New £5 notes will feature the portrait of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. When announcing the plans in 2013, then Bank of England Governor Sir Mervyn King said “banknotes acknowledge the life and work of great Britons. Sir Winston Churchill was a truly great British leader, orator and writer.”
King went on to describe Churchill as a “hero of the free world.”
It’s true that today Churchill is viewed positively by many people. This is largely due to his role as Prime Minister during the Second World War. He’s often portrayed as a strong Prime Minister, someone whose leadership was key in the effort to defeat fascism.
Something that immediately contradicts this view of Churchill is the role he played in India during his tenure as Prime Minister – particularly the Bengal famine of 1943. The famine killed between 1.5 million and 4 million people and was a result of the British government claiming 60% of harvests in the Bengal province to be redirected in support of the war effort. The famine caused absolute devastation among the population, with people dying en masse from starvation, malnutrition and disease.
Despite the severity of the famine, Churchill refused offers of aid from allied governments, turning down 10,000 tonness of rice from Canada and 100,000 tonnes from the USA. When asked about the famine, Churchill is reported to have said it was the Indians’ own fault, “for breeding like rabbits.”
Churchill the Racist
This isn’t the only example of Churchill’s racism. In 1937, during a report to the Palestine Royal Commission, he said “I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
According to biographer John Charmley, “Churchill certainly believed in racial hierarchies and eugenics… Churchill saw himself and Britain as being the winners in a social Darwinian hierarchy.”
With this aspect of his ideology taken into account, it can be hard to stomach the idea of Churchill as a “hero of the free world” and an enemy of fascism.
Churchill’s crimes don’t began and end in India. There’s a long list, from the murder of civilian protestors in Greece to the advocation of chemical warfare in Iraq. He was a staunch defender of British imperialism, and this took precedence over human lives on many occasions.