Caroline Elkins (2022) outlines the legacy of violence of the British empire

Around 2010, I began to read about the history of the British empire. I wanted to know more about the first settler colonialist landowner in Long Branch in Toronto. I lived in Long Branch from 1997 until 2018. In 2010 I learned that a local school, about a three-minute walk from our house, was about to be sold. The school grounds was the site where a British colonel had built a log cabin in 1797. The cabin was torn down in 1955.

Because I had experience in community self-organizing, and because I was able to get some crucial strategic advice from several sources, I was able to help to ensure the school stayed in public hands. You can read all about this story at this website by searching for Parkview School, Colonel Samuel Smith, and community self-organizing.

In my reading about the British empire, I came across research by Caroline Elkins which served to place my understanding of the history of the British empire into a context that made sense to me.

The purpose of the current post is to share the text of a book review at Kirkus Books of a recent book by Caroline Elkins. You can access the text at the link in the previous sentence. To ensure greater ease for online reading, I have added paragraph breaks to the text which follows.

I look forward to reading the e-book version of this book at the Toronto Public Library website.

The Kirkus Review article reads:


by Caroline Elkins

A scathing indictment of the long and brutal history of British imperialism.

Historian Elkins, founding director of Harvard’s Center for African Studies and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005), frames her narrative with two events that actually took the British Empire to task for its violent imperial policy over centuries.

The first was the 1788 impeachment trial of governor-general of India, Warren Hastings, during which Parliament demanded accountability for his repressive tactics, shocking the nation. The second is the 2011 case of the survivors of the Mau Mau rebellion.

Throughout this tour de force of historical excavation, Elkins confronts the decidedly Western ideas of the social contract, government responsibility, and the importance of personal property alongside the enduring belief that White men alone could institute these marvelous liberal gifts.

“When 19th century liberalism confronted distant places and ‘backward people’ bound by strange religions, hierarchies, and sentimental and dependent relationships, its universalistic claims withered,” writes the author. “Britains viewed their imperial center…as culturally distinct from their empire….Skin color became the mark of difference. Whites were at one end of civilization’s spectrum, Blacks at the other. All of shades of humanity fell somewhere in between.”

Paternalistic attitudes continued to evolve across the empire, and Elkins provides especially keen examinations of colonies where clashes were particularly forceful and “legalized lawlessness” was widespread—among other regions, India, South Africa, Palestine, Ireland, Malay, and Kenya.

Offering numerous correctives to Whitewashed history, the author mounts potent attacks against the egregious actions of vaunted figures like Winston Churchill; Henry Gurney, commissioner of Malay; and Terence Gavaghan, a colonial officer in Kenya.

Over the course of the 20th century, Britain was forced to cede many of its sovereign claims to empire, at enormous human cost. Elkins masterfully encapsulates hundreds of years of history, amply showing how “Britain was to the modern world what the Romans and Greeks were to the ancient one.”

Top-shelf history offering tremendous acknowledgement of past systemic abuses.

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