Winston Churchill has as good a claim as anyone to have been the greatest statesman of the 20th century. Yet while his reputation is secure, it has never been uncontested. In his lifetime he was denounced at various times by Communists and Nazis, reactionaries and progressives, including many members of both the parties which he represented at one time or another. Now he is often criticised as an imperialist or a Zionist, blamed for famine in India, and has “racist” graffiti daubed on his statue in Westminster. Does he deserve the insults of posterity any more than he did those of his contemporaries?
A good place to look for an answer to this question is Churchill’s early book The River War, a new edition of which has recently been released by St. Augustine’s Press. He was only 24 when he wrote this Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, yet he was already a seasoned veteran of conflict in two continents: a soldier, a war correspondent, and a published author, all of which he saw as preparation for a political career. Above all, he was a Victorian, with the attitudes of his era. Only an extraordinary man could have achieved so much at such a tender age, but in the England of 1899, jingoistic assumptions about the superiority of “civilised” peoples were all too ordinary and the young Winston should be judged accordingly.