Winston Churchill is considered by many to be Britain’s greatest Prime Minister. Despite his colossal reputation, little is known about Churchill’s life beyond his short stint as wartime Prime Minister. Who was Winston Churchill? A closer look at the man reveals a troubling history of bigotry, racism, and imperial slaughter in defense of empire.
Who Was Winston Churchill?: The Early Years
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born with a silver spoon in his mouth as opposed to a cigar. He came into the world at Blenheim Palace on November 30, 1874, as the firstborn son to Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie (née) Jerome. Blenheim Palace, one of England’s largest houses, and the only non-royal house in the country to hold the title of palace has been home to the Spencer-Churchill family for over 300 years. It is the ancestral seat of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, whom Winston Churchill was a direct descendent of.
Between the ages of two and six Winston lived with his grandfather, the 7th Duke of Marlborough, and the Viceroy of Ireland in Dublin. Aged seven, he was sent off to boarding school, and in 1888, Churchill scraped through the entrance exam to Harrow School. His schoolmasters considered him to be a rebellious and ill-disciplined child.
Churchill was largely neglected by his parents. His mother was distant and his father was particularly critical of him, frequently expressing harsh opinions of his son’s character and (lack of) talent. Not being thought of as bright enough for university his father wanted him to forge a career in the city.
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Nonetheless, steeped in tales of the military prowess of his glorious ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, Churchill dreamed of becoming a soldier. As an upper-class boy born living during the age of empire this in practice meant the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
Thus, on the third attempt, Churchill was accepted to Sandhurst, where he became a cadet in the cavalry and was later commissioned to the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. Henceforth, the young aristocrat of the Marlborough-Churchill dynasty set out to make his way in the world and prove his detractors (and his father in particular) wrong.
Forged by Colonial War
Like many Sandhurst graduates of the time Churchill quickly turned his mind to seeking a taste of military action. Thus following his commission to the 4th Hussars, in 1895, he sailed for Cuba. The mission was to observe colonial Spain’s defense against Cuban guerrilla fighters. Besides discovering cigars, 21-year-old Winston was thrilled to experience colonial warfare and come under fire for the first time.
Churchill was never destined to become an ordinary soldier. A young aristocrat with a strong sense of his own potential greatness, Churchill worked his connections to obtain temporary commissions and launch a career as a war correspondent alongside his military career.
By 1897 he was attached to the Malakand Field Force, charged with crushing the resistance of Pashtun tribesmen and restoring colonial order to the North West Frontier Province of British India. Churchill recounted his actions in Malakand first-hand: “We proceeded systematically village by village and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”
The following year, Churchill obtained a commission with the 21st Lancers in the Sudan, where he took part in the Battle of Omdurman — a campaign later described as a massacre rather than a battle. But Churchill’s final military skirmish was in South Africa where he fought in the Second Boer War. He participated in the Battle of Spion Kop and was captured by the Boers — and later spectacularly escaped.
By the time he was 25, Churchill had participated in four colonial wars and published three best selling books about his experiences. In 1900 he hung up his soldiering boots in the knowledge that his exploits in colonial wars would be enough to carve a route to political power.
Winston Churchill Was a Racist
Churchill was undoubtedly a racist man. He believed that the Anglo-Saxon “Aryan” race was the superior white race (above catholic “Latins”). And that non-whites were “low-grade”: the “beastly” Indian, and Arab “Hottentot” nonetheless placing them above the African “nigger.”
In 1942 the people of Bengal faced famine; Churchill decided to export thousands of tons of grain to feed British soldiers and aid a parallel famine in Greece (a more worthy people). As Maya Goodfellow has written, for Churchill, “white civilization was sophisticated and modern: the colonial world was the opposite.” At least 3 million Indians died.
Less documented is Churchill’s antisemitism. He regularly warned of the dangers of “international Jews” (communists) and contrasted them with “good” national Jews. He concluded an article written in 1920 for the Sunday Herald by outlining the “Duty of Loyal Jews.”
Churchill’s support for Zionism was buttressed by his own concern for imperial tactics — and his particularly low opinion of the Arabs — over solidarity with the Jewish people. The idea of a white Jewish state was preferable to Palestinian self-rule, which he likened to a “dog running its own manger.”
Perhaps most telling is his address to the Peel Commission in 1937. No “great wrong,” Churchill argued, had been done to the “Red Indians of America and the black people of Australia,” in so far as a “stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly wise race’ had ‘come in and taken their place.”
Churchill’s racism was thus not a minor character flaw. He believed that the “Aryan race” would prevail and in 1955, even tried to persuade his cabinet colleges to fight the next general election on the campaign slogan “Keep Britain White.”
A Most Violent Man
Churchill’s time as a powerful man of empire coincided with a series of colonial conflicts. His reaction was consistent: Resistance to empire should be met with extreme violence.
The first English colony was not in the Caribbean, nor in America, but the island of Ireland. And it was from Ireland, that the British Imperial Project formulated its racist policies and exported them to the wider world.
Churchill was violently opposed to Irish Home Rule and as Colonial Secretary (1920) was instrumental in the creation of the infamous “Black and Tans,” a paramilitary force of ex-soldiers, that were recruited to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in a last-ditch attempt to crush Irish Independence. Quickly gaining a fearsome reputation for brutality the modus operandi of the Black and Tans was to launch arbitrary reprisals and torch villages in the regions of Ireland where the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were most active.
Churchill was equally gung-ho in his approach to squashing Indian independence. Speaking of Mahatma Gandhi he raged that the “half-naked faki” ought to be “bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”
Likewise, while the independence of lesser races was to be crushed, Churchill was not averse to deploying the methods of repression that he endorsed in the context of empire in Britain itself. As Home Secretary (1910) he didn’t think twice about sending police battalions from London to repress striking miners in South Wales. Army troops were held in reserve in Cardiff, lest the police were unable to get the job done. In a similar fashion, as editor of The British Gazette, Churchill advocated the use of force to crush the 1926 General Strike and argued that machine guns should be used on the striking miners if necessary.
So, Who Was Winston Churchill?
Winston Churchill, so the story goes, rallied his people and saved Britain from the jaws of Nazi defeat. Further still, Britain’s greatest-ever Prime Minister is framed as an unwavering champion of the democratic ideals and values of Western civilization itself.
Yet long before this image existed, Churchill was making his way as a powerful man of empire. His inspiring wartime speeches and pledge to “fight on the beaches” for the cause of liberty were not aimed at Britain’s colonial subjects. Furthermore, the usual story of Churchill’s anti-fascist credentials appears to be grossly overestimated.
As late as 1937 he praised Mussolini’s “magnificent courage and audacity” — ten years after the March on Rome and ban on all political opposition in Italy. In 1935, he expressed “admiration” for Hitler. And even after the Second World War, he continued his support for Fascist Spain.
Churchill had no problem was Fascism as such. What he had a problem with, was the prospect of Nazi Germany surpassing the imperial power of the British Empire. In other words, Fascism became problematic for Churchill, when it became a threat to Britain and its interests.
To understand who Winston Churchill really was, means extracting him from his brief stint as wartime Prime Minister, and placing him within the wider context of the empire in which he was forged. By simply glorifying Churchill’s heroism in the face of impending Nazi doom, his white supremacist beliefs and fondness for imperial slaughter are unjustly wiped from the historical ledger. The result is that the dark side of Britain’s greatest-ever Prime Minister is ignored.