[Marxism] The Blood Never Dried

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 12 18:29:25 MST 2006


John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s 
History of the British Empire (Bookmarks 
Publications, 2006). 286 pages, paperback, £11.99 ISBN 1905192126

Newsinger has three basic propositions:

Firstly, he identifies the history of the British Empire in these terms:

Whereas Britain after 1918 was a ‘satisfied’ 
empire, concerned to hold what it had rather than 
seize more, in the 19th century the British 
Empire, despite the liberalism of its 
metropolitan rulers, was a predatory empire 
engaged in continuous warfare. (p. 67)

Secondly, he diagnoses extreme violence as an 
inherent component of imperialism. Colonialism 
always requires police officers and soldiers, 
whose brutality towards the colonized is a 
fundamental condition of governance. There is no 
imperialism without repression and violence.

Thirdly, politicians and journalists have, 
historically, generally failed to confront the 
barbarism which formed an essential feature of 
British imperial rule, and this has been 
replicated by academics. Historians shy away from 
acknowledging the stupendous brutality of empire; 
often they ignore it completely. In so doing they 
fail to provide an adequate or reasonably 
objective account of Britain’s past. Newsinger’s 
book corrects this blind spot with a revisionist 
history of the British empire which focuses on 
native resistance to it and the extreme violence 
used by a supposedly civilized state to suppress 
it. His title echoes the words of the Chartist 
and socialist Ernest Jones, who in 1851 wrote of 
Britain, “On its colonies the sun never sets, but the blood never dries.”

Newsinger develops these three arguments over 
twelve chapters which analyze, in chronological 
order, key episodes in the history of the British 
Empire. These are (1) slavery in the Caribbean 
(2) the Irish famine (3) China and the opium wars 
(4) the Indian mutiny (5) the invasion of Egypt 
(6) global insurgencies against the Empire in the 
wake of the First World War (7) the Palestinian 
uprising 1936-9 (8) the struggle for Indian 
independence (9) Suez (10) insurgency in Kenya 
(11) insurgency in the Far East (12) the 
subordination of the British Empire to US imperialism.

I think it’s a brilliant book. Newsinger is 
prodigiously well read and writes with absolute 
lucidity and clarity. His book is full of 
shocking examples of terror and atrocity. It’s a 
great resource and my copy will go on the same 
shelf as Mark Curtis’s Web of Deceit and Robert 
Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation. I’ll 
probably return to this book in a future post, 
but for the moment let me just briefly mention 
Newsinger’s account of the great Indian rebellion 
1857-8, an insurrection which is memorialized in 
Trafalgar Square by the monument to Major General 
Sir Henry Havelock, who was in charge of the army which suppressed it.

Newsinger argues that torture was a fundamental 
aspect of the financial operations of British 
colonialism in India. Having cited the evidence for this he remarks,

What is remarkable is how little this regime of 
torture has figured in accounts of British rule 
in India. It is a hidden history that has been 
unremarked on and almost completely unexplored. 
Book after book remains silent on the subject. 
This most surely calls into question the whole 
historiography of the Raj. (p. 70)

The revolt which erupted in 1857 against British 
rule was, he asserts, “without doubt, one of the 
largest revolutionary outbreaks of the 19th 
century.” And it was put down with massive force 
and extreme violence. The mass media of the day 
played a crucial role in mobilising British 
public opinion in support of the repression. 
Firstly, it ran bogus horror stories, which cast 
the rebels as barbarians: “It was widely reported 
that British women had been cooked alive, forced 
to eat their children, horribly mutilated with 
noses and ears cut off and eyes put out, and 
stripped naked and publicly raped. These stories were untrue.” (p. 74)

Conversely, the barbarism and atrocities carried 
out by the British army went unreported. The 
horrors matched those perpetrated by the Third 
Reich when it rampaged through eastern Europe. 
Sergeant William Forbes recorded witnessing 130 
men hanged from a giant banyan tree. And the 
intelligentsia played its part, too. Charles 
Dickens raged that he desired “to exterminate the 
race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties 
to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth.”

The great rebellion was crushed. But it led to 
the termination of the power of the East India 
Company and marked the beginning of the long 
struggle for Indian independence, proving an inspiration to later generations.

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