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Swellboy on… the British Empire

Britain’s imperial past is the Swiss Army knife of history

Swellboy on… the British Empire

Image: Brijesh Patel

September 01 2011
Nick Foulkes

The British Empire is the gift that keeps on giving; at least to historians. The empire itself is fading into history, with such festivals as Empire Day something that is a distant memory to people of my father’s generation. Most of the last 60-odd years has been spent getting out of the empire: as a young airman, my father-in-law participated in the British retreat from Aden: the way he tells it, there was a party every night as the British base pulled out, using a different house each evening for the knees-up, in the reverse of the American custom for house-painting parties. Occasionally I will meet someone from India who tells me that things haven’t been the same since we left and who generally seems to hold me personally responsible for the end of the Raj, but on the whole the idea that we were once even capable of running a large part of the world seems bizarre; we now have a problem maintaining public order on the streets of London during the school holidays.

Perhaps it is the sheer strangeness of the idea that this otherwise unremarkable and rather damp island off the coast of Europe managed anything on the scale of the British Empire that accounts for the tide of literature that just keeps on coming. Called Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, the most recent volume on the subject would appear to dwell, none too favourably, on the British record in half a dozen of the bits of the world that used to be pink.

I hear that it is a well written thing and I am interested to get hold of it. My favourite account so far is the truly imperial-sized Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon, which thumps onto the shelf at a little shy of 800 pages. It is a while since I read it and on the whole I seem to recall that Brendon believes the empire was on the slide pretty much before I even thought it got going. But I suppose he has a point; after all, losing America was a touch on the careless side.

I reckon that what appeals to the modern historian about the British Empire is the size. It is so big, sprawling over centuries and continents, that it can be used to peddle any particular line you want. The author of Ghosts of Empire does not seem to entertain an overly high opinion of the state in which we left Iraq, or Sudan, and it has to be said that given the choice between Shepherd’s Bush, Khartoum or Baghdad, W12 would win every time. Nevertheless a different conclusion might be reached if one were to focus on other of our former possessions: Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for example, seem to have got along all right since they struggled out from underneath the yoke of imperialist oppression (although on balance I still prefer Shepherd’s Bush). The British Empire is the Swiss Army knife of history: tyranny, enlightenment, bigotry, cruelty, valour… you name it. You can view it militarily, gastronomically, economically, politically, industrially, culturally…

As far as I can tell, the only certain thing about empires is that they Decline and Fall, always have, always will, and even fairly early on there were those who questioned the actions of those who ran the British Empire. Take Warren Hastings, who, on his return from India, where he had been governor general, went on trial before the House of Lords in 1788. The result was an astonishing compromise after being described as, among other things, “the captain-general of iniquity”, a “ravenous vulture devouring the carcases of the dead”, and being paid similar compliments; he was acquitted in 1795.

There are ogres: Sir Reginald Wingate used to celebrate the battle of Omdurman by drinking champagne on every anniversary of the battle until 1953; it was not so much the champagne as the fact that it was served in the skull of the Sudanese khalifa.

And there are of course romantic idealists of the ilk of Lawrence, who, to make a point at the peace conference after the First World War, took to the skies above Paris with King Faisal of Iraq and dropped cushions – and I suppose it is such things as the use of soft furnishings as an instrument of diplomacy that I find so compelling. Just what were we thinking?

In a review of Ghosts of Empire, Dominic Sandbrook cites the killer statistic that between 1902 and 1914, of 56 recruits to the Sudan political service, a “staggering 27 had an Oxford or Cambridge Blue”. I suppose it is mischievous to wonder whether he is suggesting that if more Oxbridge-educated sportsmen had been recruited to the service things might have gone better. To be honest, it would not surprise me if the next book about the British Empire is a 900-page analysis of the role of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in shaping the Empire.