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Sven Lindqvist begins his short, vital, disturbing Exterminate All The Brutes with the words,  “You already know enough.  So do I.  It is not knowledge we lack.  What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” 

Described as one of the most important authors in modern Swedish literature, Lindqvist died in 2019, leaving us unsettling reminders of human behavior in the world. Though he was drawn to travel writing and did it excellently, and in his early years lived in China and wrote of Tang dynasty painters, by the 1990s he had turned his considerable powers to European imperialism, colonialism, racism, and war.

Exterminate All the Brutes was published in English in 1992.  It was followed by The Skull Measurer’s Mistake: And Other Portraits of Men and Women Who Spoke Out Against Racism in 1996.  Perhaps his best known, A History of Bombing, appeared in 1999.  The last of his books to appear in English is Terra Nullius, about the impact of white settlers on the Australian landscape and its aboriginal population.

“Exterminate all the Brutes,” was taken from the last words which Kurtz, in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, scrawled on his report about the natives of Africa he had been living with, as overlord.  The book itself, a bit of an odd combination of Lindquist travel writing of North Africa, and his researches into Colonial depredations on the continent has a particular aim: Germans, he argues,

“have been made the sole scapegoats for ideas of extermination that are actually a common European heritage.” 


When Hitler set about his Lebensraum he had the British Empire as a model. 

Europeans of the seventeenth century  “were regarded at the time as nomadic warrior in the style of the Mongols and the Tartars.  They reigned supreme from the backs of horses, we from the decks of ships.”  By the mid eighteen hundreds, Robert Fulton’s newly invented steamboats – another of those canonical proofs of progress– were carrying naval cannons deep into Asia and Africa: Imperial conquest began in earnest.


Several succinct pages tie the history of armed aggression against non Europeans to advances in armaments.  From crude early muskets, which even village blacksmiths could manufacture, the British developed the Enfield rifles, effective at 500 yards, instead of the musket’s 100; the breech loading rifle increased the speed of firing, the brass cartridge increased the range of the bullet and suppressed the identifying puff of  smoke, making the shooter less visible… the Maxim gun was soon to follow.  Firing eleven bullets a second it ensured Kitchner’s victory over the Islamist forces resisting the British Empire at the battle of  Omdurman in the Sudan. Hollow point bullets, called the Dum-Dum, were also used for the first time.  The battle toll was Sudanese – 11,000 dead; British – 48.  Of the 16,000 wounded Sudanese, few or none survived the shootings that followed.

Winston Churchill, not yet the savior of England from the Nazis, but a mere reporter, rode in with the 21st Lancers.  Exciting stuff.  

“Nothing like the battle of Omdurman will ever be seen again. It was the last link in the long chain of those spectacular conflicts whose vivid and majestic splendour has done so much to invest war with glamour.”  he wrote in My Early Life (1930) the first volume of his autobiography.

Robert Clayton Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, was an officer in the Fourth Ashanti War. To his disappointment, he did not fire a shot.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the outing, except for the want of a fight, which I fear will preclude our getting any medals.” he wrote to his mother.


The Ashanti king, King Prempeh, and his mother, however, were made to crawl on their knees to offer their submission to British Officers sitting above them.  Illustrations were prominently featured in all the British press.


Taken up with all the excitement, these colonial wars were extolled by Rudyard Kipling in such poems as Fuzzy-Wuzzy,  in Captain H.R. Bacon’s Benin-City of Blood (1897), and Churchill’s The River War (1899), along with a series of boys’ adventure novels by G.A. Henty, one titled With Kitchener in the Soudan (1903).  Henry Morgan Stanley, of “Dr. Livingston, I presume,” fame (1871) seemingly repeated his Africa derring-do with the utterly bizarre rescue of Emin Pasha in 1889 from the “Dervishes,”  the same resistance movement Kitchner would decimate ten years later at Omdurman.  Stanley’s second “success” enthralled the European press for weeks.  Festivities for him at King Leopold’s welcoming banquet went on for five days.  His book about the adventure In Darkest Africa (1890) was an instant best seller.  His work for King Leopold II of Belgium, setting up the murderous rubber plantations of the Belgian Congo, went unremarked at the time, unless a good story of a strong white man could be gotten from it. 


Woven in with these stories of Imperial adventuring, romantic battles far from home, and the nearly universal feelings of British pride, are the few who did not celebrate, who saw and were appalled and wrote about it, Joseph Conrad first among them. His “Outcast of the Islands” (1896)  has “invisible whites” who kill without even being present.  This was followed by  “The Outpost of Progress“, a short piece about two adventures, slave trading, and disaster in the Congo was published in 1897.  The story of Marlow and Kurtz, in The Heart of Darkness,  was in formation at the time of Stanley’s “rescue” of Enim Pasha.  In Conrad’s telling, however, the monster Kurtz, the man to be saved, more resembles Stanley, the “savior” than Emin Pasha.  H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau,(1896) could be read, likely not by everybody, as a tale of colonialism.  His The Invisible Man (1897), also about colonialism, may well have been triggered by his reading of Conrad.   War of the Worlds (1898) which scared the bejesus out of those who heard a 1938 broadcast of it, referred in the opening pages to British behavior at the time: “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”  A journal by a Swedish missionary published as In The Shade of the Palms, found notice in 1897 among religious groups organized as The Aborigines Protection Society. In 1897 damning diary entries of E.J. Glave, an early Congo explorer,  were published.  National enthusiasm for these “splendid little wars” remained high, however, until the War to End All Wars,1914 – 1918, brought home the real meaning of war to the once enthusiastic British . 


The Germans. desperate to catch up to the other Imperial nations, took their lessons from their rivals.  The founder of the German East Africa colony (now part of Tanzania), Carl Peters, when a messenger was sent from the chief of the Vagogo, had him whipped with the chicotte, the hippo whip.  When the Sultan again asked for peace, Peters’ reply, by his own account was,

“The Sultan shall have peace, but Eternal peace. I shall show the Vagogo what the Germans are! Plunder the villages, throw fire into the houses, and smash everything that will not burn.” 

In Southwest Africa, in the first years of the new century the Germans followed the American example of “Indian removal,” and the Spanish of campos de concentración, and banished the Herero people to reservations.  The Herero resisted, and died in the thousands.  The official German account of the war put it bluntly:

“The month-long sealing of desert areas, carried out with iron severity, completed the work of annihilation … The death rattles of the dying and their insane screams of fury…resounded in the sublime silence of infinity.” 

Added to the toxic brew of mechanized transport, superior arms, and  greed exploding with visions of wealth with no end, were the rising sciences of human history, biology, culture and, above all, evolution.  Darwin’s shattering theory was published in 1859. It didn’t take long for educated “gentleman scientists” to spin it into “scientific” explanation for the domination of the white races.  As Lindquist writes,

“Prejudice against alien peoples has always existed.  But in the middle of the nineteenth century, these prejudices were given organized form and apparent scientific motivation.” 

While a century earlier the Spaniards had been seen as blood thirsty and cruel in their conquest of the Americas, now, new explanations were needed. “At first it was thought to be divine intervention … later, religious explanations were replaced with biological ones  – some racial law of nature.  That the natives died proved that they belonged to a lower race.”  Let them die as the laws of progress demanded, people said 

The co-founder of the theory of evolution along with Darwin, Alfred Wallace Russel, was quite plain:

“The eradication of the lower races was justified, for it would gradually reduce the differences between races until the world would again be inhabited by one single, noblest example of the humanity of the day.  That is what Wallace believed.” 

Even Darwin himself, though unhappy with the largest claims, was not exempt. In The Descent of Man (1871) he writes

“At some future period not very distant as measured in centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.” 


The most famous public intellectual of the age, Herbert Spencer, as a young man a flag bearer of the magnificence of progress, a believer in women’s suffrage and the use of nationalized land to break the power of the aristocracy, soon bent towards libertarian ideas of the “withering away of the state,” (the free markets would solve all) .  He introduced the idea of “social Darwinism” and it was he who coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” not Darwin — by which he meant man in society as much as beasts in the wild.  


Reading Exterminate All the Beasts changes you, as Adam Hochschild has said, and it did, him.  His history shattering King Leopold’s Ghost was published in 1998, the Battle of Omdurman is featured in his 2011 To End All Wars.

It has now affected another talented storyteller – Raoul Peck —  who used it as his motivating source for his four-part HBO series, of the same name “Exterminate All the Brutes.” (About which, more later.) 
The closing words in Lindqvist’s book, are those of the opening:

“You already know enough.  So do I.  It is not knowledge we lack.  What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”