Britain’s Bloody Past Part One

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 27, 2022, under the title “Leading the Way in Torture.”

The debate about Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the atrocities that have ensued has prompted a great deal of whataboutery. It has been hard to look at the irrefutable evidence of barbarity from Mariupol, Bucha and Borodyanka, and not to feel angry when someone pops up to refer one to John Mearsheimer’s view that Nato is to blame for the carnage and rape and to point out that terrible crimes have been committed by the US and British empires.

Documented Atrocities

The whatabouterists will have much to sustain them in them in Caroline Elkins’s new book Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. Elkins is professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard. Her first book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005), won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. It was also the basis for successful claims by former Mau Mau detainees against the British government for crimes committed in the 1950s. Barack Obama’s grandfather was amongst those tortured by the British in Kenya.

Obama’s Grandma

Just before the trial began, a previously unknown cache of 240,000 top secret colonial files, removed from Nairobi at the time of Kenyan independence in 1963, was discovered. Elkins’s first book was treated by many historians with condescension or hostility. She was vindicated by the “lost’ documents. Elkins was livid: “After all these years of being roasted over the coals, they’ve been sitting on the evidence? Are you frickin’ kidding me? This almost destroyed my career.”

Legalized Lawlessness

When people accuse me of being a western imperialist, I find it rather strange, as I am a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. Ireland was Britain’s first colony and served as a laboratory in which to test the techniques of torture and repression that it went on to apply all over the world. The same personnel are often used. Names of those who abused the Irish also crop up in South Africa, the West Indies, India, Iraq and Palestine. Many of the methods used by the British were similar to those used by Putin today. Elkins’s main thesis is that the atrocities committed by the British were not impromptu but the inevitable result of a system of what she calls “legalized lawlessness.

Boer War

Hitler learned a lot from Britain’s imperial methods. Britain invented the concentration camp in the early 1900s in South Africa, where it imprisoned Boer women and children in awful conditions. General The 1st Baron Kitchener of Khartoum, took command of the British forces in South Africa in late 1900 and introduced new tactics in an attempt to break the guerrilla campaign. The British burnt down homesteads and farms, systematically destroyed crops and slaughtered livestock, Tens of thousands of men, women and children were forcibly moved into the camps. An epidemic of measles killed thousands. Over 26,000 women and children perished in these concentration camps. Irishmen fought on both sides in the Boer War.


General Dyer, the Butcher of Amritsar, attended Midleton College in County Cork, Ireland. It was by his command that 50 troops, opened fire on a gathering of unarmed civilians, men, women, elders and children, at the Jallianwalla Bagh, in what later came to be known as the Amritsar massacre. Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab from 1913 to 1919, endorsed Dyer and called the massacre a “correct” action. Some historians now believe he premeditated the massacre and set Dyer to work. Many Indians blamed O’Dwyer, and while Dyer was never assaulted, O’Dwyer was assassinated in London in 1940 by an Indian revolutionary in retaliation for his role in the massacre. Michael O’Dwyer was born in County Tipperary, the sixth of the fourteen children of an unknown Irish land-owner of no great wealth.


The name of Winston Churchill crops up often in Elkins’s book. At the time of Amritsar he was Britain’s Secretary of State for War. He did not approve of Dyer’s actions. Churchill called the massacre “an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation… the crowd was neither armed nor attacking.” He wrote to the Marquess of Crewe, “My own opinion is that the offence amounted to murder, or alternatively manslaughter.”

This condemnation did not mean that Churchill’s actions were always morally supportable. Winston Churchill was not loved by the Irish. My father described him as the man who sent the Black and Tans into Ireland to shoot civilians and burn villages.

Sir Henry Tudor

Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Hugh Tudor, KCB, CMG was a British soldier who fought as a junior officer in the Second Boer War and as a senior officer in the First World War. Tudor is now remembered chiefly for his roles in the Irish War of Independence and the Palestine Police during the British mandate.

In May 1920 he was appointed ‘Police Adviser’ to the Dublin Castle administration in Ireland and promoted to Lieutenant-General. His chief qualification for this post was his friendship with Churchill. Tudor had met Churchill in Bangalore in 1895, and the two men became lifelong friends. During the brief period when Churchill had served as an infantry officer on the Western Front in early 1916, he was posted to the same sector as Tudor.

When police and auxiliaries were killed by the IRA, their comrades often responded with reprisals against local civilian communities: some of these reprisals were spontaneous “police riots,” but others were organised and led by local police officials. Tudor’s own response to these outbreaks of arson and murder was weak and ambiguous: in a memorandum on discipline dated 12 November 1920, Tudor admonished his men to maintain “the highest discipline”, while reassuring them that they would have “the fullest support in the most drastic action against that band of assassins, the so-called IRA.”

In retaliation for the assassination of a team of undercover British intelligence agents working and living in Dublin, members of the Auxiliary Division and RIC opened fire on the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, killing fourteen civilians and wounding at least sixty others. When undisciplined Auxiliaries burned down city centre of Cork, Sinn Fein were blamed. Very Putinesque!

According to Elkins, the term “”to duff someone up” originated in the Irish War of Independence. Douglas Duff trained in Ireland with the Royal Irish Constabulary, notorious for its violent tactics. Duff was then shipped out to Palestine, where he applied similar methods against Arab nationalists.

More about Tudor and Duff in Palestine next week. More also about Britain as world leader in torture.