The British and the Nazis: The experience of the colonized

Jakob De Roover

Not so long ago I read an online exchange that went as follows: (a) “Indians are lucky to have had the British as their colonizers since the British at least had a moral compass, in contrast to the Nazi Germans.” (b) In reply, someone pointed out that the British colonizers were responsible for the suffering and death of millions of Indians, not only by killing and torturing people but also because of the Bengal famines of 1770 and 1943. (c) The author of the first statement (an Indian by the way) then replied that nothing happened in India under British rule that could ever compare to the Nazi concentration camps and the millions who suffered and died there; besides, he added, the British could hardly be held morally responsible for natural disasters such as famines.

I remember being angered by these statements but not being able to explain what was wrong with this contrast between the Nazis and the British colonials. Vaguely, I had a sense that the way in which the British dehumanized the Indians is of the same nature as the way in which the Nazis dehumanized the Jews, Gypsies, and other human beings. S. N. Balagangadhara’s recent post on this blog about the controversy concerning the statue of Subhash Chandra Bose opens a route towards addressing this issue: there is no experiential difference between the Nazis and the British colonials from the perspective of those who suffered at their hands

What does this entail? Well, if a people has experienced no significant difference between the acts of the British towards the colonized Indians and those of the Nazis towards the Jews, it is likely that there must be a structural similarity between these events. “But how could one equate the unequivocal horrors of the Holocaust with the record of British colonialism in India?” you might wonder. After all, the images of the concentration camps as the Red Army found them in 1945 are etched into our retinas: the gas chambers and the emaciated bodies, dead and living literally heaped together; the many movies and books about the Holocaust; these have become part of a collective memory shared by many. We hardly have such collective images of British colonialism in India, do we? Well, that is exactly the problem: whether written by British academics or their Indian colleagues, our historiography has mostly denied the experience of the colonized and thus denied access to it.

We need to look elsewhere for records of the images of British colonialism that will be permanently etched into our minds.  Since the British like to trivialize what they did as colonial rulers to human beings in other parts of the world, I want to share the experience of a continental European: the observations of Jacob Haafner, a Dutch merchant who was in Madras during the famine of 1781. Visiting Madras some years later, he mentions that the city still horrifies him because of “the terrible famine that the British had caused here,” whose traces he could still notice everywhere. This is a very long passage but, after reading it, I think you will understand why I wanted to translate it and post it here. These are the experiences that were later forgotten and denied:

“Even on the faces of the natives I thought I could see a kind of inner bitterness and deep sadness; it was as though they blamed every Englishman walking past them for the death of a father, a mother or a child. The hatred that I always had for the British seemed to grow even stronger here – walking among them felt like walking in a desert, surrounded by wild animals that can devour you at any time.

All the horrors that I had witnessed in this city once again appeared before my eyes. I remembered how the streets were teeming with living skeletons who, tormented by the worst hunger, were swarming around each other like ants. Especially here, on the big square, the worst of fear and despair flowed together, while wealth and abundance reigned inside the imposing houses. Nothing is as chilling to see as a slowly starved human being. The deep-sunk eyes, the hollow cheeks, the dilated nostrils, the curled lips showing teeth to their roots, the unkempt hair, the protruding sternum, the belly shrunk to the spinal cord, the shapeless kneecaps, the sharp bones, the nerves and muscles, only covered by the dry, wrinkled skin – all of this marks the doomed starveling. One saw thousands of such human beings walk around, young and old, man and woman. With their last strength, they had come to the square for alms from the rich, but the doors remained shut, so that one after the other collapsed. Dead bodies and those dying lay on top of each other as on a battlefield, from all sides one could hear the crying of the suffering; begging they raised their hands to the inhumane Englishmen on their balconies, who stood there revelling with their whores, and who made the hunger on the square even more unbearable because of the food they held in their hands – it was the image of the rich man and Lazarus, a shameful contrast with which no decent man can live.

Dying is nothing. But to see your wife, your children, your parents waste away from starvation, and see them die in terrible convulsions, that is more than dying. Oh! If only I think of the ghastly images that I saw in Madras, chills run down my spine. Never will I be able to forget them, the veil of time is unable to cover them, the sight of the thousands of human beings who died in terrible need still haunts me on sleepless nights.

But, one may ask, was it completely impossible to support these poor, innocent Indians? Were there no provisions in the city?

Oh yes! For those who had the money to pay the extortionate prices of the English and their agents there was food enough! The warehouses of the English Company and some English merchants were amply provided with all kinds of grains, sufficient to feed double the number of people who were then in the city and this for a longer period of time. The rich bought what they needed, but for the penniless Indians, who had left everything they possessed behind when they fled to Madras, there was no other fate but dying from hunger. No one cared. Their disastrous condition did not in the least impress the petrified hearts of the English, who made no attempt whatsoever to prevent the dying of these masses of people, and showed no compassion at all.

These Christians, who pride themselves on their humanitarian religion whose Founder embodied charity… alas, talking, singing or whistling they walked through the dead and the dying, with that rude and hurtful arrogance so characteristic of them. From their carriages and palanquins, they looked down on the perishing natives with a look of contempt, while the latter were lying in the dust, struggling with death, or convulsively breathing their last.

Seeing one’s comrades die on the battlefield without being touched by this, can be forgiven (the will to survive can make one insensitive temporarily), but to walk indifferently among thousands of moribund and dying human beings, that one can only do with the heart of… an Englishman in India. 

I paid close attention; sometimes I stood still for half an hour to observe the English passing by, and I cannot but declare openly that I saw no trace of compassion on the face of any of them, for the innumerable wailing beings lying on the ground before them. Even worse: I saw their ladies, those sentimental, tender-hearted creatures sit in their palanquins with the same cool indifference when they were carried right through this battlefield. Perhaps there were some among them who would faint at the sight of a spider or a mouse! Yes, I saw these European ladies strolling dauntlessly through this field of death, laughing, talking and frolicking with their company or lovers – shocking! 

And then the English are supposed to be a magnanimous nation of philosophers. Heaven knows how they got this name. In India, in any case, they are bloodthirsty tigers in human shape – if you really want to get to know them, you should go there.”

(My translation from Jacob Haafner, Exotische Liefde, Athenaeum, 2011)

3 thoughts on “The British and the Nazis: The experience of the colonized

  1. Fact is Britishers systematically spoiled Indian culture to meet theirs agenda. Few individuals of India were hand in glove with them.

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  2. We, a large majority of Indiana are clueless, headless, heartless people looking for a leadership which can b better than that of our beloved Narendra Modi or Yogi Adityanath ji and ignoring our most loving ancient traditions, culture and languages, too sad to note!

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  3. It was after all a business, while there was no excel sheet then, but, the principle was the same – shareholder interest. Profit above all bolstered with bigotry.

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