Dan Jones

Becoming a Victorian

Winston Churchill was a racist. He said things like ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pig-tails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them’.

Winston Churchill was a racist. He said things like ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pig-tails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them’.

Winston Churchill was a racist. He said things like ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pig-tails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them’. In 1931 he described Gandhi as a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, a half-naked fakir and a ‘malignant subversive fanatic’ and in 1954 he told the white Kenyan settler Michael Blundell that he ‘did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people’, although he said that ‘if I meet a black man and he’s a civilised educated fellow I have no feelings about him at all’.

Anachronistic moral judgement? Not so. Even in his day, Churchill had some pretty old-fashioned views about race and empire. ‘He is alas very anti-black’, remembered his friend Violet Bonham-Carter. For the bulk of his career Churchill was a paternalistic imperial die-hard.

He speaks of Communism… being a religion to some people, [but] the British Empire and Commonwealth is a religion to him

 said the Canadian Prime Minister WL Mackenzie King.

Dig the paradox. The Churchill we salute as a lover of freedom and hater of tyranny muttered about kaffirs and blackamoors, and bore a lifelong commitment to subjecting swathes of the world to unwelcome British rule. How so? For answers, we may turn to Richard Toye’s excellent new book, Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made

Toye presents Churchill as a complex, flexible, and ultimately a moral imperial thinker. He grew up during the late bloom of Empire, albeit at a time when many people believed its best years were past. Churchill reacted instinctively against the idea. Toye quotes a speech Churchill gave to the Primrose League in 1897:

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.

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