Monday, December 26, 2005


British genocides in India could top Stalin's reign of terror

"His stack is bigger than mine" crow the body-stackers who claim virtue for their nation-team based on how many people get killed. People like Robert Conquest and Bill Buckley thrill in pointing to how humane the United States is relative to Stalin's USSR or Mao's China because in the 20th century we only killed a few million civilians in places like Vietnam, Hiroshima, and the Philippines. Our nineteenth century was a lot uglier. But the truth is more complicated. The truth is that great powers universally, or nearly universally, indulge in mass murder. Monbiot explores that complexity in a review of books on British genocides: In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, published in 2001, Mike Davis tells the story of famines that killed between 12 and 29 million Indians. These people were, he demonstrates, murdered by British state policy. When an El NiƱo drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at the height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4m hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, officials were ordered "to discourage relief works in every possible way". And in Africa, Three recent books - Britain's Gulag by Caroline Elkins, Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson, and Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis - show how white settlers and British troops suppressed the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s. Thrown off their best land and deprived of political rights, the Kikuyu started to organise - some of them violently - against colonial rule. The British responded by driving up to 320,000 of them into concentration camps. Most of the remainder - more than a million - were held in "enclosed villages". Prisoners were questioned with the help of "slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes". British soldiers used a "metal castrating instrument" to cut off testicles and fingers. Americans are understandably discouraged and troubled by misdeeds in Iraq. It's important to keep the perspective that our generation is part of a struggle for human dignity that has gone on for thousands of years. America is neither better nor worse than any other country because the stack of dead from slavery and the wars against the Native Americans is shorter than Stalin's stack. In every national moment in which we reject torture and murder, we become angels to the world. In every national moment in which we give in to our darker impulses, we become its devils. As for Stalin, the best democidal estimate I have seen shows him still with a slightly bigger body count than Lord Lytton. But the numbers are very poorly founded. I corresponded with a Russian who had gone through the national archives and says they are so disordered and fragmentary that the actual number of people killed by Stalin could be far smaller. When it comes to homicidal maniacs, one should never look at the numbers. It's the thought that counts.
You can add a couple of million from the Irish "potato famine" of the 1840s and 1850s, which didn't stop the British government from insisting on wringing every last sack of grain out of the Emerald Isle. When he decided to starve India a few decades later, Lord Lytton was merely building on accepted practice.
Ah! I had intended to mention that!

I am very fortunate to have you as a backup memory.
I bring up the Irish because of the interesting tendency of people of a given culture to excuse the deaths of people of a different culture by pretending that the dead people were somehow worth less than "regular" people.

In the case of the Irish, they were considered to be subhuman by not only their British conquerors, but also by many Americans. (Stories of "lazy, shiftless Irish" fill the pages of mid-19th-century American publications.) The same was true of pretty much every non-White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant group that came to the US. Swedish immigrants were considered lazy and stupid, as were Italians and Poles and of course African-Americans and Jews.

The difference is that, in America at least, the Irish, along with the Poles and Italians, now are considered to be fully "white" and therefore deserving of full-human status. (Hispanics, Jews and African-Americans aren't quite so lucky, though the AAs are the worst off in this regard.) It shows in how the modern-day illegal Polish immigrants of Chicago, and the illegal Irish immigrants of Boston, engender far less hatred than do the illegal Hispanic immigrants in Arizona.
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