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We have learned a lot in the last few years about the violent abuses of British imperialism in retreat, such as those in 1950s Kenya and elsewhere. Historians have exposed the extent of violence, named its perpetrators and its victims, and established its immediate causes. But there is also a further question to be asked – the one I focus on here – concerning the knowledge of violence, especially at the metropole. Who knew?

Here I think the debate is indeed unresolved. The two loudest voices are contradictory. The first voice says, ‘hardly anyone knew’. A combination of censorship, distance, lies, silencings, the destruction or concealment of the evidence, all meant that the metropole was largely unaware. It is only now that the government has opened the archives, and the historians have dug deep enough, that we know what happened. The second voice, however, says, ‘almost everyone knew’. As David Anderson points out, what is ‘most astonishing about Kenya’s dirty war is not that it remained secret at the time but that it was so well known and so thoroughly documented’. In his work, and that of Caroline Elkins, it’s suggested that the Kenyan abuses were known about ‘at every level’ and indeed ‘at the highest level’.

One explanation for the dominance of these two voices is that they can both be, in different ways and with respect to different actors, exculpatory. One achieves this by concentration: if hardly anyone knew, then hardly anyone is to blame. The other achieves it by dilution: if almost everyone knew, then almost everyone is to blame. Since the historical investigation has been driven forward by – and has itself driven – a legal case for compensation, the question of blameworthiness has been especially sensitive. Legal proceedings demand a definitive answer to the question of whether someone knew – whether abuses were ‘known about at the highest level’. For lawyers, the state of knowledge has to be a binary matter, not a scalar one.

But perhaps not for historians. We have to consider the possibility that people have different things in mind when they make claims concerning knowledge. What knowledge is is in dispute: not just what was known and by whom, but how it was known, what status the knowledge-claims had, and what use was made of them.

So in this paper, I say something not only about what the colonial state knew, but also about how it knew it. I also discuss how this knowledge could be contested by others, namely the colonised. And to the degree to which things were known ‘at every level’, a further question arises: why was there so little contemporary protest over them at the metropole?

Press photographs in the period of Indian civil disobedience (1929-32) recorded instances of colonial violence. They did not commonly appear in the British press, let alone the Indian press, but the American press did publish them. The photographs themselves have been preserved in the collections of the American press agencies, which have been selling them off as they close down their paper archives. You can find some examples from the large number I have collected here. I have added the original, often badly spelled, captions provided by the press agencies. They appear if you hover the mouse over the image.


The first part of the paper tries to complicate knowledge. I contrast two view concerning the production of colonial knowledge. One influential view is that colonisers sought to construct truth itself, through a system of meanings and representations – a colonial discourse – which was constituted by and helped to perpetuate colonial rule. This included a knot of power and knowledge concerning violence. The authorities’ violence was legitimate because it was the violence of sovereignty applied in the maintenance of order and regulated by law. The violence of the colonised, by contrast, represented the savagery which colonial conquest had displaced, and the state of chaos to which the colony would return if the civilizing mission were to fail. Anti-colonial violence was interpreted as illegitimate “disturbance”, “unrest” or “criminality”, but the violence of the state as a matter of obligation – General Dyer”s “horrible, dirty duty” – regrettable but made necessary by the latent unruliness of the colonised themselves.

A second view is that coloniser conceals truth. Here it is acknowledged that, for many audiences, violence can be shameful – a sign of failure and error –and therefore knowledge of it must be controlled. The colonial state knew what had happened and concealed it, or perhaps better selectively revealed it, to some and not others, to as to shape its impact. In short, censorship: the cover-up.

Both these views make an assumption, which I want to challenge. Whether it is smothering the truth or producing it, the colonial state itself knows. Either it knows what is happening and attempts to conceal it; or it determines what is known to be happening through its capacity to produce knowledge, or what counts as knowledge. Either way it knows. It knows either as a precondition of censoring. Or it knows because it decides itself what may be known.

There are also newsreel images of the repression of Indian civil disobedience. These were shown in British cinemas. The example below comes from British Movietone, in September 1930. It shows the violent policing of anti-colonial demonstrations in Bombay.


However, I think, what we see in the official exchanges, however, is that the authorities – in London or on the spot both wanted to know and not to know.

They needed to know because there was so much uncertainty about the scale of colonial protests and the capacity to contain them, and partly because only they could judge what was needed to satisfy sensitive metropolitan audiences. They therefore asked a lot of questions. At the same time there was a definite disinclination to know too much, or to know in the wrong way. The higher up you go the more carefully worded the questions and answers are. Higher officials rarely heard the raw voices of colonial policemen, let alone victims: everything had gone through multiple rewritings from the district officer upwards.

Why is this? Part of the motive for this was doubtless to preserve honest deniability. If you can claim not to know, then you can’t be blamed. But that can’t be the whole story, because the demands of accountability, especially on civil servants, were so weak. No one would expect them to speak to the press, or appear in front of a parliamentary select committee.

Not-knowing was less about evading responsibility. It was more about flexibility of rule. It allows you say not only “I didn’t know about it so you can’t blame me” but “I didn’t know about it so I am not implicated, and now well-placed to make a ruling.”

Flexibility was needed because protest situations were dynamic and endlessly various, and the authorities needed to make fine adjustments – not arbitrary ones – to the mixture of repression and reform to handle them. What the officials therefore did was try to ask the right questions, so as to receive the sort of provisional knowledge which did not finally resolve matters. The information had to be full enough to allow for several possible interpretations – that was why they wanted so much information – but it also had to be insufficiently definitive so as not to point to one conclusion. A complete and definitive account would just have to be accepted. Lots of information pointing in different directions: a grey and blurry photograph indeed – was quite useful.

It was therefore important that in their progress up the bureaucratic chain, the information retained for a long as possible the status of allegations, even when the evidence available offered grounds for something much more definitive. This allowed the officials to consider the information they received carefully, reserving the possibility that they might cut loose those junior servants who had “exceeded their authority” or “gone too far”. In this way, the weight of the structure bore down most heavily on those at the bottom, in order to maintain flexibility and control at the top. It was inconceivable that the men in the citadel would be publicly held to account or publicly overruled except in the most extreme circumstances: the costs to prestige and administrative morale were simply too great. But failings at the lower levels had a perverse value in confirming the unfitness of the colonised to take responsibility.

In sum, therefore, the senior officials therefore needed to know everything. But they also needed to know nothing, in order to be able to “make enquiries” and discover abuses which justified continued and improved rule. This was a paradoxical process, poorly captured in the notion of a “cover-up”. Not-knowing was not a failure to know: it was useful: it had strategic value, because it licensed more investigation and more rule. It kept the authorities in a flexible position: to cut loose or to judge.

We need a new word for this. The binary that the lawyers have to insist on – the ‘light-switch’ of knowledge that is either on or off – is no use. But what should the word be? It is not exactly ignorance – a blank space of unknowns. Nor is it inattention or incuriosity. They are intensely interested in what happened. Nor is it quite suspicion – beliefs that are not confidently held, the nagging feeling that something might be the case – perhaps even something very improbable. Nor is it doubt – awareness of the probabilities that something is or isn’t true. It is a willed refusal to come to knowledge, a refusal to acknowledge knowledge. Not-knowing, then, is my proposal for what was ‘known at the highest level’.

I wonder whether this is not a distinct position in the debate on colonial knowledge? In that debate one view suggests that the imperial rule consists in the knowing. Another view denies that the imperialists could ever know enough to rule. My evidence suggests a different relationship between knowledge and empire: that it was in the not-knowing that the imperialism resided. It challenges the idea – shared by both sides – the state wishes to know all it can / that it regrets not knowing what it does not know / that it wants to know everything, even if it can’t fully satisfy that want. It also challenges the assumption that knowledge provides comfort and security, and not-knowing means discomfort and anxiety. In this instance, not-knowing is sought because it can confer a greater security.


The second part of the paper aims to complicate the relationship between knowledge, feeling and action. We are probably familiar with the debate concerning how much the metropolitan British knew or cared about the empire. The competing positions in that debate differ not only in their answers to the question of how much was known about empire, but also in their assumptions concerning the effects of knowledge and ignorance. One side finds abundant evidence of everyday, cultural familiarity with empire, yet little formal anti-imperialism, and concludes that the British probably knew a great deal about empire and were therefore heavily emotionally invested in it. The other side takes the evident lack of knowledge concerning empire to suggest widespread apathy and indifference. But the inter-relationship of knowing and feeling might be more complicated than that. Ignorance of the facts was compatible with a variety of affective stances towards empire, ranging from indifference to considerable enthusiasm. The more knowledgeable could be critics as well as cheerleaders, which is one reason why those who ran the empire were wary of teaching people about it. This points towards the importance of appreciating not just whether people knew, but the complicated ways that knowing, feeling and action are related.

For example, one puzzling finding is that even knowledge of colonial violence did not lead naturally or easily to an anti-imperialist politics. This seems odd, but only because we assume that once we know certain things, we naturally feel and act in certain ways. The inter-relationship of knowledge, feeling and action is much more complicated. One reason is that an ethical case could be made for imperialism which was actually strengthened by exposure of its violence. It is very striking that sometimes the most powerful denunciations of imperial violence have been those whose imperialism can hardly be doubted. We might think of Curzon’s treatment of the 9th Lancers in 1902, or Enoch Powell’s speech on Hola Camp in 1959. It is the idealism that drives the criticism. This perhaps may have extended across the political spectrum to left-wing idealists of empire too: atrocities and excesses require reform, and reform means staying to put things right.

Even those who thought things could not be put right through reform, because violence was simply an inevitable part of imperial rule, could (and did) say so. But their knowledge was also awkwardly articulated with feeling too. Knowing what they did, they could not claim to be shocked, or indeed moved, or shamed, by what had happened. They didn’t believe in empire – indeed, they thought it was inherently dirty – so news of a dirty war was no news. In consequence, their criticisms did not derive as much force as we might expect from the exposure of violence. Very often such knowledge led to disaffection, not a mobilized anger.

Indeed, studying metropolitan anti-imperialists soon shows how few of them can be easily dropped into the box marked ‘imperialist’ or ‘anti-imperialist’, at least as long as those boxes imply singular emotional responses, or simple relationships between what they knew, how they felt and how they acted. The most informed could be paralysed by their knowledge, or moved to action. The action could be tolerant of, or even enthusiastic for empire. The least informed could be easily deflected or impossible to stop. They were unstoppable because they knew so little. Those who felt most strongly could find it hard to take sides. How can we make sense of such conflicting behaviour if all we have is a framework that insists that everyone took a side, and such simple ideas of what a supporter looks like, how much they know, and how they feel? So here too we need new words. Pro and anti will not do. We need a more sophisticated taxonomy of affect to capture the diverse and complex emotions that can be loosely grouped together as ‘imperialism’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ feeling.

If you would like to read this paper, please click on the paper dart icon to the left, and send me a message.