Given the fierce debate over statues in the context of the Black Lives Matter protest, it is worth looking at Winston Churchill from two rather different perspectives. One – by my colleague Professor Philip Murphy looks at Churchill in a wider context, focussing on his role in relation to India. I look at Churchill and South Africa, prior to World War One.


Churchill and India: imperial chauvinism left a bitter legacy

Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill arrives at Number 10 Downing Street with John Morley, Secretary of State for India. PA Archive

For those who enjoy debunking the reputations of national heroes, there can be few softer targets than Winston Churchill. The phrase “flawed hero” could almost have been invented to characterise his long, wilfully erratic career. Running through it, like some bitter-tasting lettering in a stick of rock was a strain of extreme imperial chauvinism.

Indeed, for all his other faults, Churchill tends to be at his least attractive to a 21st-century audience when involved in issues of race and empire: prejudiced, jingoistic, opportunistic and sometimes callous.

His dealings with India, where the 50th anniversary of his death is likely to attract more criticism than praise, demonstrated all these features in abundance. His opposition to constitutional reform in India in the interwar period, which ultimately failed to prevent the passing of the 1935 Government of India Act, owed much to a self-interested attempt to rally support within the Conservative Party against the leadership of Stanley Baldwin.

Churchill’s world.

Racism and vitriol

His notoriously vitriolic and racist denunciations of Indian nationalists both then and during his wartime premiership have fuelled accusations that Churchill left millions of Indians to die during the Bengal famine.

Some of his more crudely racist remarks were no doubt motivated in part by an almost childish desire to shock his determinedly un-politically correct inner circle. If so he certainly succeeded. In an entry in his diaries in 1955, his doctor, Lord Moran, records Churchill complaining:

he didn’t like ‘blackamoors’ … He asked a little irrelevantly, what happened when blacks got measles … When he was told there was a very high mortality rate … he growled; ‘Well there are plenty left. They’ve a high rate of production’, and he grinned good-humouredly.

A man of his times

So how easy is it to reconcile all of this with the image of Churchill as Britain’s national saviour?

Churchill was, of course, a product of his times. He had some direct experience of the practical business of administering the British Empire during two periods at the Colonial Office, first as under-secretary of state from 1905-8, then as secretary of state from 1921-2.

Second Lieutenant Winston Spencer Churchill outside his house in Bangalore in 1897. PA archive

For Churchill, however, the British Empire was above all India – although an India largely of his own imagining. It was administered by its own separate Whitehall department, and Churchill’s actual experience of India was limited to his time there as a young subaltern in the closing years of Queen Victoria’s reign. He left in 1897, never to return. The contempt he regularly expressed for India’s Hindu population over subsequent decades was little more than an echo of the casual racism of the late-Victorian officers’ mess.

At the same time, as the research of Warren Docktor has recently revealed, during his military career in north-west India and north Africa, Churchill developed a romantic admiration for Islamic culture.

“Empire” then, as for many of his class and generation, was for Churchill a mixture of nostalgic and distant memories, crudely racist and orientalist projections of particular traits and values onto colonised people, and a powerful rhetoric inextricably bound up with notions of Britain’s greatness and its supposed “civilising mission”. But it was essentially always an empire of imagination: four parts fantasy to one part reality.

Ironically, it was the conflict in which Churchill led his nation to victory that saw the fantasy of empire colliding catastrophically with its reality. He boldly proclaimed in November 1942 that he had “not become the King’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”. Yet while the resources of Empire were mobilised to an unprecedented extent, war placed an intolerable strain on the rickety structures that had maintained imperial control.

The Bengal famine

In Asia in particular, sweeping Japanese victories and the Bengal famine of 1943-4 shattered the illusions of British military and moral superiority. The latter, which claimed up to four million lives, is likely to remain one of the most bitterly contested episodes in Churchill’s controversial career.

Certainly, its causes were multifaceted, including the loss of rice supplies from Burma following its fall to the Japanese, the cyclone which hit East Bengal in October 1942 and the reactions of local politicians and traders. But Churchill’s characteristically provocative interventions – scrupulously recorded at the time – have fuelled accusations that this was little less than British-inspired genocide.

Four million people died in the Bengal famine.

As conditions worsened, he mused that “starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks” and that Indians were, in any case, “breeding like rabbits”. His defenders have stressed the practical limitations on effective famine relief and the fact that Churchill’s outbursts were sometimes followed by decisions to take action. Nevertheless, if the accusation of genocide against Churchill and his ministerial colleagues can be relatively easily dismissed, that of callous indifference remains difficult to counter.

Late realism

According to one of his colleagues, the Empire lost much of its interest for Churchill once India achieved its independence in 1947. Although he continued to dig into the Conservative party’s rattle bag of imperial rhetoric, all that remained for Churchill in practical terms was a mopping-up exercise.

He was suitably sceptical when, in the mid-1950s, elaborate plans were drawn up to build a new Colonial Office, telling his colonial secretary that soon, all he would need was “a fine drawing room, a good kitchen and an office”.

During his second term as prime minister, he presided over vicious counter-insurgency campaigns in Malaya and Kenya. Yet his personal role was often as a moderating influence, expressing concern that brutal reprisals were at odds with British values and would alienate global opinion. At least by the end of his political career, then, the Victorian imperialist had become a realist of sorts.


Churchill and South Africa, after the Anglo-Boer war

Martin Plaut

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Churchill and the future Prime Minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts had been on opposite sides during the Boer War (1899 – 1902).

Churchill had been a reporter, captured by the Boers, only to make a famous escape.

Smuts, on the other hand, had been a Boer war general, who led a daring raids on British positions, deep behind their lines.

Smuts led the negotiations with the British that led to the Treaty of Vereeniging, that ended the conflict, extracting key concessions from Britain, including an insistence that “Natives to be disarmed and no franchise until after self-government, [for the defeated Boer republics].”

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Jan Smuts with some of his guerrilla fighters in 1902


On this basis the Boers surrendered, despite having thousands of troops in the field, ready to continue the fight. With the war over, the two sides attempted to reach an accommodation, and Britain provided aid to its former foes to rebuild the country. 

In December 1905 the Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, having suffered a series of by-election defeats, was forced to hold a general election. The Liberals, out of power for a decade, seemed to be on the brink of victory. Jan Smuts saw his chance, and set off to London, determined to try to win self-government for the Transvaal from the new administration.[1] He thought it was vital to act before policy towards his country was established. Smuts believed he had to remind the British of the promises they had made in the Treaty of Vereeniging, that whites would be able to determine their own fate.

Smuts arrived in London on 6 January 1906, but it was not until the last week in January 1906 that the new Liberal government was ready to receive him. Smuts had produced a draft memorandum, On Points in Reference to the Transvaal Constitution, which he presented to all concerned. He managed to see Winston Churchill, his old foe from the Boer War days, who had been given the position of Under Secretary at the Colonial Office. The meeting was less than successful. Churchill told him he would read his memo and that he looked forward to a settlement ‘fair to both parties in South Africa’. He wished Smuts a pleasant journey home, but promised nothing, leaving the South African deeply depressed.

Churchill’s rejection of Smuts should not cause much surprise. The Colonial Office of this era had little time for the citizens of its Empire, black or white: Smuts was dismissed by civil servants as ‘cunning’ and clearly not to be trusted.[2] The mandarins should not have underestimated him.

Almost ready to pack his bags and go home, Smuts decided on one last throw of the dice. He sought a final meeting with the newly elected Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Years later Smuts recalled their meeting on 7 February 1906.[3]

‘My mission failed with the rest, as it was humanly speaking bound to fail. What an audacious, what an unprecedented request mine was – practically for the restoration of the country to the Boers five years after they had been beaten to the ground in one of the hardest and most lengthy struggles in British warfare. I put a simple case before him that night in 10 Downing Street. It was in substance: Do you want friends or enemies? You can have the Boers for friends, and they have proved what quality their friendship means. I pledge the friendship of my colleagues and myself if you wish it. You can choose to make them enemies, and possibly have another Ireland on your hands. If you do believe in liberty, it is also their faith and their religion. I used no arguments, but simply spoke to him as man to man, and appealed only to the human aspect, which I felt would weigh deeply with him. He was a cautious Scot, and said nothing to me, but yet I left that room that night a happy man. My intuition told me that the thing had been done.’

Smuts was right. On 8 February 1906, Campbell-Bannerman held a cabinet meeting and overcame the doubts of his colleagues by arguing that the time had come to trust their former enemies, the Boers. Smuts had won self-government for the Transvaal.[4] He retained a deep affection for Campbell-Bannerman all his life: a portrait of the British Prime Minister hung in Smuts’s study to the end of his days.

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In February 1906 the Bambatha rebellion erupted in Natal over the imposition of a poll tax on all adult African men in the colony. The uprising was put down with immense savagery. Gandhi, who organised a team of voluntary stretcher-bearers, commented, ‘This was no war but a man-hunt.’[5] The British Labour Party leader, Keir Hardie, kept informed of what was taking place in Natal by the Colenso family, raised the question of the treatment of Africans during the rebellion in the House of Commons on several occasions, demanding to know why the army was taking no prisoners.[6]

The Liberal government came under considerable pressure to intervene in Natal, but the Colonial Secretary, Lord Elgin, with Churchill as his Under Secretary, felt this was impossible.[7] Churchill sent strongly worded telegrams to the government of Natal, but when its members threatened to resign en masse, Britain was forced to back down. Churchill complained privately of the ‘disgusting butchery of natives’, and what he described as miscarriages of justice that revealed ‘the kind of tyranny against which these unfortunate Zulus have been struggling’.[8] But Elgin refused to act, responding, ‘Where there are small white communities in the midst of large coloured populations, the former are liable to panics, and the vindictiveness which accompanies panics. But that does not mean the Government is tyrannous.’

The position that Liberals took on this question is explained, at least in part, by the angry protests from the Australian government. The Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, sent off a stiff cable to the Colonial Office about what he termed ‘imperial interference’ in the affairs of a colony.[9] The new Premier of Natal, Charles Smythe, wrote to Deakin, thanking him for his support and expressing his hope that ‘the people in Downing Street will recognize that Colonies enjoying Responsible Government must be allowed to manage their own affairs’.[10] Churchill summed up the response of the British government in the Colonial Office’s files by observing, ‘This is a complete surrender.’[11]

There was little Britain could do, despite in theory controlling an Empire on which ‘the sun never set.’ He was to mend fences with Smuts, who became one of Churchill’s closest friends and a trusted member of the Imperial War Cabinet in the First and Second World Wars. Churchill’s role in the imperial experience is complex and not given to easy generalisations.

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[1] W.K. Hancock, Smuts, the Sanguine Years: 1870–1919, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1962, pp. 213–214.

[2] ‘The mandarins of the colonial office, and many politicians too, held colonial and non-European societies in contempt. Smuts, Gandhi, Deakin, Mullah Muhammad of Somaliland: the significance of each of them in the history of their own peoples was underestimated. They were regarded in Whitehall merely as “cunning”, “half-mad”, “boring” and “mad” respectively.’ Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, pp. 3–4.

[3] Hancock, Smuts, p. 215.

[4] Ibid., p. 217.

[5] Ibid., p. 289.

[6] Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 11 July 1906. The Keir Hardie archive, London School of Economics, ILP/4/1900/ 66A, contains several letters from the Colenso family to Hardie.

[7] Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, pp. 239–261.

[8] Ibid., p. 251.

[9] Lake and Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line, p. 221.

[10] Ibid., p. 222.

[11] Shula Marks, Reluctant Rebellion: The 1906–1908 Disturbances in Natal, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1970, p. 191.