Churchill’s Racist Epithets are Remarkably Rare (Hearsay doesn’t Count)

Churchill’s Racist Epithets are Remarkably Rare (Hearsay doesn’t Count)

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

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

Africans

“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.

Indians

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.)

Other easterners

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.

Italians

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.

Contradictory evidence

“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.

South Africa

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.

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