Thursday, May 31, 2007

John Newsinger – The Blood Never Dried – A People’s History of the British Empire


One of the unexpected consequences of the “War on Terror” has been an attempt to reinvent the history of the British Empire. To justify the actions of the American government around the world, it’s important to show the benovolance of previous Empires.

John Newsinger’s book has been written in response to this re-writing of history. In turn, Newsinger writes short and sharp pieces on moments and places of the British Empire. So we read how the British government decided that the free market would solve the Irish Potato famine of 1846 – resulting in a million deaths. We discover how the British murdered their way around countries from Egypt to China. How, in the interests of Free Trade they fought two brutal wars (though war is hardly the right term for such unequal conflicts) for the right to sell Opium to the Chinese, and along with this, raped, pillaged and plundered the country.

The “Jewel in the Crown” of the Empire, India, makes for several interesting chapters. Newsinger documents how the manner of British rule led directly to the uprising of 1857. Newsinger calls the events of 1857 an uprising (his authority is no-less a figure as Benjamin Disraeli who described the war as a “National revolt”) rather than the mutiny that it is normally described as.

Newsinger argues that the brutal nature of the uprising, described with glee in the media of the time, was only brutal because it was a response to the violence of British Rule up to that point. He quotes Karl Marx, writing at the time, that however violent the action of the rebels;

“it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule.”

The violence of the British troops in putting down the revolt, was often glorified as bravery, worthy of many medals. This violence of course was characteristic of all of Britain’s colonial rules. From the utter brutality of the British response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, to the violence vested on those in countries like Malaysia, Egypt, Iraq or China who dared to question rule from London.

Newsinger’s book finishes with a reflection on the new aspect of Imperialism. How Britain has become so linked to the new American Empire. The author argues that this is not something new, and it is actually a characteristic of Labour government policy over the years. Newsingers conclusion is hopeful; he argues that historically while Empires are brutal, they are also weak. The hope he says must be that those resisting new attempts at neo-colonialism, can eject the oppressors from their lands.

You can read the full article by Karl Marx on the Indian Revolt, September 16th 1857 here.

The second edition of John Newsinger's book is now available from Bookmarks here.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - Fighting Back: The American Working Class in the 1930s
Newsinger - The Dredd Phenomenon: Comics and Contemporary Society

4 comments:

MyUtopia said...

Sounds interesting.

maryb said...

I have read this book and found it particularly illuminating on Britain's colonial history. By the end I felt absolutely ashamed of my nationality and of what had been perpetrated against other peoples for our gain. I think it should be a set book for secondary schoolchildren.

Anonymous said...

Strangely this is book is unavailable for many years!!

Resolute Reader said...

This excellent book is now back in print, and available from Bookmarks www.bookmarks.uk.com

There is a timely interview with the John Newsinger here

http://bit.ly/de5PMz