The British Empire was never quite what you thought: John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire
Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.
- “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
- “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”
They were not rhetorical questions, but they were telling. Sort of Pythonlike ’whatever have the British done for us?’ questions. Answer came there none. For, from a purely pragmatic perspective, there were some (if not many) things that the British got right. But please don’t misunderstand. There were plenty of travesties and injustices along the way, not to mention the appalling tribal caricatures and divisions which were inculcated by colonialism. The racist assumptions endemic in the systems they set up are clearly indefensible. So my friend could easily have posed a number of other pointed questions which would have got his audience fulminating at the colonial legacy. The point is that any simple interpretative grid to apply to history is both unfeasible and unhelpful.
That is the beauty of this recent book by John Darwin, Unfinished Empire. He resists any reactionary, Kiplingesque nostalgia for empire and is quite explicit about failures and horrors; but he also rejects a simplistic Marxist critique of imperialism which is blind to any benefits or realities. Instead he charts the extraordinary phenomenon that was the British empire (which arguably lasted almost 500 years, from 1497 when John Cabot landed in Newfoundland to 19997 when Chris Patten left Hong Kong). Its scope, power, wealth and durability, despite everything, were unique in human history.
Diversity of Empire
Instead of writing a straight chronological narrative, however, Darwin opts for a more intriguing, thematic, arrangement. The book is ordered around the ‘life pattern’ of each colony – so that in the early chapters he compares the discoveries and origins of, say, the American and African colonies, then progressing onto consolidation and infrastructure in subsequent chapters, followed by comparisons of various rebellions, successful (e.g. American) and not so (e.g. the Indian Mutiny). I suppose this entails some degree of understanding of the overarching chronology of the empire before reading, but not much. But the advantage of the structure is that it enables the reader to grasp the experience of the empire, as opposed to a raw succession of dates (although just very occasionally, it can degenerate into lists of e.g. wars fought).
The culmination of all this is the remarkable assessment (only remarkable when the British empire is contrasted with other far more monolithic and normative empires such as the ancient Roman or modern Soviet).
Far from being the mere handiwork of kings and conquistadors, it was largely a private-enterprise empire. (p xi)
The hallmark of British imperialism was its extraordinary versatility in method, outlook and object. (p388)
This is evident from the huge range of approaches to pre-British power structures, environments and cultures. A case in point comes from the differences between the Dominions (Canada, Aus, NZ and South Africa), India (the Jewel in the Crown was always a form all its own), the Asian cities (Hong Kong), and the East African or the Caribbean colonies. This is not to mention the soft power of the Empire which extended far beyond the borders of the map’s pink countries: South America was never part of the Empire, but British money was heavily invested there:
Above all, by 1900, the British owned railways from the grand Oeste in Argentina, or the highly profitable San Paulo, to the humbler Bolivar in Venezuela. These British possessions were managed in the City, not from Whitehall. By 1913, they made up nearly one quarter of Britain’s huge fund of overseas wealth, part of the secret of imperial survival in two world wars. (p87)
The world really was Britain’s oyster – because in large part of its pragmatic willingness to do and use whatever worked, rather than a dogmatic insistence of imperial structures. This had surprising consequences. For instance, the creators of India’s National Congress (a generation before Gandhi) were calling for more autonomy and rights for Indians, but within the empire. They sought Dominion status not independence (which after all, many South American countries had won during the 19th Century from Spain and Portugal). This very diversity, then, demands a more nuanced historical analysis, and Darwin offers this with brilliance, concision and insight. It is a truly fascinating read.
Curiosities of Empire
Along the way, the text is peppered with fascinating details (as one would expect and hope):
- Compared to other European powers (notably Spain), Britain was late to the party. This included slavery. In a grim irony, the first English ship to transport African slaves to sell to the Spanish in the West Indies (in the 1560s) was captained by a man called Hawkins and was named Jesus. (p41)
- After the Battle of Waterloo, Britain remained globally dominant on sea and on land (Napoleon had been their only real land threat before). They would be dominant for almost 100 years. So for instance, this meant that when the Mauritius and Sri Lanka were held by Britain, the Indian Ocean became ‘a British lake’. (p73)
- It wasn’t just military might, but financial might. ‘By 1913 perhaps half the world’s total of foreign investment had been raised in London.’ (p184)
- Because of the unique and almost absurd geopolitics of the British Empire, constant judgment calls were required to determine which pink bits needed most urgent attention. One of the most strategic points was the Egypt and the Suez canal (because it protected the fastest route to India and Asia), which Darwin rather delightfully calls the ‘Clapham Junction of Empire’ (p310)
At the root of all these was the peculiar geography of British expansion. The shape of Britain’s empire reversed every notion of military logic… But if this was the model of designer-imperialism, the British version of empire was a ridiculous parody. Its head and centre lay only twenty-two miles from what had usually been its most dangerous enemy. Its most valuable territories were not compact provinces arrayed close to the centre but lay on the other side of the world, six months away by sail, and at least three weeks by steam. After 1860, nearly half the British army was stationed in British cantonments, many miles and days from the nearest seaport. Much of the empire, with the exception of India and Canada, resembled a vast archipelago strewn round the world from Hong Kong to the Falkland Islands. ‘The British empire is, for the purpose of a war with any Power except Russia and the United States, equivalent to a number of islands scattered over the oceans,’ remarked a Late Victorian expert. (p306)
- When Macmillan’s ‘wind of change swept through Africa, decolonisation happened with remarkable speed. Darwin has rather a nice, if perhaps rightly acerbic, description:
So once the die of decolonization was cast and the timetable decided, they had every incentive to display an obsequious gratitude for the British ‘gift’ of their freedom. The transfers of power were thus amicable, stately affairs, decorated by royalty. It was a pleasing pantomime in which all could delight. (p373)
There is a very interesting section on missionaries (pp 279-290), who have often been derided as imperial stooges. There’s little doubt that the relationship between mission and imperialism is complex, fraught and at times detrimental. It would never do today to appropriate David Livingstone’s (right) explicit intention to bring ‘Christianity, commerce and civilisation’ to the heathen. (p67) And many contemporaries would now wholeheartedly agree with Lord Salisbury who remarked that a missionary was ‘a religious Englishman with a mission to offend the religious feelings of the natives’ (p279).
Nevertheless, Darwin is surprisingly sympathetic to missionaries, at least in terms of the stresses and challenges of their vocation. He notes (with reference to the likes of William Carey and Hudson Taylor):
Missionary work, it turned out, had little appeal for the comfortably off. Those who stepped forward came from the artisan class, literate and respectable but not highly educated. (p281)
There are not many renowned exceptions (apart from perhaps CT Studd and the Cambridge Seven). Perhaps as a result, they could never be part of the colonial, officer class, and thus occupied a difficult middle point:
Far from enjoying unchallenged moral and religious authority, the missionary found himself uneasily poised between those he was meant to convert, the official men on the spot, an often hostile settler opinion, and his sponsors at home, eager for news of his spiritual triumphs. The strain was sometimes unbearable. (p 280)
Living after Empire
All in all, this book is simply superb. Fair and careful, scholarly but readable, with a feel for the broad sweep and the individual detail. We can’t escape our past – and there’s little hint here of a nostalgia or call to turn clocks back. But we are what we have been – and that is something we must come to terms with, not least because of the multicultural Britain of the twenty-first century (with all the glories and challenges that this entails). For if people(s) bear grievances about the past, it is vital to take them seriously by seeking to understand them. Without that, cohesion is impossible.
Books like this will go a long way to informing and contextualising such memories – and therefore need to be read widely.