Excerpted from “Winston Churchill, Algernon West and ‘Superfluous Millions,’ 1898,” published by the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the unabridged text including all endnotes, please click here. To subscribe to articles from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bottom, and fill in your email in the box entitled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is never given out and remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Churchill’s now-offensive passage
Many of Churchill’s words, or alleged words, have been hurled against him by noisy critics who call him an unapologetic imperialist. One such example occurred in a 2022 panel on Churchill and Colonialism at Bucknell University. It earlier appeared in three books.1 Unlike so many of his supposed remarks, it is neither hearsay nor invention. He said it in 1898, to Sir Algernon West, a civil servant and family friend.
There was a plague in India—the last until the weather and the Second World War caused another. (See Zareer Masani on the 1943 Bengal Famine, and the lively reader comments which follow.)
The 1898 famine had killed 70,000, and was still going on when Churchill wrote West:
If I may continue to ramble, Nature applies her own checks to populations, and a philosopher may watch unmoved the destruction of some of those superfluous millions, whose life must of necessity be destitute of pleasure.
Oh dear. Typical heartlessness from an imperialist who cared naught for brown folk. Or was it?
In 1898, of course, it was Darwinian-chic to suggest “survival of the fittest.” The historian Arthur Herman wrote that this remark reflected the ideas those of a Darwinian philosopher, Winwood Reade. Young Winston had been devouring Reade’s books, notably The Martyrdom of Man (1872).
Churchill told West that “a philosopher” might be unmoved by the loss of superfluous millions. He did not say he personally was unmoved. But that doesn’t altogether divorce him from the thought. And, of course, he was very young. Few of us would welcome hearing some of our words at age 24 represented as our lifetime philosophy. Nevertheless it was a stark and heartless observation.
Tracking the quotation
None of the books quoting Churchill’s line offers solid attribution. But the West Diaries are archived online, and the accompanying search engine quickly located Churchill’s 1898 letter. It is transcribed in full below. Incidentally, it offers an intriguing picture of young Winston at 24, from his favored sport of polo to his surging interest in politics. (And I love the line where Churchill admits having cultivated “a comfortable vanity.” For sure, no one ever accused him of hiding his light under a bushel.)
When West’s diaries were published in 1921, his publisher asked Churchill for permission to include their letters. Churchill made some deletions, but saw no reason to omit the now-so-offensive “superfluous millions” letter. So here is WSC’s full message to West . Judge for yourself:
Winston S. Churchill to Sir Algernon West
4th Hussars, India, February 18, 1898.
My dear Sir Algernon, For a very long time I have been intending to write to you. But to send a letter a long way takes as much initial effort as to throw a stone a great distance. Since I saw you in London I have had many vivid experiences of some of which you have perhaps heard from my mother. Nor does the future display the prospect of monotony.
I am trying to array what little influence I possess to procure some employment in the impending campaign in the Soudan. Alas, it is a matter of great difficulty, but perhaps I shall succeed. Tonight I am off to Meerut, to play in the Polo Tournament there, and thence on to Peshawar on the lookout for a job. Thus I roam about this country with great rapidity. But though five days in the train is an unpleasant ordeal, books help to improve as well as pass the time.
I do hope you will have read my book on the Frontier and the War [Story of the Malakand Field Force] You will see that my condemnation of the Forward Policy is complete. But I have had to express myself with some moderation, lest I should be mistaken for one of you Radicals. [West was a Liberal.] I should like to have your opinion on the style, etc., because I feel sure it will be a kind one, and thank heaven I have cultivated a comfortable vanity.
* * *
I have but a little time or energy to read the valuable collection of books and papers which Peel kindly sent us—on the subject of the liquor question. But I hope to do so shortly. I admit that the numbers of books bearing on the Licensing Law do not appeal to me. I am interested in finding out what the law should be, not what it is. Still, I suppose, from the point of view of machinery, they cannot be studied. I have somewhat lengthened and elaborated the article on Rhetoric. But I like it less the longer I look at it. Perhaps one day I shall have the courage to send it home for printing.
I wish you all good fortune and health, my dear Sir Algernon. I daresay that you observe with pleasure that the tide of public opinion is running strongly against the Government. Who is to take their place I do not see, and I hate Faddists worse than the plague, which, by the way, has killed 70,000 persons in Bombay and Southern India, and is now just beginning to get a good hold. If I may continue to ramble, Nature applies her own checks to populations, and a philosopher may watch unmoved the destruction of some of those superfluous millions, whose life must of necessity be destitute of pleasure.
Yours very sincerely, Winston Churchill
The reader now has the context, and may decide whether Churchill’s remark was an expression of sarcastic imperialism, or the fashionable Darwin-Reade philosophy prevailing at the time. In the words of Mark Twain, and several showmen before him: “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”
1 Madhursee Mukerjee, quoted in a review of “Winston Churchill’s Legacy: Hero or Colonialist?,” Bucknell University, February 2020. Also quoted in: Ted Morgan, Churchill: The Rise to Failure 1874-1915 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 119. Clive Ponting, Churchill (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 24; Arthur Herman, Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (New York: Bantam Books, 2008), 107.