Michelle GordonFeb 25, 2022
Extreme Violence and the ‘British Way’
Colonial Warfare in Perak, Sierra Leone and Sudan
Bloomsbury Publishing 2020
Extreme Violence and the ‘British Way’: Colonial Warfare in Perak, Sierra Leone and Sudan (Bloomsbury, 2020),Michelle Gordon investigates the use and justification of excessive force in British colonial rule in the late 19th century. Focusing on three significant cases of colonial rebellion and reconquest in the “Little war” in Perak (1875-76), the “hut tax” war in Sierra Leone (1898-99), and Kitchener’s (in)famous reconquest of Sudan (1896-99), Gordon suggests that “extreme violence” was far from the exception in Britain’s colonial empire. Drawing on British administrative archives, newsprint, and the personal accounts of soldiers and diplomats, Gordon develops a cogent account of colonial ideologies of rule and appropriate standards of warfare in the colonies. Carefully setting each “small” war in its unique historical context, Gordon nonetheless demonstrates that metropolitan drives to pacify and incorporate peripheral regions and peoples required excessive force that frequently took the form of collective punishment. Bringing together extensive literatures on the history of genocide in the European context and the historiography of colonialism in Africa and Asia, Gordon shows that British colonial violence sits squarely in the spectrum of genocidal violence.
Gordon’s book is particularly important in its development of two key historiographical questions: the role of the “man on the spot” and the Civilizing Mission and its zone of exception. Through each case, Gordon carefully examines the difficulties of imperial communications and the need for colonial officials in London to rely on “men on the spot” with local knowledge and individual agendas of imperial expansion. With limited direction and control over the flow of information to London, colonial officials like William Jervois in Perak, Frederic Cardew in Sierra Leone, and Horatio Kitchener in Sudan, frequently employed “extreme violence” against colonial peoples, with the aim of solidifying contingent and fragile projects of colonial rule. In each case, Gordon expertly juxtaposes the empire’s actions with its justifications – economic development with village burning in Perak, suppression of the slave trade with collective punishment in Sierra Leone and reestablishing the rule of law with massacres and looting in Sudan – showing that colonial ideas of civilization produced racial zones of exclusion that left colonial peoples outside the bounds of humanity, enabling “extreme violence.” Further, Gordon demonstrates how different cases of colonial warfare contributed to the production of knowledge about subject peoples and tactics of pacification that carried over from one conflict to another, contributing to further escalations in the Anglo-Boer wars and the Malayan Emergency. From its inception to decolonization, British colonial rule involved the widespread use of excessive force and the development of violent technologies of rule. All in all, readers of Extreme Violence and the ‘British Way’ will encounter a text that is well argued, concise, and convincing in its investigation of the history of violence in the British empire.
Siddharth Sridhar is a fourth year PhD Candidate (ABD) in History at the University of Toronto.