Racial views of Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill was a staunch imperialist and monarchist who, according to historian Roy Jenkins consistently exhibited a “romanticised view” of both the British Empire and the reigning British monarchy, especially of Elizabeth II, during his last term as British Prime Minister. In the 21st century, numerous statements he made on race throughout his life before, during, and after his career in British politics became one of the most discussed aspects of his legacy. His personal views on empire and race have been attacked by some critics as racist, and have been stated as playing a part in various decisions he made while in office; these include his response to the Bengal famine of 1943. Defenders, such as historian Andrew Roberts denounces the attempts to discredit Churchill, by depicting him as racist, as lacking factual support or objective analysis.
Views of Churchill towards race
Historian John Charmley has written that Churchill viewed British domination around the globe, such as the British Empire, as a natural consequence of social Darwinism. Charmley argued that similar to many of Churchill’s contemporaries, he held a hierarchical perspective on race, believing white Protestant Christians to be at the top of this hierarchy, and white Catholics beneath them, while Indians were higher on this hierarchy than Black Africans. However, historian Richard Toye follows on from this by saying that Churchill was not unique in having these views, and that although Churchill may have thought that white people were superior, it did not mean he thought it was therefore correct to treat non-white people in an inhumane way — he did not. Paul Addison says Churchill saw British imperialism as a form of altruism that benefited its subject peoples because “by conquering and dominating other peoples, the British were also elevating and protecting them”. To Churchill, the idea of dismantling the Empire by transferring power to its subject peoples was anathema – especially manifested in his opposition to the Government of India Act 1935 and his acerbic comments about Mahatma Gandhi, whom he called “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir“. Some critics have equated Churchill’s imperialism with racialism, but Addison among others has argued that it is misleading to describe him as a racist in any modern context because the term as used now bears “many connotations which were alien to Churchill”.
Churchill advocated against black or indigenous self-rule in Africa, Australia, the Caribbean, the Americas and India, believing that the British Empire promoted and maintained the welfare of those who lived in the colonies; he insisted that “our responsibility to the native races remains a real one”.
In 1899, a Boer jailer asked Churchill: “…is it right that a dirty Kaffir should walk on the pavement?… That’s what they do in your British Colonies.” Churchill termed this the root of Boer discontent:
British government is associated in the Boer farmer’s mind with violent social revolution. Black is to be proclaimed the same as white…. nor is a tigress robbed of her cubs more furious than is the Boer at this prospect.
In 1902, Churchill stated that the “great barbaric nations” would “menace civilised nations”, and that “The Aryan stock is bound to triumph”.
In 1906, Churchill stated that “We will endeavour … to advance the principle of equal rights of civilized men irrespective of colour.”
In 1920, Churchill wrote, in an editorial promoting the antisemitic Jewish Bolshevism conspiracy theory, that “There can be no greater mistake than to attribute to each individual a recognisable share in the qualities which make up the national character. There are all sorts of men – good, bad and, for the most part, indifferent – in every country, and in every race. Nothing is more wrong than to deny to an individual, on account of race or origin, his right to be judged on his personal merits and conduct.”
In 1937, Churchill stated that “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
By the 1940s, Churchill still cherished the ideals of imperialism that he had followed since the 1890s, whilst much of British opinion had abandoned them. Colonialism was now seen as a crude device for the oppression of the weak by the strong. After the Second World War, old arguments about white racial superiority were no longer acceptable. The British public rejected the Churchillian notion of an imperial race predestined by moral character to rule and refashion the world in the British image. Among younger Britons, especially in academic circles, criticism grew sharper. Indeed, the empire itself was rapidly disintegrating, starting with India in 1947, and finishing up with all the African colonies in the 1950s.
In 1955, Churchill expressed his support for the slogan “Keep England White” with regards to immigration from the West Indies.
In 1907, Churchill made it a condition of British support for a United South Africa: “…our right to be consulted effectively upon the native policy. I would not do anything for them without a sufficient return for the benefit of the native.”
According to historian Roland Quinault:
- His reservations about black majority rule [in Africa after 1950] 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.
Though he held particular contempt for Arabs, Churchill was supportive of Ibn Saud, insofar as Ibn Saud would support the policy for a Jewish state in Palestine that Churchill had driven personally in the 1920s. Churchill met Ibn Saud personally in February 1945 to discuss issues surrounding Palestine, though the meeting was reported by Saudis at the time as being widely unproductive, in great contrast to the meeting Ibn Saud had held with American President Franklin D. Roosevelt just days earlier.
After 1945, many and perhaps most black intellectuals and activists in the United States became convinced that Churchill’s racism was a major factor in what they saw as his cynical attempt to buttress an exploitative overseas empire that Britain could no longer afford. They charged him with suppressing the democratic aspirations of people of colour.
South African President Thabo Mbeki claimed his attitude toward Black people was racist and patronising. That complaint was shared by critics such as Clive Ponting. Historian Roland Quinault states that, “Even some historians otherwise sympathetic to Churchill have concluded that he was blind to the problems of black people.”
Though wary of communist Jews, Churchill strongly supported Zionism and described Jews as “the most formidable and the most remarkable race”, whose “first loyalty will always be towards [Jews]”.
Churchill had some sympathy for the “Jewish Bolshevism” conspiracy theory, and stated in his 1920 article “Zionism versus Bolshevism” that communism, which he considered a “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality”, had been established in Russia by Jews:
There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creation of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution, by these international and for the most part atheistical Jews; it is certainly a very great one; it probably outweighs all others. With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews. Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders.
Although an anti-Semitic belief in an international Jewish conspiracy was not unique among British politicians of the time, few had the stature of Churchill. The article was criticised by the Jewish Chronicle at the time, calling it “the most reckless and scandalous campaign in which even the most discredited politicians have ever engaged”. The Chronicle said Churchill had adopted “the hoary tactics of hooligan anti-Semites” in his article.
However, according to one of his biographers Andrew Roberts, Churchill rejected antisemitism for virtually all his life. Roberts also describes Churchill as an “active Zionist” and philosemitic at a time when “clubland antisemitism… was a social glue for much of the Respectable Tendency”. In the same article, Churchill wrote; “Some people like the Jews and some do not, but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race that has ever appeared in the world.” He further pointed out that the Bolsheviks were “repudiated vehemently by the great mass of the Jewish race”, and concluded:
We owe to the Jews a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all wisdom and learning put together.
Paul Addison claimed that Churchill opposed anti-Semitism (as in 1904, when he was fiercely critical of the proposed Aliens Bill) and argued that he would never have tried “to stoke up racial animosity against immigrants, or to persecute minorities”.
Churchill described the Arabs as a “lower manifestation” than the Jews, whom he viewed as a “higher grade race” compared to the “great hordes of Islam”.
In the lead-up to the Second World War, Churchill expressed disgust at Nazi antisemitism; Clement Attlee recalled that Churchill openly wept when recounting to him the humiliations inflicted upon Jews by the SA during the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933. In August 1932, while in Munich, Churchill was snubbed for a meeting by Adolf Hitler when the two happened to be sharing the same hotel. Churchill expressed to Hitler’s confidante Ernst Hanfstaengl, “Why is your chief so violent about the Jews?… what is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?” When this was reported to him, Hitler declined the meeting.
In 1937, during the midst of the Arab revolt in Palestine, Churchill spoke at length during Parliamentary debates on the British policy in Palestine. Churchill insisted that the British government not renege on its 1917 promise to create a Jewish national home in Palestine, opposing the idea of granting Palestine self-rule due to the necessary Arab majority that would rule in Britain’s place. Churchill held the belief that an eventual Jewish state within Palestine would advance the prosperity of the country, asking rhetorically before the Peel Commission:
Why is there injustice done if people come in and make a livelihood for more and make the desert into palm groves and orange groves?
Churchill’s first-hand experience with Arab culture, both as a soldier and an MP, had “not impressed him”, in the words of historian Martin Gilbert; an Arab majority, Churchill maintained, would have resulted in both cultural and material stagnation. Churchill rejected the Arab wish to stop Jewish migration to Palestine:
I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, though he may have lain there for a very long time I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been to those people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race or at any rate a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place. I do not admit it. I do not think the Red Indians had any right to say, ‘American continent belongs to us and we are not going to have any of these European settlers coming in here’. They had not the right, nor had they the power.”
At the same time, Churchill believed that British policy should not result in what he called “harsh injustice” to the Arab majority, and that the Arab people would not be displaced by the Jewish influx. He further emphasised the British responsibility to ensure that Palestine’s Jews would not discriminate economically against their Arab neighbours, stating that such discrimination would result in the future restriction of Jewish immigration to Palestine. Churchill summarised his views before the Peel Commission bluntly: “It is a question of which civilisation you prefer.”
In 1904, ten years before the passage of the third Home Rule bill, Churchill said about Irish Home Rule: “I remain of the opinion that a separate parliament for Ireland would be dangerous and impractical.” He held a belief that Ireland should have remained part of the United Kingdom. However, in 1912, during a speech in Belfast, he surprisingly supported the creation of an Irish parliament ruled from Dublin, a decision that upset Ulster Unionists. These comments were seen as a retraction of his comments from 1904. He said: “History and poetry, justice and good sense, alike demand that this race, gifted, virtuous and brave, which has lived so long and endured so much should not, in view of her passionate desire, be shut out of the family of nations and should not be lost forever among indiscriminate multitudes of men.” He wanted a new relationship between Great Britain and Ireland to foster a “federation of English speaking peoples all over the world”.
In 1905, Churchill defended the Indian minority in South Africa. In 1919, he openly condemned the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, referring to it as “unutterably monstrous”. After the Second World War’s end, Churchill paid tribute to the Indian contribution in the war, “The loyalty of the Indian Army to the King-Emperor, the proud fidelity to their treaties of the Indian Princes, the unsurpassed bravery of Indian soldiers and officers, both Moslem and Hindu, shine for ever in the annals of war.”
Against that, Churchill did make some disparaging remarks about Indians, though essentially directed at Gandhi and the Indian National Congress party and secessionists generally. However, Churchill was driven in this antipathy by imperialism, not by racism. He was angered in autumn 1930 by the Labour government’s decision to grant Dominion status to India. He argued that it would hasten calls for full independence from the British Empire. He joined the Indian Empire Society which opposed the granting of Dominion status. In his view, India was not ready for home rule because he believed that the Hindu Brahmin caste would gain control and further oppress both the “untouchables” and the religious minorities. In March 1931, when riots broke out in Cawnpore between Hindus and Muslims, he claimed that the situation proved his case.
John Charmley has argued that Churchill’s denigration of Mahatma Gandhi in the early 1930s contributed to fellow British Conservatives’ dismissal of his early warnings about the rise of Adolf Hitler. Churchill’s comments on Indians – as well as his views on race as a whole – were judged by his contemporaries within the Conservative Party to be extreme. Churchill’s personal doctor, Lord Moran, commented at one point that, in regards to other races, “Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin.” Alternatively, in 1935, Churchill supported the Indian nationalists and advised them on how to improve the country, saying, “I am genuinely sympathetic towards India. I have got real fears about the future. India, I feel is a burden on us. We have got to maintain an army and for the sake of India we have to maintain Singapore and Near East strength. If India could look after herself we would be delighted. … I would be only too delighted if the Reforms are a success. I have all along felt that there are fifty Indias. But you have got the thing now; make it a success and if you do I will advocate your getting much more.” Gandhi responded positively to Churchill’s advice, and said, “I have held the opinion that I can always rely on his sympathy and goodwill.”
At lunch in July 1944, Churchill said to India’s representative on the War Cabinet Sir Arcot Ramasamy Mudaliar, “The old idea that the Indian was in any way inferior to the white man must go. We must all be pals together. I want to see a great shining India, of which we can be as proud as we are of a great Canada or a great Australia.”
Churchill admired Jawaharlal Nehru and called him in 1955, “the light of Asia”.
During World War II, Churchill prioritised the stockpiling of food for Britain over feeding Indian subjects during the Bengal famine of 1943, against the pleas made by Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery and the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, but eventually eased the famine by directing shipments of grains to India from Australia. The famine resulted in the death of up to three million Indians, which Shashi Tharoor and Madhusree Mukerjee have blamed on Churchill’s response.
India Secretary Amery wrote in his diary that upon learning Indian separatists were refusing to resist the Japanese and contribute to the war effort, Churchill, in private conversation, said out of frustration, he “hated Indians” and considered them “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. According to Amery, during the Bengal famine, Churchill stated that any potential relief efforts sent to India would accomplish little to nothing, as Indians “breeding like rabbits”, but then asked his transport minister how they could be sent food. Leo Amery likened Churchill’s understanding of India’s problems to King George III‘s apathy for the Americas. In his private diaries, Amery wrote “on the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane” and that he did not “see much difference between [Churchill’s] outlook and Hitler‘s”. In his 2018 biography of Winston Churchill, British historian Andrew Roberts commented on the topic by stating that: “Almost all of the remarks Leo Amery ascribed to Churchill were paraphrases rather than direct quotations, and should be seen in light of what one of the Prime Minister’s private secretaries called his ‘provocative humour’. These racially charged jokes, which would be regarded as totally unacceptable today, were then, as one historian puts it, ‘part of the bedrock of contemporary British humour and were regular features of Punch during the inter-war years and after’.“
His War Cabinet rejected Canadian proposals to send food aid to India, asking the US and Australia to send aid in their stead; according to historian Arthur Herman, Churchill’s overarching concern was the ongoing Second World War, leading to his decisions to divert food supplies from India to Allied military campaigns. However, Churchill did push for whatever famine relief efforts India itself could provide, but these were hidebound by corruption and inefficiency in the Bengali government. Churchill responded by appointing Earl Wavell as Viceroy on 1 October 1943 and ordering the military under Wavell’s direction to transport aid into Bengal. The combination of relief transports and a successfully harvested winter rice crop eased the famine in December 1943, but the death toll by then was over three million. When Churchill was first told of the severity, he wrote to Wavell, “The material and cultural conditions of the many peoples of India will naturally engage your earnest attention. The hard pressures of world-war have for the first time for many years brought conditions of scarcity, verging in some localities into actual famine, upon India. Every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages.” In April 1944, Churchill wrote to Franklin Roosevelt, “I am seriously concerned about the food situation in India and its possible reactions on our joint operations. Last year we had a grievous famine in Bengal through which at least 700,000 people died…I have had much hesitation in asking you to add to the great assistance you are giving us with shipping but a satisfactory situation in India is of such vital importance to the success of our joint plans against the Japanese that I am impelled to ask you to consider a special allocation of ships to carry wheat to India from Australia without reducing the assistance you are now providing for us, who are at a positive minimum if war efficiency is to be maintained. We have the wheat (in Australia) but we lack the ships.”
However, Churchill ordered the excess grain be exported to Europe instead of to the British troops on the front line, adding to the buffer stocks being created against the possibility of future second front invasions in both Greece and Yugoslavia.
In 1902, Churchill called China a “barbaric nation” and advocated for the “partition of China”. He wrote:
I think we shall have to take the Chinese in hand and regulate them. I believe that as civilized nations become more powerful they will get more ruthless, and the time will come when the world will impatiently bear the existence of great barbaric nations who may at any time arm themselves and menace civilized nations. I believe in the ultimate partition of China – I mean ultimate. I hope we shall not have to do it in our day. The Aryan stock is bound to triumph.
I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them – but I suppose it does no great harm to have a look at them.
Chemical weapons in Iraq
What proved to be his life-long enthusiasm for the widespread use of chemical warfare began after his appointment as Minister of Munitions in July 1917 during the First World War. Out of all ordnance and munitions, it is argued that Churchill who himself saw action on the Western Front placed his greatest faith in chemical warfare to win the war, after the Germans first used it in 1915. When arguing about the use of tear gas against Afghan rebels in the North-West Frontier Province of the British Raj in 1919, Churchill said “If it is fair for an Afghan to shoot down a British soldier behind a rock and cut him in pieces as he lies wounded on the ground, why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze? It is really too silly.”
In 1919 during the Russian Revolution, as Minister of War and Air, Churchill secretly had 50,000 stockpiled adamsite gas bombs shipped to Arkhangelsk in Russia for use against the Communist Bolshevik Red Army after Sir Keith Price, the head of chemical warfare at Porton Down, agreed with Churchill that its use would be effective. 509 were dropped in total to good effect, however this secret was soon revealed, and Churchill lied that the Bolsheviks were using chemical weapons, and the remaining British gas bombs were dumped in the White Sea.
In 1920, more than 100,000 armed tribesman revolted against British control in Iraq. Estimations suggested that 25,000 British and 80,000 Indian troops would be required to keep control of the country, however Churchill argued that if Britain relied on its air power, the number of troops in Iraq could be reduced to just 4,000 British and 10,000 Indian troops. This argument convinced the British government, and the recently formed Royal Air Force was sent to Iraq. Over the next few months the RAF dropped 97 tons of bombs resulting in 9,000 Iraqis being killed, but even so this failed to quell resistance — Arab and Kurdish uprisings in Iraq continued to endanger British rule. Churchill suggested the use of tear gas by the RAF against the rebel tribesmen (referring to them as “uncivilized tribes”) instead of continuing the bombing campaign as tear gas would frighten and disperse armed rebel tribesmen without loss of life and without serious or lasting effects on those caught in the gas.
I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory [tear] gas.
I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.
Churchill’s use of “uncivilised tribes” to refer to the rebel Iraqi tribesman, as well as his eagerness to use chemical weapons against them, is today a controversial topic. Unknown to many today, “Uncivilised tribe” was the then-accepted official term for a stateless opponent: the British Manual of Military Law stated that the law of war applied only to conflict “between civilized nations.” Already in the Manual of 1914, it was clearly stated that “they do not apply in wars with uncivilized States and tribes”; instead the British commander should observe “the rules of justice and humanity” according to his own individual discretion. It should also be noted that although such language is seen as patronising and racist today, it was hardly unique to use such a phrase in the 1920s. Churchill’s advocation for the use of chemical weapons by Britain on her enemies was not reserved for any specific peoples or race by any means. His defenders say that what he intended was the use of generally non-lethal (tear) gas, but those gases were known to kill children and the ill. A week later, Churchill addressed the Indian office, questioning why a British soldier could be killed lying wounded on the ground while it was supposedly unfair “to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze – it really is too silly”.
During the Second World War when Churchill was Prime Minister, he stated he was fully prepared to use lethal chemical weapons against German soldiers if Operation Sealion (Nazi Germany’s planned 1940 invasion of the British mainland) had succeeded. On 30 May 1940, he told the Cabinet “we should not hesitate to contaminate our beaches with gas”. He also proposed its use against the Japanese Empire during the same World War.
In 2002, after Churchill was named the Greatest Briton of all time in a poll, Amy Iggulden wrote an article which contained many of Churchill’s comments on race. According to Amit Roy in 2003, Indians had traditionally seen Churchill in a negative light and his views as racist and imperialist. By the mid 2010s, Madhusree Mukerjee wrote the book Churchill’s Secret War about the possible role played by the policies, as well as the racial and political worldview, of Churchill and his trusted friend and advisor Frederick Lindemann, in the death and devastation caused by the Bengal famine of 1943 and the partition of India, which led to increase in discussion of the topic. Labour candidate Benjamin Whittingham won wide attention when he called Churchill a white supremacist in 2014. During the George Floyd protests in the United Kingdom in June 2020, the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, London, was vandalised with spray paint with the phrase “was a racist” being scrawled underneath his name. Photos circulated online and the public outrage this caused was widespread both in the UK and abroad and garnered much media coverage which ultimately furthered public discussion of Churchill’s views on race. In October 2020, Churchill College launched Churchill, Empire and Race, to critically examine Churchill’s views and actions relating to empire and race. The working group held two events: “Churchill, Empire and Race: Opening the Conversation” and “The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill”. However in June 2021, the programme was abruptly terminated following a dispute with the college’s leadership.
Defense of Churchill
Many historians, including Andrew Roberts and Richard M. Langworth, believe that critics ignore Churchill’s political and moral growth during the course of his life. In addition, they surmise that critics oversimplify the complexities of the period on issues of race when criticizing Churchill. They also point out many direct errors and manipulations in the claims, such as leaving out Churchill’s positive comments on race, quoting out of context and not presenting evidence that if Churchill hadn’t taken the actions he did, the famine would have been worse.
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In his testimony to the Palestine Royal Commission…[(Churchill) tells the commissioner:] “I do not admit…for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race…has come in and taken their place.”
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We will endeavour as far as we can to advance the principle of equal rights of civilized men irrespective of colour. … We will not—at least I will pledge myself—hesitate to speak out when necessary if any plain case of cruelty of exploitation of the native for the sordid profit of the white man can be provided.
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