After the toppling of a statue of slaveowner Edward Colston in Bristol, and the public annotation of a statue of Churchill in Parliament Square, Max Stein looks at the crimes of the other colonialist leaders whose statues stand at the heart of Westminster.
The enormous Black Lives Matter protests of 6 and 7 June have left many politicians and commentators outraged by the toppling of a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, and by the defacement of the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square with the words ‘[Churchill] was a racist’.
Winston Churchill’s long and shameful record of colonialist mass-murder and vicious racial hatred is well-documented, however much our rulers would like to ignore it. But who are the other figures set in stone in Parliament Square?
Parliament Square Gardens contains nine statues other than Churchill’s. Three of the newest depict Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and the suffragist campaigner Millicent Fawcett. (There is also an Abraham Lincoln statue on the other side of the road from the Square.) All of the remaining six depict colonialist leaders of the imperial period. Here’s a quick ‘Who’s who’ of the figures who have been lionised and immortalised at public expense by generations of British parliamentarians.
Jan Christian Smuts
Jan Smuts was South Africa’s Prime Minister from 1919 to 1924, and again from 1939 to 1948, and remained a prominent statesman in the intervening years.
Smuts is considered by many to have been the single most important architect of South African apartheid, and is credited with coining the term itself (taking an Afrikaans term for ‘apartness’ or ‘separation’). He derided white advocates of racial equality as ‘negrophilists’, and wrote proudly of his policy innovations:
‘In the new plan there will be what is called in South Africa “segregation”; two separate institutions for the two elements of the population living in their own separate areas. Separate institutions involve territorial segregation of the white and black. If they live mixed together it is not practicable to sort them out under separate institutions of their own. Institutional segregation carries with it territorial segregation.’
Smuts routinely used murderous and overwhelming military force to crush and destroy any nascent movement for racial equality or social justice. A strike of Black workers in Port Elizabeth was crushed in 1920 with scores of workers killed; two years later, the non-payment of a tax on dogs by the Bondelswarts, a nomadic group living in modern-day Namibia, was punished with a massacre carried out by infantry detachments, artillery batteries and bomber planes, killing over 100 people without a single casualty among the white aggressors.
Smuts yearned throughout his career to extend his system of murderous white supremacy even further, petitioning his British imperial supervisors for permission to invade and take over lands stretching across southern Africa through to Mozambique. He was also an antisemite – supporting legislation to prevent Jews from migrating to South Africa – and, at the same time, an ardent supporter of Zionism. Smuts fundraised for Zionist organisations, lobbied the British government in favour of Zionist aspirations in Palestine, and gave South Africa’s immediate recognition to the State of Israel in 1948.
David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George was Prime Minister from 1916 (halfway through the First World War) to 1922.
In this capacity he presided over a war machine that discriminated brutally against troops from British colonies, including 1.5 million from India and thousands from the Caribbean. Where troops mutinied in the face of constant racist humiliation, they were crushed with copious executions and imprisonments, as with the 1915 Singapore Mutiny.
When the slaughter of World War One ended, Lloyd George took the opportunity to double down on expanding Britain’s imperialist clout around the world. Having seized control of Mesopotamia (now Iraq), his government suppressed a 1920 rebellion against colonial rule with 100,000 troops, slaughtering thousands of Iraqis. It was at this point that Britain began to pioneer the use of aerial bombing, using both explosives and chemical weapons, to subordinate indigenous civilians (Winston Churchill endorsed this policy with his infamous remark that he was ‘strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’).
Lloyd George was also the mastermind of Britain’s notorious campaign to suppress Irish independence in the years following the First World War. His government redirected thousands of WWI veterans – the infamous ‘Black and Tans’ – to Ireland, with essentially a free hand to murder and abuse the local civilian population.
Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister from 1874 to 1880, as well as for a spell during 1868.
In 1876, Disraeli chose Lord Lytton as Viceroy of India. That same year, crop failures led to regional food shortages. The amount of food produced in India remained more than adequate to feed the population, but the colonial authorities insisted upon exporting huge quantities of food for profit to other parts of the empire. Grain exports from India increased over the following four years, and valuable farmland was converted to grow exportable cash crops such as indigo and opium, while the food shortages spiralled into the Great Famine that would last until 1880 and claim somewhere from 5 to 10 million lives. Lytton – an avowed Social Darwinist – actively ensured that no aid was provided to starving Indians, and at the peak of the famine, held a lavish banquet for 60,000 guests. Disraeli’s chosen representative in India also provoked the Second Anglo-Afghan War which lasted from 1878 to 1880.
Disraeli’s other notable contribution to British colonial history was to launch the Zulu War of 1879, which destroyed the most powerful independent polity of southern Africa and annexed its lands into the British Empire, inaugurating the white minority rule that would endure across much of the region, in one form or another, until the end of South African apartheid in the 1990s.
Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston
Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, was Prime Minister from 1855 1858, and then again from 1859 to 1865, as well as holding other government offices.
Palmerston’s name is almost synonymous with ‘gunboat diplomacy’ – the practice, common in 19th-century British statecraft, of extorting money and other concessions from governments and peoples around the world via threats of murderous bombardment by Britain’s powerful navy.
As Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Palmerston played a key role in precipitating the First Opium War. After Chinese authorities attempted in 1839 to halt imports of opium from British traders – hoping to address the ruinous impacts of the drug on China’s economy and the health of its population – Palmerstone contrived a military conflict which ended with the Chinese Empire being forced to open itself back up to British-provided opium, along with a slew of other humiliating concessions (including the British Empire’s annexation of Hong Kong). The war, and the Second Opium War which was fought on similar lines in 1856-1860, helped to plunge China into a lengthy period of chaotic civil war and political strife which would ultimately leave millions dead.
Palmerston was then Prime Minister during the American Civil War, which ran from 1861 to 1865. While remaining formally neutral between the Union and the pro-slavery Confederacy, his government was eager at the prospect of a Confederate victory which might shatter the power of the ascendant United States, and turned a blind eye to the Confederacy’s purchase of dozens of warships from British shipbuilders in Liverpool (making up the vast majority of the Confederates’ navy, a pivotal element in their war effort). In autumn of 1862, with Confederate forces scoring victories against the Union, Palmerston prepared a plan to recognise the Confederacy and intervene diplomatically in the war to demand the Union sue for peace, leaving slavery intact. In the event, the tide of the war turned back against the Confederacy before this plan could be put into practice.
Sir Robert Peel
Robert Peel was Prime Minister from 1841 to 1846.
Peel is probably best remembered in Britain as the founder of modern policing, having founded the Metropolitan Police as Home Secretary in 1829 (giving rise to the common nickname of ‘bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ for police officers). The police force was instituted in Britain in large part to provide a more sophisticated and politically reliable means than the regular military for repressing the working-class revolts that were becoming an increasingly common feature of political life, most notably with the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, where soldiers killed 18 demonstrators who were demanding universal male suffrage.
Peel was also Prime Minister at the time of the outbreak of the Irish Great Famine of 1845-1850. Peel’s main interest in the Famine was in using it as a strategic token in political machinations over the Corn Laws, a bone of contention between Peel’s ‘free trade’ tendency and hostile elements of his own Conservative Party. Peel’s variant of ‘free trade’ principle entrenched the policies that would lead to at least a million deaths in Ireland up to 1850, with the famine-stricken country being obliged to export food to England while losing fully half of its own population to starvation or forced emigration. The token efforts at relief by the authorities in London were consciously calculated to fall far short of what would have been required to avoid mass starvation; Peel’s de facto representative in Ireland, administrator Charles Trevelyan, wrote: ‘The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson; that calamity must not be too much mitigated.’
Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby
Edward Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, was Prime Minister on three separate occasions throughout the second half of the 19th century, as well as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies from 1833 to 1834 and from 1841 to 1845.
In the latter office, he oversaw the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. The legislation is celebrated by modern-day apologists for Empire as proof of Britain’s unique imperial morality and fairmindedness. The truth is very different. While ending legal recognition of slavery in most of the British Empire, the Act continued to legalise and legitimise slavery in the wide tracts of British imperial land administered by the East India Company, where by some estimates a far greater number of people remained enslaved than were freed by the Act in other territories. Moreover, the Act also provided £20 million (around 5% of national GDP at the time) in compensation to slaveowners from the public purse. The various financial arrangements surrounding this indemnity were not fully paid off until 2015 – which is to say that almost all current taxpayers have helped to finance it.
Britain’s gradual phasing-out of outright slavery was driven by a number of factors, one of the chief among these being fear that slave populations in British colonies might follow the example of Haiti, which overthrew slavery and French colonial rule in 1804 (three years before Britain’s first legislation limiting the slave trade). British official history has consistently ignored the centrality of mass struggles by slaves and colonised peoples in forcing the very reforms and emancipations that have been subsequently presented as proof of Britain’s ‘generous’ national character.