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. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The History of Mary Prince

Why did I love 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.

By Mary Prince,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The History of Mary Prince as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mary Prince was born into slavery in Devonshire Parish, Bermuda. While she was later living in London, her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, was the first account of the life of a black woman to be published in the United Kingdom. This edition of "The History of Mary Prince" is Volume 4 of the Black History Series. It is printed on high quality paper with a durable cover.

The Wretched of the Earth

By Frantz Fanon, Richard Philcox (translator),

Book cover of The Wretched of the Earth

Why did I love 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.

By Frantz Fanon, Richard Philcox (translator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Wretched of the Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1961, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a masterful and timeless interrogation of race, colonialism, psychological trauma, and revolutionary struggle. In 2020, it found a new readership in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the centering of narratives interrogating race by Black writers. Bearing singular insight into the rage and frustration of colonized peoples, and the role of violence in spurring historical change, the book incisively attacks the twin perils of post-independence colonial politics: the disenfranchisement of the masses by the elites on the one hand, and intertribal and interfaith animosities on…

Book cover of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

Why did I love 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.

By Walter Rodney,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The classic work of political, economic, and historical analysis, powerfully introduced by Angela Davis In his short life, the Guyanese intellectual Walter Rodney emerged as one of the leading thinkers and activists of the anticolonial revolution, leading movements in North America, South America, the African continent, and the Caribbean. In each locale, Rodney found himself a lightning rod for working class Black Power. His deportation catalyzed 20th century Jamaica's most significant rebellion, the 1968 Rodney riots, and his scholarship trained a generation how to think politics at an international scale. In 1980, shortly after founding of the Working People's Alliance…

Book cover of Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Why did I love 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.

By Audre Lorde,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Sister Outsider as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The woman's place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep

The revolutionary writings of Audre Lorde gave voice to those 'outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women'. Uncompromising, angry and yet full of hope, this collection of her essential prose - essays, speeches, letters, interviews - explores race, sexuality, poetry, friendship, the erotic and the need for female solidarity, and includes her landmark piece 'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House'.

'The truth of her writing is as necessary today as…

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

Why did I love 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.

By David Anderson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Histories of the Hanged as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A remarkable account of Britain's last stand in Kenya. This is imperial history at its very best."--John Hope Franklin

In "a gripping narrative that is all but impossible to put down" (Joseph C. Miller), Histories of the Hanged exposes the long-hidden colonial crimes of the British in Kenya. This groundbreaking work tells how the brutal war between the colonial government and the insurrectionist Mau Mau between 1952 and 1960 dominated the final bloody decade of imperialism in East Africa. Using extraordinary new evidence, David Anderson puts the colonial government on trial with eyewitness testimony from over 800 court cases and…

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