How do you write about Empire and the end of Empire?
Saturday, 20 April 2024 13:42

How do you write about Empire and the end of Empire?

Published in Cultural Commentary

Ed Edwards asks how does a dramatist create realistic characters in the context of Empire and the end of Empire? 

When I first became aware of the horrors of capitalism and the brutal role the British state played in creating and maintaining the system worldwide, I started to hate films about Britain’s evil colonial past. Whatever the crimes and/or prejudices portrayed in such films – see Passage to India, Gandhi, etc. – they always seemed to come with a secret message: ‘Look how cruel we were back in the days of Empire, aren’t we so much more enlightened now?’

As a left dramatist I was desperate to avoid the same mistake in my own work. But the more I learned about Britain’s vampiric past, the more I realised there are problems for writers creating stories at the End of Empire – i.e. about the present. The more I looked, the more I became aware that the Empire has only really changed its clothes and leaders – slipped on a cloak of invisibility – but underneath the shiny modernity, the decaying and parasitic beast that used to be called Empire, is alive and still kicking. Just hidden.

So, as a dramatist who has to create realistic characters in these circumstances, I have questions:

  • How much has the character of the people who live at the End of Empire really changed since the days of Actual Empire? And,
  • What does this mean for writers who want to create realistic characters at the End of Empire?

On the plus side for dramatists, writing ‘character’ mostly means writing what our protagonists do and say. So pretty much if you can identify that, you’ve nailed it. In other words, rather than trying to grasp ever-mysterious and illusive psychological characteristics to determine character – desire, libido, ego, instinct, the death drive, etc. – dramatists can pretty much say, ‘This is what they did, and this is what they said.’ Easy.

The tricky part of writing character is context. Which changes everything. For example, the character of two lovers in a street staring into each other’s eyes and then kissing passionately looks very different if we ‘pull back to reveal’ people being hanged from a makeshift gallows nearby, operated by our lovers’ mates. But what if the victims of the hanging are fascists who have murdered all of our lovers’ friends and family? Or the hanging is happening in the next street, the victims are innocent, and our lovers are unaware it is happening at all because they are so obsessed with kissing each other? What if we then realise our lovers know what’s happening in the next street, but don’t really care because they only believe in love? Or our lovers are under armed guard, they know damn well it’s happening in the next street and that they are next? Or, after the kiss, our lovers pull out guns and set off to rescue the innocent victims of the hangings in the next street with a cry of ‘Freedom or death!’In each case we feel differently about our lovers and their kiss. In each dramatic vignette they are different characters.

You get the point. But what if the writer of the scene doesn’t know there are hangings in the next street and is only interested in our characters and their kiss? That’s when context gets complex, it’s easy to mess up and it all gets very postmodern. So in order to answer my questions I need some proper context. I need to give a brief account of the British Empire and what became of it. Then ask questions about writing drama in that context.

Two acts. Empire. End of Empire. This will be ridiculously inadequate as history, but dramatists are allowed to do this shit and call it a provocation. Plus there’s loads of notes for fact-checking and further reading if you want to know more, or don’t believe me. Oh, and the original idea for England & Son was: a horror story in which all the horrors are real. What follows is a horror story in which all the horrors are real. Fetch the garlic.

Concerning Violence

A month after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Hitler declared, ‘What India was for England, the territories of Russia will be for us.’1

Unfortunately for the world, though, a century beforehand, when the British carried out their robbery and slaughter in India, there was no Soviet Red Army to drive them out and crush them like the beasts they were. Writing about British violence in India at the time of Empire, Karl Marx described the capitalist class of his day as travelling ‘from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked’.2 That they did. So if you don’t like nudity, look away now.

A few years after Marx’s remark, in 1857, when Queen Victoria’s Empire was nearing its height after a hundred years of robbery and violence by the private armies of the East India Company, poorly armed Indians known as sepoys – actually Indian soldiers used by the British to force their will on India – launched a rebellion to liberate India from British domination. In response, the British behaved like the Nazis in Eastern Europe during World War II.

Following imperial orders, Colonel James Neill – a devout Christian and British army officer – instituted a reign of terror against the civilian population in the vicinity of the sepoy mutiny. At least six thousand men, women and children were killed pretty much straight away. Local British volunteers set up ‘hanging parties’ and lynched hundreds, including children. Colonel Neill then sent his soldiers to destroy all the villages in the neighbouring district. ‘Slaughter all the men, take no prisoners’ were the orders. The soldiers were to make a particular example of the town of Futtehpore with ‘all in it to be killed’.3 A horrified witness suggested that women who refused to leave their burning houses met a kinder fate than other women who were ‘ravished to death’ by British soldiers.4

Captain Charles John Stanley Gough winning the VC at Khurkowhah Indian Mutiny

Following similar gut-wrenching scenes throughout the whole of India, the final stronghold of the sepoy rebellion – the city of Delhi – was destroyed utterly by the British Army, alongside many other towns and ancient cities. Thousands of buildings were set alight with families still inside. Tens of thousands of villagers were murdered. Homes and cattle in adjoining districts were destroyed, whole populations were driven out of their ancient homelands to live and die in destitution. There were mass hangings, mass incidents of murderous rape and public torture. Thousands of prisoners were killed horribly, many of them loaded into big guns and fired from them.5 And that was just the start.

Shortly after the Indian rebellion began, a shocking story about a massacre of surrendered British women and children by Indians was circulated, causing widespread revulsion among whites. Back in Britain, Charles Dickens himself declared a longing for ‘the opportunity to exterminate the race (of Indians) upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested… To blot (the Indian race) out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.’6 The former Governor General of India called in the House of Lords for every man in Delhi to be castrated and for the city to be renamed ‘Eunuchabad’.7

But as with similar media tricks today, the details were distorted. The massacre of a few tens of British civilians actually happened after the India-wide murderous rampage by the British had already begun – epitomised by good Christian Colonel Neill’s expeditions of extermination. Plus, in any event, the murders were carried out by the henchmen of a local prince, previously a collaborator with British rule, who had belatedly joined the revolt and who fully expected to be massacred themselves by British troops who were on their way to do just that.8

Recent research by the Indian historian Amaresh Misra suggests in the decade after the 1857 rebellion, the slaughter of Indians ran to as many as ten million men, women and children, as the British launched what was effectively a genocidal war after Queen Victoria’s army took over direct rule from the mercenaries of the East India Company.The orgy of British violence sparked by the Indian Great Rebellion of 1857 did not spring from nowhere. Such gruesome violence had been commonplace in India for the previous hundred years where any hint of rebellion was put down with maximum cruelty as an example to others.

The British behaved as brutally in China, Arabia and northeast Africa as they did in India,10 where again the figures rival or even dwarf the Nazi rampage in Eastern Europe a hundred years later. And of course, the bloody conquests of India and China happened at the same time as the development of the plantations in the West Indies, where every torture was used to eke more work out of slaves transported from Africa, or to deter slave rebellions, or put down rebellions once they occurred – which they did with increasing frequency throughout the period.

Such slave revolts – usually very much less violent than their suppression – were inspired at least in part by the abolitionist movement among the English working class, who were themselves at that moment organised in revolt against the brutalities of the factory system centred on Manchester.11 The English factory system itself was only made possible by the seed capital, earned through slavery and colonial plunder, then re-invested into machinery and industrial infrastructure on a scale never before seen in human history.


As slaves on British plantations lost their fear of death and became ever more determined to strike for freedom, so the brutalities inflicted on them reached ever lower depths of cruelty. The British politician and supporter of slavery Bryan Edwards captured this duality of cruelty and defiance when he described seeing a risen Jamaican slave punished by fire. The slave was held down and his legs were burned to ashes while he ‘uttered not a groan’ and somehow ‘snatched a brand from the fire that was consuming him and flung it in the face of the executioner’.12

It was this emergence of capital out of the profits of slavery, violence, colonial plunder and the brutalities of the early factory system in England that Karl Marx was referring to when he famously wrote that capitalism ‘comes into the world... dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt’.13

The British slave owners who in the face of increasing revolts eventually and reluctantly ‘gave up’ slavery were massively compensated for their financial losses by the British state. The last payments of this vast booty – as the comedian and activist Mark Thomas pointed out in his recent show 50 Things About Us – were only made in 2015. The slaves got nothing.

Can someone please research who exactly received these payments, where they live and organise demonstrations outside their houses until they agree to pay back every penny with two hundred years of interest? Cheques payable to whom? Discuss. Oh, and don’t forget if you are going to carry out a protest in Britain today you must inform the police who have the right to dictate where you protest, how many people can attend, the form it must take and whether you can make any noise. If you defy them you could face a jail sentence and/or unlimited fines.14

Such historic violence by the British Empire was repeated in Asia, Arabia and Africa over approximately three hundred years of Empire from roughly the 1750s to the 1960s. The more the resistance, the greater the British violence.

It’s worth ending these notes concerning violence with a recognition that most of the history of this violence is ignored by the majority of historians of Empire. As the anti-colonial writer and professor John Newsinger remarks: ‘It is a hidden history… Book after book remains silent on the subject.’15 Surely one of the most vile of these non-histories is Niall Ferguson’s 2003 book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, which regurgitates for the modern audience all the cliches that the colonised benefitted from being colonised despite some inevitable cruelty.16 

This gaslighting about Empire is about what happened a hundred and fifty years ago. No wonder what happens at the End of Empire – in our own time – is so hard to discern.

Concerning Economics

In terms of human tragedy, arguably the most destructive violence of the British Empire was economic. The misery and death caused by the economic exploitation of a fifth of the world’s population by one class of one small nation off the coast of continental Europe – through rent and mineral extraction, tributary taxation, slavery, unfair trade, financial swindling and downright robbery – was worse than the horrors used to enforce it all.

Take the fate of poor Mr Duffy who lay dying of starvation in his freezing dwelling during the Irish famine of the mid-1840s, obviously unable to pay his rent. His landlord, one Mr Walsh, like hundreds – perhaps thousands – of his fellow landlords at the time, used the famine as an opportunity to clear the land of poor tenants whose families had lived there for generations but who were now too broke to pay decent rents. The sheriff whose duty it was to execute the eviction, seeing the desperate state of Mr Duffy, hesitated to enforce the order. But, as the parish priest reported later, the landlord…'was inexorable. Duffy was brought out and laid under a shed... once used as a pig cabin and his house (was) thrown down. The landlord, not deeming the possession complete while the pig cabin remained entire, ordered the roof to be removed and poor Duffy, having no friend to shelter him, remained under the open air for two days and two nights, until death put an end to him'.17


The so-called 'Potato Famine' killed a million Irish people while, at a conservative estimate, enough food was exported to England to feed the population of Ireland three times over.18 The Prime Minister of England was himself an evicting landlord. Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston had two thousand of his own starving Irish tenants deported to Canada promising publicly to pay each of them £2 to £5 pounds on arrival. But at the other end no one turned up with the money.19

Naturally such evictions provoked the murder of some landlords, including one Major Denis Mahon of County Roscommon, who had paid passage for some five hundred of his tenets on a ‘coffin ship’, as such vessels were known. Over 150 of Mahon’s emigrants were dead by the time the vessel docked in Canada and most of the survivors subsequently died too. Mahon was, of course, celebrated in the British press as a humane landlord cut down by a murderous assassin urged on by the parish priest.20

Such was the economic plight of the Irish whose land was emptied many times over by individual economic miseries heaped on it over two centuries by the Empire. At one million dead over a few years, the famine was only the most cataclysmic and collective low point.

Now zoom out and multiply by thirty to fifty. By the 1870s – the year the ‘scramble for Africa’ began in earnest – two hundred years of colonial economic disruption in India and China had destroyed utterly the traditional village economies with their ancient safeguards against disease and famine, replacing them with nothing of use to the indigenous populations. So, when the great droughts of the period struck in 1876 and again in 1899, accompanied by hugely destructive epidemics of malaria, bubonic plague, dysentery, smallpox and cholera, the results were cataclysmic. It is estimated by the most recent research that a staggering thirty to fifty million Indians and Chinese died of disease and starvation while British administrators and Empire soldiers fought only to protect the recently established free-market mechanisms and only used the opportunity to strengthen their hold on the countries’ economies.21

In the 1800s, the Indian cotton industry was destroyed by cheap cotton imports from Manchester, throwing millions into destitution. Opium grown in India helped bring China to its economic knees and created the greatest opium epidemic in history. It also helped England balance its international payments for tea which before the Opium Wars was draining Britain of gold and silver.22 The profits of the opium trade also paid for the upkeep of the British government of India.23 Over the period of British domination, India’s domestic share of world trade plummeted from 25% to 2%.24

By 1870, Britain faced fierce competition from other European and US capitalists who wanted in on the game. These powers concentrated industrial manufacture in their own countries and took what they needed from their colonies to feed the vast machinery of wealth creation.25 The super-profits earned in the colonies by Europeans enabled the Industrial Revolution to really take off and transform the Empire heartlands into the commodity-and-infrastructure rich world we know today – while the rest of the world went to shit.26

Concerning Character

There are huge and important questions about who has the right – or who does not have the right – to tell the story of the colonial oppressed. But here I’m really talking about creating Western characters in Western drama. The rest is context. So, what of the character of the early capitalist class who did all the raping and killing and living off the proceeds? At the height of their extravagant, worldwide orgy of exploitation, swindling, robbery, rape and other violence, did these grotesque beings walk around growling like demons, dripping blood from their talons, biting the heads off babies on the streets of London, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester?

In fact, they were the most respected, venerated, fashionably dressed and publicly minded gentlemen of their age. They had great manners. Many were writers, poets and sponsors of public works. They were devout church and theatregoers and a good catch for a potential wife. Take Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. We’re told Wentworth came back from sea in 1817 with a cool £2.2 million quid in today’s money. He is supposed to have made this in a few short years in what is vaguely described as ‘prize money’. But come on. Even if he made all that by chasing bad guys – like pirates and illegal slave traders – how did the majority of men his age on those there high seas come into that kind of cash?

9780140434675 uk

Best not to ask, like the rest of the characters in the book. But Wentworth is probably still a fair representation of the dreamboat of his day. Rich, witty and gallant. Glad to have done his duty. In his backstory he’s not allowed to marry the heroine of the tale when he’s young because he doesn’t have the dosh. But then when he makes his fortune at sea he comes back to claim his female booty. The big climax of the drama in the novel isn’t the dirty stuff of early Empire, it’s our heroine giddily falling off a wall to bang her head and be rescued by our devoted hero.

It’s a really enjoyable read even if it sidesteps the great drama of the day in terms of context. It’s a genuine insight into how the people who ran the early Empire experienced each other, how they saw themselves. They were obviously nice people. Who needs context really, eh?

Empire officers carrying out the actual torture and slaughter on the ground, were very often religious. One such man claimed he saw ‘the finger of God in this’, meaning the mass slaughter and mistreatment of Indians in the 1870s.27 Good old Colonel James Neill – who took his troops raping and killing, and whose men killed everyone in Futtehpore (and raped the women) – wrote: ‘God grant I may have acted with Justice. I know I have with severity, but under the circumstances I trust for forgiveness.’28

I think he meant the forgiveness of God not his Indian victims. Happily Colonel Neill was shot dead before the end of the rebellion at Lucknow. The loyal officer was, however, awarded a posthumous knighthood by Queen Victoria.29 We don’t know what happened at the pearly gates of heaven.

Queen Victoria herself was kept informed of the degree and nature of the slaughter in India by one of her more sensitive officers who was disturbed by the horrors he had personally witnessed. The officer became a laughing stock.30 Queen Victoria did nothing to stop the rampage, only – as we’ve seen – ordering her troops to take over control of India from the mercenaries of the East India Company once the Great Rebellion had been put down.31 After this, as we’ve seen, the murder continued for a decade.32 When the dust finally settled, British Prime Minister Gladstone had his bejewelled queen declared ‘Empress of India’.

So how does a dramatist realistically depict a character who apparently genuinely believes they are acting for God, but also orders the mass rape and killing of thousands, or even tens of thousands of civilians? Simple. We say what they did and what they said, but for God’s sake put it in context. Give the facts. But there’s the rub. Facts don’t fit well into drama. They just don’t. If you even actually know them. Hence this essay.

And what of Dickens’ character? The good bloke of Victorian literature. Of course, he was duped by a clever propaganda trick, but wasn’t the plight of Victorian street kids also grossly misrepresented in the press? Not to mention the whole of the rest of the poor in Victorian England? Dickens apparently saw through all that, writing about them and their predicaments. Maybe he was just ‘old-fashioned’ when it came to race? Or was India too far away for him to realise?

The English revolutionary Ernest Jones wasn’t old-fashioned about the humanity of the Indian race. He knew exactly what was going on all those thousands of miles away, and he stood by and spoke up for the Indian rebels at every opportunity.33 As did Marx and Engels. Stupid Charles. Great writer, though.

And what of the character of the English working class at the time of Empire? During the early Industrial Revolution, the newly formed and horribly exploited British working class were staunch supporters of the Abolition Movement and an inspiration to risen slaves throughout the Caribbean.34

The early 1800s saw a powerful working-class movement emerge in the face of the Peterloo massacre to become the revolutionary Chartist Movement of the 1840s – centred on the demand ‘One Man One Vote’.35 At the time of the Chartists’ campaign, their demand was a revolutionary one because the working class were the vast majority and, at the time, real power did actually reside in the British Parliament. A fact that would change as soon as the vote was expanded.36 As Karl Marx recognised, one vote per worker would at that moment have made an instant ruling class out of the working class. And if once they had seized power, male workers included women in the vote, as surely they would, it would have massively strengthened their majority.


The capitalists were having none of it, of course, and gave the English working class a taste of colonial-style violence, with hangings of political leaders and massacres of unarmed protestors. Limited in scale compared to the violence in India, China and the rest, the violence was nonetheless ferocious when it came, with for example twenty-two shot dead in Newport, Wales, in December 183937. Much of the violence was blamed on the Chartists themselves, as is often the case when the shit hits the fan.38 But the violence worked, by terrifying more respectable elements of the Chartist Movement, and threatening the unity.

When in 1848 a petition was finally delivered to Parliament demanding one man one vote, signed by one-and-a-half million, it was rejected out of hand. The resulting disturbances were used as an excuse to launch an all-out assault on the Chartists, which caused the respectable elements to finally abandon it. By 1858, the Chartist movement had shrivelled to a handful of hopefuls.

But even in the 1860s, during the US Civil War, the bulk of the working class in Manchester still underwent incredible hardships rather than work the cotton imported from the Southern slave states in the famous ‘cotton strikes’.39 Though by the time of the Fenian uprising in Ireland only two years later, the English working class seemed to have lost something of their stomach for international solidarity and failed to prevent the execution of five Irishmen in Manchester, who were accused of killing a prison guard when trying to rescue Fenian leaders from custody. Instead, ten thousand people turned up to watch them hang.40

After the defeat of the Chartists, the more skilled industrial workers in England began to act in their own interests and organised themselves into the first legal trade unions. These unions were designed to keep other workers out of the best-paid work and drive up the wages of their own members. This was the origin of the trade union movement in Britain.41

With honourable exceptions, by the start of World War I in 1914, the majority of the better off European and US workers in the industrial heartlands had largely turned their back on revolutionary internationalism, and had settled down to try and get the best deal for themselves out of a capitalist system that was a vampiric beast sucking the blood from whole of the rest of the world.42

The End of Empire

Luckily for the world, after World War II, the British realised how, during the Empire, there’d been instances of bad behaviour and racism, some of it shocking. So, despite their better judgement – and, yes, sometimes reluctantly – the British granted independence to the former Empire and went it alone.

More often than not, the newly independent countries of the former Empire made a mess of governing themselves. But the British – with help from their good friends, the Americans – kept forces stationed all over the world for just such an eventuality. If things got too far out of hand, the British could – and still do – intervene to save their former subjects from themselves and from each other – and especially from other dark forces such as Chinese Dictators, Bloodthirsty Russians, or Assorted Religious Fanatics who oppress women and LGBTQ+ people.

This mission to save the world from itself is a great responsibility that can involve the British in tricky moral and political dilemmas. But we’re determined to see decency and democracy maintained the world over. We’re good like that. It’s who we are and who we’ve always been underneath it all. Some version or other of this myth is propagated 24/7 in the West – with big results. Huge swathes of Westerners believe it, or something like it, with adjustments for political creed. Even some socialists. In other words, most Westerners believe that the end of the colonial period meant the end of imperialism. Imperialism being the political and/or economic domination of smaller or weaker countries by powerful ones for the benefit of the powerful ones.

What really happened?

Concerning Violence II

The end of the Empire was a bloodbath. After World War Two, hundreds of millions of people in the colonies across Africa and Asia rose up to free themselves from European rule. The rebellions were inspired in part by Western anti-fascist slogans, partly by the Soviet Red Army’s stunning victories against Nazism in Europe, but mostly by their own brutal oppression at the hands of Europeans.

The scale and ferocity of the West’s murderous response to this worldwide rebellion – a response led by Britain, France and the US – was as horrific as in the days of Empire. Take Kenya. In the early 1900s, the Kikuyu people, numbering two-or-so million souls had the misfortune to live on the best land in Kenya when white settlers came to claim the land on behalf of the British Empire. Many of the later settlers had fought in World War I. The newly arrived whites were terrible farmers and bad workers, and had it not been for the Empire sustaining them with grants and preferable terms of trade they would have failed.43

Gradually, though, with great brutality and ruthless legal trickery, the white settlers rid the best land of the Kikuyu people and, with the help of the boundless cheap labour of the ruined Kikuyu, eventually established vastly profitable plantations growing mainly, but not only, coffee.44 The majority of the Kikuyu were driven into reservations on the poorest land which couldn’t possibly sustain their numbers. Here they starved and fought among themselves, or fell ill. The rest found refuge in the slums of the sweltering and disease-ridden capital city, Nairobi. The lucky ones established desperately poor farms on inadequate plots of land near the white settlers, where they were bullied and used as cheap labour on the adjoining plantations, living in constant fear of eviction or being swindled out of their possession.45

Over fifty years or so, the Kikuyu people went from being among the most blessed tribal people of the world to the most wretched. Those few Kikuyu who managed to get an education pleaded the case of their desperate people again and again to the various branches of the colonial government – and even to the British in Britain. They met with indifference and contempt at every turn, sometimes imprisonment.46


By 1952, the Kikuyu people formed the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and launched an uprising against colonial rule. The colonial government’s response, backed by the British army, is among the most brutal and shameful episodes of human history. When it was over, the British government destroyed most of the papers documenting their behaviour,47 but research by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian Caroline Elkins has recently uncovered the truth. If anyone had spoken to the Kikuyu survivors before this they could have easily discovered the truth a lot earlier. But this is how history is done.

To break the staunch solidarity of the Kikuyu people, British Crown forces established a vast system of concentration camps, at first for men, but when the British discovered the backbone of Kikuyu solidarity was the women, for tens of thousands of women also.48 Supporters of the rebel Land and Freedom Army took an oath of allegiance to the cause based on the traditional tribal system. Almost all the Kikuyu people took it.49 The oath was sacrosanct and a matter of great seriousness. To break the oath was to abandon yourself and your people.

The aim of the colonial violence was twofold. Destroy the Land and Freedom Army, and break Kikuyu civilian solidarity. Through systematic torture, civilians would be made to individually ‘confess’ their oath and declare allegiance to the colonial authorities. Those who did confess could become ‘loyalists’ and be granted small privileges. Those who did not were to be destroyed spiritually, culturally and physically.50

As the war intensified, so the main privilege on offer to loyalists could only really be to escape being beaten, or worked and tortured to death in the concentration camps. And to become a loyalist, prisoners would have to prove themselves by beating former comrades to death, or inflicting terrible torture on them, or by becoming camp guards. Converted loyalists were often the most brutal. The right to inflict such suffering on powerless inmates in turn became one of the few privileges of confession. And, of course, once women were introduced into the system, rape and sexual torture became loyalist privileges too.

The violence against prisoners was carried out by settlers, British district officers, the Kenyan police force, African loyalists, and members of the British Army. Bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin and hot eggs were thrust up men’s rectums and women’s vaginas. Women’s breasts were squeezed with pliers. Male prisoners were castrated and made to eat their own testicles. Prisoners would be beaten to death in front of other prisoners. Prisoners were butchered to death slowly with knives. Prisoners were publicly strung up and had sand stuffed into their anuses, often until their guts ruptured and they died. Prisoners were dragged to death behind Land Rovers, had their fingers cut off, were made to watch executions and then told to dig their own graves. Prisoners were burnt alive.51 Many white settlers frankly and sincerely expressed the view that the only ‘solution’ was the extermination of the entire Kikuyu race.52

Tens of thousands of prisoners were purposefully worked to death in the sweltering heat with water and food restricted. Anyone slacking could be beaten to death on the spot. Their comrades were made to bury them. Groups of those who refused to confess were taken out, made to dig their own graves and shot en masse.53 Women prisoners were subjected to endless sexual torture. One women survivor reported being taken with large a group of other ‘hardcore’ women – as those who refused to confess were called – to be shot. After the group had been made to dig their own mass grave, the survivor was selected by an officer to be spared. She was instead kept as a sex slave.54

The British governor of the whole colony of Kenya – one Evelyn Baring – of Barings Bank fame – would, on receiving complaints of sexual violence, come to inspect the women’s camps. He is reported to have stood and stared at the women as they squatted before him, caked in filth, while the good governor again and again found nothing untoward.55

The majority of the Kikuyu population passed through this system at some point during the rebellion. The entire Kikuyu population of Nairobi was rounded up in one day and poured into the camps. Most who escaped the official concentration camps – mainly women, children and the elderly – met a terrible fate themselves in the parallel ‘protected village’ system that was designed also to receive people released from the concentration camps.56

To cut the Land and Freedom Army off from their Kikuyu supporters, the British forced a huge proportion of the Kikuyu people out of their existing homes and villages into these villages.57 The system was a model developed by the British during their war against the Malayan people, which was (and still is) considered a model of counter-revolutionary success by the British military establishment.58

In Kenya, the protected village campaign was carried out in a hurricane of violence. The traditional villages were burned and the women, children and elderly were driven into new homes. Many were killed on the spot to terrify the rest into submission.59 When they arrived at the protected villages, the destitute Kikuyu people found nothing but a cordon of soldiers and armed loyalists. There was no shelter, water, sanitation facilities or medical supplies. Food was a thin gruel. Then there was a regime of brutal forced labour as the villagers built their own village, chased by loyalists with clubs and whips. There were rapes and random killings of villagers, including children. Thousands died of disease and exhaustion.60

The loyalists lived nearby in comparative luxury, in huts built by the forced labourers. Loyalist wives did no forced labour.61 It is estimated that three hundred thousand Kikuyu people out of a population of one-and-a-half million died under these savage conditions of murder and forced labour.62 Equivalent in Britain to approximately seven-and-a-half million dead.

It’s worth saying clearly, out loud. Forced labour is slavery. This is 1954-6, in Kenya, overseen by British Crown forces with Queen Elizabeth II of England at their head. A queen whose image, by the way, was everywhere in the camps and protected villages, whose anthem was sung loudly during murders and tortures, especially by groups of white settlers.63 The aim of much of the forced labour was to work people to death as a form of political terror.


Eventually, isolated from the majority of their people, the Kikuyu people’s Land and Freedom Army, though fearsome, brave and well organised, was certain to be defeated. The white terror worked. The mass of the Kikuyu people had ‘confessed’ or been driven from their land and homes, murdered, or worked to death. Only the tiniest ‘hard core’ remained who refused to break.64

The military task complete, the British officially withdrew from Kenya, leaving behind an vulnerable and corrupt political structure built entirely out of the loyalist community and those prepared to work with them.65 By now, the loyalists were up to their necks in a sea of blood. Tens of thousands were guilty of crimes against humanity for which they could be held accountable if they weren’t very careful. They were living in stolen property, on stolen land, on borrowed time. They were vulnerable to their own people who would hate them forever, and they were vicious as hell.

The son of the first president of independent Kenya, Peter Muigai Kenyatta, with the full knowledge of his father, took part in the notorious interrogation regime, during the terror.66 Another of his sons, Uhuru Kenyatta, was president from 2013 to 2022. In the years after World War II, each colonial rebellion was different, but what happened in Kenya was typical.In most cases, ruthless violence was used by the former colonial powers to weaken or destroy revolutionary movements and sculpt Western-friendly gangster regimes. Only then was power handed over. These newly formed elites were totally dependent on the West for political support, arms and, most of all, a market for their crops and minerals.67Welcome to the End of Empire.

Concerning Economics II

Before he died, Fidel Castrol urged progressives and revolutionaries the world over to study economics. This is a big ask because – in all seriousness – Western economists themselves don’t seem to understand economics. So when the 2008 banking crisis hit, students at Manchester University asked their lecturers to explain it – and famously they couldn’t.68

Modern economics is complicated by design and often shrouded in secrecy. The most expensively educated people in the world are engaged in making it so. University economics curriculums have given up teaching economic history and Marxist theories, instead focussing on statistical analysis of market mechanisms, and training students for roles at investment banks or for life in the boardrooms of multinational corporations.69 Meanwhile, in the real world, economists and lawyers employed by multinational corporations, backed by Western governments, have created a wicked web of complicated economic mechanisms by which West continues to enrich itself at the expense of the former colonies.

Example. Prepare for a brain bleed, but bear with me cos this shit is important and complexity is part of the method. Take Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) courts. I can hear you yawning already. But these mothers are mean! You can admire them like you might the claws of a lion or the talons of an eagle. ISDS courts are nasty legal entities designed to stop countries like Kenya acting in their own interests instead of in the interests of the corporations of the former mother country. Even in a thoroughly corrupted country like Kenya, this could sometimes happen as a regime tries to win votes, or a dictator tries to justify their position. Or make a quick buck.

These courts are essentially kangaroo courts set up inside the World Bank.70 They were set up in the 1960s as the liberation movements in the colonies reached their climax, in order to protect Western corporate interests in the affected countries.71 Cases are heard in Washington or The Hague. Many of the judges (called arbitrators) are former members of US government administrations, or other such characters.72

To get help from the World Bank, governments must sign up to the jurisdiction of these courts – though calling them courts is generous, implying a degree of fairness or a potential for justice that just isn’t there. The judgements of these bodies are legally binding. If a country refuses to accept a judgement, its assets, including shipping, goods, money, bonds or gold held in US or European banks can be seized.73

Standard oil octopus

In these courts the world’s largest corporations, employing the world’s most expensively trained lawyers, can sue the world’s smallest and most vulnerable countries for billions of dollars for threatening their profitability, or for interfering in their business activities. Such a threat to business can be, for instance – and this is a common one – a small country demanding environmental protections before issuing a drilling licence.

At the time of writing, Honduras is being sued for $11 billion by an international corporation for not allowing the establishment of a special economic zone on its territory. Special economic zones have their own security forces, their own tax laws, and are exempt from national employment laws. In other words, they are mini-colonies. The total gross national income for the whole of Honduras is approximately $29 billion. So the corporation is suing Honduras for more than a third of its entire annual income.74

Conversely, the world’s largest corporations can have the rulings of the supreme courts of small countries overturned in these courts. So, for example, Ecuador’s highest court ordered Texaco (now taken over by Chevron) to pay $9 billion in compensation, after it was revealed the company had pumped billions of litres of carcinogenic toxins into the environment. Indigenous Ecuadorians reported Texaco’s oil workers dynamiting their homes and subjecting them to sexual and other violence.75 The ruling by Ecuador’s highest court demanding compensation from Texaco/Chevron was overturned by the World Bank’s court.76

There are many other such secretive, invisible and nasty legal instruments out there, such as Bilateral Trade Agreements (BTAs). Again with BTAs, the complexity – hidden in the small print – plays an important role. So people signing BTAs in the small nations are often unaware of the real implications, which are only revealed later, when the small countries are suddenly hit by vast lawsuits overseen by the ISDS courts.When he was released from jail, Nelson Mandela toured the world and was asked to sign a blizzard of BTAs by Western businessmen and diplomats to signal his return to the international fold. Mandela signed and as a result South Africa is now tied up in endless nasty legal cases. The nation’s hands are cuffed in new chains when it comes to crafting its own economic future.77

In other words, highly secretive and specialist kangaroo courts whose deciding vote is held by a Westerner have more power than the highest courts in the countries of the former colonies.78 There are thousands of such lawsuits now underway the world over. And there has been an exponential growth in such cases since the end of the USSR, since which time smaller countries have had nowhere else to turn for their trade.79 You get the idea - despite the supposed End of Empire, the West employs a million economic mechanisms to exploit the rest of the world for the benefit of its own populations who, relative to the rest of the world, are sitting pretty.

The main weapon is, of course, the boundless and infinitely exploitable pool of cheap labour, the exploitation of which has, since the end of Empire, been massively expanded and intensified, especially since jobs from the West are being exported there.80 Check the label on your shirt or trousers (not the washing instructions).

In his seminal work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa81, the African revolutionary writer and activist Walter Rodney suggests that if we compare a map of Europe to a map of Africa, even a quick glance reveals a deep truth about modern imperial exploitation. In Europe, the roads are thick lines connecting the major cities to one another. In the former colonies, all roads lead to the sea.

We’ve already seen how the industrial systems of the West emerged (dripping blood from every pore) from the exploitation of slaves and the colonial people of the world. I’m arguing here that the imperial system continues to this day, though disguised – and that, without it, the West would have to change utterly, from head to toe.82

Here are three final facts before we return to the question of portraying Western characters in drama:

  1. If the people of the colonial world were currently paid wages at the same rate as workers in the West, all of the profits made by all the business and enterprises in the West would be wiped out.83
  2. A person on the poverty line in the US or Europe is still in the top 14% of earners worldwide.84
  3. A person on the average wage in US or Europe is in the top 4% of earners worldwide.85

So the question for a Western dramatist trying to write realistic characters is: What do Westerners do and say in this context?

Concerning Character II

So what of the main characters in this great drama of the vampire North secretly sucking the lifeblood of the global South like a bloated mediaeval aristocrat? Certainly governments and big business have always had secrets, but for the main driving force of world politics and economics – imperialism – to be something the world has to pretend doesn’t exist takes us to a whole new level of deception. How does a dramatist create realistic characters in this context?

The easiest characters to portray are those of the white Kenyan settlers and other racists in the colonial world as the visible Empire comes to an end. These racists invariably describe the Kikuyu as ‘savage’, ‘barbaric’, ‘primitive’, ‘brutal’, and ‘inhuman’, then behave in the most savage, barbaric, primitive, brutal and inhuman ways towards the Kikuyu. Talk about victim-blaming.

In my opening dramatic vignettes, the white settlers are our first lovers kissing when we ‘pull back to real’ people being hanged nearby. Their actions are easy to judge and to depict. But once the corrupt post-independence regime takes over, white-settler racism has to lower its voice in public and the context changes.

So now in the dramatic vignettes, our lovers are kissing on one street while people are being hanged on the next – or in the next town – or, most likely, in the poorest districts where our lovers have never ventured – by people our lovers can plausibly say are nothing to do with them. How much do they really believe their own story? We don’t know. But already it’s harder to show them as they really are. It’s easier for our lovers – and our audience – to kid themselves, or only to be interested in love.

What about the modern British Army in all this? Is there a change of character from the Victorian soldiers in India with their open and honest rape and slaughter of Indian civilians? Their god-fearing and gentlemanly habits? What do military Brits and other Westerners say and do today? After World War II, with the defeat first of the French army in Vietnam at the hands of a popular people’s army, then the defeat of the US army – the greatest military force in human history – by the same poorly armed but determined force, new methods of Western warfare became imperative. As we’ve seen, if the Western powers were to maintain their economic dominance they could no longer show their faces directly in the colonies for fear of giving the population an obvious target to mobilise against. They would have to start lying big time.

The new form of secret warfare became known as ‘the dirty war’86. So now Western powers would do as little as possible of the hands-on stuff themselves. Instead they would train and secretly arm official and semi-official forces – or very unofficial forces to do their dirty work for them. Such as Mujahidin in Afghanistan (later to become Al-Qaeda) or the brutal drug gangs in Latin American that brought the crack epidemic to the US in the 1980s, and have since brought such chaos to Latin America as a whole.87

A member of one such unofficial military force – used by the British to overthrow the government of Libya in 2011 – blew up the Manchester Arena in May 2017, killing twenty-two people and injuring 1,017.88

Fort Benning

During the 1970s and 1980s, the US military had a notorious facility in Fort Benning, Georgia, known as ‘The School of the Americas’ (since renamed Fort Moore, but still going strong),89 where many of the most violent of the Latin American military dictatorships were trained in the art of crushing progressive political movements.90 The torturers and death squads of El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala and the rest received instruction here and went on a decades-long rampage of kidnapping and killing of Indigenous peoples. Hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, feminists, socialists, communists and Indigenous activists lost their lives in horrific circumstances. Methods included drugging victims and pushing them out of military aircraft over the Pacific Ocean.91

The US government, meanwhile, kept its own hands clean and was able to portray itself to the world as the respectable peacemaker, a paragon of liberal democracy. In other words, the President of the USA could go round looking like Queen Victoria - and I don’t mean the black silk dress.

Old College

In Britain we train many of the most notorious post-colonial (Commonwealth) militaries at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where top honours are sponsored by the states of Kuwait, Qatar and King Hussein of Jordan. So our contemporary military now say one thing and do entirely another. They too have become slippery and very hard to portray in proper context. But, of course, that’s the whole point: disguise or ‘plausible deniability’, as it’s known officially. No doubt our military leaders believe they are doing this for the highest reasons – but nonetheless, they are big fat liars.

Britain’s most renown contemporary military strategist – General Frank Kitson – cut his teeth during the genocide in Kenya where he personally began to forge new methods of warfare, including what he calls ‘psychological operations’92. Which might include, for example, soldiers ‘blacking up’ and committing outrages that could be blamed on Kikuyu rebels93.

The British government has now effectively admitted that this general went on to run loyalist death squads during the dirty war in the north of Ireland in the early 1970s. These death squads targeted a range of people in the Catholic community, often civilians.94 Throughout the whole period of war in Ireland, British Crown forces maintained they were only there as peacekeepers95– i.e., keeping warring Catholics and Protestants apart.96

The whole British strategy during the war in Ireland was effectively a psychological operation. Otherwise known as a lie. On 16 March 1988, a loyalist terrorist launched a gun and grenade attack on Catholic mourners – including children – at a funeral in Belfast. This was the funeral of three Irish Republican volunteers who had been executed by British soldiers in Gibraltar after they had already surrendered.97 The funeral was surrounded by a huge British army security cordon, supposedly to keep the mourners safe. Yet the loyalist terrorist perpetrator somehow got through the security cordon to launch his attack, killing three people, wounding sixty.98

bloody sunday

So, in our vignettes, our kissing lovers might be British soldiers (uniforms can be sexy, yes?) forming part of a security cordon at this very funeral. They haven’t got a clue that their superior officers have concocted a plan to let a loyalist terrorist attack the mourners, but even if they did, our lovers might not care because they will have comrades who have been shot by guerrillas defending the Catholic community that our lovers are fighting, even though they’re pretending otherwise.

It’s complicated, but still possible to portray – just. To round off our soldiers in Ireland kissing story: it turns out they should have been more careful to hide their kiss, because when there’s a political scandal about the leaky security cordon they are court-martialled for kissing when they should have been doing their jobs properly and not accidentally letting a loyalist terrorist bomb a Catholic funeral. This last bit is entirely fictional. There was no real political scandal. You get the idea.

So what about the rest of us? Here it starts to become difficult for a dramatist. How does a writer realistically portray what we ordinary, everyday Westerners do and say in this messed-up context? Say, someone on the average wage in an average town. Which as we’ve seen, puts them unknowingly in the top 4% of earners worldwide, even though they might feel skint and miserably insecure. In world terms, our kissing lovers – wherever in the West they find themselves – are now the most luxurious aristocrats who are nowhere near any hangings or skulduggery at Irish republican funerals!

Our lovers might be average, universally accepted as ‘normal’, and not require qualification in the West, but in world terms are they not outlandishly strange characters, even grotesque? Any love story set in Nazi Germany during the build-up to World War II – before the fighting breaks out and the concentration camps really get going – automatically becomes a love story with politics and history somewhere near the very heart of it. It’s impossible or bizarre to portray lovers in these circumstances without the context. The context automatically becomes the theme.

A love story set in USA, UK or France during the appalling and far more widespread campaigns of worldwide political murder conducted in the soon-to-be-former colonies by these nations can easily be just a simple love story with no wider context at all. It’s almost impossible to portray these modern western lovers in proper context without the craziest narrative gymnastics.What even is realism in these circumstances? Is realism possible in a surreal world?

In Dickens’ day, the mass of the downtrodden were in the next street. Dickens probably had to step over them to get to the shops. The cities were full of the kind of poverty we only really see today in the global south. There were public hangings most weeks down Dickens’ way. And he couldn’t help being aware of at least some of the real context even if he disconnected it from the excesses of the Empire in India. Today our most expensively educated and highly paid journalists most often seem honestly unaware of the proper context of their own lives.

Most ordinary Westerners feel for the wretched of the Earth, but few grasp the reality. This can be dangerous, perhaps even fatal for our collective fate. Take the epic Miners’ Strike of 1984/5, when two hundred thousand British coal miners, their entire communities and their political allies suddenly had to face the might of the British state head on. Thatcher’s government launched a carefully planned attack against the National Union of Mineworkers, in order to break the back of the trade union movement as a whole. But by the time the attack came, the British working-class movement had for decades been insulated from the struggles of the poor in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Malaya, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Ireland and the rest of the former Empire, as the masses there fought heroically – and died in their millions.

The British working class as a whole had not learned the bitter lessons of those struggles and – with honourable exceptions – had done little to intervene in any significant way. So by 1984 – despite the heroism of the mining communities that fought to the bitter end – in world terms, the miners and their allies were relatively easy pickings for the battle-hardened British state. Engels warned us of this as far back as 1874 with these words. ‘A people which oppresses another cannot emancipate itself.’99

So what now? Everyone with a heart knows bitter new struggles are coming. It’s in the air. You can feel it. But because of the nature of the beast, if the capitalists endure, our planet will almost certainly die. Or, even before we get there, we could find ourselves in the midst of a nuclear war centred on Europe.

In this context, I have questions. In the coming fight, if we Westerners demand from the British, American, or European governments only higher wages, or better health and social services, or a green, sustainable economy, without considering these demands in the post-colonial context – are we in fact only demanding a fairer, more sustainable imperialism?

If so, is this to be paid for by the continued misery and degradation of billions of our brothers and sisters in the global south? And if so, what sort of characters are we? And doesn’t history show this can only lead to defeat? Can’t we instead try to understand our actions in their proper context and look for a new way forward that doesn’t ignore everything that has gone before? Can’t we find a way to fight alongside those who have nothing to lose, as more and more of us lose everything?

I hope so. But I can’t say for sure that we will. I do know I have to try and write about it, though. Realistically and in context.


  • 1 Adolf Hitler et , Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941–1944: His Private Conversations (New York: Enigma Books, 2008)
  • 2 Marx, The Future Results of British Rule in India ( London. New York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853), pp 85.
  • 3 Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2013) pp. 84-89.
  • 4 Newsinger (2013) pp.
  • 5 Newsinger (2013) pp. 84-
  • 6 Oddie, , ‘Dickens and the Indian Mutiny’, The Dickensian, 68 (1972), pp4–5. Quoted in Newsinger (2013)
  • 7 Newsinger (2013) pp.
  • 8 Newsinger (2013) pp. 89
  • 9 Misra, , (2008) War of Civilisations: India, AD 1857. Rupa & Company. See also: Ramesh, R., 2007. India’s Secret History: ‘A Holocaust, One Where Millions Disappeared…’. The Guardian. 2007 Aug;24.
  • 10 Newsinger (2013) pp. 56-73
  • 11 See for instance The Guardian, 4 Feb 2013, ‘Lincoln’s great debt to Manchester’.
  • 12 Newsinger (2013) pp.
  • 13 Karl Marx, (1867). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR.
  • 14 See The Public Order Act
  • 15 Newsinger (2013).
  • 16 Ferguson, , 2012. Empire: How Britain made the modern world. Penguin UK.
  • 17 Quoted in Newsinger (2013) pp.
  • 18 The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 82, No. 2 (1952) pp. 99-108 (10 pages). According to Marx and Engles, the famine itself was in large part caused by soil exhaustion fostered by rents so high tenant farmers couldn’t properly fertilise the land. Marx, K. and Engels, F., Ireland and the Irish Question (Moscow).
  • 19 Newsinger (2013) pp. 46-50
  • 20 Newsinger (2013) pp. 46-50
  • 21 Davies, Late Victorian Holocausts. (London: Verso, 2010), p. 7. For an exhaustive study of modern-day practices where Western financial regimes use any sort of disaster – such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami – to prey on the weakest people on Earth and strengthen their hold over foreign governments, see Klein, N., The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Macmillan, 2007).
  • 22 McCoy, W. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, Central America (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill, 2003)
  • 23 Newsinger (2013) pp.
  • 24 Book review: Shashi Tharoor’s angry history of British rule in India is a timely response to empire nostalgia. Irish Times. 4 March 2017.
  • 25 Of the Great Powers Russia was the exception in terms of industrial development and was therefore the weakest and most unstable power with relatively tiny industrial development in St Petersburg and Moscow only.
  • 26 Zac Cope. The Wealth of (Some) Nations Divided World Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of (Pluto, 2019)
  • 27 Newsinger (2013) pp.
  • 28 Newsinger (2013) pp.
  • 29 Newsinger (2023) pp. 86
  • 30 Newsinger (2023) pp. 86
  • 31 Newsinger (2013) pp 91
  • 32 Misra (2008). Ramesh, R.,
  • 33 Newsinger (2013) pp
  • 34 Newsinger (2013) 37
  • 35 See for Dan Glazebrook. The Tragedy of Corbynism. Counter Punch. December 27, 2020
  • 36 As more and more of the population were included in the national vote – which only began after the defeat of the revolutionary Chartists – so gradually real power was consciously removed from Parliament. At first to the cabinet collectively – but then, by the time the first Labour government came to power, the only position left with any real power in the British Parliament was the person of the Prime Minister itself. The rest of the power was wielded exclusively by Whitehall and the other Crown forces: army, police, judiciary. See Bunyan, T., The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain, Appendix II (London: Quartet Books, 1976)
  • 37 See for instance: A Doctor Recalls the Newport Chartist South Wales Argus. 3/11/2017
  • 38 See for instance: The Battle of Orgreave during the 1984/5 Miners' Strike
  • 39 See for instance The Guardian, 4 Feb ‘Lincoln’s great debt to Manchester.’
  • 40 History Ireland. martyrs/
  • 41 Cope, Zak (2015), Divided World Divided Class. For the continued effects of this on the British labour movement today, see Dan Glazebrook, The Tragedy of Corbynism. Couterpunch. 27/12/2020.
  • 42 Cope (2015). Lenin, I., 1999. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Resistance books.
  • 43 Caroline Imperial Reckoning. The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. (Owl Books, New York, 2003) pp. 9-12.
  • 44 Elkins (2003). 9-12
  • 45 Elkins (2003). 12-30
  • 46 Elkins (2003). 12-30
  • 47 Elkins (2003) 12-30
  • 48 Elkins (2003). 154-191. .
  • 49 Newsinger (2015)
  • 50 Elkins (2003). 62-89. Newsinger British Counterinsurgency. (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Pp 80-81.
  • 51 Elkins particularly pp 62-89 Newsinger (2013) pp. 12. Ian Cobain, Cruel Britannia, A Secret History of Torture, 78-90. Newsinger (2015) pp. 81.
  • 52 Cobain (2015) pp. Elkins (2003) pp. 48-49. Newsinger (2015) pp 81.
  • 53 Elkins (2003). 62-89.
  • 54 Elkins (2003) pp244-
  • 55 Elkins (2003)
  • 56 (2003) pp. 233-274.
  • 57 (2003) pp. 233-274.
  • 58 Newsinger (2015) Pp 33. See also, History Ireland. Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22. ( northern-ireland-british-way-counterinsurgency/)
  • 59 (2003) pp. 233-274.
  • 60 (2003) pp. 233-274.
  • 61 (2003) pp. 233-274.
  • 62 (2003) pp. 89.
  • 63 Elkins (2003). Pp
  • 64 (2003) Pp. 192-232.
  • 65 Elkins (2003) pps. 361-362. Newsinger (2015) pp
  • 66 (2003) pp. 148 and 201.
  • 67 Richard D Woolf. I hate to reference a podcast, but this one is exceptionally accessible while also being comprehensive and rare in that it analysises neo-colonialism from the economic perspective. Economic Update: The Economics of Colonialism Pt. 2 – The Neo-colonialism Podcast. 17/10/22.
  • 68 See for example: The Guardian. 24 Oct Economics Students Aim to Tear up Free-market Syllabus.
  • 69 Michael Killing the Host. Plus: Nick Romeo. Is It Time for a New Economics Curriculum? The New Yorker, October 8, 2021.
  • 70 For exhaustive detail: Claire Provost, Matt Kennard. Silent Coup. (Bloomsbury. 2023). The themes of the book are summarised very clearly and concisely in an interview here: ‘Matt Kennard interviewed by Novara Media and exposes government, corporate and aid corruption.’ Podcast, 30/6/23.
  • 71 Provost, (2023) Plus Matt Kennard interviewed by Novara Media and exposes government, corporate and aid corruption.’
  • 72 Provost, (2023) Plus Matt Kennard Interview. Podcast. 30/6/23.
  • 73 Michael Hudson, The Destiny of Civilisation. (ISLET, London, 2022) 147.
  • 74 Matt Kennard Podcast, 30/6/23.
  • 75 (2022). Hudson gives other examples of such legal cases including: Phillip Morris attacking Australia’s cigarette labelling policy; European firms attacking Egypt’s post-revolution minimum wage increase and South Africa’s post-apartheid affirmative action law. Pp. 148.
  • 76 (2022). Pp. 147.
  • 77 Provost, (2023). Pp 35. Plus Matt Kennard Interview. Podcast. 30/6/23. Hudson (2022). Pp 148.
  • 78 Hudson (2022). pp Matt Kennard Interview. Podcast. 30/6/23.
  • 79 Provost, (2023). Pp 35. Plus Matt Kennard Interview. Podcast. 30/6/23.
  • 80 Zac The Wealth of (Some) Nations. Imperialism and the Mechanics of Value Transfer. (London, Pluto Press. 2015)
  • 81 Walter How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. (Washington DC, Howard University Press, 1982)
  • 82 For a massively detailed analysis of the economic mechanisms of exploitation and their meaning for the continued prosperity of the West – and how it splits the working class movements of the global North, see Zak Cope’s fabulous The Wealth of (Some) Nations (see note 87 above). But warning: you’ll need a dictionary and a brain surgeon on hand.
  • 83 Cope (2015). Pp 43.
  • 84 Kehinde The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World. (London: Penguin. 2021.)
  • 85 Andrews (2021)
  • 86 First coined in relation to the Argentine dictatorship 1976-83. Also used to describe the British war in Ireland 1970-1992. See for example, The Irish Times, Secrets and lies: Britain’s dirty war in May 17 2018 https:// ireland-1.3498924. It’s worth saying here that The Dirty War has recently been re-branded/re-styled/further disguised in Britain as ‘humanitarian intervention.’ But the principle of secret western war against the global south remains intact. See Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan Libya, Syria, etc. But this is a whole other essay. Or play. Or both.
  • 87 Mark Curtis. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion With Radical Islam. (London. Serpent’s ) And, McCoy, A.W., 2003. The politics of heroin: CIA complicity in the global drug trade, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, Central America. Chicago. IL: Lawrence Hill. For a detailed but still concise exploration of CIA and the global drug gangs, see the essay in my playscript, The Political History of Smack and Crack. (London, Nick Hern, 2018)
  • 88 See for example. A Briefing by Mark Curtis and Nafeez Ahmed.The Manchester Bombing: Blowback from British state collusion with jihadists as-blowback-the-latest-evidence-83ec2127801d. Also: Alison Banville. MI5 was complicit in the activities of Manchester Bomber Salman Abadi. Morning Star. activities-manchester-bomber-salman-abedi
  • 89 Now named Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the place is still doing its dirty work (See: then-and-now)
  • 90 See for instance: Livingstone, The school of Latin America’s dictators. Guardian Fri 19 Nov 2010. ( cifamerica/2010/nov/18/us-military-usa)
  • 91 Arditti, Rita. Searching for life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina. (Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1999.)
  • 92 Frank Kitson Low intensity operations: Subversion, insurgency and peacekeeping. (London: Faber & Faber, 2013).
  • 93 Frank Kitson Gangs and Counter-gangs (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1960)
  • 94 See History Ireland. Frank Kitson in Northern Ireland and the ‘British way’ of counterinsurgency. Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22. counterinsurgency/
  • 95 See Brits Speak Out. British Soldiers Impressions of the Northern Ireland Compiled by Jon Lindsay. (1998). In the former soldiers reported that their official training on arrival in the north of Ireland was all about the peacekeeping mission – ie ‘keeping Catholics and protestants apart’, while as soon as they began operations everyone understood they were there to fight the Irish Republican movement based in the poorest Catholic communities. One corporal expressed frustration that because their enemies in Ireland were white they could not ‘go in hard’ like they had in the colonies to finish the job.
  • 96 Kitson was appointed head of the British Army in the wake of the 1981 inner city uprisings in Birmingham, Brixton, Bristol, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, From there he went on to re-organise the whole security apparatus of the UK, especially the police force – but also for example the design of new housing estates to enable better response to potential future uprisings. He was appointed Aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth II after the scandals about his activities in Ireland had resulted in his removal from the Northern Ireland Command.
  • 97 See for example: Conla Young. IRA ‘Gibraltar Three’ remembered 30 years on. The Irish Times, 6/3/2018. northernirelandnews/2018/03/06/news/ira-gibraltar-three-remembered-30- years-on-1270659/
  • 98 newsid_2523000/2523953.stm
  • 99 Friedrich Engels. A Polish Proclamation, 11 June 1874. 


Making Better Rhymes: Chartist Poetry and Working Class Struggle
Saturday, 20 April 2024 13:42

Making Better Rhymes: Chartist Poetry and Working Class Struggle

Published in Poetry

In the first of a series of articles on Chartist poetry and working class struggle, Dr. Mike Sanders traces the background to its development.

Andy Croft in 'The Privatisation of Poetry' cites approvingly, Francis Combes's declaration that "Poetry belongs to everyone". As an aspiration, I couldn't agree more. In reality, the conditional seems more accurate - "Poetry ought to belong to everyone." Andy also suggests, correctly in my view, that poetry ought to be thought of in terms of common ownership. This set me thinking - can poetry be taken into public, or common, ownership? Should we be agitating for the nationalisation of the iambic pentameter?

At first sight, this might seem like a ridiculous question. However, given that poetry has effectively been 'privatised' for a number of centuries, perhaps the question is not so far-fetched. Indeed, the world's first working-class movement - Chartism - devoted a great deal of energy in its attempts to restore poetry to its proper status as the common property of all. In pursuit of this aim Chartist newspapers and journals printed articles such as 'The Politics of Poets' which ran for ten weeks in the Scottish Chartist Circular. This series explicitly sought to reclaim what we would now call 'elite' or 'canonical' poetry for the working-classes. Even more significantly, Chartist newspapers actively supported working-class poets by regularly publishing their poetry. The leading Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, published almost 1,500 poems from at least 390 Chartist poets between 1838 and 1852.

The Northern Star's poetry column was not an attempt to impose ‘culture’ from above, rather it was a response to a popular demand that poetry could and should speak to working-class desires and needs. From the start, literally hundreds of Chartists sent in their poems and quite a few appear to have pestered the editor with enquiries as to when their work would appear. Occasionally, the editor lost patience with his correspondents. In March 1838 he wrote “We have received as much poetry as a donkey could draw; we shall select from it as occasion offers, so let none be jealous, or we will take it by lot”! Poets sending their poetry had to have a fairly thick skin as the editor could be brutal. ‘W.M.’ (a weaver) sent in a poem and gave the editor permission to make any alterations needed. The editor replied “The best thing we can suggest to him is, to alter all the words, or, what might be still better, take them all away, and leave the paper blank.”

Given the risk of such withering criticism what made so many Chartists put pen to paper to produce poetry? Some wrote to promote solidarity, others to celebrate or commemorate leaders and events. Some wrote to rouse their comrades to action, others to reflect on the aims, aspirations, tactics and strategy of the Chartist movement. We are used to this kind of ‘political poetry’ and I have no wish to deny its importance. However, for many Chartists the simple fact of writing poetry (irrespective of its content) was itself a political action. Composing poetry was an affirmation of working-class creativity in the face of the dehumanising grind of industrial capitalism – a reminder that the ‘hands’ who worked the machines themselves possessed hands capable of producing beauty as well as profit.

One example of this is a poem from a woman who signed herself ‘E.H., a Factory Girl of Stalybridge’. Technically speaking E.H.'s poem is not a good one, as she herself acknowledges. Yet for all its technical deficiencies it is, I feel, a particularly moving poem. E.H. dedicates her poem to the factory reformer, Joseph Rayner Stephens, and she compares her position as a ‘factory girl’ with that of the millowners’ wives and children:

Their children, too, to school must be sent,
Till all kinds of learning and music have learnt;
Their wives must have veils, silks dresses, and cloaks,
And some who support them can’t get linsey coats

E.H. not only points out that their advantages are bought at the cost of her class’s impoverishment, she also protests against her cultural as well as her material deprivation:

If they had sent us to school, better rhyme we could make
I think it is time we had some of their cake.


We factory lasses have but little time,
So I hope you will pardon my bad written rhyme.
God bless him for striving to get us our rights,
And I wish the world over were true Stephenites.

A Stephenite I am from the ground of my heart,
And I hope from the same I shall never depart.
May God spare your life till the tyrants are ended,
So I bid you good bye, till my verses I’ve mended.

E.H. tells us that her poem is not a ‘good’ one, and traces its limitations to her limited education, which is in turn a product of her class position. E.H. wants better – better working conditions, better education, and the chance to write better poetry which she connects imaginatively with cake, that is with something more than the fundamental necessities of life. 'Culture' is the name we give to that desire for something better and, in future articles, I intend to explore some of the ways in which the role of poetry within the Chartist movement can illuminate many of the current challenges facing the working-class movement.


NB: Readers interested in reading all of E.H.'s poem will find it in the Northern Star for May 18th, 1839. The digitised version of the Northern Star can be found at the following website: