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Churchill and Language: Hearsay Doesn’t Count: The Truth About Churchill’s “Racist” Epithets

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Winston Churchill has lately become a target of ignorance. Some historians claim he used all the racist epithets we despise. Careful examination of his language shows that it is the paucity of racial epithets in his own speech that is noteworthy. Rather than excoriate him as a racist, we should praise Churchill for resisting the tides of a less tolerant era with eloquence and courage.

Epithet: An offensive or derogatory expression used of a person; an abusive term; a profanity.” —Oxford English Dictionary.

Churchill is often the subject of false or exaggerated allegations. But in truth, he said enough horrifying things that there is no need to invent more. He said that he hated people with “slit eyes and pig tails.”1 To him, people from India were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.”2 He admitted that he “did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people.”3

The first Churchill quote above refers to an article which ascribes to Churchill’s youth something he said when he was 80.4 Still, he did say it. The second is not a Churchill quote but what Leopold Amery said he said.5 The third is an alleged quotation, neither all nor parts of which can be found in the Churchill canon. (I would welcome learning the source, if there is one.)

Winston Churchill has lately 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, they added. Some historians claim he used all the racist epithets we despise, from the n-word  to nationalities: “As the great tribal leader of 1940, his glorious speeches were peppered with references to the British race.”6 The last is literally true: By “race” he meant “nation,” not skin color.

Routine Racist?

Did Winston Churchill routinely label people with epithets 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 (but not, in his unusual case, ‘jewboys’ or ‘yids’).”7

Are they right? We didn’t know. So, with some trepidation, we searched for every racist epithet in the Churchill Project’s 80 million-word canon. This includes Churchill’s 20 million published words: nearly sixty books, 2000 articles, thousands of speeches, private letters and papers; plus 60 million words about Sir Winston by biographers and memoir writers. Diligently over the years, numerous contributors have helped us render all these words into a massive digital archive, in which the most obscure phrase can be found quickly, if it exists at all.

We were not sure what we would find. From the way they are flung about by his critics, one would think racial slurs were Churchill’s daily vernacular. We found that they are extremely infrequent. Some are entirely nonexistent, or at least unattributable to Churchill. Of those that do occur, most come from memoirs or diaries of colleagues—which makes them hearsay at best. Those thus reported have to be evaluated as a function of the reliability of the witness.

The Hearsay of Leo Amery

Among those colleagues, by far the greatest claimant is Leopold Amery, a friend and colleague from their Harrow School days. Absent Amery’s diaries (1980-88), critics would have no source at all for many of Churchill’s alleged racial outbursts.

Amery himself wrote in his diary 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]”8—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 he believed Winston said?

Leo Amery was a decent and honorable man. One should not label him a racist because what he wrote or said on occasion privately is not wholly dispositive. His sympathy for the plight of Indians when he served as Secretary of State for India in the Second World War was profound. He abhorred 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.

The point is this: Churchill is the mostly widely recorded and quoted political personage of the 20th century. If each of us had our every word so widely disseminated and recorded—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…”9

Racist Epithets: A Survey

Africans

The word “blackamoors,” a word associated with colored races to which Churchill supposedly “referred scornfully,” appears twice (in the words of others) in his Life of  Marlborough,10 once about jailing Gandhi (“what did it matter if a few blackamoors resigned?”11 and six times in the diaries of Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor.12 Moran’s only assertion of Churchill using the word was 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.”13

“Hottentots,” originally the pastoral nomads of South Africa, evolved to an offensive term for Africans in general. Churchill used it twice: to President Eisenhower in 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”); and in passing, geographically, twice in 1910.14

In our digital resource of works by and about Churchill, there are 14 occurrences of the most offensive epithet for black folk. 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 Bishop Thomas Birley of Zanzibar. Most of the usages involve woodpiles and work. The fourteenth is by William Manchester, which we find interesting:

I never heard him insult Jews or blacks…nor was [the n-word] in his vocabulary…. It is true that his attitude toward them was paternalistic. It is equally true that it would have been extremely difficult to find more than a few [other residents] at that time including black [residents] who would have found that paternalism objectionable.15

Manchester was not describing Churchill, but H.L. Mencken, though the description fits Churchill well. In sum, we found not one instance of Winston Churchill using the n-word, or even being quoted using it. Will the historians who consistently accuse him of doing so revise their screed? We’re waiting.

Indians

It is written that for Churchill, “Indians were ‘babus’ (a contemptuous term for clerks)…. Rab Butler recorded how Churchill ‘launched into a most horrible attack on the babus.’”16 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.” Our digital Churchill resource ascribes “babus” to Disraeli, Lord and Lady Randolph, and various civil servants, but only once to Winston Churchill—on 22 March 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.”17

This is nothing compared to what Amery said Churchill said about Indians in 1942—during negotiations with separatists in Delhi. On 9 September: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”18 On 12 November: “Winston went off the deep end in a state of frantic passion on the whole subject of the humiliation of being kicked out of India by the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans….”19

As usual, these epithets are Amery’s. It isn’t hard, though, to believe Churchill might have said something like that in the circumstances. He clearly loved to prod the excitable Amery—which he’d done since they were classmates at Harrow School. William F. Buckley, Jr. remarked: “Churchill could express frustration in searing vernacular…. I don’t doubt that the famous gleam came to his eyes when he said this, with mischievous glee—an offense, in modern convention, of genocidal magnitude.”20 Mr. Buckley said that in 1995. Little did he know the genocidal magnitude those quotes would touch off 25 years later.

To address Churchill’s 1942 remarks about Indians with reason, consider the view of Indian historian Dr. Tirthankar Roy:

Churchill’s reactionary views on the Empire notwithstanding, 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.21

Against this, we may wish to 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.22

This hardly sounds like a racist who considered all Indians hateful people with a beastly religion. (The singular “religion” underscores Dr. Roy’s analysis above. India has three major religions and a dozen minor ones. Which religion was Churchill referring to? Clearly Hinduism—the religion of the upper-caste Delhi nationalists.)

Other Asians

Amery records that on 13 June 1944 “Winston muttered and growled and mumbled for a quarter of an hour or more in order to ventilate his emotions of disgust at anything that could extend self-government to brown people [in Ceylon].”23 As usual, this is Amery writing, not Churchill.

In January 1952, an Egyptian mob attacked the BOAC offices in Cairo. Churchill described them as “lower than the most degraded savages now known….”24 He added: “When you learn to think of a race as inferior beings, it is difficult to get rid of that way of thinking.”25 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.”26 Here is another example of his belief in fair play for all classes. With Egyptians as well as Indians, Churchill’s invective seems reserved for the elite ruling classes.

“Chink” appears eighty-three times in the canon, nearly all referring to an opening or a noise. We finally found one reference which qualifies as a slur on the Chinese. Churchill asked his Colonial Secretary. Alan Lennox-Boyd MP, whether “a British sailor was birched by order of a Chink.”27 There is no footnote, but this is from Lennox-Boyd, not Churchill. But fair enough, accept it as likely. That is the only instance.

The term “wog” (“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,”28 he replied disparagingly. In 1954, writing about a Labour Party visit to China, he said, “I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails.”29 Total slurs on other Easterners: three.

Italians

The term “Eye-ties” for “Italians” seems mild, though it’s often included with epithets Churchill is accused of. Yet the term is not among Churchill’s words. John Charmley’s excellent biography of Duff Cooper notes a “piece of ‘Eyetie-bashing.’” Duff told WSC, “We can never fail to defeat them soundly on the field of battle.”30 Whether the word is Charmley’s or Duff’s is uncertain, but 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. In January 1941, Churchill telegraphed General Smuts, “25,000 Wops in net”31 and allegedly spoke of the Japanese as “Wops of the Pacific.”32 (One of Churchill’s blind spots was his undervaluing Japanese and Chinese fighting prowess.) A month later, the PM was anxious for the safety of Anthony Eden and General Dill in the Middle East, “having regard to nasty habits of Wops and Huns.”33 This last quotation really tells the story. The terms may be offensive to Italians or Germans. But since neither Italy nor Germany is a race, they are not racial epithets.

Wholesale Hearsay

Churchill’s alleged racism was often ascribed by people quarreling with him. A distant second to Amery in derogatory hearsay is Desmond Morton, WSC’s 1930s advisor on German rearmament, who felt ignored and rejected after the war. In Sir Winston’s view, he wrote, “all Germans were Nazees, all Italians organ-grinders.”34 Inexplicably, Morton thought 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.”35

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 substituted, to stand as proof of Churchill’s hatred for Arabs.

On American Segregation

Another critique claims Churchill did nothing to discourage racial segregation among U.S. forces in Britain. A black official from the Colonial Office was barred from his favorite restaurant because it was patronized by white American officers. Churchill allegedly remarked, “That’s alright: if he takes a banjo with him they’ll think he’s one of the band.”36 Again this is hearsay, from the diaries of civil servant Alexander Cadogan. But assume it is true. How important is it, next to Churchill’s War Cabinet decision 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.37

Writing from Africa in 1908, Churchill declared: “No man has a right to be idle,” adding, “and I do not exempt the African.”38 Is this 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 this “quite superfluous” and “very socialistic.”39 Indeed, the establishment of his day often regarded Churchill as a dangerous radical.

Eminently Not “A Man of His Time”

After the Second World War, writing to South Africa’s racist Prime Minister D.F. Malan, Churchill jokingly proposed to say: “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 with a variety of meanings, but Churchill did not use it disparagingly.)40 In this case it is hearsay again. The comment was repeated by a private secretary, David Hunt.

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 its 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.41

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.

The racial epithets we directly trace to Churchill’s writings, speeches and private correspondence number in the handful.  Nor does his everyday language contain blatant racism. Here he is in My African Journey, 1908—a time when Gandhi was hoping South Africa would “remain white,” saying its blacks “live like animals.” Touring British East Africa, Churchill wrote:

For my own part I rejoice that the physical conditions of the country are such as to prevent the growth in the heart of happy Uganda of a petty white community, with the harsh and selfish ideas which mark the jealous contact of races and the exploitation of the weaker. Let it remain a “planters’ land.” Let the planters, instead of being the agents of excited syndicates with minds absorbed in the profits of shareholders thousands of miles away, be either Europeans of substance and character who have given proofs of their knowledge of natives and their ability to deal skilfully and justly with them, or better still—say I—let them be the disinterested officers of the Government, directing the development of the country neither in their own, nor any other pecuniary interest, but for the general good of its people and of the Empire of which it forms a part.42

Such words in 1908 must have struck some of Churchill’s contemporaries as revolutionary. But as Dr. Larry Arnn has said, most great leaders have been rebels.

Churchill’s defenders should stop using the empty excuse that he was “just a man of his time.” He was far more than that. Examples43 of his belief in equal rights range from age 25 to 80. The paucity of racial epithets in his own speech meshes 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.

The author

Richard M. Langworth of Moultonborough, New Hampshire, has been Senior Fellow for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project since 2014. In 1968 he founded the International Churchill Society and its journal, Finest Hour, which he edited for 34 years. He is the author of editor of 57 books, ten on Churchill, including the definitive quotation book, Churchill by Himself, soon to appear in an expanded fifth edition. In 1998 HM The Queen named him a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his work in remembrance of Winston Churchill and contributions to Anglo-American understanding. This article first appeared in Grand Alliance: Churchill Studies at Hillsdale College, vol. 1, and is republished here by kind permission of the Churchill Project.

Endnotes

  1. Dan Jones, “Becoming a Victorian,” The Spectator, London, 20 March 2010, https://bit.ly/3AorDJB, accessed 2 July 2020.
  2. Sarvepalli Gopal, “Churchill and India,” in Robert Blake and William Roger Louis, Churchill: A Major New Assessment of his Life in Peace and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 464.
  3. Richard Toye, “Churchill’s Empire,” The New York Times, 12 August 2010, https://nyti.ms/3haYgml, accessed 15 June 2020.
  4. According to Violet Bonham-Carter, quoted in Paul Addison, Churchill: The Unexpected Hero (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 232.
  5. According to Leopold Amery, diary for 12 November 1942, in John Barnes and David Nicholson, eds., The Amery Diaries, 2 vols. (London: Hutchinson, 1988), II 842. Hereinafter Amery Diaries.
  6. Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994), 214.
  7. Geoffrey Best, Churchill: A Study in Greatness (London: Hambledon & London, 2001), 138.
  8. Leopold Amery to his wife, 5 January 1912, Amery Diaries, I, 84.
  9. John 8:7.
  10. Winston S. Churchill (hereinafter WSC), Marlborough: His Life and Times, vol. 2 (London: Harrap, 1934), 387; vol. 3 (1936), 390.
  11. Leopold Amery, 7 February 1943, Amery Diaries II, 872.
  12. Charles Moran, Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965 (London: Constable, 1966), passim.
  13. Ibid., 692.
  14. WSC to Eisenhower, 8 August 1954, in Peter G. Boyle, Peter, ed. The Churchill-Eisenhower Correspondence 1953-1955 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 167. WSC, The People’s Rights (London: Hodder & Stoughton), 1910), 172.
  15. William Manchester, “Mencken, Churchill and Generational Chauvinism,” Finest Hour 66, First Quarter 1990, 21.
  16. Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, 213. R.A. Butler, The Art of the Possible (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1971), 111.
  17. WSC to his mother, 22 March 1898, in Randolph S. Churchill, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 2, Young Soldier 1896-1901 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2006), 894.
  18. Amery Diaries, II, 832.
  19. Ibid., 842
  20. William F. Buckley, Jr., 1995 International Churchill Conference, Boston, in Richard M. Langworth, Churchill by Himself (London: Ebury Press, 2008), 164.
  21. Tirthankar Roy, How British Rule Changed India’s Economy: The Paradox of the Raj (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 130.
  22. WSC, The Hinge of Fate (London: Cassell, 1950), 182.
  23. Amery Diaries, II, 988.
  24. WSC to Anthony Eden, 30 January 1952, in Martin Gilbert and Larry Arnn, eds., The Churchill Documents, vol. 23, Never Flinch, Never Weary, October 1951-February 1965 (Hillsdale College Press, 2019), 247.
  25. Charles Moran, Struggle for Survival, entry for 19 January 1952, 394.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, 215.
  28. Ibid., 214.
  29. According to Violet Bonham-Carter, quoted in Paul Addison, Churchill: The Unexpected Hero (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 232.
  30. John Charmley, Duff Cooper: The Authorized Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986), 142.
  31. WSC to Jan Smuts, 12 January 1941, in Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 16, The Ever-Widening War, 1941 (Hillsdale College Press, 2011), 69.
  32. See Warren F. Kimball, Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill and the Second World War (London: Harper 1997) 126.
  33. WSC to Sir Michael Palairet, 12 February 1941, in Gilbert, Ever-Widening War, 212.
  34. R.W. Thompson, Churchill and Morton: The Quest for Insight in the Correspondence of Major Sir Desmond Morton and the Author (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976), 194.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Reported by Alexander Cadogan, 13 October 1942, in David Dilks, ed., The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan 1938-1945 (London: Cassell, 1971), 483.
  37. Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 17, Testing Times 1942 (Hillsdale College Press, 2013), 1278.
  38. Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, 212.
  39. WSC to the King, 10 February 1911, in Randolph. S. Churchill, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 4, Minister of the Crown 1907-1911 (Hillsdale College Press, 2007), 1037.
  40. Sir David Hunt interview, Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, 214. The Oxford English Dictionary lists numerous meanings of “kaffir,” originally a religious pejorative. OED Online, https://bit.ly/3zI5d4U, accessed 26 July 2021.
  41. WSC, House of Commons, 13 April 1954, in Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 17, 1538.
  42. WSC, My African Journey (1908; London: Leo Cooper, 1989), 127-28.
  43. The following articles may be found using the search box on the Hillsdale College Churchill Project website, https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/:

 

Larry P. Arnn, “Churchill and Socialism,” 2019

Arthur Herman, “Absent Churchill, the Bengal Famine would have been worse,” 2017

Richard M. Langworth, “Was Churchill a White Supremacist?,” 2019

_______, “‘The Art of the Possible’: Churchill, South Africa and Apartheid,” 2020

Zareer Masani, “Churchill and the Genocide Myth: Last Word on the Bengal Famine,” 2021

Terry Reardon, “Winston Churchill as Barbaric Monster in the Toronto Star,” 2018

Soren Geiger, “Winston Churchill the Racist War Criminal,” 2018

Andrew Roberts, “Stop this Trashing of our National Monuments,” 2020

 

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Richard M. Langworth