Thursday, 25 February 2010

Thoughts of Empire

On reading Kipling I used to wonder to what extent, if at all, the overseas Empire impacted on the consciousness of British people at the time. The simple answer is far less than is imagined; far less than those in the school of Edward Said would have us believe. Indeed, for the best part of the nineteenth century it hardly impacted at all. The patriotic concept of Empire was a relatively late creation, really only emerging when a sense of crisis set in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.

In high culture it hardly features at all, and no major novel of the day has an imperial theme. In architecture the 'Imperial style', if such an expression can even be used, effectively disappears after the time of George IV, as Britain adopted the same Greco-Roman fashion preferred throughout the western world, non-imperial societies included. Even in boys' fiction the subject of Empire is almost completely avoided before the advent of G. A. Henty. R. M. Ballantyne's 1858 novel Coral Island is 'exotic', rather than imperial, as indeed are the works of Rider Haggard. The stories and poems of Rudyard Kipling were a relatively late addition to the literary canon, and his enthusiasm for Empire is in large measure explained by the fact that he was born in India. The general indifference in Britain itself was a source of frustration to some, including the historian J. R. Seeley, who complained that the Empire seemed to have been acquired "in a fit of absent-mindedness."

Native British lack of enthusiasm for the project of Empire is, in large measure, explained by the educational system of the day, which placed no importance whatsoever on international affairs and contemporary politics. In 1902, when a Member of Parliament asked a class of school leavers who among them had heard of the Indian Mutiny, only one boy raised his hand.

It is also important to realise that British schools, unlike those in the United States, placed almost no value on the importance of patriotism. Indeed, the British political elite tended to view any enthusiasm of this kind with a high degree of suspicion, because of its association, via the French Revolution, with republicanism and democracy. British people belonged to specific social classes, and classes had duties, not rights. The upper classes were taught to rule, at both home and abroad; the lower classes were taught to obey; and the middle-classes were taught how to create wealth. Empire was merely a distraction. In 1893, Lord Kimberly, himself former Colonial Secretary, when asked if children should not be given some lessons in imperial patriotism, said that they would be better off "given practical lessons in the geography of their own localities rather than being shown maps [of the Empire] they are not well versed in, and which do not convey much to their minds."

One also has to consider the nature of the British Empire itself to understand why it played so small part in the consciousness of the nation. The 'Imperial Red' maps-which did not start to appear until the 1880s-are actually quite deceptive, suggesting something centralised and unified, like the ancient Roman or the modern Russian Empires. The British Empire, in contrast, was possibly the most decentralised in history, in that a good part was administered by local elites, which meant that it could be maintained at the minimum of cost, and with the minimum of personnel. In other words, no national effort was required to sustain it. The small class of Imperial Civil Servants was proud of their exclusivity: it was their Empire, not 'the peoples'.

These attitudes began to change somewhat by the beginning of the twentieth century, at the time of the Second Boer War and after, when the Empire came under threat from rival powers and home-grown nationalism. It was only at this time that the imperial propaganda movement got underway. But apart from brief bursts of enthusiasm, the general response remained muted. In 1911 an executive of the Victoria League remarked of a lecture given at the Workers Educational Association that the "audience gave the impression of suspicion, of hostility to the subject and of considerable indifference to the conditions prevailing in the colonies."

Yes, the Empire was there, yes it had important economic and political consequences; but the deeper sense it was like an iceberg-virtually invisible until the very last moment.


  1. As a man, totally devoid of all historical knowledge, context, and perhaps more importantly, class - I would have ruled the foreigners with a good dose of green tea, horse raddish, and hobnobs. The best way to run an empire is to convince the colonials to colonise themselves, and nothing says imperialism like a biccie, cupa, and lightly warmed fire. It was easy for us, damn fuckin easy :P! We just ran out of sweeties.... lol.

  2. I'll have to apologise for that bizarre reply, I was horribly drunk at the time of writing!

  3. Don't worry about it. It made a kind of sense. I make no sense at all when I've been drinking. :-))