In this installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with Radio Open Source, host Christopher Lydon interviews historian and prodigious imperial researcher Caroline Elkins on her new book about just how the English got to rule the world for two centuries, and it’s a gruesome story, all told. The title of her big book is Legacy of Violence, about the brutality of “thinking imperially” to this day.
Think of the British Empire in its day as a colossal trading company with the world’s number-one navy to police its traffic in pretty much everything—including about 3 million slaves to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, also a variety of notably addictive substances like opium and oil, then sugar and tobacco. It thought of itself as a distinctively liberal empire, civilizing the people it exploited, and everywhere spreading the language of Milton and Shakespeare, free speech and the rule of law. That is the imperial line that our guest Caroline Elkins set out to bury with the official records of a police state and its practice of terror that ruled half a billion people at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.