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Churchill and Black Africa: Roland Quinault examines the career, speeches and writings of Churchill for evidence as to whether or not he was racist and patronizing to black peoples.

THE FORTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the death of Winston Churchill attracted much attention earlier this year. But a discordant note was sounded by the president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeke, who has alleged that Churchill's attitude towards black peoples was racist and patronizing. His view has been shared by some white critics of Churchill like Clive Ponting. Even some historians otherwise sympathetic to Churchill have concluded that he was blind to the problems of black people. But Churchill's attitude was more complex and, in some ways, more sympathetic than has generally been recognized.

Churchill had much more direct experience of Africa than most British politicians of his generation. He made three visits to the continent as a young man and wrote much journalism and four books about his experiences there. In 1898 he participated in the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of the Sudan and then wrote a history of the conflict entitled The River War (1899). In 1899 he reported on the South African war, was captured by the Boers, escaped and then served with the British forces. He wrote up his experiences in From London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) and Ian Hamilton's March (1900). In his books and articles Churchill made some interesting comments about the native Africans.

In The River War, Churchill noted that for centuries the majority black population of the Sudan had been 'harried and enslaved' by an Arab minority armed with gunpowder. He described the indigenous people as 'strong, virile and simple-minded savages'--which certainly seems racist and patronizing today. But he also acknowledged that Britain and other colonial powers often treated the natives in an uncivilized way. He pointed out, with deliberate irony, that the 'improvement' of the colonies was often at the expense of their indigenous peoples:
   Wild peoples, ignorant of their
   barbarism, callous of suffering,
   careless of life but tenacious of liberty,
   are seen to resist with fury the
   philanthropic invaders, and to perish
   in thousands before they are
   convinced of their mistake.

In particular, Churchill recognized that white peoples had ntistreated black Africans by engaging in the slave trade. His hatred of slavery had begun at school, and when he was a young army officer he embraced the principle 'No slavery under the Union Jack'. In The River Way; he denounced the slave trade as 'the most odious traffic in the world' and in 1907 he welcomed the abolition of slavery in the British protectorate of Zanzibar. He later described the abolition of the slave trade, in 1807, as 'a measure which ranks among the greatest of British achievements'.

Churchill's early encounters with black peoples led him to admire their military qualities. When he visited Cuba, in 1895, to report on the revolt against Spanish rule, he observed that 'by far the bravest and best disciplined part of the rebel forces are pure negroes'. Churchill stressed, in The River War; the key role that African troops played in the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of the Sudan. He noted that the black soldiers were fearless and suffered higher casualties than the rest of Kitchener's army.

When Churchill was imprisoned in Pretoria, by the Boers, he asked a guard why they objected to British rule. He was told that it was because the British allowed the 'dirty Kaffirs' to walk on the pavement without a pass. He concluded that the root of Boer aversion to British rule was 'the abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man'. After his escape from the Boers, Churchill noted that the natives had remained loyal to the British when the Boers had invaded Natal. He commented:
   We have reaped a rich harvest in this
   dark season for having consistently
   pursued a kindly and humane policy
   towards the Bantu races and the
   Boers have paid a heavy penalty for
   their cruelty and harshness.

When Churchill returned to Britain he entered politics, and in 1905 became Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in the new Liberal government. He pledged that he would denounce any case of cruelty or exploitation of the native for 'the sordid profit of the white man'. In 1906 he protested when twelve Africans were executed, without a proper trial, by the Natal government, which strongly resented his criticism. Churchill also condemned as 'odious and disquieting' the bloodshed that accompanied Lugard's forward policy in northern Nigeria. He wanted to abandon such punitive expeditions and also British control over the hinterland of Nigeria. In South Africa, Churchill sought to create a new constitution that would 'advance the principle of equal rights of civilized men irrespective of colour'. Nevertheless his scheme discriminated between what he called 'the different classes of coloured men' and privileged immigrant Indians over native Africans. A more inclusive scheme would, however, have been rejected, out of hand, by the Afrikaners and the British settlers, who were both opposed to equal rights for Africans.

In 1907 Churchill toured East Africa and described his impressions in his book, My African Journey. He was impressed by the Ugandans, whom he regarded as the most intelligent of the black peoples of Africa. He noted that many of them were literate and they had their own elaborate laws and 'all the machinery of a highly developed polity'. He was pleased that the climate of Uganda made it unsuitable for white settlers, because that would prevent the creation of 'a petty white community, with the harsh and selfish ideas which mark the jealous contact of races and the exploitation of the weaker'. He mocked the selfish and racist attitude of the white planters to the African natives:
   'The natives' says the planter, 'evince
   a great reluctance to work, especially
   to work regularly.' 'They must be
   made to work regularly' say others.
   'Made to work for whom?' we
   innocently ask. 'For us of course' is
   the ready answer; 'what do you think
   we meant?'

Churchill's own opinion of the East African peoples was more positive, if still paternalistic and rather authoritarian. He believed that the natives were 'industrious, willing to learn and capable of being led forward'. He admired the soldiers of the King's African Rifles and hoped to extend their kind of disciplined training to civilian workers.

In 1908 Churchill left the Colonial Office and his direct association with Africa came to an end. He was soon pre-occupied with the European crisis that led to the First World War. In 1916 he asked the House of Commons: 'What part is Africa going to play in the present struggle?' He pointed out that Britain was doing nothing to mobilize the natives--unlike the Germans in East Africa. He claimed that the interests of black Africans were identical to those of white Britons since the war would settle the fate of both. He wanted to assemble an African military force in Egypt from where it could be deployed to a suitable theatre. Nothing came of this idea, but thousands of Africans assisted the British takeover of German East Africa.

In 1921 Churchill became Colonial Secretary and was again briefly responsible for Britain's African empire. To combat the growing unrest in some of the colonies, he advocated a 'careful understanding of the view of the native populations' rather than the adoption of full democracy which he considered unsuited to Asian and African peoples. But he laid down two principles--no colour bar and 'equal rights for all civilized men'--and he looked forward to the creation of an East African Federation with responsible self-government.

Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) was the only indigenous state in Africa that retained its full independence into the twentieth century. Churchill criticized the Ethiopian government's internal repression and opposed its admission to the League of Nations. But in 1935 he denounced Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in uncompromising terms. In The Second World War (1948-54), he described the invasion of Ethiopia as 'unsuited to the ethics of the twentieth century' and belonging to 'those dark ages when white men felt themselves entitled to conquer yellow, brown, black, or red men'. But he then pointed out, with characteristic irony, that the crimes and cruelties committed during the twentieth century were worse than those ever committed by savages. In 1941 British forces restored independence to Ethiopia and Churchill encouraged the Emperor, Haile Selassie, to modernize and liberalize the country. The two men remained on good terms thereafter and the Emperor visited Churchill during his second premiership.

In his wartime speeches as prime minister, Churchill made no specific references to the black peoples of Africa. But in 1941 he signed, with Roosevelt, the Atlantic Charter, which asserted 'the right of all peoples to choose the form of Government under which they will live'. When Leo Amery, the Secretary of State for India, asked Churchill whether the principle would apply to the subject races of the British Empire, he replied that it would do so only where there was a transference of territory or sovereignty. That was not the case in Africa, so the native peoples would not be allowed to choose their own government.

The end of the Second World War was soon followed by the end of British rule in India, but Churchill was still convinced that the rest of the empire had a future. When he returned to power in 1951, Britain still had 82,000,000 colonial subjects of whom 65,000,000 lived in sub-Saharan Africa. But once in office, Churchill was preoccupied with the Cold War, not with Britain's African empire, and he gave his Colonial Secretaries, Lyttelton and then Lennox-Boyd, a free hand to determine policy in concert with the local authorities. In Kenya the Mau Mau insurrection led Lyttelton to propose emergency assizes to deal quickly and sternly with the insurgents. Churchill doubted the wisdom of harsh measures and pointed out that mass executions would be opposed by British public opinion. He favoured negotiations with the Kikuyu, whom he regarded as people of 'considerable fibre, ability and steel'. Nevertheless he did not prevent thousands of suspected rebels from being interned in camps or executed in small batches.

During Churchill's second premiership there were growing demands for independence from Britain's African colonies. When autonomy for the Gold Coast was under consideration in 1953, Churchill feared it would upset the South Africans and he opposed making further concessions to Nkrumah. But pressure for decolonization also came from the Americans. When President Eisenhower suggested that Churchill should conclude his career with a speech on how colonialism could be phased out, he replied:
   In this I must admit I am a laggard. I
   am a bit sceptical about universal
   suffrage for the Hottentots even if
   refined by proportional
   representation. The British and
   American Democracies were slowly
   and painfully forged and even they
   are not perfect yet.

This reference to the Hottentots echoed a similar jibe by Lord Salisbury in the late Victorian period and illustrates Churchill's out-dated outlook. But he did not rule out African self government in the longer term and pointed out that democratization in Britain and America had been effected slowly and was still far from perfect. In the 1950s there were many blacks in the United States, as well as in Africa, who were denied civil and political rights.

Churchill did not really impede progress towards African autonomy and in 1957, only two years after his retirement from the premiership, Ghana became the first independent black African member of the Commonwealth. But in 1960 Churchill privately criticized the Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan for encouraging African nationalism by declaring that a 'wind of change' was blowing through the continent. Yet he made no attempt to rouse Conservative opposition to African independence and his reservations on that issue reflected his liberal, as well as his imperial, outlook. In 1961 he opposed the Queen's visit to Ghana because it 'would seem to endorse a regime which has imprisoned hundreds of Opposition members without trial and which is thoroughly authoritarian in its tendency'.

Churchill's views on black Africans cannot be simply summarized or categorized because they varied considerably according to time, place and circumstance. He recognized that the various countries and peoples of Africa had their own diverse characteristics. As an ex-soldier he was particularly impressed by the courage and loyalty of those African soldiers who served the British. But Churchill did not regard black Africans simply as useful cannon-fodder, for he opposed their exploitation by slave traders, white settlers or colonial authorities. He also rejected discrimination on the grounds of colour alone.

Nevertheless, Churchill was reluctant to grant universal suffrage and majority rule to black Africans. That was partly because the overwhelming majority of white settlers in Africa were opposed to political equality on the basis of 'one man one vote'. Churchill could not ignore their views because European Africans dominated the dominion of South Africa and the government of several other Crown colonies. He tolerated a system of political discrimination against black Africans that did not accord with our contemporary notions of equality and democracy. But Churchill was a Victorian by upbringing, who never visited sub-Saharan Africa after 1907; and most Britons of his generation regarded black Africans as backward and relatively 'uncivilized'. Churchill's own outlook was more informed and relatively enlightened. His reservations about black majority rule were based on considerations of class, education and culture, rather than race and colour. In that respect, Churchill's attitude resembled that of the mid-Victorians to the working classes--they should be cautiously and gradually admitted into the body politic.

Churchill was certainly an imperialist who believed in Britain's mission in Africa. But he was always a liberal imperialist who wished to improve the lot of all the citizens of Britain's African empire, regardless of colour. Moreover his belief in liberty and the need to fight for it provided an important example for black Africans in their quest for independence. Nelson Mandela, for example, was inspired by Churchill's Second World War broadcasts which he heard while a student at missionary college. He became an admirer of Churchill and he later justified the ANC's cooperation with the Communists on the grounds that Churchill had worked with Stalin during the Second World War. In 1941 Churchill and Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter inspired the ANC to draft its own charter, 'African Claims', which called for full citizenship for all Africans and an end to discrimination. Churchill did not support the claims of the ANC, but the language of liberty is infectious and his wartime rhetoric undermined the African empire which he sought to uphold. Thus, both intentionally (through his policy at the Colonial Office) and unintentionally (through his role in the Second World War), he assisted the development and emancipation of black African peoples.


1874      Born

1898      Fights of the Omburman

1899      Capture fighting in South Africa

1900      Enters the Commons

1905-08   Under-Secretary of State for the

1907      First Lord of the Admirality

1921-22   Colonial Secretary

1940-45   Prime Minister

1951-55   Prime Minister

1964      Leaves Parliament

1965      Dies


1935      Mussolini invades Ethlopia

1940      British fail to take Dakar, in Senegal

1941      British forces liberate Ethiopia

1948      Apartheid regime founded in South

1952-56   Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya

1956      Representative government
          promised to Nigeria

1957      Ghana becomes independent

1965      Southern Rhodesia declares UDI


Ronald Hyam, Elgin and Churchill at the Colonial Office (1968);Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa 1876-1912 (1991);Anthony Seldon, Churchill's Indian Summer (1981); David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London, 2005)


Paul Addison, 'Makers of the Twentieth Century: Churchill' (August 1980); David Anderson, 'Burying the Bones of the Past' (February 2005); Anthony Kirk-Greene, 'Decolonisation in British Africa' (January 1992); Max Beloff, 'Leo Amery, the Last Imperialist' (January 1989); Michael Crowder, 'The Impact of the Two World Wars on Africa' (January 1984); Lawrence James, 'The White Man's Burden? Imperial Wars in the 1890s' (August 1992); Michael Howard, 'Empire, Race and War in Pre-1914 Britain' (December 1981); David Cannadine, 'Ornamentalism' (May 2001); Denis Judd, 'Diamonds are Forever? Kipling's Imperialism' (June 1997). For access to these articles see and click on Editor's Choice

Roland Quinault is Reader in History at London Metropolitan University and co-editor of Winston Churchill in the Twenty First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
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Title Annotation:Winston Churchill
Author:Quinault, Roland
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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