Imperial silences: From Rhodes to Surabaya

Issue: 151

John Newsinger

The campaign last year to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College, Oxford, has provoked more discussion of the British Empire and its crimes than we have seen for many years. Rather than keeping quiet about Britain’s imperial past, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has actually flushed establishment apologists out into the open. They have been forced to defend the legacy of a man who, if he had not been British and had not given a substantial bribe to Oxford University, would today be generally acknowledged by everyone as a corrupt fraudster, thief, liar and killer for profit, as someone marked out only by the enormity of his crimes. The hypocrisy that the debate over Rhodes Must Fall has occasioned has been very instructive in itself, but what is intended here is an examination not just of the part played by hypocrisy in the defence of British imperialism, but of the other strategies employed: suppression and amnesia. But first…


While he was a student at Oxford, Rhodes wrote his 1877 “Confession of Faith”, the essentials of which he was to remain true to for the rest of his life. Here he argued that “we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”. He went on to consider how those parts of the world “at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings” would be improved “if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence”. Imagine if Australia had been colonised by the French, it would mean “several millions of English unborn than at present exist”. American independence was a tragedy because it meant the country had been flooded with “low class Irish and German emigrants”. What a “finer country” it would be if these emigrants had been English. Indeed, the return of the United States to the Empire, “making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire”, was something he longed for and thought “probable”. For the time being, “Africa is still lying ready for us. It is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory…more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best the most human, most honourable race the world possesses”. And, of course, he had no time for democracy, lamenting the passing of “the Rotten Borough System”.1

It took Rhodes eight years to get his degree because his attendance at Oxford was continually interrupted by his money-making ventures in South Africa. When he was there, he seems to have largely confined his activities to polo, fox-hunting and gluttony. He was, of course, a member of the Bullingdon Club.

He determined to use the wealth he accumulated from the diamond mines in South Africa (Rhodes was one of the founders of De Beers) in the cause of expanding British control and settlement in Africa. To this end, he established the British South African Company (BSAC) that was intended to make a profit out of colonial conquest. To secure a royal charter for this project, Rhodes set about buying influence at Westminster. He donated £10,000 to Charles Parnell’s Irish Nationalists on the understanding that they would not interfere with his plans in the Commons, and cultivated the Liberal Party, led at the time by William Gladstone. Gladstone’s anti-imperialist reputation had been somewhat undermined by the invasion of Egypt in 1882 and his government now gave Rhodes “a free hand” in Mashonaland and Matabeleland. As his biographer points out, “this was not altogether surprising. Rhodes had contributed to Liberal Party funds and had energetically courted the party leadership.” After dining with him, Gladstone described Rhodes as having a “wide imperial ­outlook and daring and decided views. I found nothing to dislike in him”.2

The 1893 conquest of Matabeleland by Rhodes’s BSAC and its mercenary army, equipped with machine guns and artillery, was an unprovoked aggression in which thousands of Africans were massacred in the pursuit of gold. Gladstone duly defended the invasion in the House of Commons, praising Rhodes as “that very able man”.3 When he visited Britain in early 1895, he was lionised by the rich and powerful, presented at court and appointed to the Privy Council by the Liberal government. The problem was though that despite the despoliation of the population, Matabeleland did not deliver the expected profits (there was no gold). So Rhodes and his associates prepared to stage a coup and invasion of the Transvaal, overthrowing the Afrikaner-ruled South African Republic. This was covertly endorsed by the Colonial Office, now under Conservative control, but the plan, the so-called Jameson Raid, completely miscarried with the invading army captured in January 1896. Rhodes’s reputation was severely damaged, first because the plan had failed, but second because while an unprovoked aggression against Africans might well be a cause for general congratulation with only a few critics, the Afrikaners were white which was altogether different. The failed conspiracy provoked an international outcry.

The Jameson Raid also provided the occasion for revolts in Matabeleland and Mashonaland, the first Chimurenga, which was put down with a level of violence and brutality not seen since the suppression of the Great Indian Revolt of the 1850s. One British officer, Robert Baden-Powell, later recalled “the extraordinary bloodthirsty rage of our men”. He insisted that he was not himself “a regular nigger hater”, but the fact was that the Africans “must as a people be ruled by a hand of iron in a velvet glove”. The revolt meant it was necessary to take off the glove and for them “to find out what the hand was made of”.4

What is astonishing given his record is that anyone at all actually thinks it appropriate to have Cecil Rhodes’s statue decorating Oriel College. His apologists argue that those demanding its removal are judging him by today’s enlightened standards rather than by the standards of his own day. There are two objections to this. First, today’s standards are hardly enlightened with British universities prepared to take money from just about anyone if they think they can get away with it.5 Second, there were critics of Rhodes’s murderous private enterprise imperialism at the time. The Radical MP Henry Labouchère campaigned relentlessly against the BSAC and all its works, both inside and outside the Commons. He condemned the invasion of Matabeleland in the most ferocious terms: “never in our times had anything so wicked been done in Africa”.6 There were even Conservatives who opposed “the arch-corrupter” as John St Loe Strachey, the then editor of the Spectator, called Rhodes. While he considered himself a staunch imperialist, Strachey saw Rhodes as a corrupt profiteer who bought politicians and policies and was using the imperial cause as a cover for what amounted to personal enrichment and straightforward criminality.7 And, of course, there was the opposition of the Marxist left, small though it was at the time. More surprising, when Rhodes proposed to accept an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law from Oxford in 1899, 92 academics protested against such an honour being bestowed on an international criminal. Needless to say, the ceremony went ahead.

Rhodes had three great causes that he devoted his life to: acquiring enormous wealth; expanding the territory of British white settlement and achieving reputational immortality. He hoped to ensure that his name would live on for 4,000 years.8 To this end, he modestly named his African conquests after himself.9 Another way he sought to achieve immortality was by making Oriel College a beneficiary of his will, leaving £100,000 for the erection of a new building but with £10,000 earmarked for maintaining and improving “the dignity and comfort of high table”. This was, of course, a bribe and would be recognised as such ­everywhere except in the academic world. The College eagerly scooped it up. The fact that his money was soaked in African blood counted for nothing because dining arrangements were going to be substantially improved, something that has always been of inordinate importance to senior Oxford academics. Indeed, Oxford University embraced this mass murdering fraudster with considerable enthusiasm so that no one “has more memorials in Oxford than Cecil Rhodes”.10

Most important of all, however, were the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes Scholarships. These were intended to bring together Britain, the United States and the colonies of white settlement, hopefully contributing to the creation of an English-speaking imperial elite. Even at the end of his life, Rhodes still hoped for a coming together of the British Empire and the United States. Indeed, he was even prepared to accept that the US might well become the dominant partner in this English-speaking empire with its capital in Washington rather than London. This US primacy was, of course, to become a reality during and after the Second World War.

Under the terms of his will, scholarships were to be awarded annually to two men (and only men) from every US state as well as three from Canada, six from Australia, five from South Africa, three from Rhodesia, and one each from New Zealand, Jamaica and Bermuda.11 In an attempt to improve relations with imperial Germany there were also five scholarships awarded to Germans.12 There were to be none awarded to India and this did not change until 1947, the year of Indian independence. The trustees were prepared to accept the occasional, indeed very occasional, black scholar, but even this provoked ferocious objection from the US Southern states. The trust also took up other imperial causes, for example, encouraging the emigration/deportation of orphaned and destitute children to the white colonies, and gave money to the Child Emigration Society to this end. The trustees, as John Darwin has pointed out, “shared a deep faith in the idea of the British empire as a global community bound together by common loyalties and racial sympathy. They saw themselves as unofficial agents of empire”.13 The statue must come down and Oxford must be “decolonialised”.

One last point worth making is that the volume of the prestigious Oxford History of the British Empire dealing with the 19th century predictably managed to avoid any indictment of Rhodes and his works. Indeed, the Rhodes Trust contributed £150,000 to its publication and it was edited by the then Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King's College London, Andrew Porter.14

Rhodes, as we have seen, demanded to be remembered, but what of…


Histories of the British Empire in the 20th century and biographies of the men who serviced it have to be judged by how they deal with the Bengal Famine of 1943-44. The 20th century volume of the Oxford History of the British Empire famously does not even mention the catastrophe.15 Surely though this oversight is corrected in the Companion volume, India and the British Empire, published as recently as 2012? There are chapters on “Knowledge Formation”, “Social Identities”, “Networks of Knowledge”, “Literary Modernity”, “Environment and Ecology”, “Material and Visual Culture” and the “Gendering of Private and Public Selves”—all cutting edge stuff. But somehow the horrific deaths of some five million people, men, women and children, from starvation, disease and exposure, overwhelmingly poor, seems to have been overlooked yet again. To be fair, it does get a mention on page 48 in David Washbrook’s chapter on “The Indian Economy and the British Empire”: “the strains attendant upon faster growth also showed themselves in the Bengal Famine of 1943, which necessitated state intervention in the food market on a regular basis for the first time since the early 19th century”.16 And that is it. This is Edward Thompson’s “enormous condescension of posterity” in spades.17

As Lizzie Collingham has recently shown in her path-breaking The Taste of War, famine was very much a defining characteristic of the Second World War, killing “at least 20 million people…from starvation, malnutrition and its associated diseases”.18 The number of people who died from hunger and its effects was larger than the number of soldiers killed in combat. The famine in Bengal was part of this dimension of the conflict. It was very much the result of the British government’s wartime priorities whereby whether the rural poor of Bengal lived or died counted for very little in the great scheme of things. It is worth remembering that Bengal suffered more at the hands of the British Empire during the Second World War than the Empire’s actual enemies did.

The multiple effects of war, disruption of food supplies, inflation, hoarding and profiteering, and the scorched earth policy of “denial” that the British implemented in Bengal were compounded by the great cyclone and tidal waves of October 1942 that devastated much of the western districts of the province. In particular, the “denial” policy—of removing food stocks, confiscating boats in an area dependent on river transport and of mass eviction from areas considered strategically important—condemned thousands of destitute people to a terrible death. As famine began to grip the land, the authorities’ response was to do as little as possible as far as the provision of relief was concerned and to do as much as possible to cover up the scale of the catastrophe. At a time when the Allies were proclaiming “Freedom from Want” as one of their war aims thousands of starving men, women and children fled their homes in the countryside and began the trek “towards Calcutta” where they hoped to find food: “Not food but slow death awaited many of them”.19

While those who remained in the countryside died unseen, those who trekked to Calcutta were a problem. The contrast between wealth privilege and the most dire poverty and suffering was becoming too stark. As one contemporary noted, in some of “the big European hotels, 17 course dinners are being served today while lean, emaciated faces can be seen staring wistfully through the windows”.20 Children starving to death on the streets made it impossible to cover up the scale of the disaster in the end. Decisive in this respect was the decision of Ian Stephens, editor of The Statesman, to get around the censorship by publishing a photo-spread of the starving on the streets of the city on 22 August 1943. Before the publication of these “close-up photographs of children with protruding rib cages and panoramas of stick-like beings huddled in vast numbers…the calamity in Bengal had been unknown to most of India and utterly unheard about in the rest of the world”.21 The governor of Bengal, John Herbert, responded with a ringing endorsement of British rule in India, accusing The Statesman of “exaggerating” the famine and observing that such photos of the starving poor “might have been taken in Calcutta anytime during the last ten years”.22

The viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, must carry the main responsibility for the terrible death toll in 1943. There were other British officials and Indian politicians and businessmen implicated in the crime, concerned solely with the war effort and profiteering and completely unmoved by the mass starvation until it became an inconvenience. Nothing can ruin an evening more than having to step over dying children. Linlithgow retired and was replaced in October 1943 by a soldier, Archibald Wavell, who prime minister Winston Churchill expected to concern himself with the war effort and not to trouble London about other matters. Wavell’s appointment was a serious mistake on Churchill’s part. Far from being a diehard imperialist, Wavell was sympathetic to the nationalist cause and, once he arrived in India, was appalled by the failure to provide famine relief.23 After months of pleading with London for food aid, Wavell made the damning observation on 7 February 1944 that the famine in Bengal was “one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule” and that “the damage to our reputation is incalculable”.24

Using local resources, he put famine relief measures into operation, saving, according to Janam Mukherjee, “an inestimable number of lives”, although the situation was already so bad that “for many it was far too little too late”.25 It is worth considering what the death toll would have been if Wavell had been the man Churchill thought he had appointed viceroy. As it was, all of Wavell’s pleas for assistance from London were ignored with Churchill going out of his way to sabotage (not too strong a word) any outside food aid. As he told his secretary of state for India, Leo Amery, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Indeed, on another occasion he described them to Amery as “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans”. Amery, very much a right-wing pro-imperialist, could not understand Churchill’s “curious hatred of India” and thought that he was “not quite normal on the subject”. At one point, Churchill’s bitter intransigence led him to observe that he “didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s”.26

Even warnings that the famine was damaging the war effort left Churchill unmoved. On 17 February 1944, Amery wrote to him that without the importation of food there was a danger of “famine conditions spreading with disastrous rapidity all over India. The result may well be fatal for the whole prosecution of the war… I don’t think you have any idea of how deeply public feeling in this country has already been stirred against the Government over the Bengal Famine… It is the worst blow we have had to our name as an Empire in our lifetime”.27 What particularly incensed Wavell on a visit to London in April 1945 was the resources the British government was prepared to devote to providing food for the recently liberated Dutch compared with its refusal to help India. When it came to feeding the Dutch, “ships will of course be available, quite a different answer to the one we get whenever we ask for ships to bring food to India”. There was, he observed, “a very different attitude towards feeding a starving population when the starvation was in Europe”. On a number of occasions, Churchill himself made this absolutely clear: “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks”.28 As Collingham observes, it “is difficult to reach any conclusion other than that racism was the guiding principle which determined where hunger struck”.29

When Wavell remarked that the Bengal Famine had done “incalculable damage” to the British Empire’s reputation, he seriously underestimated the ability of historians over the years since 1943-44 to suppress the episode. The famine has been effectively written out of British history. This suppression was for many years almost completely successful and it is only in recent years that it has been beginning to break down but only painfully slowly. Even today, one can look at the work of a historian as eminent as Peter Clarke, formerly Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. His Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-2000 does not mention the Bengal Famine. Really this should be as disreputable as a history of 19th century Britain that neglected to mention the Irish famine of the 1840s.30 Clarke's biography of Stafford Cripps, a politician with a special interest in India, The Cripps Version, ignores the catastrophe. Even his widely praised account of the British Empire at the end of and immediately after the Second World War, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire, does not so much as mention the deaths of five million people.31 This is a complete distortion of the record. The history of the British Empire in the 20th century looks completely different if the fate of those millions of people is written. So it has been conveniently left out with generations of historians colluding in the suppression whether wittingly or unwittingly. Of course, it is unfair to single Clarke out because the suppression is so complete as to amount to a cultural and political phenomenon in its own right.

As one might expect, biographies of Winston Churchill either ignore altogether or only mention in passing his role in the Bengal Famine. It is even worse with regard to biographies of the deputy prime minister at the time, Clement Attlee. There is not one biography of Attlee that so much as mentions his silence while millions of people starved to death in Bengal. They are not important enough for their fate to deserve remembering. Their voices have been silenced and every effort has been made to ensure that they have been forgotten.

Which brings us to…


It has been argued, in a recent account of the Labour Party and international relations, that the Labour Party has an “instinctive pacificism”.32 How does this assertion sit with the fact that Labour was in power and Clement Attlee was prime minister, when, with British support, the United States used atomic bombs to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki? To be fair, Churchill had already assented to the use of the bomb, but this was as the leader of a Conservative-Labour coalition government. And as Attlee made clear to Francis Williams, the compiler of his memoirs, even 15 years after the event, he still thought “it was right to drop it”.33 It is difficult to think of anything further removed from “instinctive pacificism” than the use of atomic bombs against civilian populations, but regardless of such details there is still today a widespread belief amounting to a whole mythology that the Labour Party has a long tradition of opposition to war and imperialism. Certainly, it is true of many Labour Party members and supporters, but Labour governments have never shown any such instincts. The evidence that contradicts the mythology has been suppressed by the party leadership and its apologists, but the party membership has by and large been content to forget. Indeed, forgetting the past is essential to sustaining Labour reformism.

When Labour came to power in 1945 it continued the policy of supporting the Greek royalists and suppressing the Communist-led resistance in Greece that it had endorsed when part of the Churchill coalition.34 Now it also went ahead and demonstrated its anti-imperialism by using military force to restore French rule in Indo-China and Dutch rule in the Dutch East Indies, what was to become Indonesia. The Indo-China episode is relatively well-known because of the later Vietnam War. It was seen at that time as presaging the Harold Wilson Labour government’s support for the US in Vietnam. While the strength of opposition prevented Wilson from sending troops to Vietnam, his government did everything else that it could to support the war. Nevertheless, it is worth briefly rehearsing the earlier intervention. British troops began occupying Saigon early in September 1945, imposing what amounted to martial law, attempting to disarm the Communist-led resistance and on 23 September installing the French in power. This provoked an uprising that was put down by some 22,000 British troops. Parts of the city were deliberately burned down to clear out the rebels and artillery was used to reduce rebel positions. As French troops began to arrive, the British began to withdraw with the last British soldiers being killed in June 1946.

A much larger military intervention was necessary to restore the Dutch.35 The first British and Indian troops began arriving on 29 September. Two full divisions were despatched to Java to occupy the coastal cities of Jakarta, Semarang and Surabaya and the hill towns behind them, Bandung, Ambarawa, Magelang and Malang. When the British arrived in Jakarta, they were greeted “by huge slogans daubed in sprawling characters on the sides of vehicles and carriages, ‘Atlantic Charter means Freedom from Dutch Imperialism’, shouted one; ‘America for the Americans…Indonesia for the Indonesians’, screamed another. Everywhere the signs of rampant nationalism”. The new flag of the recently proclaimed Republic of Indonesia was flying everywhere and already “barricades were appearing in some of the streets”.36 The first British soldiers were killed on 11 October and, as fighting spread, reinforcements had to be rushed in and the decision was taken to rearm the surrendered Japanese military. Japanese troops were to be heavily involved in fighting the nationalists. It was the Japanese who seized control of Bandung from the nationalists, handing the town over to the British. In Semarang, the Japanese takeover met fierce resistance that only ended after six days of street fighting in which Britain’s new allies used tanks and artillery, wrecking much of the city and leaving 2,000 Indonesians dead. This reliance on Japanese troops was a considerable embarrassment to the government and was very unpopular both with the British troops and back in Britain.

The decisive encounter took place in the port of Surabaya where some 2,000 British troops began disembarking on 25 October. One British officer described the scene that greeted them: “we could see writing on the walls, roofs and all available spaces: ‘Indonesia for the Indonesians’…‘Hand back the colonies to their rightful owners’…‘Merdeka’ [‘independence’]…‘Remember the Atlantic Charter’”.37 Initially an uneasy truce was established, but this broke down when the British were ordered to disarm the Republican militia. On 28 October, the militia attacked in overwhelming numbers, threatening to overrun the British positions. Once again a truce was put in place, but it broke down almost immediately. Troops occupying a bank in Union Square opened fire and threw grenades into an Indonesian crowd, killing some 150 people. In the confusion, the British commander, Brigadier Mallaby, who had hoped to mediate, was shot dead.

This episode provoked a full-scale rebellion, and after heavy fighting, the British, having had 230 men killed, retreated into the dockside area. The British despatched another 20,000 troops to Surabaya and on 10 November began a three day bombardment of the city by land, sea and air. The city was shelled by two cruisers and three destroyers and relentlessly bombed by Mosquito and Thunderbolt aircraft (perhaps 500 bombs were dropped in the first four days38). It was only retaken after bloody street by street fighting that saw the British suffer some 900 soldiers dead and wounded and the Indonesians some 10,000. A Manx woman, long resident in Java, who broadcast in English in support of the Republic on Radio Pemberontakan (“Rebel Radio”) and who was known to the British as “Surabaya Sue”, later recalled: “Hundreds upon hundreds were killed. The streets ran with blood and children lay dead in the gutters. Kampongs were in flames, and the women and children fled in panic to the safety of the rice fields. But the Indonesians did not surrender”.39 The battle remains one of the largest single British military engagements of the post-war period.

The battle of Surabaya provoked a generalised revolt throughout Java. In Semarang, rebels seized the city centre and had to be bombed into submission; the Gurkhas were driven out of Magelang, having to destroy or abandon their equipment; Ambarawa was evacuated; and there was heavy fighting in Bandung that continued into 1946. The British gave the militia in Bandung until midnight on 24 March to surrender or face destruction. In response, the rebels evacuated the areas they held, with some 250,000 people leaving with what they could carry, firing their homes behind them. More than a third of the city was burned to the ground so that the British took possession of an empty ruin—an astonishing act of defiance.

British air power played a vital role in the conflict. Harold Isaacs provides a graphic account:

British fighter bombers were constantly in action, using rockets and 500lb bombs. The planes struck repeatedly at what the communiques called “extremist concentrations”. They bombed out the Indonesian radio stations at Jogjakarta and Surakarta, principal political centres in the interior. Attacks were called “reprisals” on the flimsiest pretexts. For example, an Indonesian raid on an allied convoy took place early in December on the road near a town called Tjibadak. The next day, according to a Royal Air Force report on 10 December, six Mosquitos and six lend-lease P-47s strafed and rocket-bombed Tjibadak and wiped it off the map. The planes, the announcement said, “dived low, sending their missiles ripping through dozens of buildings lining the main street… Roofs were tossed into the air, walls collapsed, and only skeletons of many houses remained when the fighter bombers struck with their guns, making five attacks”.40

The RAF carried out hundreds of such “gentlemanly” attacks.

Across the countryside, British troops fired villages and towns. In November, the town of Bekassi was destroyed as a reprisal for the killing of the passengers and crew of a military transport plane that had crash landed outside the town. Its 20,000 inhabitants fled for their lives. The town was strafed by RAF aircraft that then, according to war correspondent, John Thompson, “went hunting throughout the surrounding region. All cars on the roads were strafed with cannon and machine guns… All Indonesians who were strafed while moving along the roads were described as ‘extremists’”. The town was occupied by infantry accompanied by a detachment of tanks who proceeded to destroy it. Troops went through the streets:

with flaming torches and touched off the houses of plaited palm-leaf one by one, so that within a few minutes there was a mighty blaze. Buildings which would not immediately burn were doused with petrol and then set alight, concrete buildings were dynamited and no buildings were spared… A total of about one thousand dwellings was destroyed.41

The ferocity of the resistance took the British by surprise. At the end of December, the British commander for South East Asia, Lord Mountbatten, informed London that if he was effectively to reconquer the country he would require at least three more divisions and even then they could expect a protracted guerrilla war, “analogous to Ireland after the last war, but on a much larger scale”.42 The British determined to hand over to the Dutch as quickly as possible. Even as late as September 1946 there were still 45,000 British troops in the country, but withdrawal was underway. The last British troops left at the end of November. British involvement did not end here though. The Labour government armed and equipped the incoming Dutch forces and then continued to provide the material support without which the bloody Dutch offensives of the summer 1947 and the winter 1948-9 would have been impossible.

Clearly, the intervention in Indonesia was not a small insignificant affair, but a bloody 14 month colonial war in which 20,000 Indonesians died. Some 620 British soldiers, mainly Indians, were killed with another 327 missing presumed dead, along with more than a thousand of their Japanese allies killed in the fighting.

Even more ominous for the British, perhaps as many as 600 Indian soldiers defected to the nationalists. They were joined by getting on for 200 Japanese soldiers. There was, as Thompson points out, also “deep discontent” among the British troops of whom “not a few profoundly sympathised with the Indonesians and wished that everybody would refuse to fight them”. One British unit did actually refuse to fight at Surabaya, “necessitating its withdrawal from the island”.43 In Jakarta, left wing British soldiers produced a news sheet, News from Indonesia, criticising the intervention.44 In Borneo, Australian troops took part in nationalist demonstrations and even provided the militia with weapons.45 In Australia, dockers and seamen blacked the carrying of troops and munitions to the war zone. According to Rupert Lockwood in his study of the boycott, it eventually affected 559 “ships of war and war-supply and medium and smaller craft”. Indian seamen were brought in to break the boycott and promptly joined it, walking out on strike. Collections for the strikers were held on board British warships in Sydney Harbour with a delegation being sent to hand the money over.46

The intervention caused problems for the Labour government back home where there was a campaign in support of the Indonesian Republic. One of the key figures in orchestrating this, Dorothy Woodman of the New Statesman, was kept “under intense Secret Intelligence Service surveillance at the time”.47 Mountbatten helpfully suggested that one way to disarm critics was to blame it on the Trotskyists “since presumably everyone will combine to condemn Trotskyism”.48 The Labour government successfully rode out the difficulty, but not without Attlee and the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, both having to lie in the Commons about the extent of the use of Japanese troops.

How has the Attlee government’s reputation for being somehow “progressive” on colonial affairs survived the Indonesian intervention? Quite simple really. This bloody colonial war has been altogether forgotten. It is either altogether ignored or absolutely minimised in just about every history of the 1945-51 Labour government so that hardly anyone has even heard of it. If the intervention had been carried out by a Conservative government then it would undoubtedly be celebrated in the history books, but because it was the work of a Labour government and contradicts the party’s self-image, it goes unsung. The events of the first day of the battle of Surabaya, which is celebrated as “Heroes’ Day” in Indonesia, are unknown in Britain. Instead, the Labour government has been given a quite spurious reputation because of its withdrawal from India and this has been used systematically to whitewash its actual record. Kenneth Morgan, for example, praises Attlee as “a liberator”. His role in “giving” independence to India was “quite decisive…crucial”. After all, he had “a special expertise, dating from Simon Commission days”.49 His involvement in the Simon Commission, that was set up by the Conservative government, and was boycotted by Congress when it visited India in 1928, hardly establishes any radical credentials for the man. The Commission was greeted on its arrival by a general strike and wherever it went was met by strikes and demonstrations. Indeed, on 30 October in Lahore, the police attacked protestors, fatally injuring a leading nationalist, Lajpat Rai, a friend of Keir Hardie’s who had since despaired of any good coming from the Labour Party. Did Attlee and the other Labour member of the Commission resign in protest? Of course not.

While there was sometimes a difference in rhetoric between Labour and the Conservatives on colonial affairs, the leaderships of both parties were absolutely committed to defending the interests of British Imperialism. What led to the British withdrawal from India was not Labour’s supposed commitment to this cause, but a hard-nosed recognition that India could no longer be held. An important part in bringing about this recognition was the bloody nose the British had received in Indonesia. Writing in 1947, Edmond Taylor, an American journalist, suggested that future historians “may regard the battle of Surabaya as one of the decisive colonial engagements of our day”. The “fierce resistance of the poorly trained, summarily armed Indonesians removed the last doubts in the minds of most British, Dutch and French colonial soldiers that the old imperialist way was gone forever. If empire meant fighting full-scale battles with modern weapons, then imperialism was no longer profitable”.50

In retrospect, this lesson was clearly not learned by the French and Dutch imperialists, but it was learned by the British. The scale and ferocity of the fighting in Indonesia convinced the British military that the effective reconquest and occupation of heavily populated colonies where there were mass movements ready to fight for independence was not a militarily viable proposition. It was this recognition that underlay British policy in India. Indeed, security in India was dependent on the loyalty of Indian troops and police and events in Indonesia had already put this loyalty under strain. On 18 February 1946, crews on board 22 ships of the Royal Indian Navy in Bombay harbour had mutinied. The mutiny spread to other ports until it had tied up 78 ships, involving 20,000 sailors. One of their demands had been the withdrawal of Indian forces from Indonesia. The mutiny was supported by a general strike in Bombay that was put down by troops and police, leaving over 200 protestors dead. It was the fear of a general uprising that forced British withdrawal from India on terms that would only shortly before have been regarded as completely unacceptable.

Certainly the Labour government recognised that the measure of self-government in India was going to have to be extended, but they hoped for a weak, decentralised India, ruled by pro-British politicians and rulers, where foreign and defence policy would effectively remain in British hands. The maintenance of British military bases and the continued availability of Indian troops to help hold other colonial territories were regarded as absolutely non-negotiable. Congress would either have to accept these terms or steps would have to be taken to destroy Congress and replace it with people who would. This was to be the British policy elsewhere, but in India, it quickly became clear that Britain did not have the military strength to win such a confrontation. Bevin in particular urged holding on to India until a weak puppet government could be put in place, but as Attlee argued, this could take another 15 years and there was neither the troops nor the money. Necessity was cynically but successfully dressed up as magnanimous statesmanship.51

Even so, the Labour government’s reputation as somehow “progressive” with regard to colonial policy still requires a determined act of forgetting. There is its strike-breaking and union-busting in colony after colony, its colonial war in Malaya, and its increased exploitation of Britain’s African colonies. And, of course, in December 1950, Attlee asked the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir William Slim, how long it would take “to create from the African colonies an army comparable in size and quality with the Indian Army”.52 The attempt to reconcile rhetoric and reality sometimes led to a positively surreal stance with the Labour Party Speakers’ Handbook for 1948-9, for example, proclaiming that “imperialism is dead, but the Empire has been given a new lease of life”.53

One last point is worth making here. It was under the Attlee government that Cecil Rhodes’s readiness to accept that Britain should become part of an Anglo-Saxon Empire with its capital in Washington was finally realised. This arrangement was, of course, sealed in blood in Korea.

John Newsinger is a member of Brighton SWP. His most recent book is On the Picket Line with the IWW: Big Bill Haywood’s Revolutionary Journalism.


1 Flint, 1974, pp248-250.

2 Matthew, 1997, p599.

3 Matthew, 1997, p599.

4 Newsinger, 2010, p206.

5 Today Oxford University looks more to the likes of Russian billionaire Leonard Blavatnik (one of the richest men in Britain in 2015, worth at least £17 billion) and the Syrian billionaire Wafic Saïd, for largesse. Inevitably there is a strong connection between the University and that bastion of enlightenment and modernity Saudi Arabia. In this respect, Oxford faithfully mimics the British establishment’s concern to ingratiate itself with the Saudis. St Anthony’s College, for example, which has received millions from Saudi donors, still has its Muhammad Bin-Ladin Visiting Fellowship and its annual lecture in honour of Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi dynasty. In 1997 King Fahd gave £20 million to the University’s Centre for Islamic Studies and in 2005 Prince Sultan Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud gave £2 million to the Ashmolean Museum, which named a gallery in his honour. He gave another £1 million in 2008.

And, of course, there is Wafic Saïd who, although born in Syria, made his fortune in Saudi Arabia and has Saudi citizenship. A close friend and admirer of Margaret Thatcher and involved in the Al-Yamamah arms deal, he gave the University £20 million to start up the Saïd Business School in 1996 which today boasts of the Thatcher Business Education Centre, opened by Prince Charles in 2013. Saïd has given the University some £70 million over the years. He has also given large sums to the Conservative Party, some £350,000 in the 1980s, although today the donations come from his British wife, £580,000 between 2012 and 2014. He has made charitable donations to Eton College and even to some good causes. His daughter’s 2012 wedding, celebrated at the Palace of Versailles by some 800 well-heeled guests was one of the most expensive private weddings ever. He is ambassador to the Vatican for the British tax haven of St Vincent and the Grenadines which presumably gives him diplomatic immunity. Inevitably he counts Peter Mandelson among his friends. Oxford University actually honours its top donors with the Sheldon medal (both Saïd and Blavatnik are recipients) and has a Court of Benefactors, made up of some 190 large donors, who meet annually with the University authorities. It is believed that it was this body that effectively vetoed any concessions regarding the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Oxford’s reputation as a premier “University of Ill-Repute” is secure.

6 Hind, 1972, p24.

7 Strachey, 1922, pp301-303.

8 Maylam, 2005, p12.

9 It was also proposed to name what was to become Nigeria, “Goldesia”, after Sir George Goldie of the National African Company, but, not being a full-blown megalomaniac, he refused the honour.

10 Symonds, 1991, p161.

11 In May 1926 Rhodes scholars were given special dispensation to strike-break by the trustees, although the American scabs had to pass themselves off as Canadians. An Australian Scholar whose sympathies lay with the left, was warned that same year that if he continued his political activities, he would be thrown out.

12 The German scholarships were suspended during the First World War and only reinstated in 1930. They were again suspended in 1939. Of the 72 Scholars who either survived into or were selected in the 1930s, 26 were to join the Nazi Party, and of these, four were to join the Brownshirts and three the SS.

13 Darwin, 2001, p462. The trustees have over the years included the likes of the former Liberal prime minister, Lord Rosebery, former Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin, Rudyard Kipling, Lord Milner, Leo Amery, Lord Lothian and so on. Rosebery’s commitment to scholarship was such that when in 1868 he was caught in violation of Oxford University’s then prohibition on students keeping horses and was told to choose between his degree and his horse, he chose his horse.

14 Porter, 1999.

15 Brown and Louis, 1999.

16 Peers and Gooptu, 2012, p48.

17 Thompson, 1968, p13.

18 Collingham, 2007, p1.

19 Venkataramani, 1973, p6.

20 Khan, 2015, p207.

21 Mukerjee, 2010, p175.

22 Srimanjari, 2009, p179.

23 When George Orwell reviewed Wavell’s book, Allenby in Egypt, in the Evening News on 6 January 1944 he remarked on whether “Winston would have been so keen about Wavell as Viceroy if he had read how thoroughly Wavell backs up Allenby’s policy of sympathy with Egyptian nationalism.” The book would “give Winston fits if he ever reads it”—see Fort, 2009, pp350-351.

24 Moon, 1973, p54.

25 Mukherjee, 2015, p141.

26 Newsinger, 2010, p167.

27 von Tunzelmann, 2007, p391.

28 Moon, 1973, p123.

29 Collingham, 2007, p153.

30 Clarke, 2004.

31 Clarke, 2002; Clarke, 2007.

32 Phythian, 2007, p3.

33 Williams, 1961, p73.

34 See Newsinger, 2002.

35 See Newsinger, 1989.

36 Doulton, 1951, p248.

37 Pugh, 1948, p322.

38 Bayly and Harper, 2007, p180.

39 Tantri, 1960, p188.

40 Isaacs, 1947, pp131-132. Isaacs was the author of the socialist classic, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, published in 1938 with an introduction by Leon Trotsky

41 Thompson, 1946, pp69-70.

42 Dennis, 1987, p149.

43 Thompson, 1946, p45.

44 Bayly and Harper, 2007, p185.

45 Long, 1963, p569.

46 Lockwood, 1975, pp4, 157 and 243.

47 Bayly and Harper, 2007, p184.

48 Ziegler, 1985, p336.

49 Morgan, 1992, p141.

50 Taylor, 1947, p388.

51 See Newsinger, 2010, pp168-172.

52 Hennessy, 1992, p216.

53 Howe, 1993, p144.


Bayly, Christopher, and Tim Harper, 2007, Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire (Allen Lane).

Brown, Judith, and W M Roger Louis (eds), 1999, The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press).

Clarke, Peter, 2002, The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps (Allen Lane).

Clarke, Peter, 2004, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-2000 (Allen Lane).

Clarke, Peter, 2007, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire (Allen Lane).

Collingham, Lizzie, 2007, The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food (Allen Lane).

Darwin, John, 2001, “The Rhodes Trust in the Age of Empire”, in Anthony Kenny (ed), The History of the Rhodes Trust (Oxford University Press).

Dennis, Peter, 1987, Troubled Days of Peace: Mountbatten and South East Asia Command, 1945-46 (Manchester University Press).

Doulton, A J F, 1951, The Fighting Cock (Gale and Polden).

Flint, John, 1974, Cecil Rhodes (Little Brown).

Fort, Adrian, 2009, Archibald Wavell: The Life and Times of an Imperial Servant (Jonathan Cape).

Hennessey, Peter, 1992, Never Again: Britain 1945-1951 (Jonathan Cape).

Hind, R J, 1972, Henry Labouchere and the Empire 1880-1905 (Athlone Press).

Howe, Stephen, 1993, Anticolonialism in British Politics: The Left and the End of Empire, 1918-1964 (Clarendon Press).

Isaacs, Harold, 1947, No Peace for Asia (Macmillan).

Khan, Yasmin, 2015, The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War (Bodley Head).

Lockwood, Rupert, 1975, Black Armada (Australasian Book Society).

Long, Gavin, 1963, The Final Campaigns: Australia In The War Of 1939-1945 (Australia War Memorial).

Matthew, H C G, 1997, Gladstone 1809-1898 (Oxford University Press).

Maylam, Paul, 2005, The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa (David Philip).

Moon, Penderel (ed), 1973, Wavell: The Viceroy’s Journal (Oxford University Press).

Morgan, Kenneth, 1992, Labour People: Hardie to Kinnock (Oxford University Press).

Mukerjee, Madhusree, 2010, Churchill’s Secret War (Basic Books).

Mukherjee, Janam, 2015, Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire (Hurst).

Newsinger, John, 1989, “A Forgotten War: British Intervention in Indonesia 1945-6”, Race and Class, issue 30, number 4.

Newsinger, John, 2002, British Intervention and the Greek Revolution (Socialist History Society).

Newsinger, John, 2010, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (Bookmarks).

Peers, Douglas, and Nadini Gooptu (eds), 2012, India and the British Empire (Oxford University Press).

Phythian, Mark , 2007, The Labour Party, War and International Relations (Routledge).

Porter, Andrew (ed), 1999, The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press).

Pugh, L H O, 1948, “Soerabaja (NEI) 1945”, Journal of the Royal Artillery, number 75.

Srimanjari, 2009, Through War and Famine: Bengal 1939-45 (Orient Black Swan).

Strachey, John St Loe, 1922, The Adventure of Living (G P Putnam).

Symonds, Richard, 1991, Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? (Oxford University Press).

Tantri, K’Tut, 1960, Revolt in Paradise (Heinemann).

Taylor, Edmond, 1947, Richer by Asia (Houghton Mifflin).

Thompson, E P, 1968, The Making of the English Working Class (Pelican).

Thompson, John, 1946, Hubbub in Java (Currawong Publishing).

Venkataramani, M S, 1973, Bengal Famine of 1943: The American Response (Vikas).

von Tunzelmann, Alex, 2007, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (Simon and Schuster).

Williams, Francis (ed), 1961, A Prime Minister Remembers (Heinemann).

Ziegler, Philip, 1985, Mountbatten (Alfred Knopf).