You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Rule Britannia

Does Bush's court historian condone massacres?

I must respond to Johann Hari's despicable and cowardly attack on me in your pages ("White Man for the Job," April 23). (Cowardly because he knows that, if he called me a white supremacist in a British publication, I would sue him for libel and doubtless take tens of thousands of pounds off him for the entirely undeserved slur.)

I do not have links to white supremacism. In 2001, as the biographer of Lord Salisbury, I spent an evening giving an historical speech on the founding of the town of Salisbury (now Harare) in Zimbabwe at a dinner of expat South Africans, where I recall no racist remarks of any kind being made. I don't know any better than Hari if there were racists in the audience, but if there were it certainly does not make me one. The weasel phrase "links to" implies he knows that.

Far from being "silenced" by my father's business career, I am incredibly proud of his achievements in the British Army, Oxford University, our century-old family-owned dairy, and the British fast-food industry. In my book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900, which Hari clearly hasn't read, I write in positive terms about American fast food.

The reason that Caroline Elkins has attacked me as "incredibly dangerous and frightening" is that I take issue with her in my book over her absurd figure of up to 400,000 supposedly killed in the Mau-Mau Emergency, when almost all other historians put it at less than one-tenth of that total. I do not, and never have, approved of massacring civilians, and it is disgraceful of Hari to suggest otherwise.

It is a mark of Hari's sloppiness that he has accused me of telling President Bush that internment was pursued successfully in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, when in fact I said Southern Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s! Does Hari deny that Éamon De Valera's internment policy in the Irish Civil War crushed the Irish Republican Army in the southern 26 counties?

I am also doubtful that Professor Amartya Sen really told Hari that no "significant famines" took place after 1947 in the areas of the Indian subcontinent formerly ruled by Great Britain, since Sen himself has written a book on the 1974-1975 Bangladesh famine, which claimed the lives of more than one million people. (There have been all too many other famines there before and after that one.)

As for accusing me of Holocaust-denial over the Boer War concentration camps, my methodology is fully set out in my life of Lord Salisbury, which Hari has also clearly not read. It covers 20 pages or so--with scores of notes citing contemporary and reputable sources. It is also, in my view, outrageous to use the word "Holocaust" in any other context than the Shoah.

As for Hari's claim that I am "mocked by all serious historians," in addition to having been elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature, taking a First from Cambridge University in Modern History, having an honorary doctorate from a U.S. university, and winning International PEN's Silver Pen award, I have also won Great Britain's foremost award for nonfiction, the Wolfson Prize. If that's being mocked, please can I have more of it?

Finally, might I say that it is typical of journalists like Hari to make ad hominem attacks, including imputing guilt by the very faintest of association, and misrepresenting arguments, rather than engage on the substantive arguments set out in my book. I am very surprised you published such a piece.

--Andrew Roberts

Johann Hari responds:

Andrew Roberts's letter is extraordinarily helpful, since it demonstrates precisely the defects I was describing in my article. Allow me to deal with them one-by-one:

First: Roberts says he did not realize the Springbok Club--a group he toasted as "the heir to previous imperial achievements" on the anniversary of Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence--was a white supremacist organization. Perhaps he should have noticed the flag of apartheid South Africa, which was flown at the meeting he addressed, according to Africa News. Perhaps he should have looked at the organization's founding statements, which call for "the re-establishment of civilized European rule throughout the African continent." Perhaps he should have Googled them and discovered they have been accused by the British High Commission in South Africa of spreading "hate literature." Perhaps he should have looked at the list of previous speakers hosted by the group. The star turn preceding Roberts by a few months was Robert Henderson, a cricket writer notorious for saying that black and Asian people should be banned from England's cricket team--and for harassing Tony Blair's office so severely with his racist obsessions that the police had to be contacted.

Roberts says, "I don't know any better than Hari if there were racists in the audience." But Roberts, after reading my article, does know. The groups' founder and leader, Alan Harvey, is a former member of the neo-fascist National Front, and he claims nonwhite people in apartheid South Africa were "very happy, and not in the slightest oppressed." He need only look at the group's website to see that it exists solely for racist purposes.

The fact that Roberts apparently did not sense any racism at an explicitly, aggressively racist meeting under a white-supremacist flag to mark the anniversary of a white-supremacist declaration--and happily toasted attendees--reinforces my point, rather than rebutting it.

Second: Caroline Elkins, a Harvard Professor, has spent over a decade researching and investigating the record of the British in Kenya. Even Roberts's close friend, the historian Niall Ferguson, has written of her work: "On the basis of the most painstaking research, Caroline Elkins has starkly illuminated one of the darkest secrets of late British imperialism." Roberts, who has never carried out any research on Kenya, is happy to dismiss her work as "a blood-libel" on the British Empire. (This renders his later protestations that he would not use language associated with atrocities against the Jewish people in any other context less than convincing). In reality, though, Roberts dismisses her findings from a position of ignorance, simply because they do not fit with his ideological vision of a benign empire.

Third: Roberts accuses me of not having read his most recent book and then asserts, "I do not and never have approved of massacring civilians, and it is disgraceful of Hari to suggest otherwise." It seems that it is Roberts who has not read his book. If he could turn to pages 151-153, he will find a passage arguing that, after the Amritsar massacre--of unarmed civilians--"it was not necessary for another shot to be fired throughout the region." He then claims that if General Reginald Dyer had not massacred the civilians at Amritsar, "many more than 379 people would have lost their lives."

Then he describes Indians as grateful to Dyer for the massacre and complains that Dyer was in a terrible bind where massacring civilians and not massacring civilians would have been equally problematic: "[M]oderation was taken advantage of [by the Indians] as weakness while severity was denounced as murder." He does not quote any of the victims, but he does quote the commander-in-chief in India explaining, "The semi-educated native ... takes clemency as proof of weakness." Isn't it a defense to claim that the Amristar massacre was "necessary" and successful in saving lives?

Nor is this the only time Roberts has talked about the massacre of civilians in this way. In his 1998 BBC documentary for the Timewatch series defending British rule in India as "glorious," he says the stories of how the British dealt with the Indian Mutiny "still [have] the power to stir us".

Here is how the British responded to the mutiny, according to Ferguson: "The route of the British retaliation could be followed by the scores of corpses they left hanging from trees along the line of their march." As one soldier who was there put it, "We burnt every village and hanged all the villagers who had treated our fugitives badly until every tree was covered with scoundrels hanging from every branch." Stirring, indeed.

Fourth: Roberts can only use Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartyra Sen to defend himself by deliberately misquoting him. Sen told me: "The best response to people like Roberts is to show that India continued to have famines right up to the time of independence in 1947. But, since the British left, there is democratic pressure from Indians themselves to distribute food to the starving, so there has been no substantial famine." Sen was discussing India as a democratic republic specifically. Yet by distorting Sen's point--stretching it to cover the whole Indian subcontinent--he can discuss a famine in a different country: Bangladesh. This is a very revealing example of how Roberts misuses sources to make them fit his imperialist ideological vision.

Fifth: On the Boer concentration camps, I have indeed read Roberts's biography of Lord Salisbury, and the passage in A History of the English-Speaking People Since 1900 is simply a distillation of it. Anybody who wishes to can turn to page 31 of the latter book. There, they will find Roberts dismissing the "war crime" against the Boers in scare quotes and referring to the abuse that killed more than 35,000 people as "the supposed ill-treatment of the women and children in camps there."

Worse still, they will find Roberts explicitly blaming the victims for their own deaths. The only explanations he gives for the mass deaths in these concentration camps--which he claims were set up "for the Boers' protection"--are the Boer disruption of supply lines and a single British civilian surgeon who claimed, "The Boers in the camps often relied on home remedies, with deplorable results." In reality, they had been burned out of their homes by a prime minister who said they should be forced as far from where they lived as possible because "the further the Boer families are taken from their homes the more they will feel it."

Sixth: Roberts, in his speech to the Heritage Foundation, praised two models of internment: that of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and that "in Ireland." (Anybody who wishes to can hear it here.)

Similarly, at his lunch with President Bush, as recorded by Irwin Stelzer, he praised internment as working "in Ireland," without specifiying a period of Irish history. If he claims repeatedly that the model of mass internment worked in Ireland in the twentieth century, then his audience cannot be expected to hear sub-clauses that were not voiced out loud. I suspect this is a retrospective narrowing of Roberts's words after part of it was shown to be absurd.

Seventh: Again, Roberts can only defend himself from the charge that he is mocked by "almost all serious historians" by deliberately misquoting it. He prefers to change my words to a straw man claim that he is "mocked by all serious historians," a charge I did not and do not make. Of course there are a few historians located on the far right--or those prepared to reward it periodically in order to appear balanced--who choose to laud Roberts.

If this is Roberts's way with quotations and sources, it is no wonder his histories are so radically divergent from the truth.

By Johann Hari