Review – Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins

Legacy of Violence – A History of the British Empire.  Caroline Elkins.  Vantage Books/Penguin Random House, New York, 2022.

This is an amazing history, one that should be on the list of every history class dealing with modern history, history of the British Empire, and further on to those studying economics, politics, and geopolitical strategies.   For anyone else it should be a must read in order to understand current events as they are unfolding today throughout the world, for our current geopolitical scenarios are highly based on Britain’s Legacy of Violence.

The book encompasses about two hundred years of British imperial history, leaving out the depredations of the empire in North America – which preceded and actuated much of what followed – and ends with the dissolution of empire after World War II.  In between is a sordid tale of violence shellacked over with propaganda, hubris, racism, a willingly compliant press, and an ignorant domestic audience.  Several themes are consistent through Britain’s imperial endeavours.

Legacy of Violence A History of the British Empire

Violence is obviously the first theme, and it came, and continues to come, in many forms: overt military, covert military and espionage, a wide range of torture, extra judicial executions (murder), concentration camps, removals, starvation, sexual abuse, chemical weapons, and on….  In all the subject colonies examined in Legacy of Violence all these actions are similar, and as the colonial experience of repression advances through the years, the techniques were refined to be more painful at the same time pretending to be more in accordance with developing international law.

International law

International law has become more and more codified in particular after the great World Wars of the Twentieth Century, but the British Empire has always found ways to work around any increasing surveillance of their actions.  While ultimate responsibility always arrived home in London, the local colonial governors were given a legalized carte blanche to do as they felt necessary to impart civilization to the savages under their control. 

The outright violence of domination was quasi legalized by declaring colonies or areas of colonies as zones of terror and rebellion allowing the enactment of martial law.  Under these regimes, thousands of laws were created by the colonial government in order to quell any riots, protests, disturbances, or outright rebellions.  These laws provided the “veneer of legal permissibility.”   Occasionally news of these events arrived in the homeland, and were either written off as the standard “bad apple in a barrel” excuse, or turned around the other way and blamed the indigenous people of being savages without morals, and that force was necessary to deal with their intransigence and inability to work in a civilized state.  

As international law became more codified, the powers that be allowed for “derogations” or exemptions from the rule of law, in the event of “terror” or “rebellion” in the colonies.  As a result “Britain became synonymous with a ‘derogation regime’ that…normalized the exception in international law and practice.”  It is perhaps most obviously seen in today’s modern meaningless parlance as the “rule of law….a time honored term in the empire of legalized lawlessness.”

Throughout Elkins book, the idea of morality and savagery courses through all the colonial eras and areas, from South Africa, Malaysia, India, Palestine, Kenya, on through to post war Cyprus and much closer to home in Ireland.  The British always claimed a superior civilization and morality, and the “uncivilized and savage populations of the world…needed a different set of rules.” 


While discussing the Arab rebellion in pre-war Palestine, Chaim Weizmann reflected on the use of violence against the Arabs, being “heartened to know ‘it has produced a salutary moral effect.’”  This view has continued up to today’s propaganda concerning events in Gaza. 

It produced the effect of considering the meaning of “morality” in relation to the slaughter in Gaza, as Israel has always proclaimed it has the most ‘moral’ army in the world.  Events in Gaza, and indeed throughout Palestine, would indicate that the Israel Occupation Force has learned well the British imperial application of morality.   The techniques they have used throughout their colonization of Palestine have been adopted from the previous British occupation: removals, torture, concentration camps (Gaza itself), and on as listed above. 

This most ‘moral’ army has adopted the morality of violence as a means to overcome the resistance to their occupation and settlement of an indigenous culture.  It has been fully expressed as a means to ethnically cleanse Gaza, by removal or genocide – with a note that the official definition of genocide involves the intent to kill, and also the intent to destroy the culture and survivability of the people even if not directly murdered by military means.

The new Anglo-American empire

After World War II, the creation of the UN, and the writing of Declaration of Human Rights, but more importantly the weakening of the financial “sterling area” and the strengthening of the U.S. financial and military empire,  Britain was forced into closing down its empire…at the same time doing its best to maintain power of some kind through its Commonwealth of Nations, most powerfully including the settler-colonial states of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  With the advent of the Cold War and manufactured fears of communism, maintaining the sterling area required U.S. underwriting, as “The Americans needed to tread lightly on imperial designs lest they antagonize their much-needed NATO partners…standing firm against the Soviets.”

 A 1966 British counterinsurgency manual, aimed at communist insurgencies, “included the necessity of adhering to the rule of law and winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population.”  As per Elkins, hearkening back to Malaysia, it “emerged as the [italics in original] reference point for counterinsurgency success, influencing the American’s Petraeus Doctrine in Iraq and shaping Western counterinsurgency operations to this day.” Hearts and minds along with the rule of law are essentially propaganda terms covering up the forcible removal and resettlement of indigenous populations, accompanied by the more hidden tortures and executions.

Not only did it influence the Petraeus Doctrine, but Britain’s imperial legacy of violence has left loopholes for post independent regimes to enact coercive violence of all kinds within their own nations, nations frequently divided by ethnicities previously manipulated for better or worse by British governors and their cronies. 

Today in Gaza

All of this culminates in today’s violence and slaughter – genocide – in Gaza, supported by the financial and military might of the United States and its imperial ambitions.   Elkin’s Legacy of Violence was written before these events and wisely she did not attempt to bring her work into the realm of current events, yet it is obvious that Israeli actions follow from their heritage as a British colony initiated far back in the days of supreme colonial power immediately after World War I. 

The British empire’s Legacy of Violence has morphed into an Anglo-American rule of violence with the violence and rules stemming mainly from the United States.  However, as a nuclear armed belligerent and racist nation, Israel directs its own actions in Gaza, an ‘in your face’ attitude towards the U.S.’ feeble attempts to appear to be humanitarian while supplying the financial and military means for Israel to maintain the slaughter. 


The British empire lives on, subsumed by the military-industrial-financial power of the United States, as well as being evident in many still smoldering regions of the world where indigenous people are attempting to overcome the legacy of violence perpetrated by the former British power and the current U.S. imperial power.

Caroline Elkins work is a must read for anyone interested in understanding more of the background of today’s geopolitical violence.  The information is very well referenced and researched and provides significant detail – in spite of the empire’s burning of colonial records – along with first hand anecdotal references.  

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator

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