Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made

Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made

by Richard Toye

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The imperial aspect of Churchill's career tends to be airbrushed out, while the battles against Nazism are heavily foregrounded.

A charmer and a bully, Winston Churchill was driven by a belief that the English were a superior race, whose goals went beyond individual interests to offer an enduring good to the entire world. No better example exists than


The imperial aspect of Churchill's career tends to be airbrushed out, while the battles against Nazism are heavily foregrounded.

A charmer and a bully, Winston Churchill was driven by a belief that the English were a superior race, whose goals went beyond individual interests to offer an enduring good to the entire world. No better example exists than Churchill's resolve to stand alone against a more powerful Hitler in 1940 while the world's democracies fell to their knees. But there is also the Churchill who frequently inveighed against human rights, nationalism, and constitutional progress—the imperialist who could celebrate racism and believed India was unsuited to democracy. Drawing on newly released documents and an uncanny ability to separate the facts from the overblown reputation (by mid-career Churchill had become a global brand), Richard Toye provides the first comprehensive analysis of Churchill's relationship with the empire.

Instead of locating Churchill's position on a simple left/right spectrum, Toye demonstrates how the statesman evolved and challenges the reader to understand his need to reconcile the demands of conscience with those of political conformity.

Editorial Reviews

Johann Hari
Winston Churchill is remembered for leading Britain through her finest hour—but what if he also led the country through her most shameful one? What if, in addition to rousing a nation to save the world from the Nazis, he fought for a raw white supremacy and a concentration camp network of his own? This question burns through Richard Toye's superb, unsettling new history…In the end, the words of the great and glorious Churchill who resisted dictatorship overwhelmed the works of the cruel and cramped Churchill who tried to impose it on the world's people of color. Toye teases out these ambiguities beautifully.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Not a conventional biography, this is a probing and thoroughly enjoyable life focusing on the contradictions and dilemmas of Churchill's imperialism. British historian Toye (Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness) stresses that Churchill (1874-1965), a Victorian aristocrat, assumed white superiority but regularly proclaimed that nonwhites deserved equal rights and, eventually, independence once they discarded their primitive ways and achieved European levels of culture. Few British politicians disagreed, but whites in the colonies furiously defended their superior status; Churchill did not always sympathize but avoided making waves. By the 1930s, his imperialism was no longer mainstream. When Parliament debated Indian self-government, his violent objections angered party leaders as much as his attacks on appeasement of Germany before WWII. He was the apostle of freedom during the war, yet he exempted British colonies from that right, which caused persistent friction with Roosevelt, disorder throughout India, and failed to influence postwar leaders who lacked Churchill's romantic attachment to empire and disposed of it with only modest complaints from the electorate. Even veterans of Churchilliana will find plenty of fresh material, recounted with wit and insight into a man whose values were shaped by an age that no longer existed. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"A probing and thoroughly enjoyable life focusing on the contradictions and dilemmas of Churchill's imperialism." ---Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Kirkus Reviews
A dense, forgiving study of the great British leader who was both of his time and flexible enough to transcend it. Churchill famously asserted that "he had not become Prime Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire," although the gradual unraveling of proprietorship over India, Ireland, the African colonies, Palestine and parts of the Middle East occurred on his watch during the first half of the 20th century. Toye (History/Univ. of Exeter; Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness, 2007) seems to be writing for a new generation of post-Empire readers, many of whom need to be reminded that Churchill was cultivated within a British aristocracy at the apogee of Victorian expansion, wherein, as Churchill remarked in his early 20s, the motherland would "continue to pursue that course marked out for us by an all-wise hand and carry out our mission of bearing peace, civilisation and good government to the uttermost ends of the earth." Although he was steeped in the work of Kipling, Gibbons and Winwood Reade, from whose The Martyrdom of Man he derived the idea that "Empire and progress went hand in hand," Churchill did not subscribe to patronizing, racist views toward the empire's "barbarous peoples." Toye tracks the evolution of Churchill's ideas through his early journalistic forays in India, which provided him a nuanced examination of "frontier policy" in The Story of the Malakand Field; his participation in the British campaign in the Sudan, where he witnessed firsthand atrocities committed by the British; observation of the war against the Boers and fate of the South African blacks, which prodded him in a more liberal direction as his parliamentary career took off; shifting "diehard" attitudes toward Irish Home Rule, Muslims, Hindus and Jews as global flashpoints erupted; and his evident struggle to "reconcile the demands of his conscience with those of political conformity."Toye considers this enormously complicated subject with admirable equanimity. Agent: Natasha Fairweather/AP Watt

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Churchill's Empire

The World That Made Him and the World He Made

By Richard Toye

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2010 Richard Toye
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4335-2



In June 1939 the MP and diarist Harold Nicolson attended a dinner at which Winston Churchill was the guest of honour. Also present was the celebrated American columnist Walter Lippmann. Lippmann told the assembled company that Joseph Kennedy, the appeasement-minded US ambassador to Britain, 'had informed him that war was inevitable' and that the British would 'be licked'. According to Nicolson, this reported defeatism prompted Churchill into 'a magnificent oration', during which he sat hunched, 'waving his whisky-and-soda to mark his periods, stubbing his cigar with the other hand'. He did not deny that the coming war would bring 'dire peril and fierce ordeals', but said that these would merely steel the British people and enhance their will for victory. He addressed Lippmann:

Yet supposing (as I do not for one moment suppose) that Mr Kennedy were correct in his tragic utterance, then I for one would willingly lay down my life in combat, rather than, in fear of defeat, surrender to the menaces of these most sinister men. It will then be for you, for the Americans, to preserve and to maintain the great heritage of the English-speaking peoples. It will be for you to think imperially, which means to think always of something higher and more vast than one's own national interests.

Churchill reached a stirring peroration in which he envisaged the torch of liberty continuing to burn 'untarnished and (I trust and hope) undismayed'. And then, as Nicolson noted laconically, discussion moved to the topic of the giant panda.

Churchill's injunction to the Americans to 'think imperially' was an echo of Joseph Chamberlain's injunction to the British people thirty-five years earlier. Chamberlain made his remark during his crusade to integrate the British Empire as an economic bloc – a campaign that Churchill had opposed, to the point of leaving the Conservatives for the Liberals in order to combat it. He now gave his own construction of imperialism, which – doubtless with historic US anti-imperialism in mind – he defined simply as meaning to take responsibility in international affairs. That, though, was very different from his own past (and future) interpretations of the word. But where had his own ideas come from? His biographers, when they comment on such questions at all, tend to content themselves with generalizations such as 'Churchill absorbed the spirit of imperialism with the air he breathed', or observe that he accepted contemporary ideas of Anglo-Saxon superiority 'unquestioningly'. It is possible to discuss his early influences with a little more precision than this. This chapter will explore how it was that Winston Churchill learnt to think imperially, a story that is more complex than is often assumed.


Churchill's first public speech was made in defence of the Empire – the Empire Palace of Varieties in London's Leicester Square. It was November 1894. He was a cadet at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and about to turn twenty. The theatre concerned was one of his favourite haunts, even though his beloved former nurse, Mrs Everest, had warned him against going there: 'it is too awful to think of, it can only lead to wickedness and everything bad'. Morality campaigners shared her anxieties, and were now opposing the renewal of the Empire's music and dancing licence. They alleged that prostitutes solicited there, and that the dancing on stage 'was designed to excite impure thought and passion'. Regarded by the young Churchill as detestable prudes, the puritans were particularly exercised by the theatre's Promenade, a space behind the dress circle in which men and women mingled freely and even drank alcohol. As a condition of renewing the licence, the London County Council insisted that no liquor be served in the auditorium, so the management erected canvas screens between the Promenade and the adjoining bars. The next Saturday, Churchill, on weekend leave, was there when the infuriated crowd 'rushed upon these flimsy barricades and tore them to pieces'. Indeed, he afterwards boasted to his brother, 'It was I who led the rioters'. He later recalled how, 'Mounting on the débris and indeed partially emerging from it, I addressed the tumultuous crowd.' He did not make worthy arguments about the traditions of British freedom but instead won the applause of the mob by appealing 'directly to sentiment and even passion'. Then everyone spilled out into the night air, with the violent assistance of the theatre's 'chuckers out'. But the riot was to no avail: the barricades were soon built again in brick.

Churchill's second speech, nearly three years later, was a rather more sober affair. It was to a Primrose League fête near Bath. The League was a national organization that aimed to marshal mass support for the Conservative Party. It was inclusive, insofar as working men (even if non-voters) and women could join, but also deeply hierarchical. (Churchill, who joined at the age of thirteen, achieved the rank of 'knight' two years later.) As he reminded the Bath gathering, the League's mission was to teach the British people 'the splendour of their Empire, the nature of their Constitution, and the importance of their fleet'. His speech was notable as his first attempt to draw attention to himself politically, in the hope of finding a Tory seat in Parliament. In terms of the imperial sentiments he expressed, it is interesting for two reasons. First, Churchill was aware that many people believed that the Empire, in what was Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee year, had already reached its apogee, and from now on could only decline. Second, he radiated confidence (as his audience would surely have expected) that Britain's mission would continue unabated. To cheers from his audience, he declared: 'Do not believe these croakers but give the lie to their dismal croaking by showing by our actions that the vigour and vitality of our race is unimpaired and that our determination is to uphold the Empire that we have inherited from our fathers as Englishmen'. In his view, the British would 'continue to pursue that course marked out for us by an all-wise hand and carry out our mission of bearing peace, civilisation and good government to the uttermost ends of the earth'.

Much had happened to Churchill in the interval between these two speeches. In January 1895 his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, died at the age of forty-five from a degenerative illness, possibly syphilis, his once-stellar political career having long since imploded. Then, having received an army commission – and following an adventurous trip to the United States and Cuba – the younger Churchill had been posted to India. There he had helped while away the tedium with an ambitious programme of self-education, trying to teach himself what he thought he had missed out on by not going to university. It is tempting to explain the contrast between the Leicester Square high-jinks and the high imperialism of the Bath meeting (which Churchill addressed while home on leave) as a symptom of these developments. In this interpretation, Churchill's new-found seriousness and direct experience of the Empire merged with a determination to vindicate his father's memory and at the same time achieve political fame in his own right. Conviction, reinforced by a wide reading of authors such as Edward Gibbon, dovetailed with a self-interested realization that a young man could draw attention to himself through daring exploits in the farther reaches of the British-ruled world. There is plenty of truth to be found in this view – which Churchill rather encouraged in his memoirs – but it is not the whole truth. Although he may not have been fully aware of it himself, Churchill's imperial consciousness began to form long before the autodidact phase of his early twenties.

As an adult, Churchill wrote that he had taken his politics 'almost unquestioningly' from his father. This claim was perfectly sincere, but it cannot be accepted completely at face value, as an examination of Lord Randolph's thought and career will show. He was born in 1849, the third son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough. He grew up to be an able but erratic youth, who could be genuinely charming but also witheringly scornful when (as often) he was displeased. He studied at Oxford University and was praised by his examiners for his knowledge of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – and Winston Churchill later read Gibbon in part because he had been told of its influence on Lord Randolph. In 1873 Lord Randolph met and fell in love with Jennie Jerome, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a well-known New York businessman, but it took some time for the couple to overcome their parents' opposition to their marriage. The wedding eventually took place in April 1874, a few months after Lord Randolph had been elected as Conservative MP for Woodstock – a position he owed largely to his father's powerful local influence. A mere seven and a half months after the nuptials, Jennie gave birth to Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill at Blenheim Palace, the spectacularly grand Marlborough family seat. The announcement in The Times claimed, perhaps not wholly plausibly, that the birth was premature.

Lord Randolph applied himself more to high society than to the House of Commons, but he soon made a catastrophic social faux pas. His elder brother, the Marquis of Blandford, had an affair with Lady Aylesford while her husband was visiting India in 1875. Lord Aylesford wanted a divorce, which, if it went ahead, would drag Blandford's name into a public scandal. To avoid this, Lord Randolph pressed his friend the Prince of Wales to use his influence to halt the proceedings. Were this not done, he threatened to make public the Prince's own indiscreet letters to Lady Aylesford. The Prince was naturally outraged at this attempted blackmail, and Lord Randolph was ostracized from society as a result. A kind of exile followed when the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, offered his father the Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland, and Lord Randolph went with him as his private secretary. Winston Churchill's first memory was of the Duke, his grandfather, unveiling a statue of the imperial hero, Lord Gough, in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The statue is no longer there, removed following the IRA's attempts to blow it up in the 1950s.

Ireland was already troubled by violence during Winston Churchill's childhood. Attempts at religious and educational reform by Gladstone's Liberals had failed to quell a nationalist upsurge driven by economic distress and a sharp sense of resentment at British rule. The armed revolutionaries of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, often referred to as the Fenians, were not of the political mainstream but they conjured a fearsome reputation. 'My nurse, Mrs Everest, was nervous about the Fenians', Churchill recalled. 'I gathered these were wicked people and there was no end to what they would do if they had their way.' Later on, Gladstone was converted to the concept of Home Rule, under which control of Irish affairs would have been delegated from Westminster to Dublin. Lord Randolph, for his part, adopted a notoriously hard line against this plan. It would, he argued, plunge a knife into the heart of the British Empire. Moreover, the north of Ireland was dominated by Protestants, who feared subjection to the will of the Catholic majority. 'Ulster will fight,' Lord Randolph declared at a crucial moment during the battles of the 1880s; 'Ulster will be right'. Yet although Winston Churchill for some years shared his father's opposition to Home Rule, he was to prove much more flexible once he became a minister. Although protective of his father's memory, he did not adhere slavishly to his political positions.

In 1880 Disraeli was defeated at the general election and the Duke of Marlborough's time in Dublin came to an end. The social boycott of Lord Randolph had eased, and he began to make his mark as a Tory MP. He led a small group known as the 'Fourth Party', attacking Gladstone's Liberal government vigorously; he also fell out with the new leaders on account of his failure to toe the official party line. He became known as an advocate of 'Tory Democracy', a slogan Winston Churchill would adopt, although in Lord Randolph's hands it did not have much substance; some historians have accused him of inconsistency and opportunism. There was, however, something attractive in his very unpredictability, which extended to imperial issues, as the question of Egypt showed.

Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled inefficiently by the Khedive, the Sultan's representative, and was massively indebted to European bondholders. In 1882 Britain intervened to put down a nationalist revolt and thus protect her investments. After the rebels were defeated by her forces at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir in September, real power in Egypt was exercised by the British, although the Khedive still owed nominal allegiance to the Sultan. To some it seemed a dirty business. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, poet, horse-breeder, womanizer and adventurer, was the anti-imperialist in chief. (He is best known for his later verse riposte to Rudyard Kipling: 'The White Man's Burden, Lord, is the burden of his cash'.) A supporter of the Egyptian nationalists, he had returned from Cairo to put their case to Gladstone, but had been unable to forestall the British action. He came to believe that the Khedive had deliberately inspired a deadly riot that took place at Alexandria (and was then blamed on the nationalists) in order to draw the British in. Seeking help in drawing attention to his allegations, Blunt approached Lord Randolph, whom he recalled as a 'distinctly good-looking young man' with a 'certain distinction of manner' and a curling moustache that 'gave an aggressive tone to his countenance'. Lord Randolph was persuaded of Blunt's case, and during 1883 publicly pressed the charge that the government was complicit in the actions of the Khedive, their 'puppet and ally'. (He also described the execution of one nationalist officer, after a trial of doubtful fairness, as 'the grossest and vilest judicial murder that ever stained the annals of Oriental justice'.) He may not have proven his accusations beyond all doubt, but he certainly made the government feel deeply uncomfortable. As Winston Churchill observed in his biography of his father, it was remarkable that, in officially rejecting the evidence he provided, 'the Government took no steps, by rebutting it in detail, to discredit their pertinacious assailant'. Lord Randolph had undoubtedly demonstrated his unconventionality but he was no opponent of the Empire. He objected not to imperial rule per se, but to the halfway-house situation whereby the British propped up an unjust regime in Cairo. He declared that the government should either withdraw entirely or take total control: 'Let them take Egypt altogether if they liked, but let the country be under persons responsible to the English Government who would rid the country of its burdens and raise up the fellaheen from their present low state.'

His chief concern was to find sticks with which to beat the government. The following year he lacerated ministers for their failure to go to the rescue of General Charles Gordon, Governor-General of the Sudan, who was under siege in Khartoum. The government eventually sent a relief mission, but too late. It arrived, in January 1885, two days after the city had fallen to the forces of the Mahdi ('The Expected One'), the charismatic Islamic leader who was determined to end Egyptian rule in his country. Gordon's brutal death by spearing at the hands of the Mahdi's warriors turned him into an imperial icon and helped seal the fate of Gladstone's government, which fell in June. In spite of Lord Randolph's tense relationship with his own party's leadership, he had won national popularity, bolstered by speeches in which he urged 'a policy of activity for the national welfare, combined with a zeal for Imperial security'. Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister of the new minority Tory administration, could not fail to give him a Cabinet post, and appointed him Secretary of State for India.

His seven-month tenure at the India Office gave full play to the contradictions in his imperial attitudes. He had already made a long visit to India in advance of his appointment, and taken the trouble to meet a range of Indian intellectuals, politicians and journalists. Lala Baijnath, a lawyer, was 'greatly astonished at his intimate knowledge of Indian subjects as well as those discussed by the native papers'. Nationalism was just beginning to flower in the country – the first Indian National Congress was held later in 1885 – and Lord Randolph appeared to be a polite and intelligent listener. He wrote to his mother: 'The natives are much pleased when one goes to their houses, for the officials out here hold themselves much too high and never seek any intercourse with the natives out of official lines; they are very foolish.' He seemed genuinely to like the country (something that cannot be said of his son) and he won praise from papers such as the Indian Spectator, the Bengalee and the Hindoo Patriot.


Excerpted from Churchill's Empire by Richard Toye. Copyright © 2010 Richard Toye. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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From the Publisher
"A probing and thoroughly enjoyable life focusing on the contradictions and dilemmas of Churchill's imperialism." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Meet the Author

Richard Toye was born in Cambridge, U.K. in 1973. He studied at the universities of Birmingham and Cambridge, and is now an associate professor at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on British and international history. In 2007 he was named Young Academic Author of the Year by Times Higher Education magazine for his book Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness.

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