Algernon West and Churchill’s Disdain for “Superfluous Millions”

Algernon West and Churchill’s Disdain for “Superfluous Millions”

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

West
Sir Alger­non West GCB PC, 1832-1921 (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

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.”

Endnote

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 & ChurchillThe Epic Rival­ry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (New York: Ban­tam Books, 2008), 107.

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