The best books on colonial wrongdoing

Paddy Docherty Author Of Blood and Bronze: The British Empire and the Sack of Benin
By Paddy Docherty

Who am I?

I’m a historian of empire, with a particular interest in the British Empire, colonial violence, and the ways in which imperialism is shown and talked about in popular culture. I studied at Oxford University, and having lived in and travelled around much of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, I am always trying to understand a bit more if I can… but reading is best for that… My first book was The Khyber Pass.

I wrote...

Blood and Bronze: The British Empire and the Sack of Benin

By Paddy Docherty,

Book cover of Blood and Bronze: The British Empire and the Sack of Benin

What is my book about?

The famous Benin Bronzes are among the most prized possessions of the British Museum. Celebrated for their great beauty, they embody the history, myth, and artistry of the ancient Kingdom of Benin, once the most powerful in West Africa and now part of Nigeria. But despite their renown, little has been written about the brutal act of imperial violence through which the Bronzes were plundered. This incisive new history tells that neglected story: the 1897 British invasion of Benin.

Diving into the archives, Blood and Bronze sets the assault on Benin in its late Victorian context. As Britain faced new commercial and strategic pressures on its power elsewhere, it ruthlessly expanded its rule in West Africa. Revealing both the extent of African resistance and previously concealed British outrages, this is a definitive account of the conquest and destruction of Benin. 

The books I picked & why

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The History of Mary Prince

By Mary Prince,

Book cover of The History of Mary Prince

Why this book?

A landmark work by virtue of being the first book by a black woman to be published in Britain, this is a powerfully harrowing account of Mary’s own life as a slave in the Caribbean. Though only short, it supplies valuable testimony on the gruesome British exploitation of enslaved people over the centuries, and the many cruelties inflicted upon Mary personally by her brutal ‘owners’. Should be required reading for all those who think of the British Empire with nostalgia.

The Wretched of the Earth

By Frantz Fanon,

Book cover of The Wretched of the Earth

Why this book?

Surely the anticolonial text that stands above all others... This visceral, angry, fascinating text was written in the final months of Fanon’s life, when he was fully engaged as a militant striving for the independence of Algeria. Drawing on his expertise as a psychoanalyst, and upon his deep hatred of the racism he had experienced as a Martinican student in France, this book uncompromisingly exposes the evils of colonialism and its employment of racist techniques of rule.

Fanon’s frank willingness to embrace violence in the struggle for independence ensures that the book remains both vitally stimulating and perpetually controversial.

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

By Walter Rodney,

Book cover of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

Why this book?

As a Caribbean historian with experience of studying and teaching in both London and Africa, Walter Rodney was particularly qualified to produce this classic work on colonial exploitation. Meticulously researched and argued, this book shows how the enslavement of Africans and seizure of African territory financed the European industrial development that has continued into the present, and left Africa impoverished. Had Rodney not been assassinated at the age of 38 by those who feared his capacities as a Black Power leader, we would have the benefit of many more such trenchant critiques of imperialism.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

By Audre Lorde,

Book cover of Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Why this book?

On the face of it, Sister Outsider is not a book about colonial wrongdoing at all, but is the collected prose writing of the poet Audre Lorde on a variety of topics. However, given her status as a black lesbian of Grenadian descent living in the United States in the mid-twentieth century – and her astounding strength in battling against the racist patriarchy that despised her – I would suggest that her entire life is a monument to resisting colonial crimes and to fighting against embedded historical wrongs.

Much of that is reflected here in various ways. For example, it was only when I read her famous piece The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (included in this collection) that I finally felt that I understood at least something about postcolonialism. For that alone, this extraordinary book is for me priceless.

Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire

By David Anderson,

Book cover of Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire

Why this book?

This is the kind of book that all British historians should be trying to write: an honest, factual, detailed account of what British officials actually did in the service of the Empire. There is no scope for imperial nostalgia over this horrifying story of the brutal violence employed by Britain in the 1950s in an effort to hang onto its colony of Kenya in the face of the Mau Mau Rebellion. With concentration camps, collective punishments, and multiple judicial murders, British methods were among the worst. The ideal Christmas present for any Empire supporters among your friends & family.

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