Churchill Archive Platform - Empire and Imperialism

During the period of Winston Churchill’s lifetime (1874–1965) the British Empire expanded to its maximum territorial extent but then, following World War II, declined rapidly. By the time of his death it had been effectively dissolved through the processes of formal decolonization, although it was not until 1997 that the final major landmark – the return of Hong Kong to China – was reached. Britain retains some minor overseas territories and dependencies to this day. It is important to view British imperialism within the context of other European empires – the British Empire had some distinctive features, but there were also many commonalities with the colonial practices of its rivals and allies. Moreover, it is necessary to be aware that the British Empire was heterogeneous, with very different patterns of rule applying to different territories. We can also distinguish between formal empire – in which Britain explicitly controlled the areas it occupied – and informal empire – which refers to processes of economic and political influence that stopped short of official rule. Furthermore, some scholars have detected neo-imperialism in the actions of major powers (notably the USA) in the post-decolonization period, in the form of attempts at domination of weaker countries even though there has been no explicit colonial relationship. It is worth noting that although, during the Churchill era, the Empire was often spoken about positively by many people in Britain, ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’ frequently carried negative connotations, and more so as time went on.

As a young man, Churchill had direct experience of the Empire, especially through his involvement in colonial wars in India, Sudan and South Africa. His first ministerial appointment was as a junior minister at the Colonial Office (1905–8), and he later served as Colonial Secretary (1921–2). During the 1930s, when out of office, he campaigned vociferously against plans for greater self-government for India. As Prime Minister, he continued to present himself as an intransigent opponent of imperial reform, but he nonetheless had to contend with the realities of British decline and the rise of the USA and the USSR as superpowers, which dictated a considerable degree of pragmatism on his part. As Leader of the Opposition in 1945–51 he decried the Labour government’s withdrawal (which he called ‘scuttle’) from India, Palestine and some other territories. However, his final government (1951–5) did not reverse the overall policy of cautious progress towards decolonization, and by this point Churchill himself was taking relatively little interest in colonial affairs.

Where to Find Documents within the Churchill Archive

This is by no means an exhaustive list but a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests.

CHAR 1 – Personal material, including many letters from Churchill written during his early imperial adventures

  • CHAR 1/8 is a file of correspondence between Churchill and his mother, including letters he sent from India in the late 1890s.
  • CHAR 28/11 consists of correspondence between Churchill’s parents chiefly relating to Lord Randolph’s 1891 trip to his visit to South Africa.
  • CHAR 1/19 is a file that includes some of Churchill writings on South Africa prior to and during the Boer War, as well as some maps.

CHAR 10 – Colonial Office Papers (1905–8) includes significant material relating to Churchill’s first ministerial job

  • CHAR 10/7 includes discussion of political and constitutional issues in South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War.
  • CHAR 10/28 is a file of material on the Colonial Conference held in London in 1907.
  • CHAR 10/49 is a file on land policy in East Africa.

CHAR 9 – Speeches, speech notes and related material, including those on imperial issues

  • CHAR 9/2 (images 2 to 21) is a typescript of Churchill’s maiden House of Commons speech, dealing with Boer War.
  • CHAR 9/98 relates to Churchill’s speeches on India in 1929–31.
  • CHAR 9/156 relates to some of Churchill’s speeches as Prime Minister in 1942, including his speech of 10 September entitled ‘The Situation in India’ (images 99–103).

CHAR 17 – Colonial Office papers from the early 1920s

  • CHAR 17/18A-B contains material on the 1921 Cairo Conference on the future of the Middle East.
  • CHAR 17/20 relates to Churchill’s 1921 visit to Palestine and contains pro-and anti-Zionist petitions.

CHAR 23 – War Cabinet Papers (1939–45)

  • CHAR 23/12 is a record of meetings and proceedings of the 1943 Quadrant Conference in Quebec, including discussion of operations in the Far East.

CHUR 4 – Churchill’s post-war literary files

  • CHUR 4/258 concerns the drafting of the chapter on the fall of Singapore in Churchill’s book The Second World War: Volume 4: The Hinge of Fate.
  • CHUR 4/26 includes material from Churchill’s advisers with respect to the drafting and publication of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, a work that illuminates key aspects of his imperial thought.
  • CHUR 4/450A-B concerns a film treatment, devised in the early 1960s, of Churchill’s book My Early Life (1930), a work that gave an account Churchill’s military adventures in India, Sudan and South Africa. The treatment was abandoned but another version, 'Young Winston', was released in 1972.

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