In Pragati: Book Review – Churchill's Secret War by Madhusree Mukherjee

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill (Image via ChrisM70)

Three days after Germany invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Winston Churchill inspired Britain with the words, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” These words—Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat—is the title of a book by John Lukacs which analyses Churchill’s motivational speeches during World War II as American and Russian forces battled the Axis in Europe and the Pacific. The titles of other books—The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, Churchill: A Study in Greatness—reveal the exalted position Britain’s war-time prime pinister occupies in world history, specifically Western history.
While reading Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat it was unclear what was more funny—Mr Lukacs’ repetition of the title words every few pages or his admiration of Churchill’s speeches extolling the virtues of freedom ignoring the enslaved people of the colonies. For such historians Churchill proved his mettle by leading the country through the war and coming out victorious. Like how many American historians do not see the irony in Thomas Jefferson asserting all men are equal while owning slaves, members of Churchill fan club do not see anything wrong in pronouncing him as the upholder of freedom and democracy despite his unapologetic imperialist stance and inhuman behavior towards the colonies.
In Madhusree Mukherjee’s book, Churchill is neither a lion nor a man of great moral rectitude. He was a man who could have prevented three million Indians from starving to death, but did not. Clouded by racist views of Indians, he even stopped other countries from helping the starving population, antagonised the US president with his stand on India and argued that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to British India. Despite all these, when the first words of Paul Johnson’s biography states that Churchill was most valuable man to the whole of humanity in the 20th century, one has to wonder about the lack of perspective behind that testimonial.
The famine
Between 1941 and 1942, three events occurred which turned out to be disastrous for the people of Bengal. First, fearing the Japanese invasion of India, the War Cabinet ordered a scorched earth policy in areas which would have to be surrendered. Rice was removed or destroyed. Money was advanced to businessmen to buy and hoard. Along with this, boats, much needed by farmers, fishermen and potters for their livelihood were destroyed.
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Movie Review: 1492: Conquest of Paradise

When Ridley Scott’s 1992 movie on the voyages of Christopher Columbus starts, Columbus(Gérard Depardieu)  is seen pitching his idea of a voyage to the Indies to the people of University of Salamanca. Marco Polo had traveled to and written about the gold and spices of the East. By trading and conquering the East, Columbus argues, that Spain can be an empire. But his logic of sailing West — because the land trade is controlled by the Arabs and the voyage around Africa takes too long — does not find supporters. They doubt his calculations and think he is a spoony dreamer. Also, what Columbus did not know at that time was that the Americas lay in the path between Spain and the East.
Someone asks him to meet Queen Isabella (Sigourney Weaver) and he succeeds in creating a favorable impression in her mind. To her suggestion that his voyage is an impossible one, he retorts if she thought Granada would ever fall. Isabella and her husband Ferdinand had just conquered the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula. Impressed, she overrides the concerns of her advisors and remarks that it would be quite a loss if Columbus decided to be a monk.
In the next scene, we see sailors saying farewell to their families and boarding the Santa María, Pinta and Niña. The Spain Columbus was leaving was mired with religious wars and superstition; there is a brutal scene where he witnesses Christians burning witches to death. Economically, Europe was not a major power and had nothing valuable to contribute to Asia. A few years later when Vasco da Gama reached Calicut and displayed the gifts he had bought, my ancestors in Kerala laughed.
In all, Columbus made four voyages to the New World and the movie spends time on the first three. In the first voyage, he reached Bahamas and claimed it for Spain. From there he went to Hispaniola and after leaving some people there, he returned to Spain as a hero, taking with him some of the indigenous people. As he is about to leave Hispaniola, Columbus tells the local chief that he would come back with more people. When asked why he would be back, Columbus explains, “to bring the word of God.” “But I already have a God”, the chief replies. Columbus, then says, he will bring medicines and chief replies that he has enough medicines too. This conversation continues in Spain when a curious Ferdinand asks Columbus about the God of the natives.
In the colony, the relationship between the colonizers and the indigenous people proceed like any such relation. The Spaniards had arrived expecting gold and other riches, but were shocked to find neither. So they made the indigenous people, who lived freely so far, to scavenge for gold. In one incident, when a man turns shows up without any gold, one of Columbus’ crew members chops off his arm. On hearing about this, Columbus imprisons him, but this forces a split in the camp. Soon every one is at each other’s throat. Columbus goes on a rampage — like the British in 1857 — and kills the natives as well as his mutinous compatriots.
He is unflinching in his goal: He wants to build a New World, he tells a priest who is sickened by his cruelty and wants to leave. But his New World does not last. In one storm, everything is destroyed. Complaints against him cause the Ferdinand and Isabella to send a replacement. Columbus is jailed and the credit for discovering the mainland goes to another Italian – Amerigo Vespucci. He is eventually pardoned and sent on a voyage by Isabella.
Columbus’s life was very eventful and this movie does not capture the entire drama. For example, initially, he spent quite some time wandering in various countries trying to get funding for his voyage. Towards the end, his fourth voyage turned out to be a disaster. He got caught in various storms and hurricanes and got stranded for a year. But if these were included, the movie would have been extended by a few days.
When it comes to such movies, you also have to pay attention to what is not said. Isabella was not being magnanimous by partially financing Columbus’ first voyage. She had no other option. The wars against the Moors had bankrupt the empire and they had to find new lands to plunder. In the movie, Isabella comes across as this wise motherly figure which she was not. One important event, which happened few months before Columbus’ voyage and not shown in the movie is Isabella’s expulsion of Jews from Spain by the Alhambra Decree and the forced conversion of the Muslims of Granada.
Even the portrayal of Columbus is not without issue. The movie is quite sympathetic to him and his spirit of adventure. To counter Columbus, a troubled soul by the name of Moxica is introduced. Moxica is the one who tortures the indigenous people and is greedy while Columbus acts like a statesman. What is missing is a critical look of the influence of the Papal Bull of 1493 on later voyages and what effect the Conquistadors had on these people. The movie ends with Columbus narrating the voyage of his tales to his son to redeem his name. That scene should have been interspersed with what happened to the indigenous people.

The Criminals who destroyed Easter Island

In an insightful post on why he travels to Mexico, Peru and Bolivia, Hari Jagannathan Balasubramanian writes about the intentional assault on local civilizations by Europeans.

While the predominantly tribal societies of North America had been conquered by European Protestants, the massive empires of the Central and South had been downed by a band of daring conquistadors from Catholic Spain. The Caribbean natives faded in the decades after Columbus’ arrival; Argentina’s natives were exterminated in the eighteenth century. But in Mexico and the Andean nations (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia) the descendants of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas (and many other indigenous groups) are still there. The conquests were no less devastating, but a forcibly imposed Catholicism had brought Indians into its fold, even as it erased earlier beliefs.
The arrival of the Europeans to America was a Black Swan – an unprecedented event that had a massive impact. No one could have predicted the consequences. Millions of American Indians died, either due to disease or conquest, and the Americas (especially North America) lost their voice and culture. Europe and Asia benefited immensely from the crops and foods domesticated in the Americas (corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chilies to name a few). Europeans found a new place to emigrate to – for them it was a positive Black Swan that unleashed new energies. [The motivation behind the travel]

In the case of Easter Island, locals and rats were blamed for the decline and Western missionaries and invaders were absolved. Now it turns out that Western missionaries and invaders indeed are to be blamed for eradicating a culture.

Archaeological evidence supporting a theory of pre-European internal-collapse is thin on the ground. “Rather than a story of self-inflicted deprivation, I agree with the view that substantial blame has to rest with Western contact,” said Dr Croucher. “Visitors brought disease, pests and slavery, resulting in the tragic demise of the local population and culture.” [Easter Island Was Devastated by Western Invaders and Not Internal Conflict]

The missionaries converted the remaining population to Christianity, encouraging them to abandon their traditional beliefs. Even then, several hundred inhabitants were driven off the island to work on sugar plantations in Tahiti. By 1877, a population of just 110 people was recorded. [Outsiders blamed for Easter Island’s historic demise]