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Hearsay Doesn’t Count: The Truth about Churchill’s “Racist Epithets”
Downing Street, 22 October 1954. Among his epithets for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was “historical figure.” Selassie, he said, “pleaded the cause of his country amid the storms of the League of Nations, who was the first victim of Mussolini’s lust for power and conquest, and who was also the first to be restored to his ancient throne by the heavy exertions of our British and Indian armies in the far-off days of 1940 and 1941.” On 1 July 2020, Selassie’s statue was destroyed in a South London park. (Crown copyright expired, public domain)
“Epithets are adjectives added to a person’s name or a phrase used instead of it, usually to criticize or praise them.” —Cambridge English Dictionary.
“Churchill is often the subject of false or exaggerated allegations. But in truth, he said enough horrifying things that there is no need to invent more. He said that he hated people with ‘slit eyes and pig tails.’ To him, people from India were ‘the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.’ He admitted that he ‘did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people.'”
The first link above refers to an article which ascribes to Churchill’s youth something he said when he was 80. Still, he did say it The second link is not a Churchill quote but what Leopold Amery said he said. The third link is an alleged quotation, neither all nor parts of which can be found in the Churchill canon. (I would welcome the source, if there is one.)
In recent weeks Winston Churchill has become a target of ignorance. “Racist,” read the spray-painted label of the mob on his London statue. He should be knocked from perch, plinth and prominence. Some historians claim he used all the racist epithets we despise, from the n-word to nationalities: “As the great tribal leader of 1940,” read one account, “his glorious speeches were peppered with references to the British race.” (The last is literally true: By “race” he meant “nation,” not skin color.)
Did Winston Churchill routinely label people with epithets we deem unfit in civilized conversation? Many authorities have so written: “He would refer scornfully to ‘blackamoors’”…. “His language in private about coloured and foreign people generally was of the casual, unthinkingly demeaning character commonplace in his class and kind… ‘blackamoors,’ ‘wogs,’ ‘chinks,’ ‘eyeties’ and so on (but not, in his unusual case, ‘jewboys’ or ‘yids.’)”
Are they right? I didn’t know. So, with some trepidation, I searched for every racial epithet in the Churchill Project’s 80 million-word canon. This includes WSC’s 20 million published words: fifty books, 2000 articles, thousands of speeches, private letters and papers. Plus 60 million words about Sir Winston by biographers and memoir writers.
I wasn’t sure what I would find. From the way they are flung about by his critics, one would think racial slurs were his daily vernacular.
In fact they are extremely infrequent. Some are entirely absent, unattributable to Churchill. The vast majority that do occur come from memoirs or diaries of colleagues—which makes them hearsay. Those have to be evaluated depending on the witness.
Prime source: Leo Amery
Among those colleagues, by far the greatest claimant is Leopold Amery, a friend and colleague from their Harrow School days. Absent Amery’s diaries (published 1980-88), critics would have no source for many of Churchill’s alleged racial epithets.
Amery himself wrote in his diary that Ulstermen were “no more Irish than they are Chinese and with not much more use for ‘Papishes’ [Catholics] than they have for ‘Chinks’ or [n-word]”—more slurs than Churchill ever strung together. So, when Amery writes in his diary, “Winston said…” it is reasonable to ask: Were those Winston’s words, or Amery’s routine expressions, representing what Winston said?
Leo Amery was a decent, honorable man. I will not label him a racist, because what he wrote or said privately is not dispositive. His sympathy for the plight of Indians as Secretary of State for India (1941-45) was profound. He resisted Appeasement, and gave a speech that helped propel Churchill into office in 1940. Certainly, however, he was far freer with racial slurs than Churchill. Indeed, compared to that of most contemporaries, Churchill’s language was among the least offensive.
The point is this: Churchill is the mostly widely recorded and quoted political personage of the 20th century. If each of us had our every word so widely disseminated—including what others thought were our words—would we stand up to scrutiny? “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…” (John 8:7)
Racist epithets: a survey
The word “blackamoors,” to which Churchill supposedly “referred scornfully,” appears twice (by Queen Anne) in his Life of Marlborough, once about jailing Gandhi (“what did it matter if a few blackamoors resigned?” (Amery’s diary), and six times in the diaries of Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor. Moran’s only instance of Churchill using it was on 8 April 1955: “Someone asked Winston if he had seen a film Carmen Jones…. He replied that he didn’t like ‘blackamoors,’ and had walked out early in the proceedings.” That was it.
“Hottentots,” originally the pastoral nomads of South Africa, evolved to an offensive term for Africans in general. Churchill used it once, when President Eisenhower urged him to support decolonization (1954): “I am a bit skeptical about universal suffrage for the Hottentots even if refined by proportional representation. The British and American Democracies were slowly and painfully forged and even they are not perfect yet.”
* * *
In Churchill’s entire canon, there are fourteen occurrences of the most offensive epithet for black folk. (Readers will forgive me for not spelling it out.) Five are by British soldiers or African settlers. Three are by Admiral Fisher, Churchill’s First Sea Lord in 1914-15. One each is by Lady Randolph Churchill, her third husband Montagu Porch, the civil servant Maurice Hankey, a German biographer, and Thomas Birley, Bishop of Zanzibar. Most of are racial expressions involving woodpiles and work. The fourteenth is by William Manchester, which I found interesting:
I never heard him insult Jews or blacks…nor was [the n-word] in his vocabulary…. It is true that his attitude toward them was paternalistic. It is equally true that it would have been extremely difficult to find more than a few [other residents] at that time including black [residents] who would have found that paternalism objectionable.
Manchester was not describing Churchill, but H.L. Mencken, but the description fits Churchill well. In sum, I have not found one instance of Winston Churchill using the n-word, or even being quoted using it. Will the historians who consistently accuse him of doing so revise their screed? We’re waiting.
It is written that for Churchill, “Indians were ‘babus’ (a contemptuous term for clerks)…. Rab Butler recorded how Churchill ‘launched into a most horrible attack on the babus.’” First, those are Butler’s words, not Churchill’s. Second, “babu” is normally defined as “a respectful Indian title or form of address for a man, especially an educated one.” The Churchill canon attributes “babus” to Disraeli, Lord and Lady Randolph, and various civil servants, but only once to Winston Churchill, on 22 March 1898. Angered by typos in his first book, he wrote his mother: “…last but not least this atrocity ‘Babri’ for babu, meaning an Indian clerk.” (The Churchill Documents, vol. 2.)
This is nothing compared to what Amery said Churchill said about Indians in 1942, during negotiations with separatists in Delhi. On 9 September: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” On 12 November: “Winston went off the deep end in a state of frantic passion on the whole subject of the humiliation of being kicked out of India by the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans…”
As usual, these epithets (more anti-Indian than racist) are Amery’s. It isn’t hard, though, to believe Churchill said something like that at the time. William F. Buckley, Jr. remarked: “Churchill could express frustration in searing vernacular…. I don’t doubt that the famous gleam came to his eyes when he said this, with mischievous glee—an offense, in modern convention, of genocidal magnitude.” Mr. Buckley said that in 1995. Little did he know the genocidal magnitude those quotes would touch off twenty-five years later.
* * *
To address Churchill’s 1942 remarks about Indians with reason, consider the view of Indian historian Dr. Tirthankar Roy, in How British Rule Changed India’s Economy:
The context for almost everything he said about Indians and the Empire was related to the Indian nationalist movement. Negotiating with Indian nationalists during the war could be pointless and dangerous because the moderate nationalists were demoralized by dissensions and the radical nationalists wanted the Axis powers to win on the Eastern Front. No prime minister would be willing to fight a war and negotiate with the nationalists at the same time.
Against this, the balanced jury may wish to consider what Churchill said about “the glorious heroism and martial qualities” of Indian soldiers, “both Moslem and Hindu,” in the Second World War:
Upwards of two and a half million Indians volunteered to serve in the forces, and by 1942 an Indian Army of one million was in being, and volunteers were coming in at the monthly rate of fifty thousand…. the response of the Indian peoples, no less than the conduct of their soldiers, makes a glorious final page in the story of our Indian Empire.
This hardly sounds like a racist who considered all Indians beastly people with a beastly religion. (The singular “religion” underscores Dr. Roy’s analysis above. India has three major religions and a dozen minor ones. Which religion was Churchill referring to? Clearly Hinduism—the religion of the Delhi nationalists.)
Amery records that in June 1944 “Winston muttered and growled and mumbled for a quarter of an hour or more in order to ventilate his emotions of disgust at anything that could extend self-government to brown people [in Ceylon].” As usual, this is Amery writing, not Churchill.
In January 1952, an Egyptian mob attacked the BOAC offices in Cairo. Churchill described them as “lower than the most degraded savages now known…. When you learn to think of a race as inferior beings, it is difficult to get rid of that way of thinking.” Egypt, however, is not a race. “I wanted to bring in radical reforms in Egypt, to tax the Pashas and make life worthwhile for the fellaheen [peasants],” he added. “If we had done that we might be there now.” Here is another example of his belief in fair play for all peoples.
“Chink” appears eighty-three times in the canon, nearly all referring to an opening or a noise. I finally found one reference which qualifies as a slur on the Chinese. Churchill asked his Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd, whether “a British sailor was birched by order of a Chink.” There is no footnote, but this is surely from someone’s memoirs, not his published words. But fair enough, accept it as likely. That is the only instance.
The term “wog” (for “worthy oriental gentleman”) has no appearance among Churchill’s words. The word “pigtails” appears twice. Prior to the Korean War, WSC was warned about the size of the Chinese Army. “Four million pigtails don’t make an army,” he replied disparagingly. In 1954, writing about a Labour Party visit to China, he said, “I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails.” Total slurs on Asian races outside India: three.
The term “Eye-ties” for “Italians” seems mild, though it’s often included with epithets Churchill is accused of. Yet the term is not among Churchill’s words. John Charmley’s excellent biography of Duff Cooper notes a “piece of ‘Eyetie-bashing.’” Duff told WSC, “We can never fail to defeat them soundly on the field of battle.” Whether the word is Charmley’s or Duff’s is uncertain. It is not Churchill’s.
By contrast, “wop” is one pejorative Churchill did use. It derives from guapo, Spanish for a “dashing braggart”; and vappa, Latin for flat wine. (I rather like “flat wine” to describe Mussolini, if not my own Italian ancestors, who knew their wines, and their grappa.)
In January 1941, Churchill telegraphed General Smuts, “25,000 Wops in net” and several times spoke of the Japanese as “Wops of the Pacific.” A month later he was anxious for the safety of Anthony Eden and General Dill in the Middle East, “having regard to nasty habits of Wops and Huns.” This last quotation really tells the story. The terms may be offensive to Italians or Germans, but since neither Italy nor Germany is a race, they are not racial epithets.
Churchill’s alleged racism was often ascribed by people quarreling with him. A distant second to Amery is Desmond Morton, WSC’s 1930s advisor on German rearmament, who felt ignored and rejected after the war. In Sir Winston’s view, he wrote, “all Germans were Nazees, all Italians organ-grinders.” Inexplicably, he then said, Churchill romanticized Arabs:
[He] really and truly believed these twopence coloured and highly erroneous images. The superlatively courageous, courteous, urbane, masculine Arab, terrible in his wrath, living an ascetic life in company with Allah, a camel, a spear and rifle…like a medieval knight of chivalry. This he really believed and nothing could persuade him that en masse the Bedu is a dirty, cowardly cut-throat, with very primitive passions indeed and about as trustworthy as a King Cobra.”
It is a sad commentary on what passes for discourse today that what Morton said Churchill believed about Bedouins has disappeared, and what Morton said substituted, to stand as proof of Churchill’s hatred for Arabs.
“Churchill did nothing to discourage racial segregation” among U.S. forces in Britain, notes another critique. A black official from the Colonial Office was barred from his favorite restaurant because it was patronized by white American officers. Churchill allegedly remarked, “That’s alright: if he takes a banjo with him they’ll think he’s one of the band.” Again this is hearsay, from the diaries of Alexander Cadogan. But assume it’s true. How important is it, next to Churchill’s War Cabinet decision of 13 October 1942:
…we need not, and should not, object to the Americans [segregating] their coloured troops. But they must not expect our authorities, civil or military, to assist them…. So far as concerned admission to canteens, public houses, theatres, cinemas, and so forth, there would, and must, be no restriction of the facilities hitherto extended to coloured persons as a result of the arrival of United States troops in this country. (The Churchill Documents, vol. 17.)
In My African Journey (1908), Churchill declared: “No man has a right to be idle,” adding, “and I do not exempt the African.” Offensive? Four years later he told the King George V: “It must not however be forgotten that there are idlers and wastrels at both ends of the social scale.” This certainly offended the King, who considered this “quite superfluous” and “very socialistic.” (Indeed, the establishment of his day often regarded Churchill as a dangerous radical.)
Telegraphing South Africa’s racist Prime Minister D.F. Malan, Churchill jokingly proposed: “My dear Mr. President, Alles sal reg kom [Everything will be all right]. Keep on skelping the kaffirs!” (The last was a term for blacks Churchill avoided using disparagingly.) Churchill richly despised Malan, who had defeated his friend Jan Smuts on a platform of Apartheid. In 1954, Malan renewed South Africa’s perennial demand to annex three black-governed British protectorates inside its borders. Churchill responded:
There can be no question of Her Majesty’s Government agreeing at the present time to the transfer of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland to the Union of South Africa. We are pledged, since the South Africa Act of 1909, not to transfer these Territories until their inhabitants have been consulted [and] wished it. [South Africa should] not needlessly press an issue on which we could not fall in with their views without failing in our trust. (The Churchill Documents, vol. 23.)
Britain never did turn over those Protectorates, and granted them independence in the heyday of Apartheid. Today Botswana (née Bechuanaland) is one of Africa’s most prosperous democracies.
“To prevent…a petty white community”
The racial epithets we directly trace to Churchill’s writings, speeches and private correspondence number in the handful. Nor does his everyday language contain blatant racism. Here he is My African Journey, 1908—a time when Gandhi was hoping South Africa would remain white, saying its blacks “live like animals”…
For my own part I rejoice that the physical conditions of the country are such as to prevent the growth in the heart of happy Uganda of a petty white community, with the harsh and selfish ideas which mark the jealous contact of races and the exploitation of the weaker. Let it remain a “planters’ land.” Let the planters, instead of being the agents of excited syndicates with minds absorbed in the profits of shareholders thousands of miles away, be either Europeans of substance and character who have given proofs of their knowledge of natives and their ability to deal skilfully and justly with them, or better still—say I—let them be the disinterested officers of the Government, directing the development of the country neither in their own, nor any other pecuniary interest, but for the general good of its people and of the Empire of which it forms a part.
Such words in 1908 must have struck some of his contemporaries as revolutionary. But as Larry Arnn has said, most great leaders have been rebels.
Eminently not “a man of his time”
Churchill’s defenders should stop using the empty excuse that he was “just a man of his time.” He was far more than that. Examples* of his belief in equal rights range from age 25 to 80. The paucity of racial epithets in his own speech meshes with that belief. Rather than excoriate him as a racist, we should praise Churchill for resisting the tides of a less tolerant era with eloquence and courage.
“Churchill and Socialism” by Larry P. Arnn
“Was Churchill a White Supremacist?” by Richard Langworth
“Absent Churchill, the Bengal Famine would have been worse” by Arthur Herman
“Churchill a War Criminal? Get Your History Right” by Zareer Masani
“Winston Churchill as Barbaric Monster in the Toronto Star,” by Terry Reardon
“Winston Churchill the Racist War Criminal” by Soren Geiger
“Stop this Trashing of our National Monuments—and of Our Past” by Andrew Roberts
“‘The Art of the Possible’: Churchill, South Africa and Apartheid” by Richard Langworth