The Other Side of the British Empire


This article is about bad British behavior in Kenya in the 1950s.

Help us sue the British government for torture. That was the request Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, received in 2008. The idea was both legally improbable and professionally risky. Improbable because the case, then being assembled by human rights lawyers in London, would attempt to hold Britain accountable for atrocities perpetrated 50 years earlier, in pre-independence Kenya. Risky because investigating those misdeeds had already earned Elkins heaps of abuse.

 It reminds me of bad British behavior I learned about in India. I know that you are informed and pay attention to African history and culture, which is why I thought to send an article about the Mau Mau rebellion and the vicious British response to you.

On a vaguely related note, that is the bad behavior of the colonial era British, I remember on a walking tour in Delhi I came upon a memorial to those many Indians killed (hung I think) by the British in 1857 in response to a major uprising.

I can’t remember exactly, a circular fountain with something tall in the middle. Now entirely surrounded by pavement, that is, the street. Although it was to the side, it was a traffic circle with cars, trucks, buses, and every other form in Indian road transportation passing on all sides. Along one of the major, jam-packed roads, with several side streets entering at the location.

As I watched, passers-by would step from the safety of the street sides, dodge their way to the fountain’s outer wall, and stand still for a moment or two, palms pressed together.

Also I read historical accounts of several famines, some directly caused by the East Indian Company or the British colonial government, through which the British authorities (company officials before 1857, British government officials after) did little or nothing to help. Millions died, and more than once. (The British behaved in India as they did with the Irish in the 1840s, exporting food grown in Ireland to England while Irish people were starving.)

I read an odd and interesting book The Great Hedge of India: The Search for the Living Barrier That Divided a People, by Roy Moxham,
about a bramble fence, many feet high and thick, formed of selected hedges with ferocious thorns that went more or less diagonally from northwest tosoutheast across all of India. What was its purpose? Salt was essential in some parts of India where it was not present in the ground. The British took control of the salt business, and imposed a small tax on its sale, which they collected as salt supplies passed from parts of India to other parts. The bramble fence allowed the British to control movement of everyone from the northeast to the southwest, so that they could collect the salt tariff as supplies passed the few ports through the fence. Well, even a small tax raised the price of salt sufficiently to put it beyond the means of millions of poor Indian peasants, many of whom, therefore, died. The book was an amusing story of the author’s search to try to find any possible surviving parts of the fence, which had mostly been erased from history and from nature.



Yes, the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, as some called it. I think it’s an oddity of history that apparently the Germans were among the least violent and most benevolent of the colonizers, the British were somewhere in the middle of the pack, and the Dutch and the Belgians were at the really nasty end. But human conflict and conquest have always been extremely violent, directly in line with the chimp video I forwarded you last week. I never liked the Lord of the Rings books or movies because they were just endless war, exhausting to watch. 

I don’t know about the memorial in New Delhi. Is this it?



Here’s a picture of the 1857 memorial shown in your link:

By Pallav.journo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This is not the memorial I had in mind. Indeed, this one was put up by the British in the 1860s to honor those British and Indian soldiers who had fought against the rebellion. In the 1970s, the Indian people, now free from colonialism, added this plaque:

This reads

The enemy of the inscription on this monument were those who rose against colonial rule and fought bravely for the national liberation in 1857.

In memory of the heroism of these immortal martyrs for I

Indian freedom this plaque was unveiled on the 25th anniversary of the nation’s attainment of freedom.

28 August 1972

Here’s the one I had in mind:



Yes, this one looks a whole lot more India than the one in the link I sent. I searched on “new delhi mutiny memorial” but the one pictured here did not come up. How would one describe it to bring it up?



I searched on Chandni Chowk, which is either the old main street, as you can see, or the market there. Then I looked at Images. Pictures of the fort, the Jain temple and bird hospital, a famous sweet shop…, until I found a few pictures of this dry fountain surrounded by traffic as I remembered. The main street, which leads away from the fort, (Red fort), runs 15 or 20 blocks. It and many side streets are on walking tours. As you can see walking is much faster than a taxi. I remember walking down the goldsmiths’s street, then the wedding clothes street, so narrow and shaded by the balconies above. Supposedly the sweet shop was popular with one of the early ruler’s elephant who would ring the bell to receive a treat. So they told me, and showed me the bell too.

Don’t forget to read the article about the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion.


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