History is nothing if not biased. It’s a well-known fact that accounts of wars are generally written from the victor’s point of view, and some of the nastier bits get overlooked. And one of the great victors – and great overlookers – of history has to be England. Its history is tainted with imperialistic arrogance, genocide and cruelty. Yet, it tends to get skimmed over when anyone’s talking about the golden days of the British Empire. But it doesn’t take much digging to find the grimmer bits. So, here are the Top 10 Pieces of History That the English Try to Forget.
(For accuracy’s sake, I should point out that some of these events were perpetrated by the British as a whole, some by the English against other bits of Britain and the U.K….but the English tend to feature in them all. As Hollywood knows, villains always have a British accent)
10. The Mau Mau Uprising
Also known as “The Kenya Emergency”, this conflict took place between 1952 and 1960 and there were numerous atrocities on both sides. Kenya was under British rule at the time and the Mau Mau were a group of anti-colonial rebels, who expressed their hatred of the regime in the most vicious way possible, attacking Africans as well as British forces. The rebels may have been vicious, but they were matched by the actions of the British, who killed around 20,000 of them in combat and dispensed capital punishment to a further 1,090 Mau Mau suspects. When the Mau Mau killed 74 men, women and children at Lari the British retaliated by killing 150 of their people. Even more disturbing was the Chuka massacre, where British-led troops killed 20 African citizens, and the subsequent torture of suspected rebels. A blood-stained and shameful chapter of British history.
9. The Irish Oppression
English imperialism didn’t just happen miles away from Britain’s shore. It also happened closer to home, with the actions of Elizabeth I’s army in Ireland. Known as one of the greatest monarchs of all time for the cultural leaps that occurred during her reign, Elizabeth was feared and hated in Ireland, or “that rude and barbarous nation”, as she referred to it. Fearful of the Irish making a pact with her enemies, and giving them a base close to England, she sent troops in to quell the more rebellious elements, scorch the earth and kill anyone who tried to resist them. Humphrey Gilbert, half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, was particularly known for his ruthlessness, putting down the Desmond rebellions with brutal force and lining the path to his tent with the heads of his enemies. Ireland has never forgiven England for these actions, and there is still tension today.
8. The Concentration Camps
It’s often said that the British invented the concentration camp. It’s not true, but they were pioneers of them. The first use of the term was by the Spanish, as they used “reconcentrados” in Cuba during the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) and the British didn’t use them until the Second Boer War, which started in 1899. But it’s an undeniable fact that the British had their enemies in detention camps long before the Nazis did, with 45 camps built for Boer prisoners and 64 for Black African prisoners. And that included women and children, 26,000 of whom died in the camps thanks to the poor hygiene, lack of food and prevalence of infectious diseases. They didn’t invent them, but they certainly weren’t afraid to use them.
7. The Baralong Incident
The British pride themselves on a sense of fair play and this applies even in times of war – if you capture an enemy, you imprison rather than kill them. So it was shocking news when the German submarine U-27 was sunk by HMS Baralong and all the survivors were shot without mercy. The incident happened on August 19th 1915, in the middle of the First World War, 100 miles south of Ireland. The German U-Boats had sunk a passenger ship earlier that same day and so tempers were already raised. There are varying accounts of what happened, but some say that U-27’s commander Bernard Wegener was shot while he had his hands up in surrender. Definitely not the British way, is it?
6. The Massacre of Amritsar
There were many British atrocities committed while India was under their rule, but most notorious was the Massacre of Amritsar. On April 13th, 1919 Indians had gathered to protest peacefully against the Rowlatt Acts, laws which allowed the British to detain prisoners indefinitely and to sentence them without trial. Around 10,000 protesters were gathered in a park called Jallianwalla Bagh, which only had one way of getting in or out. Unarmed and with nowhere to go, the protestors were helpless as the British opened fire on them, killing 379 and injuring around 1,200. This sparked Mahatma Gandhi’s political movement, which continued the peaceful method of protest against British imperialism in India.