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Book Excerpt
Churchill's Empire

by Richard Toye

Churchill’s first public speech was made in defence of the Empire – the Empire Palace of Varieties in London’s Leicester Square. It was November 1894. He was a cadet at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and about to turn twenty. The theatre concerned was one of his favourite haunts, even though his beloved former nurse, Mrs Everest, had warned him against going there: ‘it is too awful to think of, it can only lead to wickedness and everything bad’. Morality campaigners shared her anxieties, and were now opposing the renewal of the Empire’s music and dancing licence. They alleged that prostitutes solicited there, and that the dancing on stage ‘was designed to excite impure thought and passion’. Regarded by the young Churchill as detestable prudes, the puritans were particularly exercised by the theatre’s Promenade, a space behind the dress circle in which men and women mingled freely and even drank alcohol. As a condition of renewing the licence, the London County Council insisted that no liquor be served in the auditorium, so the management erected canvas screens between the Promenade and the adjoining bars. The next Saturday, Churchill, on weekend leave, was there when the infuriated crowd ‘rushed upon these flimsy barricades and tore them to pieces’. Indeed, he afterwards boasted to his brother, ‘It was I who led the rioters’. He later recalled how, ‘Mounting on the de´bris and indeed partially emerging from it, I addressed the tumultuous crowd.’ He did not make worthy arguments about the traditions of British freedom but instead won the applause of the mob by appealing ‘directly to sentiment and even passion’. Then everyone spilled out into the night air, with the violent assistance of the theatre’s ‘chuckers out’. But the riot was to no avail: the barricades were soon built again in brick.

Churchill’s second speech, nearly three years later, was a rather more sober affair. It was to a Primrose League feˆte near Bath. The League was a national organization that aimed to marshal mass support for the Conservative Party. It was inclusive, insofar as working men (even if non-voters) and women could join, but also deeply hierarchical. (Churchill, who joined at the age of thirteen, achieved the rank of ‘knight’ two years later.) As he reminded the Bath gathering, the League’s mission was to teach the British people ‘the splendour of their Empire, the nature of their Constitution, and the importance of their fleet’. His speech was notable as his first attempt to draw attention to himself politically, in the hope of finding a Tory seat in Parliament. In terms of the imperial sentiments he expressed, it is interesting for two reasons. First, Churchill was aware that many people believed that the Empire, in what was Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee year, had already reached its apogee, and from now on could only decline. Second, he radiated confidence (as his audience would surely have expected) that Britain’s mission would continue unabated. To cheers from his audience, he declared: ‘Do not believe these croakers but give the lie to their dismal croaking by showing by our actions that the vigour and vitality of our race is unimpaired and that our determination is to uphold the Empire that we have inherited from our fathers as Englishmen’. In his view, the British would ‘continue to pursue that course marked out for us by an all-wise hand and carry out our mission of bearing peace, civilisation and good government to the uttermost ends of the earth’.

Much had happened to Churchill in the interval between these two speeches. In January 1895 his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, died at the age of forty-five from a degenerative illness, possibly syphilis, his once-stellar political career having long since imploded. Then, having received an army commission – and following an adventurous trip to the United States and Cuba – the younger Churchill had been posted to India. There he had helped while away the tedium with an ambitious programme of self-education, trying to teach himself what he thought he had missed out on by not going to university. It is tempting to explain the contrast between the Leicester Square high-jinks and the high imperialism of the Bath meeting (which Churchill addressed while home on leave) as a symptom of these developments. In this interpretation, Churchill’s new-found seriousness and direct experience of the Empire merged with a determination to vindicate his father’s memory and at the same time achieve political fame in his own right. Conviction, reinforced by a wide reading of authors such as Edward Gibbon, dovetailed with a self-interested realization that a young man could draw attention to himself through daring exploits in the farther reaches of the British-ruled world. There is plenty of truth to be found in this view – which Churchill rather encouraged in his memoirs – but it is not the whole truth. Although he may not have been fully aware of it himself, Churchill’s imperial consciousness began to form long before the autodidact phase of his early twenties.


As an adult, Churchill wrote that he had taken his politics ‘almost unquestioningly’ from his father. This claim was perfectly sincere, but it cannot be accepted completely at face value, as an examination of Lord Randolph’s thought and career will show. He was born in 1849, the third son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough. He grew up to be an able but erratic youth, who could be genuinely charming but also witheringly scornful when (as often) he was displeased. He studied at Oxford University and was praised by his examiners for his knowledge of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – and Winston Churchill later read Gibbon in part because he had been told of its influence on Lord Randolph. In 1873 Lord Randolph met and fell in love with Jennie Jerome, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a well-known New York businessman, but it took some time for the couple to overcome their parents’ opposition to their marriage. The wedding eventually took place in April 1874, a few months after Lord Randolph had been elected as Conservative MP for Woodstock – a position he owed largely to his father’s powerful local influence. A mere seven and a half months after the nuptials, Jennie gave birth to Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill at Blenheim Palace, the spectacularly grand Marlborough family seat. The announcement in The Times claimed, perhaps not wholly plausibly, that the birth was premature.

Lord Randolph applied himself more to high society than to the House of Commons, but he soon made a catastrophic social faux pas. His elder brother, the Marquis of Blandford, had an affair with Lady Aylesford while her husband was visiting India in 1875. Lord Aylesford wanted a divorce, which, if it went ahead, would drag Blandford’s name into a public scandal. To avoid this, Lord Randolph pressed his friend the Prince of Wales to use his influence to halt the proceedings. Were this not done, he threatened to make public the Prince’s own indiscreet letters to Lady Aylesford. The Prince was naturally outraged at this attempted blackmail, and Lord Randolph was ostracized from society as a result. A kind of exile followed when the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, offered his father the Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland, and Lord Randolph went with him as his private secretary. Winston Churchill’s first memory was of the Duke, his grandfather, unveiling a statue of the imperial hero, Lord Gough, in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. The statue is no longer there, removed following the IRA’s attempts to blow it up in the 1950s.

Ireland was already troubled by violence during Winston Churchill’s childhood. Attempts at religious and educational reform by Gladstone’s Liberals had failed to quell a nationalist upsurge driven by economic distress and a sharp sense of resentment at British rule. The armed revolutionaries of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, often referred to as the Fenians, were not of the political mainstream but they conjured a fearsome reputation. ‘My nurse, Mrs Everest, was nervous about the Fenians’, Churchill recalled. ‘I gathered these were wicked people and there was no end to what they would do if they had their way.’ Later on, Gladstone was converted to the concept of Home Rule, under which control of Irish affairs would have been delegated from Westminster to Dublin. Lord Randolph, for his part, adopted a notoriously hard line against this plan. It would, he argued, plunge a knife into the heart of the British Empire. Moreover, the north of Ireland was dominated by Protestants, who feared subjection to the will of the Catholic majority. ‘Ulster will fight,’ Lord Randolph declared at a crucial moment during the battles of the 1880s; ‘Ulster will be right’. Yet although Winston Churchill for some years shared his father’s opposition to Home Rule, he was to prove much more flexible once he became a minister. Although protective of his father’s memory, he did not adhere slavishly to his political positions.

In 1880 Disraeli was defeated at the general election and the Duke of Marlborough’s time in Dublin came to an end. The social boycott of Lord Randolph had eased, and he began to make his mark as a Tory MP. He led a small group known as the ‘Fourth Party’, attacking Gladstone’s Liberal government vigorously; he also fell out with the new leaders on account of his failure to toe the official party line. He became known as an advocate of ‘Tory Democracy’, a slogan Winston Churchill would adopt, although in Lord Randolph’s hands it did not have much substance; some historians have accused him of inconsistency and opportunism. There was, however, something attractive in his very unpredictability, which extended to imperial issues, as the question of Egypt showed.

Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled inefficiently by the Khedive, the Sultan’s representative, and was massively indebted to European bondholders. In 1882 Britain intervened to put down a nationalist revolt and thus protect her investments. After the rebels were defeated by her forces at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir in September, real power in Egypt was exercised by the British, although the Khedive still owed nominal allegiance to the Sultan. To some it seemed a dirty business. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, poet, horse-breeder, womanizer and adventurer, was the anti-imperialist in chief. (He is best known for his later verse riposte to Rudyard Kipling: ‘The White Man’s Burden, Lord, is the burden of his cash’.) A supporter of the Egyptian nationalists, he had returned from Cairo to put their case to Gladstone, but had been unable to forestall the British action. He came to believe that the Khedive had deliberately inspired a deadly riot that took place at Alexandria (and was then blamed on the nationalists) in order to draw the British in. Seeking help in drawing attention to his allegations, Blunt approached Lord Randolph, whom he recalled as a ‘distinctly good-looking young man’ with a ‘certain distinction of manner’ and a curling moustache that ‘gave an aggressive tone to his countenance’. Lord Randolph was persuaded of Blunt’s case, and during 1883 publicly pressed the charge that the government was complicit in the actions of the Khedive, their ‘puppet and ally’. (He also described the execution of one nationalist officer, after a trial of doubtful fairness, as ‘the grossest and vilest judicial murder that ever stained the annals of Oriental justice’.) He may not have proven his accusations beyond all doubt, but he certainly made the government feel deeply uncomfortable. As Winston Churchill observed in his biography of his father, it was remarkable that, in officially rejecting the evidence he provided, ‘the Government took no steps, by rebutting it in detail, to discredit their pertinacious assailant’. Lord Randolph had undoubtedly demonstrated his unconventionality but he was no opponent of the Empire. He objected not to imperial rule per se, but to the halfway-house situation whereby the British propped up an unjust regime in Cairo. He declared that the government should either withdraw entirely or take total control: ‘Let them take Egypt altogether if they liked, but let the country be under persons responsible to the English Government who would rid the country of its burdens and raise up the fellaheen from their present low state.’

His chief concern was to find sticks with which to beat the government. The following year he lacerated ministers for their failure to go to the rescue of General Charles Gordon, Governor-General of the Sudan, who was under siege in Khartoum. The government eventually sent a relief mission, but too late. It arrived, in January 1885, two days after the city had fallen to the forces of the Mahdi (‘The Expected One’), the charismatic Islamic leader who was determined to end Egyptian rule in his country. Gordon’s brutal death by spearing at the hands of the Mahdi’s warriors turned him into an imperial icon and helped seal the fate of Gladstone’s government, which fell in June. In spite of Lord Randolph’s tense relationship with his own party’s leadership, he had won national popularity, bolstered by speeches in which he urged ‘a policy of activity for the national welfare, combined with a zeal for Imperial security’. Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister of the new minority Tory administration, could not fail to give him a Cabinet post, and appointed him Secretary of State for India.

His seven-month tenure at the India Office gave full play to the contradictions in his imperial attitudes. He had already made a long visit to India in advance of his appointment, and taken the trouble to meet a range of Indian intellectuals, politicians and journalists. Lala Baijnath, a lawyer, was ‘greatly astonished at his intimate knowledge of Indian subjects as well as those discussed by the native papers’. Nationalism was just beginning to flower in the country – the first Indian National Congress was held later in 1885 – and Lord Randolph appeared to be a polite and intelligent listener. He wrote to his mother: ‘The natives are much pleased when one goes to their houses, for the officials out here hold themselves much too high and never seek any intercourse with the natives out of official lines; they are very foolish.’ He seemed genuinely to like the country (something that cannot be said of his son) and he won praise from papers such as the Indian Spectator, the Bengalee and the Hindoo Patriot.

Back in England, and in office, Lord Randolph changed his tune. He had never doubted the benefits of British rule in India, even if – like many of its other supporters at the time – he admitted it to be ‘purely despotic’. (In a remark particularly admired by his son, he described the Raj as ‘a sheet of oil spread out over the surface of, and keeping calm and quiet and unruffled by storms, an immense and profound ocean of humanity’.) There was, however, the question of emphasis, and in language and policy he now showed himself a reactionary. The change was exemplified by his treatment of a delegation of Indians that came to Britain ‘to advocate advanced native views of a Home Rule kind’. At an interview arranged by Blunt, Churchill was charm itself, if politically noncommittal. ‘Nothing could have exceeded the grace and kindliness with which Lord Randolph shook hands with us’, recollected N. G. Chandavarkar. ‘I do not wonder that they make a hero of him on Tory platforms.’ During that November’s general election, however, the delegates lent support to John Bright, Lord Randolph’s Liberal opponent in Central Birmingham, the constituency he was now fighting. He now mocked the ignorance and credulity’ of the Indians, and added: ‘what must be the desperation of the radical party when, in order to secure the return of Mr Bright, they had to bring down on the platform of that great Town Hall three Bengalee baboos’. In the meantime Churchill had set in train the annexation of Upper Burma, which he clearly hoped would win him further Birmingham votes. The apparent liberality of the sentiments he had expressed in India had been replaced by military expansionism and cheap platform sneers.

Lord Randolph lost narrowly in Birmingham (although he easily found a new London seat) and the Tories lost the election as a whole. After Salisbury’s government fell in January 1886, Gladstone became Prime Minister again, but his determination to press ahead with Home Rule in Ireland led to his defeat and split his party in two. At a further election in July the Liberals met with disaster, and were thereafter to be denied effective power for nearly twenty years. Lord Randolph, though, was to gain little in career terms from the new Tory hegemony. At first his star continued to rise. Salisbury appointed him – when he was still only thirty-seven – Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. But his marriage was in difficulty (money worries may have contributed to this), he appeared ill, and he proved to be a mercurial, intemperate and ultimately impossible colleague. In December 1886, in an attempt to secure economy in naval spending, he offered his resignation. Greatly to his surprise, Salisbury accepted it. Lord Randolph never held office again. But his strangest imperial adventure was yet to come.

Within a few years, he was convinced that the Tory leaders meant to drive him out of the party: ‘I am not yet however clear that being driven out of the party is equivalent to being driven out of public life.’ Indeed not. In February 1891 The Times reported that he had decided to visit South Africa; three months later the Daily Graphic announced that he had given its proprietors ‘the exclusive right to publish a Series of Letters signed by himself, giving a detailed account of his experiences’. He was to be paid the incredible sum of two thousand guineas for twenty letters. Owing to his and Jennie’s wild extravagance, he needed the money; he hoped to further boost his fortunes through the gold-prospecting syndicate he had formed. The Graphic was certainly to get its money’s worth, for once he arrived at Cape Town in May he began to generate spectacular and controversial copy. Almost everything he wrote – even his complaints about the catering onboard ship – generated heated debate at home. He attracted much criticism when he wrote that diamonds were mined in order to satisfy an ‘essentially barbaric’ feminine lust for personal adornment, and suggested that ‘whatever may be the origin of man, woman is descended from an ape’. His political pronouncements were startling too. He provocatively urged the British occupation of Portuguese territory on the Mozambique coast, following skirmishes between Portuguese soldiers and the forces of the British South Africa Company, at a time when the governments of Britain and Portugal were negotiating over the region. Perhaps most surprisingly, he endorsed the policy Gladstone had followed in South Africa in 1881. In that year, British defeat at the Battle of Majuba Hill had been followed by the restoration of the independent Boer republic of the Transvaal. (The Boers were Calvinists of mainly Dutch descent.) Many Conservatives had seen this as a pusillanimous imperial retreat, but Churchill now declared that the magnanimity of the peace settlement had allowed the British to escape ‘a wretched and discreditable muddle, not without harm and damage, but probably in the best possible manner’ given the circumstances. In the future, the value of conciliating the Boers was not to be lost on Winston Churchill, although many factors weighed on him quite apart from his late father’s opinions.

Lord Randolph’s unexpected remarks about the Majuba episode did not prevent him being magnificently rude about the Boers themselves:

The Boer farmer personifies useless idleness. [. . .] With the exception of the Bible, every word of which in its most literal interpretation he believes with fanatical credulity, he never opens a book, he never even reads a newspaper. His simple ignorance is unfathomable, and this in stolid composure he shares with his wife, his sons, his daughters, being proud that his children should grow up as ignorant, as uncultivated, as hopelessly unproductive as himself.

Earlier, he had given a rather more positive impression of South Africa to Winston who, as a pupil at Harrow School, followed his progress avidly. A month into his tour Lord Randolph sent him an unusually affectionate letter. (He was by no means an attentive father, and when he wrote it was frequently to offer a reprimand.) ‘I have been having a most agreeable travel in this very remarkable country’, he wrote. ‘I expect that when you are my age you will see S Africa to be the most populous and wealthy of all our colonies.’ Winston, for his part, informed Lord Randolph of the home press coverage, which he loyally denounced as ‘exceedingly spiteful & vicious’, and requested an antelope’s head for his room. ‘I hear the horrid Boers are incensed with you’, he told his father before going on to request some rare African stamps. ‘It would have been much wiser, if you had waited till you came back before you “slanged the beggars”.’

To Lord Randolph’s credit, his criticisms of the Boers included their treatment of black people. ‘The Boer does not recognize that the native is in any degree raised above the level of the lower animals’, he wrote, adding: ‘His undying hatred for the English arises mainly from the fact that the English persist in according at least in theory equal rights to the coloured population as are enjoyed by whites.’ ...Winston Churchill did not grow up in an atmosphere where straightforward and unqualified racism would invariably pass without challenge. Lord Randolph’s personal behaviour was highly eccentric. The degree to which this was a product of mental instability caused by illness is a moot point. His discourtesy to many of those he met on his journey could not but attract comment, and, when he traveled into Mashonaland, the mind-boggling extravagance of his expedition provoked the hilarity of the locals. (He took with him 103 oxen, a cow, 13 riding horses, 18 mules and a mare to run with them, 14 donkeys, 11 dogs, and 20 tons of food, ammunition and equipment.) He seems to have been almost indifferent to the impression he was making, telling his mother that ‘the carping and abuse of the Press’ was due to jealousy of the amount he was being paid. Moreover, ‘one must write the truth, and the truth is that the country is a disappointment and a failure’. Lord Randolph’s return to England was followed by a tragic mental and physical decline; his halting speeches became a horrible embarrassment. His friend Lord Rosebery famously observed, that ‘He died by inches in public’ and was ‘the chief mourner at his own protracted funeral’. In 1894 he started a world tour, which was cut short by a further collapse in his health. He died in London the following January.

His influence on Winston Churchill’s world view in general, and on his imperialism in particular, is difficult to gauge. Lord Randolph never took his son, who so admired him, into his political confidence, so the latter’s contemporary knowledge of his father’s career was not much greater than any other observer’s. ‘When I became most closely acquainted with his thought and theme,’ Winston later acknowledged, ‘he was already dead.’ But the recently bereaved son threw himself into the study of his father’s life, learning portions of his speeches by heart and even quoting them to acquaintances; one, made in patriotic opposition to the idea of a Channel tunnel, seemed to appeal to him specially. In 1906 he published a massive and well-documented biography of Lord Randolph. By the time he finished it he had left the Conservative Party and was on the threshold of his ministerial career as a Liberal; he had abandoned the Tories after they had dropped their commitment to free trade, a highly controversial move that he thought would be economically damaging. With a combination of literary skill and judicious editing, he did his best in his book to iron out the inconsistencies in Lord Randolph’s political journey and to play down facts that he himself found politically uncomfortable. For example, Winston, as a free trader, ignored evidence that Lord Randolph had done more than merely flirt with the protectionist ‘Fair Trade’ movement of the 1880s. And, as Wilfrid Scawen Blunt noted at the time, ‘there is nothing at all [in the book] about his father’s more Indian liberal views’.

It might have been expected, then, that Churchill would also seek to reinvent Lord Randolph as an unabashed imperialist, but interestingly he did not do so. The biography showed that Lord Randolph had at times adopted a ‘Jingo’ tone out of electoral expediency, and acknowledged that his attacks on Gladstone over Egypt had made some ‘True Blue’ Tories feel uneasy. It even admitted that ‘Lord Randolph Churchill was never what is nowadays called an Imperialist and always looked at home rather than abroad’. Yet if Churchill recognized the limits to his father’s imperialism – and if his own more powerful kind must therefore have owed much to other sources – we cannot discount Lord Randolph’s influence entirely. Winston can hardly, for example, have overlooked an important lesson of the South African visit: that travelling to distant parts of the Empire and writing about them was an excellent way of gaining publicity and making money at the same time.

From the Book CHURCHILL’S EMPIRE:  The World that Made Him and the World He Made by Richard Toye. Copyright © 2010 by Richard Toye. Reprinted by arrangement with John Macrae Books/Henry Holt and Company LLC.

Book Jacket: The imperial aspect of Churchill's career tends to be airbrushed out, while the battles against Nazism are heavily foregrounded.

A charmer and a bully, Winston Churchill was driven by a belief that the English were a superior race, whose goals went beyond individual interests to offer an enduring good to the entire world. No better example exists than Churchill's resolve to stand alone against a more powerful Hitler in 1940 while the world's democracies fell to their knees. But there is also the Churchill who frequently inveighed against human rights, nationalism, and constitutional progress—the imperialist who could celebrate racism and believed India was unsuited to democracy. Drawing on newly released documents and an uncanny ability to separate the facts from the overblown reputation (by mid-career Churchill had become a global brand), Richard Toye provides the first comprehensive analysis of Churchill's relationship with the empire.

Instead of locating Churchill's position on a simple left/right spectrum, Toye demonstrates how the statesman evolved and challenges the reader to understand his need to reconcile the demands of conscience with those of political conformity.


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