Extracted from “Hearsay Doesn’t Count: The Truth about Churchill’s ‘Racist Epithets,'” for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the original article, please click here. Readers please note: a footnoted version of this article will be published this year in a Hillsdale journal of Churchill Studies.
Epithets and expressions
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 abhor, 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 Churchill routinely label people with epithets or descriptions 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.”
Are they right? How to tell? There is a way. I searched for every racial epithet in the Churchill Project’s 80 million-word digital 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 him by biographers and memoir writers. Plus the 31-volume official biography by Hillsdale College Press.
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 expressions.
In fact they are extremely infrequent. Some are entirely absent, unattributable to Churchill. The vast majority that do pop up come from the memoirs or diaries of colleagues—which makes them hearsay. Those reports have to be evaluated depending on the witness.
Prime source: Leo Amery
Among those colleagues, by far the greatest claimant is Leopold Amery, friend and colleague from their Harrow School days. They spoke very frankly to each other. Absent Amery’s diaries, however, critics would have no source for many of Churchill’s alleged racial epithets.
Amery was voluble and very free in his language. He wrote 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 WSC said?
Leo Amery was a decent, honorable man. What he wrote or said privately is not dispositive. His sympathy for 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.
Churchill is the most 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
“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 cites only one instance of Churchill using it—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 is the sum total.
“Hottentots,” originally the pastoral nomads of South Africa, evolved to an offensive term for Africans in general. Churchill used it once. jokingly, 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 our 80 million word file 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. 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….”
Manchester was not describing Churchill, but H.L. Mencken, yet it fits Churchill well. In sum, I have found not one instance of Winston Churchill using that word, or even being quoted using it. Will the historians who consistently accuse him of doing so revise their screed? I hope so.
It is written that for Churchill, “Indians were ‘babus’ …. 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.” Only once does Winston Churchill use the word, in 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.”
This is nothing compared to what Amery said Churchill said about Indians in 1942, during negotiations with Hindu separatists in Delhi. On 9 September: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” As usual, these epithets (more anti-Indian than racist) are Amery’s. It isn’t hard, though, to believe Churchill said them, privately, to his old friend.
* * *
Now, consider the words of the 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.
Next, 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. 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 1944 “Winston [expressed] disgust at anything that could extend self-government to brown people [in Ceylon].” As usual, this is Amery writing, not Churchill. Publicly, Churchill declared his intent that India should be self-governing in 1943. (Churchill to Wavell, 8 October 1943.
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 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, and this is surely from someone’s memoirs, not Churchill’s published words. But fair enough, accept it as likely. That is the only use of the word by Churchill.
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 offensive epithets on non-Indian Asian races: three.
The term “Eye-ties” for “Italians” is often included with epithets by Churchill. Yet the term is not among his words. John Charmley’s excellent biography 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 still be offensive to Italians or Germans. But since neither Italy nor Germany is a race, they are not racial epithets.
Hearsay by the bushel
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. To Sir Winston, he wrote, “all Germans were Nazees, all Italians organ-grinders.” Inexplicably, he then declared that 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 labeled Churchill’s words to show his hatred for Arabs.
“Churchill did nothing to discourage racial segregation” among American forces in Britain, notes another critic. A restaurant barred a black official from the Colonial Office because white American officers dined there. 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. Cadogan was a common scold, but let’s assume it’s true. How important is that, next to Churchill’s War Cabinet directive 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.
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 it “quite superfluous” and “very socialistic.” As so often, Churchill’s notions of equal rights and responsibilities caused establishment figures to view him with alarm.
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 most often used 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 his 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.
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.
Eminently not “a man of his time”
The racial epithets we can trace to Churchill’s own utterances number in the handful. His remarks about Indians during World War II almost always referred to Delhi nationalists, whom no British prime minister could appease. After the war he praised Indians to the skies. Nor does his everyday vernacular demonstrate blatant racism.
Churchill’s defenders should stop using the empty excuse that he was “just a man of his time.” He was far more than that. There are many examples* of his belief in equal rights for all races and nationalities from age 25 to 80. The paucity of racial epithets in his own speech meshes precisely 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.