Britain’s ‘Dark Past’: the atrocities of the British Empire and its legacy today

When you cast your mind back to your school days, your memories of British history will likely be dominated by topics such as the World Wars and the Battle of Hastings, but there has been little offered in the way of British colonial history to schoolchildren.

Recently, the British public has deservedly devoted much attention to the Black Lives Matter campaign. Subsequently, there have been renewed calls for Britain’s ‘dark past’ to be taught in schools to openly address the injustices that have riddled Britain at home and abroad. Perhaps the Empire’s atrocities are deemed too sensitive to be taught to young children, but a more likely explanation would be to cover up a shameful period in our history.

By studying four different atrocities, we will explore some of the worst periods in Britain’s colonial past, and look at how that imperial legacy still lives on today. Do not be mistaken, Britain’s history is not entirely negative – far from it – but both the good and bad elements of British history need to be learnt in tandem. This includes the cruel, exploitative and discriminatory era when the British Empire reigned supreme.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

In 1562, John Hawkins sailed for Africa on what is considered to be the first slaving voyage by a Brit; little did Hawkins know that he had started what was to become one of Britain’s biggest industries through the 17th and 18th centuries. Britain’s slave trade truly kicked off in the mid-seventeenth century, as between 1640 and 1807, Britain captured and transported an estimated 3.1 million Africans to the Americas.

Alongside Portugal, Britain became a dominant partner in the slave trade, as these two nations accounted for around 70% of all Africans transported to the Americas. These slaves were normally treated and transported in an abominable manner, having either been sold to white slave traders by other West Africans, or forcefully captured in raids. Africans were chained together, lacked the head room to sit up, and the oxygen level was so low below decks that often candles could not be lit. As a result, approximately 15-25% of Africans died en route.

A plan of how to ‘pack’ a slave ship. The image shows how 292 black Africans could be ‘stored’ on the lower deck, with a further 130 sitting on selves. This gives the perfect illustration of how crowded slave ships were, and how horrendous the voyage must have been. Source: Britannica

The Opium Wars and the opium trade

Since the 18th century, many British traders had been illegally transporting opium to China, but the trade grew dramatically from 1820 onwards. The widespread addiction to opium in China, and the consequent social and economic disruption, led to the Chinese government seizing and destroying around 1,400 tons of the drug at the Port of Canton in 1839. This event triggered the First Opium War between Britain and China.

Britain was now fighting a war to maintain the illegal opium trade. Following victory in August 1842, Britain imposed the so-called ‘Unequal Treaties’ upon China to extend their trading rights, but this was still not enough. The Second Opium War erupted in 1856 as Britain looked to extend these rights even further, and constructed a false excuse to resume hostilities. Ultimately, in two cases Britain had manufactured wars for their own economic benefit, despite the social damage opium caused in China.

A cartoon illustrating how the British forcefully sold opium to the Chinese before, during and after the First and Second Opium Wars. The drug was causing untold misery, suffering and damage to China’s people and economy, but they had no choice but to take it due to the forceful nature of Britain. Source: Max Haiven

Boer concentration camps

In 1899, war erupted between Britain and white Dutch settlers – the Boers – in South Africa as Britain looked to extend their influence into the Boer controlled Transvaal and Orange Free State. Due to Britain’s military and numerical superiority, the Boers decided to wage guerrilla warfare. In response, the British adopted a ‘scorched earth’ policy, where they would burn and destroy Boer settlements to deprive them of homes and food supplies

The homeless Boers were then carted into concentration camps; the British claimed this was a humanitarian measure to care for displaced Boers until the war ended, but poor preparation led to disaster. A lack of supplies and overcrowding led to widespread death at the hands of malnutrition and disease. Some 107,000 Boers entered the camps, and almost 28,000 of them would die in there, alongside an unquantified number of black Africans.

A group of white Boer settlers incarcerated in the British concentration camps, c. 1900. The existence of these camps is known to very few in Britain today, and is a prime example of how very little of the Empire’s shameful past is taught in schools. Source:

India in the 1940s – famine and partition

As Britain’s campaign in the Mediterranean during the Second World War heated up in 1943, disaster loomed in British India. In Bengal, famine was rife as Winston Churchill diverted Indian grown food to British troops in the Mediterranean, which caused the death of approximately four million Bengalis. When hearing about the famine, Churchill is said to have remarked the following: “The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

Just four years later, in 1947, as India was on the verge of independence, the colonial administrator Cyril Radcliffe was charged with drawing the border between India and the newly formed nation-state of Pakistan. Radcliffe had been given a gargantuan task which entailed the lives of millions, yet he completed this task over a single lunch. India was partitioned along religious lines, which meant that around ten million Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India were uprooted as violence descended. Consequently, one million people lost their lives in religious conflicts because of Radcliffe’s slapdash decision.

Hundreds of Muslim refugees clamber aboard a train in New Delhi to escape the racial violence caused by India’s partition, c. 1947. These refugees looked to escape India for fear of the violence they may encounter in this newly formed Hindu nation; the inverse was true for Hindus in the newly formed Muslim state of Pakistan.
Source: Washington Post

The Legacy of the British Empire today

British history is neither entirely positive nor negative, but in order to properly understand the present, we must fully understand the past as well. People may say that there is nothing we can do now to change our history, but history has a habit of lingering and this is true of the British Empire. Today, we still live with the legacy of colonialism in Britain as many people are still treated differently due to the colour of their skin.

As these four examples show, atrocities committed by the British Empire were mostly against racial or ethnic ‘others’. The past acceptance of colonial atrocities may offer a partial explanation for why there are still numerous discriminatory habits and attitudes entrenched in British society today. Therefore, a knowledge of the British Empire’s ‘dark past’ is key to understanding why racial and ethnic prejudice is still exists today.

By Miles Clayton

Miles is our resident blogger here at History Indoors. He is an a Final Year student studying Modern History at the University of Essex and researches the positive experiences of British children on the Home Front during the Second World War, with oral histories sitting at the heart of the research. If there are any questions you have on this topic that you would like to see answered, please post them in the comments section below and we will be happy to answer them!