Review Article

‘The Blood Never Dried’

Chaman Lal

Earnest Jones, the British Socialist poet said in his long poem ‘The Revolt of Hindostan’ that ‘On its colonies the sun never sets, but the blood never dries’ - John Newsinger, a British historian with left orientation gave the title of his 2006 published *book-‘The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of British Empire’. Its second and updated edition came out in year 2013, in which the writer added new material. The book is dedicated to writers’ old comrades from Leicester- Chris Lymn, Mal Deakin, Andy Wynne, Jim Tolton, John Peach and the late Ken Orrill.The book has been described by one of most important English poet and thinker John Berger as ‘Superb’ on its title of first edition.

The book covers the history of British colonial oppression and exploitation in different regions of the world, as the British had colonised nearly a hundred countries in Asia, Africa and some other regions in the world, it was the biggest coloniser in human history and is still holding many colonies under its rule, like Falklands in Argentina. The author’s main focus is not on many countries, but on the major freedom struggles and British colonial cruelties to crush those anti colonial resistance movements. Indian resistance figures twice in the book, first as The Great Indian Rebellion, 1857-58 and then as Quit India movement. In between in another chapter it refers to Jallianwala Bagh like massacres. The first chapter of the book begins with ‘The Jamaican Rebellion and the overthrow of slavery’.

There are chapters on Ireland, The Irish famine, Opium Wars, Egypt, The Suez Canal, Palestine Question, Mau Mau Movement in Kenya, Malaya and Far East. Finally British colonial empire gives up before American empire, as the neo colonial regime of American empire begins. In 2013 edition of the book a chapter on Iraq invasion by USA takes readers to the reality of merging of colonial and neo- colonial systems of oppression and exploitation of world’s largest population, the fruits of this exploitation are enjoyed by a miniscule number of colonial and neo colonial rulers and their patronised corporates of the world, which perhaps has grown much worse during the continuing pandemic of Covid-19!

In the introduction to first edition of the book the author underlines the fact that ‘a close look at British imperial rule reveals episodes as brutal and shameful as in the history of any empire, indeed the British colonial regime suppressed the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950’s’! We in India remember the brutalities committed in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on 13th April 1919 and few months around, but if one compares it with the British suppression of Mau Mau rebellion, three decades later in Kenya, the Jallianwala Bagh brutalities look much lesser than what the British did three decades later, despite so many international organisations like UNO, Human Rights organisations, coming up after World War II. Author Newsinger while referring to another author N Ferguson book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, published in 2003, an apologist of British imperialism, in whose book-The Mau Mau revolt does not find even a mention, but in Newsinger’s words-‘The Mau Mau revolt of the 1950’s was put down with terrible brutality, the routine use of torture, the summary executions, internment on a massive scale and the hanging of over 1000 prisoners.’

Newsinger not only narrates the history of oppression and brutalities of British colonialism, he goes to the roots of exploitation. ‘Imperialism has two dimensions; firstly, the competition between the great imperial powers, competition that in the 20th century produced two world wars and the Cold war. This competition is the driving force of modern imperialism, and it has wreaked terrible damage on the world, consuming millions of lives.’

Probably one can understand the present conditions of Ukraine war and the resulting Cold war from Newsinger interpretation of imperial competition. In his introduction the author refers to few films on repression on South African people, but also underlines the role of radicals and socialists in Britain who supported the resistance movements in colonies. He underlines that the British anti-imperialists stand in the tradition of poet Earnest Jones and another fierce critic of the empire, radical socialist William Morris. In this context author does not spare the so-called progressive party of Britain Labour party, which was no different from Tories and conservatives in defending the colonial empire. John Newsinger is unsparing of New Labour party with the rise of Tony Blaire, in playing a subordinate to US imperialism. The author has the humility to say that his study is not the history of British colonial empire, but it just focuses on particular episodes, but these episodes expose the real and brutal face of old colonialism and neo imperialism.

In 2013 updated edition, like in first edition, Newsinger challenges another apologist of colonial empires. Here he challenges John Darwin, Oxford University’s Professor of history, whose book-Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain, published in 2012,he scrutinised critically like earlier book of N Ferguson. He questions Darwin that how casually he has referred to the catastrophe of Bengal Famine of 1943 in his book of 400+ pages? Darwin just gives a passing reference on page 346 that ‘the Bengal famine of 1943 may have killed two million people’! Author here favourably refers to Madhusree Mukherjee’s book-Churchills’ Secret War’ which powerfully exposes the British colonial regime during the famine, which as per Mukhrejee had killed 3.5 to five million people, while Churchill used to say ‘Indians are used to hunger.’

This edition has taken into account British role in Iraq and Afghanistan and also updated Mau Mau movement’s brutalities. Author has referred to previously hidden 294 boxes of 1500 files of Mau Mau movement, which was under legal scrutiny, whose judgement came later than 2013 edition of the book was published. British colonial regime had to pay huge compensation of 19.9 million pounds to descendants of 5000 Kenyan victims as compensation to Mau Mau brutalities committed in 1950. Whereas in Jallianwala Bagh massacres Britishers got absolved by paying few lakh rupees to victims, to many victims as low as just five hundred rupees.

A new chapter is added to Iraq and Afghanistan as Afterwards to 2013 edition. The first chapter on Jamaica takes us back to the days of slavery, where in Antigua, the Caribbean Island, where less than 3000 whites were holding more than 24000 blacks as slaves and first conspiracy to rebel was discovered in 1736. British Empire in the Caribbean was bult on the production of sugar on plantations, worked by black slaves brought from Africa, later Indians went there as semi slaves, after the abolition of slavery as system. In Jamaica, five lakh slaves were taken from Africa between 1700 and 1774. During 180 years of slavery in Jamaica, hardly any decade went without revolt against slavery. In neighbouring Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana, situation was no different, there were markets where slaves were brought in chains and sold like cattle. After the killings of thousands and revolts slavery finally was ended in 1834. The author has given details of resistance and took it until 1867 reform act was implemented.

 The second chapter title is The Irish Famine, but it is saga or Irish revolutionary resistance to British Empire, which had inspired Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries in India as well. The story begins with 1798 full scale rebellion against British rule over Ireland. The Irish famine or Great Hunger happened during 1830-40, when the staple food of Ireland’s potato crop was destroyed up to 40%. The effects of famine continued till 1850. But the story of Irish struggle for freedom, conflict between Catholics and Protestants is also woven in the story of famine. The struggle of Irish Republican Army (IRA), which had impacted Indian revolutionaries is described till 1916 Easter rising. Later Ireland is split in two parts. One part is now independent Republic of Ireland, whereas Northern Ireland continues to be uneasy part of United Kingdom and IRA or Sinn Fein getting into power in 2022 elections for the first time.

 Third chapter Opium Wars deal with wars with China due to opium trade. British traders were earning from opium smuggling which China was trying to control. First opium war took place in 1840’s with Manchu empire of China. Britain despite a smaller country had won the war, but the conflict continued. Taiping rebellion in 1853, fall of Nanjing regime, in all three opium wars took place between China and Britain. Britain succeeded in occupying Hong Cong during these wars, which it kept colonised till 1997 agreement of quitting it, but still keeps interfering even after 25 years of decolonising it. As per author, Britain influence was over by 1930, but it kept. Hong Cong Island occupied till 1997.

India comes into picture in next chapter with the apt title of-The Great Indian Rebellion 1857-58.The chapter begins with a quote from Michael Edwardes ‘the English threw aside the mask of civilization and engaged in a war on such ferocity that a reasonable parallel can be seen in our times with the Nazi occupation of Europe’

A very strong statement by a historian of repute, though author Newsinger does not completely agree with this, yet finds comparison to be true in some respects at least in the methods adopted by Nazi occupants of Europe and British colonialists. .As he quotes a memoir of one Thomas Lowe in his book ‘Central India during the Rebellion of 1857 and 58’. Newsinger narrates the bloody wars of aggression by Britishers since 19th century, referring to 1824-26 invasion of Burma, 1839-42 disastrous invasion of Afghanistan, 1843 occupation of Sindh, 1844 occupation of Gwalior, 1844-45 first Anglo-Sikh war, followed by two more wars to conquest Punjab in 1849. Under the policy of ‘lapse’, ruling feudal dyeing without direct progeny, Dalhousie annexed five states---Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi, Tanjore and lastly Awadh in 1856. Dalhousie proudly proclaimed that British queen had added fifty lakh people and 12 lakh pounds to the empire. During East India company by 1818 collected 22 lakh pounds from land taxes surpassing earnings from trade, which was its basic purpose. The author quotes from Karl Marx’s 1853 article on India, that Britain achieved its one purpose of destroying India. The tortures of British Empire during 1857-58 figure in British Parliament, but were hidden by historians of the raj. While colonialists were defending all atrocities on Indians, Karl Marx underlined that ‘Mussulmans and Hindus renouncing their mutual antipathies, have combined against their common masters’, he further noted that ‘revolt was part of general disaffection against English supremacy on the part of great Asiatic nations’. (Quoted from First war of Independence by Marx)

Newsinger also mentions that how V D Savarkar’s book The Indian war of Independence 1857 was published in 1909 and banned quickly in India but it appeared on Indian bookstalls wrapped in cover labelled as ‘Random Papers of Pickwick Club’! (The author has given the source of this information from a 1931 book by Mac Munn). This book was secretly printed and distributed by Indian revolutionaries also. The author narrates the details of the great rebellion, but in England, it is remembered more as Cawnpore massacres. At Sati Chaura ghat in Kanpur large number of Britishers including women were massacred by Indian sepoys, this has given rise to many different narrations. Bhairav Prasad Gupt, a Hindi novelist wrote a huge novel titled Sati Maiya Ka Chaura. Rudrangshu Mukherjee in ‘Specter of Violence’ has tried to contextualize this massacre at Bibighar. But compared to what Britishers did to Indians during 1857-58, it looks as minor but violent reaction to colonial atrocities. As it happened at Chauri Chaura in 1922 during Mahatma Gandhi called Satyagraha, due to police atrocities on peaceful people. The exact number of killings during 1857-58 are never known, but these runs into lakhs as no official records have been made. Newsinger had given large details of British cruelties including 282 sepoys choked to death at Ajnala in Punjab by the orders of Deputy Commissioner Cooper, the remains of which were found during last decade. The Britishers were generally against Indian resistance as large number of pro-British accounts were written during and after the revolt. But there was support for Indian resistance too, as poet Earnest Jones wrote the epical poem-The Revolt of Hindostan, from which the title of this book is taken.

Some unknown or lesser known facts about the great rebellion mentioned by Newsinger, include even Charles Dickens the beloved writer of most of liberal and aesthetes of realism, defended British cruelties on Indians by saying that-‘to exterminate the race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested…to blot it out of mankind and raze if off the face of the earth,’. (Page 89 of 2013 edition) On the other hand Marx daughter Jenny supported Earnest Jones by siding with the revolt of Indians. The whole chapter of the book needs to be read carefully to see the real face of colonial mindset.

There is a chapter on invasion of Egypt in 1882 and the glorious struggle of Egyptians for Egypt for Egyptians.

India comes to be mentioned in the book in another full chapter Quit India, but before that in the chapter-The Post war Crisis-1916-26, along with Irish Struggle and Egyptian revolt, there is narration with reference to Jallianwala Bagh massacre and General Dyer’s crimes in the sub chapter-Holding India by the sword. Before referring to Jallianwala Bagh, the working-class textile workers struggle in Ahmadabad and Bombay are mentioned and after Jallianwala, the noncooperation movement led by Gandhi also finds mention.

Very few books refer to The Palestinians’ sufferings due to imperial designs, but Newsinger brings to fore the whole issue of Palestine with perspective on Zionism and imperialism in one full chapter of the book.

In chapter Quit India, the author focuses upon Gandhi’s non- cooperation movement, besides referring to Sholapur workers strike and other developments during long freedom struggle of India. This chapter makes reference to Simon Commission, Lala Lajpat Rai, Congress Socialist Party (CSP), CPI, before moving towards launching of Quit India. It narrates in detail the various incidents during Quit India and the glorious resistance by Indian people. This chapter also underlines the greatest disaster befalling India in the form of Bengal famine of 1943 and Churchill’s racist response to it. The chapter completes the story of Indian independence going through the Indian National Army led by Netaji Subhash Bose and Royal Indian Navy revolt of 1946, which finally forced Britain to really Quit India on 15th August 1947.

Later chapters include the Suez Canal crisis and British defeat and the crushing the Mau Mau movement in Kenya most brutally in great detail. There is mention of Southern Rhodesia, Indonesian killings of communists, Vietnamese war, Britain joining American imperialist camp, new labour under Tony Blair, who joined US imperialists in attacking Iraq. Before concluding the book, a chapter is added as Afterwards to second edition describing the hypocrisy and lies of so- called weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to attack Iraq and execute publically its elected President Saddam Hussain.

This is one of the books, which every nationalist or patriot of any country should read to understand the role of colonial and imperialist oppression and exploitation of the world people, unfortunately, which continues unabated even today. The world seems to be moving towards more imperialist wars with fascist tendencies again emerging in many countries including India. How to save world from falling into barbaric trap of fascist destruction, when there is no sight of its only alternative---socialism in sight as Rosa Luxemburg visualised? Is world doomed towards going through the barbarism or something miraculous could happen? There is a weak ray of light from Latin American countries and bleak hope in farmers’ movement in India. How to strengthen these hopeful signs to save humanity is the biggest challenge before humanity and question for philosophers!

[Newsinger John, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, 2013/2006, Bookmarks Publications, London, Pages 304]


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Vol 55, No. 18, Oct 30 - Nov 5, 2022