Richard Toye.


On 10 December 1954 a visitor from East Africa was waiting on a horsehair sofa in the hallway of 10 Downing Street. Suddenly, the small, frail figure of Winston Churchill appeared from behind a screen, said, ‘Good afternoon, Mr Blundell,’ and offered him a slightly stiffened hand to shake. The two men went together into the Cabinet Room. It was only three o’clock but Churchill — smoking his customary cigar — ordered them both a strong whisky and soda. As they sipped their drinks, their meeting, scheduled to take fifteen minutes, spilled out to last forty-five. The topic was the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya; and Michael Blundell, a prominent white settler with a somewhat spurious reputation as a liberal, was given an impassioned exposition of the Prime Minister’s views.

Churchill began by recalling his own visit to the country in 1907. Then, he had found the Kikuyu group, from which most of the rebels were now drawn, to be ‘a happy, naked and charming people’. He professed himself ‘astonished at the change which had come over their minds’. He became animated over the problem of how settlers might be protected from attack, and he poured out a flood of ideas designed to defend farmers: trip-wires, bells and other early warning systems. But in his view the issue was not really a military one — the problem was to get to the rebels’ minds. His eyes grew tearful as he told Blundell of the threat the situation posed to Britain’s good name in the world. It was terrible that the country that was the home of culture, magnanimity and democracy should be using force to suppress Mau Mau. ‘It’s the power of a modern nation being used to kill savages. It’s pretty terrible,’ he declared. ‘Savages, savages? Not savages. They’re savages armed with ideas — much more difficult to deal with.’

Over and again he pressed on a reluctant Blundell the need for negotiation, arguing that the strength of the hold the Mau Mau had on the Kikuyu proved that the latter were not primitive, stupid and cowardly, as was often imagined. Rather, ‘they were persons of considerable fibre and ability and steel, who could be brought to our side by just and wise treatment’. He offered an analogy with his own role in finding a solution for the problem of Ireland after World War I, when he had negotiated with the nationalist leader Michael Collins, once a hard-line terrorist opponent of the British. Churchill also deplored British brutality against the Kenyan rebels and the fact that so many of the local population were locked up in detention camps, before offering his views on race relations. He was old-fashioned, he said, and ‘did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people’. All the same, ‘If I meet a black man and he’s a civilized educated fellow I have no feelings about him at all.’ He showed some scepticism about the white settlers too, ‘a highly individualistic and difficult people’, although he put some of their attitude down to ‘tension from the altitude’ in the highland areas in which they lived.

When Blundell asked him for a message of encouragement to pass on to them, he declined, but, as his visitor got up to leave, Churchill assured him that he was on the right path and had his support. Blundell wished him a slightly belated happy eightieth birthday, and the Prime Minister looked greatly touched. He was beginning to feel his age, he said. Then he revealed a secret that had been kept from the outside world: ‘Hm. I’ve had two strokes. Most people don’t know that, but it’s a fact. I keep going.’ Blundell deduced that this accounted for the stiffened handshake at the beginning. Churchill walked him to the exit of the room and then, when Blundell had gone about five steps into the hall, wished him goodbye and good luck.

This conversation did not mark any great turning point in the history of Kenya. Churchill, just months from retirement, was no longer in a position to be a major influence on colonial policy. Nevertheless, it was highly revealing of his attitudes to race and Empire, touching numerous themes that had been present throughout his career. There were so many familiar hallmarks: the gift for a phrase (‘savages armed with ideas’), the recollection of a happier, more innocent past, the emphasis on magnanimity and negotiating from strength. Also familiar was his unashamed belief in white superiority, a conviction which, for him, however, did not lessen the need to act humanely towards supposedly inferior races that might, in their own way, be worthy of admiration.

Recognizable as part of this was his opinion that members of these races might earn equal treatment, if not exactly warm acceptance, provided they reached an approved cultural standard: a ‘civilized educated’ black man would provoke ‘no feelings’ in him. Overall, the striking thing is the complexity of his opinions. He emerges from Blundell’s account of the discussion as a holder of racist views but not as an imperial diehard. He comes across in his plea for peace talks as a thoughtful visionary, but also, in his description of the formerly ‘happy, naked’ Kikuyu, as curiously nïave about the realities of imperialism. He was prepared to question the conduct of a dirty colonial war, but was in the end willing to assure its supporters of his backing.

Churchill’s conversation with Blundell is a good starting point for consideration of his lifelong involvement with the British Empire, and the general attitudes to it from which his specific policies flowed. In order to do this we need to contend with his reputation — or reputations — on imperial issues. The popular image of him, which draws in particular on his opposition to Indian independence in the 1930s and 1940s, is of a last-ditcher for whom the integrity of the Empire was paramount. Yet many of his contemporaries had viewed him differently. As a youthful minister at the Colonial Office in the Edwardian period, political antagonists had described him as a Little Englander and a danger to the Empire. (‘Little Englandism’, which today carries connotations of anti-European xenophobia, at the time implied opposition to imperial expansion and to foreign entanglements in general; it was often used as a term of abuse.) As late as 1920, even the wild-eyed socialist MP James Maxton would claim disapprovingly that ‘the British Empire was approaching complete disintegration’ and that ‘it was not going too far to say that Mr Churchill had played a primary party in bringing about that state of affairs’. Such critics, it should be noted, were not alleging that Churchill was actively hostile to the Empire, more that it was not safe in his hands or that he was comparatively indifferent to it. By the time of Churchill’s final term in office, this view was still maintained by a tenacious few.

In 1953 the Conservative politician Earl Winterton wrote to Leo Amery, one of Churchill’s former wartime colleagues, to congratulate him on the first volume of his memoirs. He told him: ‘I am particularly pleased that you have, whilst paying a tribute to Winston’s great patriotism, stated, which is indubitably the case, that he has never been an imperialist in the sense that you and I are; we suffered from this point of view during the war, whilst we were in opposition after the war and are still suffering from it to-day.’

Although similar opinions can be found in the historical literature, such contemporary opinions of Churchill need to be treated with some caution. Those who accused him of not caring enough about the Empire often meant, underneath, that he did not happen to share their particular view of it. Nor is the conventional image completely misleading. Although during his post-1931 wilderness years Churchill publicly disclaimed the diehard label, it is clear that he came to revel in it. During the war, the topic of India frequently triggered such extreme reactions in him that he sometimes appeared not quite sane. Nevertheless, this man who could be so disdainful of non-white peoples — ‘I hate people with slit eyes & pig-tails’ — also had another side to him. In 1906, when criticizing the ‘chronic bloodshed’ caused by British punitive raids in West Africa, it was he who sarcastically wrote: ‘the whole enterprise is liable to be misrepresented by persons unacquainted with Imperial terminology as the murdering of natives and stealing of their lands’. As his talk with Blundell shows, this concern for the welfare of subject peoples stayed with him until the end of his career.

In 1921, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, he stated that within the British Empire ‘there should be no barrier of race, colour or creed which should prevent any man from reaching any station if he is fitted for it’. Yet he immediately qualified this by adding that ‘such a principle has to be very carefully and gradually applied because intense local feelings are excited’, which was in effect a way of saying that its implementation should be delayed indefinitely. As one Indian politician put it the following year, when noting Churchill’s seemingly inconsistent position on the controversial question of Asians in East Africa, it was ‘a case, and a very strange case indeed’.

Excepts from the book Churchill’s Empire by Richard Toye.