What Were the Most Terrible Acts of the British Empire?

The British Empire was much more invasive and destructive than many people realize. Read on to find out more.

Nov 1, 2023By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

most terrible acts of the british empire


The British Empire was the largest the world has ever seen; at its zenith it controlled roughly a quarter of the world’s population and landmass. This colossal achievement was built upon systematic violence, from colonial massacres and concentration camps, to engineered famine and systematic torture. In the cases of India and Palestine, British imperial rule ended in ongoing and bloody legacies of partition. Read on to discover the heinous acts carried out in the name of the British Empire.


The Amritsar Massacre

Bullet marks on a preserved wall at Jallianwala Bagh (2007), via Wikimedia Commons
Bullet marks on a preserved wall at Jallianwala Bagh (2007). Source: Wikimedia Commons


One of the most notorious episodes in the history of the British Empire in India was the infamous Jallianwala Bagh, or Amritsar massacre. On April 13 1919, a vast assembly of over 10,000 gathered within the walls of Jallianwala Bagh, a historic garden close to the Golden Temple complex in the city of Amritsar. While some were there to protest colonial laws against public gatherings, others were there to take part in the Baisakhi festival and usher in the arrival of spring. 


Without warning, British soldiers under the command of General Dyer opened fire on the unarmed crowd until their ammunition ran out. Trapped between the walls of the compound and with Dyer’s soldiers blocking the only exit, several hundred were killed and many hundreds more were injured. The Amritsar massacre stands as one of the most bloody episodes of violence against peaceful protestors in the history of the British Empire. 


Boer Concentration Camps

lizzie van zyl
A 7-year old South African child inmate of the Bloemfontein Concentration Camp. Lizzie van Zyl was labelled ‘undesirable’ and later died from starvation and typhoid fever. Source: allthatsinteresting.com


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Under pressure to swiftly conclude the second Anglo-Boer War (1900-1902) the British Army, under General Kitchener, launched a brutal campaign to  systematically clear Boer guerilla fighters from the South African Republic and Orange Free State. Kitchener’s troops established a network of concentration camps, burnt farms, and slaughtered livestock. They subsequently deployed waves of irregular troops and mobile columns to hunt down the guerrillas.   


The effects were devastating. Approximately one-sixth of the Boer population – mostly women and children – were rounded up and interned in concentration camps. They suffered unsanitary conditions, meagre rations, and severe overcrowding. The camps became breeding grounds for disease. In the end, almost 28,000 Boers died in British concentration camps; about 22,000 of them were children. The British failed to keep records for the estimated 20,000 black Africans that died in the camps.


Suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya

mau mau rebellion execution
Colonial police forces stand guard over Kenyans suspected of committing massacres. Source: Popperfoto / Getty Images


British settler colonialism in Kenya focused on the fertile central highlands, and the cultivation of coffee and tea. As a result, a large number of Kikuyu (the dominant ethnic group in Kenya) were stripped of their land, and pushed into the cities. In the early 1950s, the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, known as Mau Mau, launched an uprising against the colonizers. They were quickly met with tactics of mass detention and torture. 


After Kenya gained independence the British officially admitted to detaining eighty thousand Kikuyu during ‘the emergency’. In reality, colonial records detailing the extent of detention, murder and torture in Kenya were hidden or destroyed. 


Inside detention camps surrounded by barbed wire, the British authorities held almost the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million for over eight years (1951-1960). Having deemed that Kenyans were “of the type which understands and reacts to violence” hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu were brutalized and tortured. 


The Bengal Famine

A father, his young son, and a cow rummaging for scraps of food on the street during the Bengal famine 1943
A father, his young son, and a cow rummaging for scraps of food on the street during the Bengal famine 1943. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Bengal Famine of 1943 was one of the most devastating tragedies of the twentieth century, resulting in an estimated three million preventable deaths. At the time, Britain blamed the consequences of famine on adverse weather conditions and food shortfalls, portraying the tragedy as an unavoidable natural disaster. However, in reality, what approximated mass starvation was not an act of nature; it was engineered


As Bengal grappled with famine in 1942, Winston Churchill decided to export thousands of tons of grain to support a parallel famine in Greece and sustain the British war effort. Furthermore, India was banned from using its own sterling reserves to acquire food for its starving population. 


Churchill, who personally hated Indians, claimed in his defense that the famine was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. The underlying causes of the Bengal famine were thus not drought, but the policy decisions of the British government.


The Politics of Partition

lord louis mountbatten india 1947
Architects of partition: Lord ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India (centre) with Jarwahal Nehru (left) and Mohammad Ali Jinnah (right), future Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan.


Divide and Rule is the oldest and easiest trick in the book. It was also the primary strategy of the British Empire.  From India to Palestine, the application of centuries of divide and rule resulted in bloody legacies of partition. The partition of British India (1947) was the decision of Imperial Britain. Besides being a human catastrophe of truly colossal scope, the decision to split British India along Hindu (India) and Muslim (Pakistan) lines has had devastating consequences for both Indo-Pakistani relations and the plight of the 200 million strong Muslim minority in India. 

Likewise, in 1937 the Peel Commission recommended partition, determining that Palestine consisted of two distinct societies (Jewish settlers and Palestinian Arabs) with irreconcilable political demands. When the British left Palestine in 1948, the United Nations ratified the plan and set in motion a brutal decades long conflict that endures to this day.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.