Friday, November 4, 2011

Britain Evaluates its Empire

The Lake District is my favourite part of Britain, so it was nice to spend last week-end in its beautiful environs.  The weather was respectable by ‘Britain-in-late-October’ standards, and we met only a couple of sporadic showers and gusts between Keswick and Buttermere. 

But if the hilltops and ridges and lakes and valleys are the main draws of the Lakes, I also remember it as the place that directed me on my research agenda.  It might seem strange that a quintessentially introspectively English place would suggest the study of wildlife policy in the British Empire, but the thought did in fact take root in the basement of the Kendal Museum.


The bear-pit atmosphere of the Cambridge Union Society was a far cry from the peacefulness of the Cumbrian Mountains, but bearing in mind my interest in imperialism, I was interested to see what Jeremy Paxman of Newsnight had to say about the subject, based on his new book, Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British.  Academic historians, however noble their labours, are generally not very successful at reaching the public, and so, suspecting that more people will have their views influenced by Paxman’s book than by the collected works of people who spend their whole lives studying the subject, I was keen to see what version of the Empire people would be getting from Paxman, and how they would react to it. 

The seating arrangements and ceremonies were being handled by a youth with immaculately dishevelled hair (undoubtedly a Boris Johnson in the making).  I’ve come to recognise the look...its wearer spends as much time ensuring that each hair is fashionably out of place as Mitt Romney does transforming his locks into a glimmering helmet capable of repelling the most concerted attacks from deranged Texans, insane pizza moguls and nutty Minnesotans who look like they’ve just come from a staring contest with an Aye-Aye. 

Paxman, like all good celebrities, kept us waiting.  His shtick is to affect to find it all dreadfully boring, and though he is a commanding speaker, he leaves the impression that he has something better he could be doing than talking to a bunch of witless, drooling idiots for an asking some helpless interviewee the same question over and over and over and over and over again...

His premise was roughly as follows.  In schools today, the British Empire is treated as one of history’s Bad Things, best forgotten altogether, and so in the popular mind is in danger of being reduced to an image of white men with moustaches (Paxman was slightly obsessed with the moustaches), khaki shorts, long socks and pith helmets sitting around drinking tea in the mid-day sun.

But, he argued, in the form of institutions, relations with other parts of the world, and mindsets, the Empire remains with Britain.  It is the source, he suggested, of the view that there are “things to be done in the world that we are uniquely capable of doing”.  He suggested, as is common, that the Empire was an accidental sort of creation, which came about through a mix of greed, philanthropy, a bit of planning and some rapacity.  But that there was no grand plan, and it was all down to a bunch of individuals muddling about, each with their own agendas.  The Indian Mutiny, as it was then called, and the Abolition campaign were spurs to the British to imbue their territorial acquisition with some kind of purpose.  And though racial superiority played a role, Paxman owned, more important was a kind of civic superiority (the trouble with this interpretation, of course, is that in the minds of imperialists and the publics to which they preached, the two were deeply intertwined). 
It was this civic-mindedness that, for good or ill suggested Paxman, led the British to take command over their Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century, nationalise it, remove control from private companies, and to attempt, however clumsily or violently, to imbue it with a purpose (he didn’t quite say that this purpose was noble or good—no less what exactly it was!, but you get the impression that he was sympathetic to it).  And because the Empire made Britain so wealthy, it shaped the country’s economic destiny for much of the next century. 

That story is a nice one, and not as obnoxious as Niall Ferguson’s, because Paxman isn’t cheerleading for the Empire, and in an obvious shot at the neocons’ darling, said that it is stupid to think that you can empower people by colonising them.  But it’s incomplete and in some respects inaccurate.  There was no master plan for Empire, that much is true.  But the same processes, nearly always physically violent, universally exploitative and appropriative, generally destructive of other societies and dismissive of other ways of life, took place wherever the British expanded abroad.  There was a common set of agendas, and the Livingstones aside, they were by and large not nice ones.  And private companies continued to play a huge role in colonialism in swathes of Africa well into the twentieth century. 

It is also true that the Empire made Britain wealthy.  Or that the Empire made some people and some interests in Britain wealthy.  The Empire, as it grew in the later nineteenth century, was actually a drain on capital that ceased to be invested in Britain’s manufacturing sectors or in the public or society at large, and which accrued in a powerful financial sector centring on the City of London (where today large numbers of people are gathered to protest the inequities of amoral market forces that the Empire helped to spread).  So the wealth was narrowly directed, and was accumulated according to priorities which had precious little to do with the livelihoods of most Britons.

There were questions from the audience, and they were more or less what I would have expected.  Was the Empire a  Good or Bad Thing?  Were the British good at modernising other people?  Would a global Empire sort out our problems today? etc

Paxman ended with a story about a hippopotamus that was gifted to the nation by an Egyptian in 1849.  Crowds gathered in London to gawk at the beast, and Paxman used this image to suggest that the most enduring legacy of Empire was its generation of the “sense that somehow the world was [Britons’] oyster”, a sentiment which remains as the country works out where its loyalties and interests lie today.

But when I think of a living being making the journey from Africa to a strange, rainy land far away, it is inevitably of Saartjie Baartman, a young Khoisan woman kidnapped at the Eastern Cape in present-day South Africa, enslaved, and then shipped off to London in 1810 to be exhibited as a freak before audiences.  She was then taken to Paris, where she died, was carved up by French anatomists, publicly displayed until the 1970s, and her remains only returned to South Africa in 2002.  The social, economic and political forces which made possible the violent abduction of a young woman, her humiliating display in a country far from her place of birth, and the casual treatment of her remains well into the twentieth century, tells me all that I need to know about the perils of valourising the British Empire.   

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