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Communal Violence in the British Empire

Disturbing the Pax


Mark Doyle


London: Bloomsbury, 2016

Hardcover. xiii+286 p. ISBN 978-1474268257. £90


Reviewed by Anna Clark

University of Minnesota



This book exposes the central contradictions at the heart of the British Empire: it was based on force, yet espoused principles of liberal equality; it claimed to keep the peace between warring factions, but it exacerbated the problem of violence. While critics have made this point before, Doyle’s book is useful and original in focusing on specific instances of communal conflict and state response. Vivid and closely-grained studies of outbreaks of communal violence in British Guiana, Belfast, and India alternate with analytical chapters assessing the strategies and failures of British authorities.

Doyle modifies the common hypothesis that the British deployed communal differences – i.e. followed a policy of divide and conquer – to rule. He argues that the British did not want communal violence because it undermined their raison d’être of keeping the peace. At the same time, he acknowledges that the Empire created or at least exacerbated communal divisions through defining populations as distinct and failing to recognise fluidity and diversity. British officials often attributed communal riots to “primordial hatred”. The British claimed that religious riots were not really about religion, but superstition and fanaticism. But Doyle points out that these riots happened in areas of the Empire that were “most westernised”. The modern capitalist development encouraged by the Empire created communal divisions as lower-waged populations defined as ethnically and/or religiously distinct came into urban areas and worked, stirring up resentment from older populations. Furthermore, Doyle does not take for granted the existence of these communities; he shows how ethnic entrepreneurs mobilised neighbourhoods organised by ethnicity or race against other communities using modern techniques of newspapers and railway travel.

Doyle is building on the work of other scholars (and his own excellent book on Belfast) who have explored in detail how these riots emerge out of particular social conditions, but the book itself is largely concerned with the response of the State and how this was similar and different across the Empire. He points out that British officials often compared violence in Britain and India, especially since some high British officials either came from Ireland or had experience there. Overall, British officials and many British and English colonial newspapers used this violence to claim that colonized subjects were not fit to rule themselves. However, it would have been interesting to have a more detailed analysis of the differential role of race in these religious and ethnic conflicts with the British authorities. Doyle brings this up a bit in arguing that Ireland should be treated as a colony, even though it was officially part of the United Kingdom, but he points out that although the Irish Catholics were punished more harshly for rioting, they still received shorter prison sentences than non-white colonised people. The British liberal ideal was based on the idea of impartial justice, but it was not really about equal rights for all, since rights were seen as a privilege rather than an attribute of humanity. The persistence of flogging as a punishment in the colonies bears witness to this.

Doyle’s chapter on the 1856 riots in British Guiana brings out these themes. Particularly interesting is the story of John Sayers Orr, a mixed-race Protestant preacher born in Guiana, who somehow reached Britain, where he incited the poor against the rich at a Chartist demonstration in 1848. But his chief target was Catholicism, and he stirred up anti-Catholic sentiment up and down the eastern seaboard of North America. Finally, he returned to the place of his birth, where the Catholic Portuguese had transformed themselves from indentured labourers to small shopkeepers. Their prosperity irked the formerly enslaved people, facing drought, exploitation, and harsh economic conditions. Orr focused this resentment on the religious background of the Portuguese, and riots resulted against them. The Governor, John Wodehouse, ordered floggings for ringleaders and subjected other rioters to forced labour on plantations. However, a little more analysis of how the British racially differentiated between Creoles the formerly enslaved people, although this is not defined the Portuguese, and white plantation owners, would have been useful.    

In his analytical chapters, Doyle explores the archives to discern actual British policies toward rioting, such as directives to police, and then detailed examinations of whether or not these policies were actually carried out, which actually owed a great deal to the varying personalities of the governors in charge. Doyle points out that in Britain itself in the nineteenth century public opinion and the State became less willing to allow lethal force to be used to deter rioters, notably after Peterloo, which created a doctrine of “minimal force”. If the police did shoot strikers or rioters, there would be a public outcry and investigations. However, the police in Ireland, and the colonies, were different than the British police. As Doyle points out, the Royal Irish Constabulary was organised on “semi military” style and mostly suited to police insurgencies. As a result the police were more likely to shoot, and this was true in India as well. Doyle points out that the presence of armed troops could also make violence more likely. The police officially followed the strategy of “prevention, quelling, and punishment” [128] across the Empire, but in fact, local conditions determined the balance of violence and conciliation in these strategies. British officials often tried to keep in touch with and conciliate local authorities in different British groups, but this took a combination of skills that many governors lacked. For instance, some British officials in India were more conciliatory and cautious (and lazy, like the cricket-playing Governor Harris of Bombay) but others were ready to use force, emulating coercive measures against the Fenians. In Ireland, and sometimes in India, police constables might be affiliated with one side of a communal conflict and fan the flames themselves. Furthermore, even when imperial officials claimed to be impartial, local authorities often favoured one side, as with the Protestants in Northern Ireland, imparting a sense of impunity that resulted in violence. Conversely, when such favoured groups felt that the imperial government did not support them, violence might worsen. In turn, this gave the government an excuse to strengthen the coercive powers of the police and military.

This is what happened with the Parsis in Bombay in 1874, when local Muslims believed that a Parsi author had disrespected the prophet Mohammed. The Parsis served the British in administration and trade, and believed that the British would protect them from Muslim rioters. When British efforts failed to calm the situation, the Parsis organised their own vigilante groups, unable to trust the British anymore. Although he does not go into detail into this, similar riots erupted in 1884 in Trinidad, West Indies, during Muharram (or Hosay, for Hussein) festivals when Muslim Indian labourers marched and asserted their religious beliefs.

In India, the Cow Protection riots of 1893 had longer-lasting effects. “Ethnic entrepreneurs” had organised associations, or sabhas, to protect cows sacred to Hindus against Muslims who occasionally sacrificed them on special holidays, publicised the cause in newspapers, and tried to get legislation in the local assemblies to protect cows. However, this agitation sometimes erupted in violence, when Hindu groups attacked mosques on the pretext that cows were in danger. The British believed that the Indian Congress was behind this, although that was not the case. The Hindus behind the agitation believed that the British government was not doing enough to protect their religion, and the Muslims complained that the British were not protecting them from attack, and rioted against the Hindus themselves. As Doyle asserts, “communal riots were both a symptom and a cause of a deficit of State legitimacy”. The failure of the British to control the violence undermined the raison d’être that British rule kept the peace, especially when Bombay governor Harris preferred to spend his time playing cricket in Poona instead of directing riot control. In turn, the violence in 1893 gave the police an excuse to exert more coercive power and patrol neighbourhoods more intensely. This visibility felt oppressive and sparked greater interest in the nationalist movement among the cow protection sabhas, encouraged by nationalist leader Tilak. As Doyle writes, the “apparent ineffectiveness of the Bombay governor in quelling the violence allowed Tilak and his followers to credibly charge the British government with pursuing a policy of divide and rule that is, of seeking to weaken Hinduism by allowing Muslim extremists to act with impunity in their disputes with the cow protectors”. In turn, British officials believed they could not trust local leaders, resulting in a “State that was more detached from Indian society, and less intimately involved in local conflicts and more inclined to rely on heavy displays of force to keep the peace” [193].

Doyle does not provide a full chapter on riots in Ceylon in 1883 and 1915, which is unfortunate, because he did not have the pages to explain these episodes fully. The first riot involved Catholics and Buddhists, exacerbated by the British policy to favour and conciliate the Buddhists in hopes of gaining their support. By 1915, Muslims had been establishing themselves as merchants and building mosques in British Ceylon, leading to Buddhist resentment, often expressed by leading processions and playing music near mosques. Buddhists attacked Muslims, and the British reacted with severe repression. As Doyle argues, the British authorities mistakenly believed that Sinhalese Buddhist temperance advocates were behind the violence and were using it to incite a nationalist movement to expel the British. But he does not really explain the role of temperance in this conflict, which would have been interesting, especially since this episode is key to his argument about the consequences of the British Empire’s failure to deal with communal violence. Doyle argues that British overreaction lead to brutalities and “transformed what began as a communal dispute into a movement for national independence” [200].

In his conclusion, Doyle points to the ominous consequences of this response. The communal riots made it difficult to imagine living side by side with others or to trust that the British would keep people safe. Although nationalists did not spark the communal riots, these communal associations did eventually feed into nationalism and shaped it in ways that sparked future violence. But as Doyle argues British failure to control communal violence was inevitable, since the British Empire itself rested on force.


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