Crimes of Empire: How Historical Fake News Contributed to Imperial Genocide

October 26, 2018 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Fake news is as old as empire, maybe even older. In my new book, Real Fake News I trace the phenomenon from ancient Babylon to modern algorithms. This excerpt compares two cases of imperial genocide—India and Ireland—and explores how media portrayals sought to blame the victims and/or attribute mass deaths to factors other than the British state.

IRELAND: 1649-1852

The Protestant Reformation in England gave new impetus to controlling Catholic Ireland. John Derrick’s history of supposedly brave military conquests, Image of Irelande (1581), contained a number of fake illustrations depicting the Irish defecating in the street, cooking children over a fire and dancing drunkenly. Cromwell led an invasion in 1649 to crush the pro-Catholic King, Charles I. This was one of the many factors that led to the war of 1689-91 between James II and his Protestant successor, William of Orange.

In Ireland, fake testimonies were deliberately leaked to English Protestant media in the 17th century to rouse support for a Cromwell-led humanitarian intervention, the real aim of which was to crush Catholics. A few years ago, Trinity College Dublin led a project to digitize the 1641 Depositions. These were the eyewitness statements, many of them based on hearsay, gathered from 1,559 Irish men and women, most of whom were Protestants. Dr Mark Sweetnam who led the project comments:

One of the iconic narratives that comes up in hearsay evidence is reports of atrocities against pregnant women who were said to have been ripped open, had their babies pulled out and beaten against rocks … That image is drawing on biblical prophecy …

and contemporary accounts of European massacres … It’s very striking that it crops up regularly in hearsay accounts but I never came across an example of it in eyewitness evidence … While these depositions were being taken, they were being leaked and published in London with the clear intention that they would elicit the sympathy of English Protestants.

Dr Barbara Fennell who also examined the texts says: “The more lurid and appalling the ‘atrocity’ was, the less reliable the evidence.” Dr Nicci MacLeod comments:

[t]he atrocious acts committed against women and children are a central image of the rebellion as it was reported in London and propaganda texts of the period … We have been able to show that there are significant differences between the use of words and phrases meaning ‘heard’ as opposed to ‘saw’ when it comes to the worst atrocities reported within the depositions, such as an act of cannibalism and many of the more infamous events.

Two centuries later, more than a million Irish civilians perished in the famine.

The causes of the Irish famine are understood, yet today most Britons still think that potato blight was the sole cause. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen writes that “the famines of the 1840s that devastated Ireland … kill[ed] a higher proportion of the population than any other famine anywhere in recorded history” (emphasis in original). He goes on to note that “[t]he small Irish growers of potatoes were severely hit by the blight, and through the increase in the price of food, others were too.” Sen also notes that, “far from there being a systematic import of food into Ireland to break the famine, there was … the opposite movement: the export of food from Ireland to England (especially of food of a somewhat higher quality).”

Sen goes on to note that, “This did happen on quite a large scale in Ireland in the 1840s, when ship after ship—laden with wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs, and butter—sailed down the Shannon bound for well-fed England.” Sen says that “[m]arket forces would always encourage movement of food to places where people could afford to pay a higher price for it … [I]t is hard to think that famines like those in Ireland in the 1840s would have been allowed to occur in Britain.” On fake news, he concludes: “the Irish taste for potatoes was added to the list of the calamities that the natives had, in the English view, brought on themselves.”


How was the famine reported in the British press? A study by Christophe Gillissen of one of Britain’s leading newspaper, The Times , holds journalists and editors partly responsible for the famine. They emphasized that Ireland was richer than England. They also claimed that workers’ taxes had to finance poor relief in Ireland because the Irish were too stupid to manage their own affairs. Just as the Romans reported the ancient Britons and Celts as being hapless and in need of civilizing, The Times stated: “there are ingredients in the Irish character which must be modified and corrected before either individuals or Governments can hope to raise the general condition of the people.” And that is the least offensive. Another Times article said of the Irish and Ireland:

Never let anyone pretend to be satisfied that he knows the worst of that country. Depend on it, there is worse still in store. It has been called an incubus, a burden, a millstone, a chaos, a ditch, a slough of despond, a Maelstrom. Alas! these are feeble expressions. They are much too finite. Under the heaviest burden you can only fall to the ground. A ditch, a bog, a Charybdis itself has a bottom. Not so Ireland. Of all human things it presents the nearest approach to an infinite idea. Each year opens to the awe-struck soul a perpetual increasing vista of misery, trouble, animosity, expense, mismanagement, and ingratitude.

In the fake news of the day, England could not afford to spend money saving lives. The press also implied that the problem was not the famine, the severity of which was minimized in the opinion columns. The problem, said the editors, was the nature of the Irish and their “astounding apathy” (Times). Ultimately they were responsible for their own misery. As for charity, or better yet withdrawing and letting the Irish manage themselves, The Times wrote that sometimes “harshness is the greatest humanity.”

More fake news held that Britain was a righteous nation defending against unjustified foreign and domestic political opposition and sometimes violence. The Times also championed an England-style Poor Law for the Irish, where landlords would be obliged to pay for the poor to prevent mass deaths and rioting. This was merely a way of maintaining the status quo power dynamics instead of getting to the root of the problem, which was British imperialism.

Gillissen draws the devastating conclusion that, “[b]y constantly questioning the reality of the famine, The Times undermined feelings of empathy and charity among its English readers.”


In the 2,000 years prior to British rule, the region that we now call India experienced seventeen famines, according to the Journal of the Statistical Society.

During 120 years of British rule, thirty-one major famines were recorded. Before the British, Indians enjoyed sophisticated methods of food and water storage in times of drought. Due to a number of factors, the British Empire changed India’s internal political and subsistence infrastructure to suit its own interests. This resulted in the deaths of at least 29.3 million Indians from famine, dehydration and murder in the last half of the 19th century alone.

Factors included divide and rule, forcing the gold standard onto a silver-backed currency, turning subsistence farmers into labourers for other industries, privatizing and selling land, restructuring wages, taxation, irrigation (which drove up water prices), exporting grain during famine and London-based financial speculation which benefitted from high prices.

Not all the news in Britain about India was fake.

Henry Fawcett MP wrote in The Times: Indians were hitherto capable of “storing rain and diverting the torrent to the first necessities of man,” not the international market. The Manchester Guardian reported: “In the name of liberty we have made the individual a bond slave.” On the eve of queen Victoria’s death, journalist William Digby wrote: “the British Empire in the nineteenth century … [caused] the unnecessary deaths of millions.” But these were exceptions.

Historian Mike Davis writes that “starvation deaths were being deliberately misreported as cholera or dysentery mortality in order to disguise the true magnitude of the famine.” The media suppressed famine reports, instead lamenting the problems of Boer suppression in South Africa. Lt. Col. Ronald Osborne wrote: “The journals of the North-West were
persuaded into silence. Strict orders were given to civilians under no
circumstances to countenance the pretence of the natives that they were
dying of hunger.”

The colonial administrator Trevelyan chastised “the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” The biologist Alfred Russel Wallace called the famines failures, not crimes: “the most terrible failures of the century.” The Economist weighed in on the moral aspects of Indians dying under colonial rule: “[it is not] the duty of the Government to keep them alive.” Civil servants lamented the “mistake [of] spend[ing] so much money to save a lot of black fellows.” The worst condemnation that Reuters’ famine report could muster was that “the famine in the Central Provinces was grossly mismanaged.”

In the real world, the Empire’s own famine report states: “supplies of food were at all times sufficient [between 1899-1902], and it cannot be too frequently repeated that severe privation was chiefly due to the dearth of employment in agriculture.” The fake news, which downplayed the famine and misattributed it to disease, undermined the efforts of resistance in England, which came from John Bright (Quaker and Liberal), Sir Arthur Cotton (Gen. and engineer), Henry Hyndman (an Oxbridge politician and founder of the Social Democratic Federation), Sir William Wedderburn (civil servant and reformer) and Florence Nightingale, who wrote letters to the press.

Others privately acknowledged some of the factors contributing to famine. The Dufferin Enquiry (1887) found that “forty million of the poor go through life on insufficient food.” The Duke of Buckingham commented: “It was apparent to the Government that facilities for moving grain by the rail were rapidly raising prices everywhere.” In 1879, insurer Cornelius Walford wrote: “with her famines on hand, India is able to supply food to other parts of the world.” During the famines, the railways transported grain from drought-stricken areas to storage depots. By 1880, the Empire’s death estimate for the Deccan and Mysore regions was 5.5 million. Viceroy Lord Elgin acknowledged that 4.5 million had starved to death in the late-1870s to early-90s. In 1901, the Lancet’s epidemiological study estimated that nineteen million Indians had died in the previous decade.


We should not delude ourselves that fake neither is either a recent phenomenon nor that the worst culprits are the far-right and unscrupulous, click-bait websites. Those in power carry more weight than those who seek power, and so their capacity to cause damage by lying is greater than that of aspiring tyrants.

T.J. Coles is a postdoctoral researcher at Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute and the author of several books, including Human Wrongs (iff Books, 2018).

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