Imperial armies' native nightmares

Guardians of Empire
August 17, 2001

No matter how many studies in imperialism this reviewer has read, there always remains the brutal fact that the maintenance of colonial empire was a bewilderingly complex, costly and very deadly business. Guardians of Empire , a multi-authored and multifaceted analysis of the colonial land forces established by the British, Americans, French, German and Dutch to guard their respective empires, reminds us once again of this hard truth. Under the editorship of David Killingray and David Omissi, ten distinguished scholars of colonial armed forces have contributed masterly essays.

The book starts with a fine overview of the imperial defence plans by Killingray. The planners put much of their faith in native troops and in the largely colonial construct of martial races and classes: the idea that some peoples have martial aptitude and physical courage and some do not. In chapter two, Douglas M. Peers looks at social diseases in British cantonments in northern India during the first half of the 19th century. He reminds us that the authorities rarely questioned the behaviour of British soldiers in their campaign against venereal diseases and intemperance.

Jaap de Moor looks at the recruitment strategies for the Dutch colonial army in what is now Indonesia. His analysis of Dutch efforts underscores the fear lurking in the minds of all the imperial powers at one time or another, namely, their distrust of indigenous soldiers. One of the most interesting chapters examines the guardianship of the Royal Navy as seen in London's campaign against the controversial labour trade in the South Pacific. In this chapter, Jane Samson shows how anti-slavery/humanitarian beliefs took on a life of their own and determined the questionable actions of Royal Navy captains as they tried to end what they believed to be kidnapping and slavery.

Gruesome little wars were the staple fare of empire building, but none was more hideous, Kirsten Zirkel tells us, than the horrific wars conducted by the Schutztruppen against indigenous peoples in German-held Africa at the end of the 19th century. At the heart of these wars of extermination was the militarisation of German colonial policy, which placed virtually uncontested power in the hands of military leaders who were determined to achieve victory at any cost.

Brian McAllister Linn gives an interesting picture of the unpreparedness of the United States as a colonial power, laying emphasis on local resistance to American rule in the Philippines after 1898. Added to this was the alleged internal security problem of Hawaii's large Japanese community, which contributed to a distrust of that community by Washington, and which in turn led those same officials to incarcerate 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans in 1942.

Tim Moreman focuses on Britain's preoccupation between the two world wars with the troublesome trans-border Pathans of the Northwest Frontier Province. Despite the many punitive expeditions sent to the region and several policy changes, Britain never pacified the frontier tribes. Timothy Parson's fascinating article, "All Askaris are family men", describes the structure of family life of soldiers serving in the King's African Rifles (KAR), particularly the critical presence of women, who were not only an important stabilising factor in the KAR but who had a considerable degree of influence.

Perhaps the most provocative chapter is Frank Furedi's describing the fear among white British of demobilised African soldiers. It was an article of faith among whites that demobilisation would lead to political revolt. What caused this irrational fear was the nearly universal belief that returning African soldiers had lost their respect of whites because they were aware of British defeats in North Africa and Asia. The truth is, indubitably, that shaken by the catastrophic defeats at the hands of the Japanese at Singapore and Burma, the British had divested themselves of the inborn assurance of their own superiority and that led them to see demons where none existed.

In "Order before reform", Martin Thomas explores the failure of the French army's counter-insurgency effort in Algeria in the 1950s. Thomas's rigorous analysis indicates that the French lost Algeria largely because the indigenous populations rejected the French army as the guardians of country.

Finally, there is Killingray's welcome summary of the role of women in African colonial armies. Although the role of the African military woman has not been as well documented as other aspects of colonial armies, Killingray's picture strongly suggests that women played a critical role in building and maintaining the social fabric of African military units.

No one book can be expected to fill all the gaps in knowledge. However, this book is genuinely definitive in that it is the starting point for those who wish to investigate the vast subject of colonial forces. It is a model of disciplined analysis of underlying social, political and economic conditions. The learned detail displayed in the chapters is impressive: the authors have scoured government archives and secondary sources to construct an account that is deeply informed and convincing. It is a study that is impressive both as an interpretative synthesis and as a comprehensive survey, with ten helpful maps complementing the very readable text. Guardians of Empire is a major contribution worthy of the attention of everyone interested in modern imperialism and colonial armies.

Roger N. Buckley is professor of history, University of Connecticut, United States.

Guardians of Empire: The Armed Forces of the Colonial Powers c.1700-1964

Editor - David Killingray and David Omissi
ISBN - 0 7190 5734 5
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £47.50
Pages - 259

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