George Monbiot: The Turks haven't learned the British way of denying past atrocities

In reading reports of the trial of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, you are struck by two things. The first, of course, is the anachronistic brutality of the country's laws. Mr Pamuk, like scores of other writers and journalists, is being prosecuted for "denigrating Turkishness", which means that he dared to mention the Armenian genocide in the first world war and the killing of the Kurds in the past decade. The second is its staggering, blithering stupidity. If there is one course of action that could be calculated to turn these massacres into live issues, it is the trial of the country's foremost novelist for mentioning them.

As it prepares for accession, the Turkish government will discover that the other members of the EU have found a more effective means of suppression. Without legal coercion, without the use of baying mobs to drive writers from their homes, we have developed an almost infinite capacity to forget our own atrocities.

Atrocities? Which atrocities? When a Turkish writer uses that word, everyone in Turkey knows what he is talking about, even if they deny it vehemently. But most British people will stare at you blankly. So let me give you two examples, both of which are as well documented as the Armenian genocide.

In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, published in 2001, Mike Davis tells the story of famines that killed between 12 and 29 million Indians. These people were, he demonstrates, murdered by British state policy. When an El Nino drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at the height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4m hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, officials were ordered "to discourage relief works in every possible way". The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited "at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices". The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. In the labour camps, the workers were given less food than inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.

As millions died, the imperial government launched "a militarised campaign to collect the tax arrears accumulated during the drought". The money, which ruined those who might otherwise have survived the famine, was used by Lytton to fund his war in Afghanistan. Even in places that had produced a crop surplus, the government's export policies, like Stalin's in Ukraine, manufactured hunger. In the north-western provinces, Oud and the Punjab, which had brought in record harvests in the preceeding three years, at least 1.25m died.

Three recent books - Britain's Gulag by Caroline Elkins, Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson, and Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis - show how white settlers and British troops suppressed the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s. Thrown off their best land and deprived of political rights, the Kikuyu started to organise - some of them violently - against colonial rule. The British responded by driving up to 320,000 of them into concentration camps. Most of the remainder - more than a million - were held in "enclosed villages". Prisoners were questioned with the help of "slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes". British soldiers used a "metal castrating instrument" to cut off testicles and fingers. "By the time I cut his balls off," one settler boasted, "he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket." The soldiers were told they could shoot anyone they liked "provided they were black". Elkins's evidence suggests that more than 100,000 Kikuyu were either killed or died of disease and starvation in the camps. David Anderson documents the hanging of 1,090 suspected rebels: far more than the French executed in Algeria. Thousands more were summarily executed by soldiers, who claimed they had "failed to halt" when challenged.

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