women and girls, and the destruction of livestock. The diplomat then closed his appeal, reminding the league that “if the Mandatory [power of Britain] is innocent of these excesses then our demand for a neutral enquiry should be welcomed by all concerned.”11

While the outcome of al-Husayni’s appeal hung in an international balance weighted by the realpolitik of fascism’s advances, so too was it calibrated within liberalism’s framework of permissible norms. These norms did not spring from Europe’s pressing exigencies of the late 1930s, but rather were deeply rooted in the longe durée of liberal imperialism’s spread, particularly in Britain and its empire. There, stretching back before the Victorian era, conceptions of brown and black subjects, the justifications for—if not the necessity of—violence, and moral claims to a superior civilization created a tapestry of ideas that found expression in colonial administrations, imperial security forces, enabling legal scaffoldings, policies of divide and rule, and nationalist conceptions of Britain and the benevolent myths that belied them. So too did they find expression in the League of Nations’ Permanent Mandates Commission, which was as much a reflection of liberal imperialism’s agenda as it was an oversight agent for its alleged transgressions.

The degree to which al-Husayni was aware of the mutually informing ideological, political, and structural forces working against him is uncertain. Even so, this skilled and measured diplomat surely had some inclination of the ways in which interwar Palestine was a cauldron of ideas, institutions, and personalities that had been incubated elsewhere in the imperial world. This world was one in which violence, even in its most severe forms, had evolved into a framework that was not simply justificatory but was also internalized by many of those wielding power, from the highest reaches of decision making to the lowest levels of execution, as de rigueur.

By the eve of World War II, it was in Mandatory Palestine where decades of liberal imperialist ideas and practices that had matured across the British Empire would descend and consolidate in the most dramatic and consequential of ways. The reach and impact of these ideas and practices, as well as the individuals executing them, would extend well beyond al-Husayni’s Palestine and the league’s pending response to the repressive watermarks staining the Mandate’s files to a post–World War II future where Britain would systematically deploy violence—normalized over decades, if not centuries—in its last gasp effort to hang onto empire and secure a place in the New World Order.

In the case of Palestine, and indeed much of the twentieth-century Anglo-colonial world, British liberalism gave rise to a framework of permissible norms and logics of violence in empire that myriad scholars often misunderstand, if they examine it at all. When Steven Pinker suggests that violence was on the decline and humanitarianism on the rise in the twentieth century, he offers the myth of British imperial benevolence an academic fillip that can scarcely withstand empirical scrutiny. Pinker ignores copious amounts of historical evidence, including countless files documenting Britain’s creation and deployment of violent repression in 1930s Palestine and elsewhere in the empire, not to mention the lived experiences of hundreds of millions of black and brown people, some of whom offer detailed accounts of systematic violence throughout the twentieth-century British imperial world, through memoirs, appeals to British and international commissions, letters to Colonial Office, newspaper articles, and other sources.

Had Pinker interrogated violence in the British Empire fully and, with it, my 2005 publication Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, he would have been aware of the systemized violence that Britain deployed during the Mau Mau Emergency in colonial Kenya.12 He might also, at a minimum, have gestured to the connections between 1950s Kenya and other theaters of British imperial violence, such as those in Palestine, both before and after World War II. Had he widened his aperture, he might have located the genesis of twentieth-century British colonial violence in two processes: the birth of liberal imperialism and the evolution of legalized lawlessness in the empire. Together, they provided the ideological and legal apparatuses necessary for Britain’s repeated deployment of systematized violence in far-flung corners of the globe.

Liberal imperialism, the twinned birthing of liberalism and imperialism in the nineteenth century, gave rise to liberal authoritarianism. This ideology, which underpinned Britain’s civilizing mission, took form in various enabling legal scaffoldings, including the evolution of martial law into emergency regulations, or statutory martial law, as well as the parallel consolidation of military doctrine and law around the issues of force. These reinforcing processes unfolded from the turn of the nineteenth century and continued through the interwar period and into the era of decolonization after World War II. On the ground, various forms of systemized violence evolved in Sudan and the South African War, then the Easter Rising in Ireland, Amritsar, the evolution of air control in Iraq, the Egyptian uprising, the Irish War of Independence, the ongoing acts of revolutionary violence in Bengal, Western Wall violence, and the Arab Revolt, where their coalescence and maturity created particular, British imperial-inspired forms of legalized lawlessness. Once crystalized, it is hardly surprising that these same policies and practices—often transferred from one hot spot to the next by shared cadres of colonial and military officers and footmen—unfolded in the late 1940s and 1950s on massive scales in colonies like Malaya, Kenya, and Cyprus. There, detention without trial, torture, forced labor, and starvation became routine tactics in suppressing so-called terrorists demanding their independence from British colonial rule.

Locating the ideological framework for systematized violence in the British Empire takes us back to the nineteenth century. The extension of Britain’s global power and domination brought with it history-defining debates about universal principles, free markets, the protection of property, and rule of law, and importantly, who was and was not entitled to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. As liberal thought evolved in Europe, it intersected with the rise of empires. There was a mutually constitutive relationship between liberalism and imperialism that would have profound consequences on British conceptions of liberty, progress, and governance both at home and abroad.13

Defining much of British thought was the categorical assumption that a parochial Western liberalism, intrinsically universal, belonged to all people worldwide. Yet, there were deep contradictions in the liberal imperial project, ones that were increasingly understood through a racial lens. John Stuart Mill juxtaposed civilization and barbarism to create new ideological idioms. He advocated for a progressive notion of citizenship and a narrative of human development that was intimately bound with Britain’s civilizing mission.14 Good government in empire had to be adjusted to local “stages of civilization,” with John Stuart Mill advocating for a paternalistic form of despotism to tutor empire’s children. According to Mill, “a civilized government, to be really advantageous to [subject populations], will require to be in a considerable degree despotic: one over which they do not themselves exercise control, and which imposes a great amount of forcible restraint upon their actions.”15 In effect, England had a right, if not a responsibility, to rule despotically to reform the barbarous populations of the world.

Universalist ideas gave way to culture and history conditioning human character. In an emerging global citizenry, inclusivity would come in stages, if ever. With Britain’s political ascendancy over subject populations, Mill declared that “the same rules of international morality do not apply between civilized nations and between civilized nations and barbarians.”16 Although written in the mid-Victorian era, echoes of Mill’s exclusion of “barbarians” from the “international morality” of the “civilized nations” would resonate in twentieth-century justifications and denials of repression, as well as the denial of human rights laws to imperial subjects.17 As empire expanded, and subject populations refused to conform to British conceptions of progress and civilizing largesse, Mill’s liberal imperialism, which denied individual sovereignty to brown and black peoples around the world, while holding out the promise of reform, opened the justificatory door to coercion as an instrument of colonial rule.18

A series of violent events in empire would harden notions of imperial subjects and their rights. The heroic civilizing mission, despite a rhetorical staying power that Pinker’s work so ably embraces, would, in practice, be greatly eviscerated and replaced with a moral disillusionment and disavowal of liberalism’s capacity to transform the backward peoples of empire, at least in part. In its place would enter a British imperial rule that, while still projecting its moral claims of the civilizing mission, accentuated and codified difference, and countenanced the threat and deployment of various forms of violence. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, followed by the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica and with it the Governor Eyre crisis, would precipitate this volte-face. The Anglo-imperial pendulum swung in the conservative direction, with the likes of Thomas Carlyle and James Fitzjames Stephen leveraging the moment to further authoritarian views on imperial rule. They castigated Mill’s “sentimental liberalism,” which reputedly undermined political stability in the empire and at home. For his part, Stephen was relentless, asserting an unapologetic racial superiority and advocating for absolute rule in the colonies and, with it, the necessity of coercion. As far as Mill’s beloved rule of law was concerned—a rule of law important to Pinker’s the-sis—Stephen did not hedge, writing, “Force is an absolutely essential element of all law whatever. Indeed law is nothing but regulated force subjected to particular conditions and directed toward particular objects.”19

In retrospect, the liberal in Britain’s liberal authoritarianism is often difficult to discern in empire. Initial acts of conquest would give way in the twentieth century to elaborate legal codes, the proliferation of police and security forces, circumscriptions on free market economies for the colonized, and administrative apparatuses that marginalized and oppressed entire populations while fueling racial and ethnic divisions within and between them. The lived realities of Britain’s burden in the empire would be vastly different from the nation’s self-representations, grounded as they were in an historical consciousness that was equally as deft at collective erasure and creating approbatory versions of the nation’s past as it was in disseminating these ideas through liberalism’s official and unofficial channels.

Had Pinker acknowledged liberalism’s obfuscating abilities, he would have discovered the paradox between lived, imperial experiences of the colonized and the laudatory claims of Britain’s civilizing mission. Indeed, the power of liberalism’s obfuscations can be traced not only in the persistence of British imperial myths in today’s Anglo-popular culture, but also in scholarly works such as Pinker’s that fail to interrogate the erasures and denials—like those put forth during the Arab Revolt—that litter Britain’s colonial past. Nor do these works unpack the mutual constitution of liberalism and imperialism and, with it, a dominant narrative of universal human emancipation, equality, rights, and the civilizing mission that materialized simultaneously with an underbelly of repression as expressed in evolutionary thought, racism, class, and sexism. The privileged media through which liberalism would do its work, including bureaucracy, mass media, law, literacy, and the scholarly academy, became the means of emancipation and inclusion, as well as the tools of repression and obfuscation.

The evolution of legalized lawlessness and its coexistence with an evolving military doctrine was, in many ways, an epiphenomenon of liberal authoritarianism. Racial and cultural difference became institutionalized at every level of executive, legislative, and judicial rule in the British Empire. That military doctrine also reflected the “rule of colonial difference” pervading British discourse, practices, and institutions at home and in the empire should scarcely be surprising.20 As Britain kept ticking off imperial, small wars and other eruptions of violence, its military increasingly considered best practices for dealing with so-called recalcitrant natives—or terrorists, as was often the term. In turn, these practices would become part of the broader institutionalization of violence; these were best captured in the work of Colonel Charles Callwell, a major figure in the study of counterinsurgency practices throughout the twentieth century. His Small Wars: Their Principles and Practices, originally written in 1896, and updated after he served as a staff officer and commander in the South African War, would become the starting point for nearly all counterinsurgency theorists and practitioners, even to the present day.21 Callwell’s expansive work synthesized not only Britain’s military engagements throughout the empire, but also drew lessons from French, Spanish, American, and Russian campaigns, among others. Together, these reference points would provide him with a range of historical examples that supported not only the perceived short-term effectiveness of unbridled force, but also an ideological framework that understood such repressive measures to be a reflection of liberalism’s underbelly.

For Callwell, when European troops were engaged in wars against the “uncivilized” and “savage” populations of the world, as opposed to civilized armies, a different set of rules were needed.22 Callwell pointed to the “moral force of civilization” underwriting European superiority, and the need to teach “savage” peoples “a lesson which they will not forget.”23 It was not only the strategic advantage of such measures that Callwell endorsed in waging total destruction against the enemy. Rather, he emphasized in his treatise the “moral effect” that brutality wrought upon “uncivilized” populations, writing: “[The] object is not only to prove to the opposing force unmistakably which is the stronger, but also to inflict punishment on those who have taken up arms …[The] enemy must be made to feel a moral inferiority throughout …[Fanatics and savages] must be thoroughly brought to book and cowed or they will rise again.”24

Callwell’s “moral effect” reflected the military’s ease of fusing the “white man’s burden” with battlefield strategies to produce a morality of violence that belied imperial confrontations around the globe. At once racist and perversely paternalistic, Callwell’s moralistic terms nonetheless suggest the ways in which British military doctrine reproduced the Victorian-era norms of liberal imperialism, norms that understood the uses of violent measures to be a necessary part of ensuring order and civilizing the backward races of the world.25 With its binaries of good versus evil framing justifications of violence in the empire, liberal imperialism was not simply an exculpatory ideology. It both shaped and reflected self and national understandings in parliamentary debates, media outlets, popular culture, and commemorative acts. It also shaped military thinking and practices for Callwell and many of his successors in future colonial conflicts, from the highest-ranking officials to the ordinary soldier.26 In the years ahead, the main issue would be the legal and political frameworks necessary to accommodate Callwell’s punitive violence. Once conventional warfare methods were jettisoned, “it is then that the regular troops,” according to Callwell, “are forced to resort to cattle lifting and village burning and that the war assumes an aspect which may shock the humanitarian.”27

Turning historically to empire, there was a parallel evolution of legal and political norms that reflected Britain’s on-the-ground deployment of violence, as articulated in Callwell’s treatise. Whereas government by consent increasingly defined England, Scotland, and Wales in the nineteenth century, order was imposed upon Ireland, for example, through a series of Insurrection Acts, Habeas Corpus Suspension Acts, and deployments of martial law. When these were not sufficient, Coercion Acts were introduced, with measures to control arms, provide for special systems of trial, and criminalize oath taking. At the time, the jurist and constitutionalist theorist Albert Dicey made clear that the Coercion Acts were fully incompatible with the rule of law and the ideals of civil liberties, stating that “in principle …thoroughly vicious … [it] in effect gave the Irish executive an unlimited power of arrest; it established in them a despotic government … [It] could not be made permanent, and applied to the whole United Kingdom without depriving every citizen of security for his person freedom.”28 Ultimately, the acts became the precursors for modern states of emergency whose legal codes transferred repressive powers to civilian authorities who, in turn, could declare a state of emergency, or the English equivalent of a state of siege. This was distinct from the declaration of martial law, and significantly for Ireland and other parts of the empire, little under the Coercion Acts conferring emergency-like powers could be questioned in a court of law.29

Looking elsewhere in the empire, the Defence of India Act was passed in 1915, and was sweeping in its repressive scope. The act enabled India’s executive to pass any regulation to secure the public safety and defense of the British Raj. In Bengal alone, some eight hundred orders were put into force, eviscerating civil and political liberties, such as existed.30 When Britain turned to arming the civilian state in Ireland with the Easter Rising in 1916, and later what became the Irish War of Independence, they did so through a host of highly authoritarian acts. Wielding a legally enabled strategy of coercion, Whitehall and its Dublin Castle counterpart fueled a war that quickly descended into an intensified bloodbath of killings, reprisals, and counterreprisals. It was also a conflict that witnessed a deployment of both military and police forces—including the notorious Black and Tans and Auxiliaries—who helped carry out legalized reprisals in the final months of the Irish War of Independence, along with a host of other repres- sive measures, before many of their members moved on to Palestine at the war’s end.

Indeed, returning to the Mandate in the 1930s, the British government undertook a series of steps that consolidated decades of legalized lawlessness into a set of emergency powers that would become the most popular model for future counterinsurgency campaigns. In 1931, the Palestine (Defence) Order in Council was passed; this conferred upon the high commissioner a set of powers that exceeded any similar legislation to date. Based upon earlier codes in Ireland and India, and stretching back to the Irish Act of 1833, the Order in Council empowered the high commissioner to declare a state of emergency, and thereby issue and amend regulations for arrest, detention without trial, censorship, deportation, and trial by military courts. With the 1936 Arab general strike, the high commissioner declared a state of emergency in Palestine and issued the first of a series of regulations and amending orders that included the power to demolish buildings, including villages and homes, and the imposition of the death penalty for discharging firearms and sabotaging phone and rail lines.31

Still, the military wanted more legal coverage to unleash an all-out assault on the Arab population. The top brass believed the emergency regulations were inadequate, particularly in light of the punitive destruction of property and the unleashing of reprisals that had been permissible in Ireland. After some hand-wringing by the Colonial Office’s legal minds in London, it was determined that martial law would, in fact, be too restrictive on the military and the punitive actions of its soldiers, as the civil courts were still sitting in Palestine and they might challenge repressive military actions. In martial law’s place came the Palestine Martial Law (Defence) Order in Council of 26 September 1936, and subsequently a new Palestine (Defence) Order in Council on 18 March 1937. With it, Section 6 (1) stated the high commissioner “may make such Regulations … as appear to him in his unfettered discretion to be necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, the defence of Palestine, the maintenance of public order and the suppression of mutiny, rebellion and riot, and for maintaining supplies and services essential to the life of the community.”32

Shades of empire’s Victorian-era past were cast into the Mandate’s present when Stephen’s nineteenth-century avowal that “law is nothing but regulated force” was taken to its logical, liberal authoritarian conclusion in Palestine. There, the high commissioner, and with him, all security forces— including the police and military—could do whatever they liked, which included all measures already on the books, as well as punitive destruction of property, trial by military courts without right to appeal, and the sweeping away of any form of judicial review. Statutory martial law was now in effect, and when put into practice, army command—under the auspices of the high commissioner—would have the upper hand.33 The legalization of lawlessness, ideologically rooted in the birthing of liberal imperialism, and evolving over decades in various theaters of empire, was now fully matured.34

Operating in parallel with Britain’s Colonial Office, the War Office ensured its field officers and soldiers a wide berth in defining and implementing the use of force. In 1929, the military manual was revised to take the events in Amritsar into account, though in practice little changed. The manual made clear that “the existence of an armed insurrection would justify the use of any degree of force necessary effectually to meet and cope with the insurrection” and loosely defined “collective punishments,” “reprisals,” and “retributions,” all of which could “inflict suffering upon innocent individuals … [and were] indispensible as a last resort.”35 Between the military’s own code of conduct and the civil emergency measures that offered legal coverage, Britain’s troops, along with the local police force, operated virtually without restraint or fear of prosecution. When the steady stream of complaints and accounts of atrocities in late 1930s Palestine piled up on the desks of Palestine’s chief secretary and on those of officials back in London’s Colonial and War Offices (where they would later similarly amass during the end of empire wars that shaped and defined the British Empire in the 1950s), almost nothing, legally, needed to be done. In the few cases where prosecutions took place, acquittals were more the norm than the exception.

In the end, the Permanent Mandates Commission never investigated British actions in Palestine. Jamal al-Husanyi’s letter remained in the League of Nations’ inbox, unanswered. World War II intervened before the commission could respond, though chances are, as it had with multiple other complaints detailing British colonial violence in Palestine, the commission would have dismissed al-Husanyi’s as well. In fact, in an era of imperial internationalism, some might conclude that the Permanent Mandates Commission was part of the problem, at least in Palestine, where it had chastised the British for not having been coercive enough in crushing the rebellion.36 In effect, the presumed oversight committee endorsed, with a similar moralizing refrain that echoed the likes of Wingate, Callwell, and others, the use of violence against colonial subjects.

Still, al-Husanyi’s letter was scarcely written in vain. It offers one footprint, along with thousands of others that litter the archives, of Britain’s deployment of systematic violence in its twentieth-century empire. And, while al-Husanyi and Arab Palestinians never received a proper hearing of their complaints, other imperial subjects eventually would. In 2009, the British Empire was put on trial for the first time when, in London’s High Court of Justice, five elderly Kikuyu claimants charged the British government with overseeing a system of torture and violence in the detention camps of late colonial Kenya. Imperial Reckoning was the historical basis for the case, and I was expert witness for the claimants. At the time of the filing, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—the named defendant in the case—vehemently denied any misdeeds in its former empire, much like the Chamberlain government in Palestine’s yesteryear, and vowed to fight the case to the bitter end.

Pinker was surely aware of the historic Mau Mau case, as it was splashed across major newspapers in Britain. Yet, much like Foreign Secretary William Hague, he chose to dismiss the piles of evidence that tell a damning story of systematic violence in colonial Kenya—violence that was scarcely an anomaly to Britain’s East African colony. Ultimately, however, after a four-year legal battle, the British government changed course, and in June 2013, Foreign Secretary Hague rose in the House of Commons and offered Britain’s first-ever acknowledgment, and apology for, its use of systematic violence in empire, and with it, a £20 million payment to over five thousand Kikuyu victims of British torture in the detention camps of Kenya. In effect, the British government could no longer hide behind liberalism’s obfuscations and moral claims that denied the imbrication of violence in its civilizing mission. The evidence—much of which was available to Pinker during his research—was simply too overwhelming. The evidence from myriad other former British colonies, such as al-Husanyi’s Palestine, were also available to Pinker, yet he chose to ignore it, or perhaps deny its validity. Yet, it is this very denial of evidence, particularly from hundreds of millions of former brown and black colonial subjects, that render works like Pinker’s so damaging in the postcolonial present. Denied their lived experiences, these men and women are nonetheless etched in memories throughout the world. These collective memories scarcely need historians armed with archival data to help them jettison Pinker’s Western-centric claims that violence declined in colonial landscapes during twentieth-century British rule.


Imperial War Museum (IWM), Sound Archive, Accession 4619, Fred Howbrook.


IWM, Document Collection, 4623, Private Papers of Major General H.E.N. Bredin, “Appreciation by Captain OC Wingate, of Force HQ Intelligence on 5.6.38 at NAZARETH of the possibilities of night movements by armed forces of the Crown with the object of putting an end to terrorism in Northern Palestine.”


John Bierman and Colin Smith, Fire in the Night: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia, and Zion (New York: Random House, 1999), 115.


Bierman and Smith, Fire in the Night, 115–116; Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives (LHCMA), King’s College London, United Kingdom, Captain B.H. Lid-dell Hart Papers, GB0099, 11/1936-1938, Captain O.C. Wingate OCSNS, “Report of Operations carried out by Special Night Squads on Night of 11/12 July 1938.”


R. King-Clark, Free for a Blast (London: Grenville Publishing Company Limited, 1988), 157.


IWM, Department of Documents, 88/8/1, Private Papers of S. Burr, Letter c. June 1937; for use of the term “wogs” see multiple letters in the file, including July 9, 1937; December 20, 1937; c. March 1938; and c. April 1938.


For example, see Middle East Centre Archive (MECA), St. Antony’s College, Oxford, United Kingdom, GB165-0161, Jerusalem and East Mission, Boxes 61 and 66.




For example, Hansard, House of Commons Debate (HCD), vol. 341, cc 1988, November 24, 1938.


TNA, WO 32/4562, Memorandum from G.D. Roseway to C.G.L. Syers, January 12, 1939.


TNA, WO/32/4562, Letter from Jamaal Husseini, President, Palestine Arab Delegation, to His Excellency, The President of the Permanent Mandates Commission, June 12, 1939.


Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).


The subsequent analysis draws upon a range of works, including Thomas R. Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999); Karuna Mantena, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); and Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.


See, for example, Eileen P. Sullivan, “Liberalism and Imperialism: J. S. Mill’s Defense of the British Empire,” Journal of the History of Ideas 44, no. 4 (1983): 599–617.


John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (New York: Create-Space, 2014), 4. Originally published 1861.


As quoted in Sullivan, “Liberalism and Imperialism,” 610.


Mantena makes a similar point in Alibis of Empire, 33.


See, for example, Nadia Urbinati, “The Many Heads of the Hydra: J. S. Mill on Despotism,” in J. S. Mill’s Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment, ed. Nadia Urbinati and Alex Zakaras (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 66–97, here 74–75.


James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, ed. Stuart D. Warner (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1993), 111.


Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 10.


Colonel C. E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practices (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996).


The terms “uncivilized” and “savage” are deployed throughout Callwell’s writings.


Callwell, Small Wars, 102.


Ibid., 41, 72, 148.


Ian F. W. Becket suggests a similar point in Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and their Opponents since 1750 (London: Routledge, 2001), 25,183.


Daniel Whittingham, “‘Savage Warfare’: C. E. Callwell, the Roots of Counterinsurgency, and the Nineteenth-Century Context,” in British Ways of Counterinsurgency: A Historical Perspective, ed. Matthew Hughes (London: Routledge, 2013), 13–29, here 14.


Callwell, Small Wars, 40.


A. V. Dicey, The Case against Home Rule (London: John Murray, 1886), 117.


A. W. Brian Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the European Convention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 78–80; and Gerard Hogan and Clive Walker, Political Violence: Political Violence and the Law in Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 12–14.


Simpson, Human Rights, 82.


Ibid., 84–85.


Ibid., 86.


Matthew Hughes, “The Banality of Brutality: British Armed Forces and the Repression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936–1939,” The English Historical Review 124, no. 507 (April 2009): 313–334, here 318.


Simpson, Human Rights, 85–86.


Manual of Military Law (London: HMSO, 1929), 103, 255; and Hughes, “Banality of Brutality,” 316–317.


For a discussion of the League of Nations as “an eminently Victorian institution,” see Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 21.

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Contributor Notes

Caroline Elkins is Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and Visiting Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Her first book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and was the basis for the historic Mau Mau case in Britain’s High Court of Justice. Knopf will publish her next book on British colonial violence in the twentieth century in 2019.