A Bit of Bunting

A new history of the British Empire elevates expediency to principle

By Benjamin Schwarz

The greatest books on the largest empire in history were written in a seventeen-year period, from 1959 to 1976. Some of these works, such as Eric Stokes's The English Utilitarians and India and R. E. Frykenberg's Guntur District, 1788-1848, tackled discrete aspects of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to illuminate large and complex ideas; others, including A. P. Thornton's The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies, were sweeping in scope, as was the best of these books, and what I believe to be the best work of British historical scholarship in the twentieth century: Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher's Africa and the Victorians. Nearly all of them were written with verve and precision and were distinguished by a cool and elegant line of argument rare in works of scholarly history. Perhaps for this reason, or because they reached a public that, witnessing the final throes of "decolonization," was somewhat preoccupied with the subject, these books were read, or at least talked about, by far more people than is usual for such academic works. But since then the study of British imperial history—with some notable exceptions—has become, like so many other fields of historical scholarship, narrower in scope and more concerned with fitting, or forcing, contemporary "progressive" concerns onto the past. It has also attracted more than its share of godawful writers. Reading the British reviews of David Cannadine's Ornamentalism (published in the UK last spring), one of the most widely touted scholarly interpretations of British history in a decade (and showing every sign of being treated as an important and influential book in the United States), I hoped this trend would be reversed.

In the United States, Cannadine is probably the most popular serious historian of Britain. A professor at the University of London, formerly at Columbia, he is a smooth and often cheeky writer who has for more than two decades assessed and interpreted British history in the pages of The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and The New York Times. No British academic historian today, of course, enjoys the popularity among educated American readers that J. H. Plumb, A.J.P. Taylor, and Hugh Trevor-Roper had in the 1960s and 1970s. But Cannadine comes closest, perhaps because his highly regarded books examine in a sophisticated and often ironic way topics—aristocracy, royalty, and Winston Churchill among them—that appeal to a romantic American anglophilia. His latest book looks at a big subject and interprets it in a manner that both contradicts the prevailing wisdom in academe and is bound to pluck at those anglophilic heartstrings. Not for Cannadine the fashionable notion that the British Empire was, in his words, "primarily concerned with the production of derogatory stereotypes of other, alien, subordinated societies." Rather, he sees that empire—albeit in his characteristically arch manner, and using methods and a vocabulary academically au courant—in terms very similar to those of that great romantic imperialist Churchill, who loved the empire for its "glitter, pomp and iced champagne."

Cannadine argues in Ornamentalism that in the latter half of the nineteenth century "the British" (by which he means Britain's statesmen, policymakers, and imperial administrators) deliberately "replicated" in their empire the "deeply conservative" and "layered, ordered, hierarchical society" of Britain itself. The empire, he concludes, was "the vehicle for the extension of British social structures" across the globe. Genuinely sympathetic to tradition and aristocracy, the British, he maintains, sought to nurture, sustain, and "celebrate" native aristocracies—princes and landlords in India, tribal chiefs in western Africa and the Pacific, the khedive in Egypt, sheiks in the lands surrounding the Persian Gulf—and their concomitant traditional "Burkeian" societies and ways of life. Thus Cannadine, in what he maintains is a "new and original way" to "understand the British Empire," declares that it was "not exclusively about race or colour, but was also about class and status." He continues, in a florid manner befitting the proconsular splendor he lovingly and often wittily describes, "This in turn means that it was about antiquity and anachronism, tradition and honour, order and subordination; about glory and chivalry, horses and elephants, knights and peers, processions and ceremony, plumed hats and ermine robes."

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Cannadine is countering the currently favored view in academe, which is promulgated by a flatulent and often incoherent body of historical and literary scholarship known as colonial discourse theory. This scholarship, largely developed from arguments put forth by the literary theorist Edward Said in his enormously influential book Orientalism (1978), holds that, in Cannadine's words, "the British Empire was ... concerned with the creation of 'otherness' on the presumption that the imperial periphery was different from, and inferior to, the imperial metropolis." But even as he shuns this academically trendy thesis, Cannadine embraces its methods, approach, and vocabulary. As has become de rigueur in scholarly studies of imperialism, Cannadine supports his argument not primarily with documents, official and otherwise, written by policymakers in London and throughout the empire, but with what the Oxford History of the British Empire, in a chapter on colonial discourse theory, calls "the [cultural] artefacts of the colonial experience." For Cannadine these include accounts of public rituals, such as durbars (elaborate and brassy British-organized ceremonial meetings of Indian princes); the medallions, cummerbunds, and befeathered topees that adorned both colonial officials and their native ruling partners; and the honors, awards, and titles of byzantine complexity which the British bestowed on those partners.

Faddish, inelegant—and, worse, imprecise—academic jargon litters his book: "sacrilized," "privileging," "construct," "analogized"; twice he even gives us "analogized back." Most egregious is Cannadine's repeated use of "about," as in the passage quoted above. What does he mean when he asserts that the empire itself, or a method of rule, was "about" this and that? Is he maintaining that these were motivating forces? ("Horses" can't be a motivating force. Can "class"?) His dependence on this word often seems to lead Cannadine to confound flummery and policy, and also ends and means. To argue that the British used ornamental trappings as an instrument of rule is one thing; but to assert that, guided by what he calls their "Burkeian wisdoms and customary conservative modes," British statesmen and imperial administrators ran their empire as a sort of Colonial Williamsburg writ large, for the purpose of "safeguarding the traditional social order and preserving the traditional way of life" of the peoples they ruled, is quite another.

Traditional historians, even those who have argued that ideas deeply influenced imperial policy, have nevertheless discerned more fundamental and less abstract motives underlying that policy. Stokes, for example, saw that beneath the notions of the philosophers and imperial administrators Thomas Macaulay and James Mill regarding how to rule the Subcontinent, "the tide of British policy in India moved in the direction set by the development of the British economy." In a book ostensibly examining "how the British saw their empire," it is astonishing to find not a single reference to British anxieties regarding the nation's economic vitality or the changing European and global balance of power. Even Benjamin Disraeli, who secured for Queen Victoria the title Empress of India, and who largely invented the image of a romantic, "ornamental" empire, made clear that one of his primary purposes in promoting his vision of Britain as an imperial state was to enhance its position among the great powers.

In fact, the topics Cannadine addresses in Ornamentalism are a good deal less, and also a good deal more, complicated than he would have them. The obvious danger in concentrating on cultural artifacts rather than prosaic documents is that the trappings of power and rule become confused with the realities. The sort of ornaments on which Cannadine builds his argument were, after all, dismissed at the time as nothing more than (in the words of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt) "Dizzy's suit of imperial spangles." Disraeli himself saw the "amplification of titles," which Cannadine describes in loving detail, not as a profoundly conservative expression of Britain's love of hierarchy and admiration for the native aristocracies—as Cannadine insists—but merely as a flamboyant sop: "Orientals," he condescendingly observed, attach "enormous value to very slight distinctions." And Lord Lytton, the conservative viceroy whose elaborately choreographed durbar Cannadine interprets as Britain's homage to India's deeply rooted "feudal order" and to the princes who were both its "expression" and its "apogee," explained the ornateness of that ceremony in pragmatic, rather disdainful terms: "The further East you go, the greater becomes the importance of a bit of bunting."

Cannadine's elevation of expediency to principle and, consequently, his conflation of means and ends is nowhere clearer than in his assessment of "indirect rule"—Britain's regular (but far from exclusive) practice of governing or influencing societies and economies in Africa and Asia through, or in cooperation with, local elites. He explains this method thus:

Since most Britons came from what they believed to be a hierarchical society, it was natural for them, when doing business or negotiating power, to search for overseas collaborators from the top of the indigenous social spectrum, rather than from lower down ... The British chose the allies they did abroad because of the social conditioning and social perceptions they brought with them from home.

Choosing these local rulers as partners, he maintains, was "about [that word again] admiration rather than condescension ... so as to let tradition thrive and hierarchy flourish."

This is too elaborate. One doesn't have to be imbued with a love of tradition and hierarchy to recognize that it is usually best to "negotiat[e] power" with those who possess it. Nearly every empire in history has when possible maintained and worked through local hierarchies, because that is the commonsense way to run such an enterprise with a minimum of disturbance and expense. In Uganda during the 1890s, for example, twenty-five British officials asserted authority over three million people; absent collaboration with a local elite, in this case the Ganda aristocracy, a mere handful of British administrators could never have governed a tropical possession. Far from feeling a sentimental commitment to traditional elites and ways of life, British policymakers concerned with Africa (where indirect rule was most fully put into practice) would have often preferred to overthrow those elites, who were opposed to the modernization that would have been in Britain's economic (and not infrequently moral) interest to effect, had this not been too expensive and dangerous. Moreover, although pragmatism often dictated that the British collaborate with indigenous elites, the British evinced not the sentimental attachment to local aristocrats that Cannadine sees but, usually, condescension and contempt toward what were often regarded as puppet regimes. The British viewed Egyptian aristocrats, for example, as brutal and ineffectual. And although Cannadine characterizes Britain's "attachment" to Egypt's khedive as "patrician, romantic and escapist," and asserts that the British saw him as one of those "traditional rulers [who] should be sustained and supported," the British in fact ensured that they, through Lord Cromer, the British consul-general and agent in Egypt, controlled the Egyptian state. Their attitude toward the khedive, whom they regarded as a corrupt and incompetent figurehead, was anything but romantic.

But if the indirect methods and ornaments of British imperial rule can be explained in more straightforward and workaday terms than Cannadine suggests, the problems and dilemmas that confronted Britain in its attempts to govern, alter, and stabilize foreign societies were far more complex than he allows. Take his thesis that Britain's was a conservative society, and that the empire was therefore a "traditional enterprise," "built around the principles of replicating and supporting a hierarchical social structure modelled on ... Britain itself." For most of the nineteenth century Britain's individualist, competitive, industrial society and economy were regarded as the most innovative, progressive, and dynamic on earth—Britain was "the new world of the old world," as one foreign observer put it. Mid-Victorian Britons saw themselves as agents of a global liberal awakening. And, indisputably, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries British worldwide expansion—direct and indirect, formal and informal—was an astonishingly efficient and pitiless agent of "social revolution," as none other than Karl Marx recognized in 1853: the spread of Britain's technology, commerce, and industry; its values, religion, and laws; its administrative and fiscal standards of order and efficiency, were responsible for "breaking up the native communities ... uprooting the native industry, and ... levelling all that was great and elevated in the native society."

To be sure, this process is too plain for Cannadine to ignore, and he dexterously anticipates his critics by acknowledging it. But, exasperatingly, although he notes some of the realities that vitiate his overall argument, he makes no attempt to reconcile his thesis to them, save to assert that this process was among the "unintended consequences" of imperialism—suggesting that the British, in their energetic efforts to "let tradition thrive," were blind to it. They were not. Even, for instance, James Fitzjames Stephen, a high official in the government of India and one of the most influential voices on Indian affairs in the late nineteenth century (and the future uncle of Virginia Woolf), who opposed schemes aimed at the rapid and wholesale liberalization of Indian society, nevertheless recognized that debate about the desirability of interfering with Indian social habits and religion was largely moot, since the very fact of British rule would engender a social revolution: "The establishment of a system of law which regulates the most important part of the daily life of the people constitutes in itself a moral conquest more striking, more durable, and far more solid, than the physical conquest which rendered it possible." And Sir Alfred Lyall, who, Cannadine incorrectly suggests, cherished Indian society as "Burkeian," "organic," and "an analogue to" Britain's "own carefully ranked domestic status hierarchy," actually clearly understood—and applauded—the fact that British civilization acted on Indian society as a "dissolving force."

To assess Cannadine's book it is essential to understand that the British considered India the indispensable source of their prestige, power, and wealth. Indeed, a very convincing case can be made that the imperative to secure the routes to India largely determined British policy toward Africa, the Middle East, the rest of Asia, and even Europe. India was, to borrow a term dear to the imperialists, the kindergarten of the tropical empire: ideas about the modernization and anglicization of foreign societies and about the universality and malleability of human nature (no less than the methods of rule and administrative techniques) developed there were applied from Cape Town to Cairo and from Fiji to Jamaica.

So Cannadine, rightly, makes India the focal point of his argument, and with its castes and princes, its landlords and peasants, and its viceregal glitter, it is by far his richest seam. But he mines it selectively. By beginning his interpretation of "how the British saw their empire" only after the Mutiny of 1857, and in failing to account for the Mutiny's impact, Cannadine fundamentally misinterprets the motives and methods behind imperial policy and administration. If, as he argues, the British saw India as "replicating and reinforcing the layered, time-hallowed social order of the metropolis," then we would expect that the Raj in, say, 1828 was more protective and admiring of tradition and hierarchy than it was in, say, 1898, because Britain itself became far less hierarchical and more liberal over time. (The passage of the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867, by radically expanding the franchise, both fostered and manifested a democratic, anti-hierarchical ethos.) But exactly the opposite is true, as Cannadine knows. Indeed, only by removing his discussion of the Raj from its historical context, and starting in 1857, can he make the facts of British rule in India conform with any plausibility to his general thesis (and even that's a stretch) that the British "rejected the ... view that their overseas rule should bring with it improvement and reform, modernization and progress" and his specific assertion that the British in India "always" sought "the reinforcement and preservation of tradition and hierarchy."

In the first half of the century the Raj was a radical enterprise, not a conservative one. The history of Britain's rule in India crystallized the great question that shaped administration and institutions throughout the non-English-speaking empire: Was it better to preserve indigenous institutions to promote stability, or to anglicize those societies under British rule to modernize them? This debate was far more a reflection of Britons' changing ideas about the extent to which foreign societies could be transformed by British law, education, and religion than it was about any intrinsic desire to preserve aristocracies and celebrate tradition. To be sure, this question had a strong economic basis. Until the end of the eighteenth century the purpose of British dominion in India was to ensure revenue, and expediency and thrift dictated non-interference in native customs, laws, and institutions. With the Industrial Revolution, however, the British came to see India, with its population in the hundreds of millions, as a potentially vast market for their goods. This called for what British reformers of India termed the "assimilation" of India to the West; as Macaulay, then a key administrator in that country, explained, "To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages." But the Victorian liberal and progressive cast of mind, coupled with the evangelical enthusiasm often associated with it, also determined the policy of assimilation. Both liberals and evangelicals believed in the power of ideas and education to transform human nature, and both set about with zeal and confidence to engender what amounted to a revolution—an endeavor that attracted some of the finest and most imaginative minds of mid-nineteenth-century Britain, among them Macaulay, his brother-in-law Charles Edward Trevelyan, and James and John Stuart Mill.

The "regeneration of India," as British reformers repeatedly called their project, encompassed nearly every aspect of Indian life. Among other social and humanitarian measures, they abolished female infanticide, human sacrifice, and suttee; imposed legislation permitting the education of women and allowing Hindu women to remarry; eliminated caste marks among sepoys; and instituted the concept of equality before the law, regardless of caste. All these reforms threatened the very elites and practices that an imperial power aiming to "let tradition thrive" would presumably have preserved.

But most obviously contradicting Cannadine's thesis are those parts of the reformers' program that attacked wholesale and directly the "feudal" and aristocratic aspects of Indian life. Macaulay's system for Western education in India was, the reforming Governor-General Lord Bentinck wrote in 1834, the "panacea for the regeneration of India." Its purpose was avowedly anti-hierarchical: to train a Western-oriented middle class to replace India's traditional leaders. British educational reform created a new social class, "Indian in colour and blood, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect," as Macaulay wrote.

And far from displaying a sentimental attachment to the Indian aristocracy, British reformers, inspired by a Benthamite egalitarianism, sought to destroy it. They dispossessed and suppressed what they regarded as the parasitic landlord class and granted proprietorship to the peasantry, basing their plans for the "regeneration" of India on a newly prosperous class of small farmers as agents of social progress. British reformers focused their revolutionary zeal even more intensely on the Indian princes whose states accounted for nearly a quarter of the Subcontinent. The arbitrary rule and misgovernment of the princes so vexed reformers' notions of justice and efficiency that the Raj aimed at, in the words of Governor-General Lord Dalhousie, "getting rid of those petty intervening principalities." By the 1850s, then, Britain had found its greatest support among Western-educated Indians who had discarded traditional customs and who opposed the traditional Indian elites, and it assumed that it could count on the loyalty of a peasantry it had built up at the expense of the great landlords and whose support and affection it had assiduously cultivated. Britain knew that its fiercest opposition lay in the Brahmin challenged by a new educational system, in the aristocrat deprived of his ancestral lands, in the prince shorn of his state, and in the unemployed courtly retainer. Altogether, this situation is hard to reconcile with Cannadine's assertion that the Raj "always" sought "the reinforcement and preservation of tradition and hierarchy."

Of course, the reformers' project in India was shattered by the fourteen months of ferocious fighting and reciprocal massacres during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Many local factors sparked the rebellion, but it was primarily a reactionary movement that drew its leadership and greatest support from the traditional, hierarchical elements in Indian society—above all the dispossessed princes and landlords—that had suffered most under British rule. No event, not even the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, more profoundly shook the mid-Victorian mind than the Indian Mutiny. It destroyed the confident, careless idealism of Victorian liberals. Fifty years later the Duke of Argyll recalled that upon first hearing news of the revolt, he recognized that "all our flowers had lost their glory"; and Charles Kingsley despaired at the time that owing to the Mutiny, "I feel as if I could dogmatise no more"—an extraordinary concession for a Victorian. The Mutiny transformed the British approach to India and reshaped the character and priorities of British rule throughout the non-European empire. It embittered the British and permanently soured the imperial project. In their minds they had shown India the path toward progress and had been bloodily rebuffed. The very peasantry they had sought to liberate had allied itself in the rebellion with its former oppressors, the landlords. The chivalry of the Raj "was that of Robin Hood, who is said to have robbed the wealthy and to have given to the poor," Lord Ellenborough, a former governor-general, noted with dismay. "Robin Hood, however, managed to secure the favour of those to whom he gave his loot. We managed to make them as hostile as those we plundered." And the British reluctantly concluded that the liberal goals for which they had striven in India were pointless in this incorrigibly alien and hidebound society. Having learned this apparent lesson regarding the limits of social engineering, the Raj abruptly retreated from its high-flown aims and determined that if it was to hold on to India, it must conciliate those who had shown they still commanded the people's loyalty: the great landlords and the princes, "however tyrannical they may be," as Lytton argued unhappily.

To Cannadine, this policy, so completely at odds with the methods and goals of pre-Mutiny rule, demonstrates that the Raj "regarded the established order much more favorably ... as something that ought to be promoted and preserved," as something "to cherish," and that the princes and the aristocracy "were no longer reviled ... but acclaimed as familiar and traditional." But it's impossible to survey the papers of policymakers or the historiography on this subject without being struck repeatedly by the distaste and resignation with which the British lapsed into a policy dictated by what they saw as political necessity. The argument of an agent of the Punjab government in 1860—that radical, Westernizing reform would not buy "political security," and that despite their oppression of "the people," the aristocrats had to be appeased, because they "exercise great influence," and must be made to "constitute a strong support to the existing Government"—was echoed by senior imperial officials. And some officials failed to be swayed even by arguments of expedience: Sir John Strachey, the most powerful force in the Indian Civil Service and the most trusted adviser of two viceroys, was so contemptuous of the Indian aristocrats and princes that he never forsook his opposition to their being cultivated as supporters.

By removing from their hard-headed political context the ceremonies and titles intended to attach the "influential classes" more firmly to the Raj, Cannadine again confuses pragmatism with ideology; and by focusing on the ornaments of empire, he misapprehends the nature of the conservatism that informed British imperial rule from the Mutiny well into the twentieth century. When the Mutiny was put down, the goal of the Raj—and of British rule throughout the dominions of conquest—changed from what was by then regarded as the lofty and risky aim of rapid political and cultural transformation to the safer and more sensible goal of efficient administration and material improvement. Because British-imposed liberal reform had apparently contributed to the revolt, officials in London decided there was no point in offering to foreign peoples that which they didn't want. The Raj's policy of regeneration had been "well inspired" and its "principles right," the British official Charles Raikes concluded, but the Mutiny had exposed "the fatal error of attempting to force the policy of Europe on the people of Asia."

Paradoxically, as British rule became less liberal, it became in many ways more tolerant. The Queen's proclamation of 1858, in response to the Mutiny, attempted to appease Indians by disclaiming "the right and the desire to impose Our convictions on any of Our subjects." Those convictions included not only Christianity but also parliamentary democracy. Macaulay's intolerance of Indian culture had been matched by his hope that Indians could be anglicized and hence trained to rule themselves. But the new ethos held that, as the British socialist leader Ramsay MacDonald asserted in 1898, parliamentary institutions "can no more be carried to India by Englishmen ... than they can carry ice in their luggage." Rather than directly aiming to transform Indians or Egyptians into Englishmen, this new philosophy held that the best that British rule could provide was a permanent guardianship, an honest, unsympathetic, and unattractive officialism of political stability, solid finances, severe justice, even-handed taxation, and better irrigation ("somewhat grim presents for one people to make to another," Stephen acknowledged). The workaday and practical mantra of this new outlook was good government, rather than self-government. This, not ornamentalism, was the ethos of the empire in what Cannadine calls its "heyday," from the Mutiny to 1914. Even the great "ornamentalist" viceroy, Lord Curzon, declared that "efficiency" was "our gospel, the keynote of our administration." This illiberal vision of imperial rule aimed for sound government by a handful of foreigners in service to what Curzon called "the patient, humble, silent millions." Melding with the public school celebration of stoic duty, this vision made of imperial rule not a glittering endeavor but a stern task in which to persevere, a service that its recipients would inevitably meet with sullen rejection. Imbued with this new ethos, the British embraced their mundane chores and felt a defiant pride in being unloved by their subjects. Rudyard Kipling wrote this philosophy's most un-ornamental anthem:

Take up the White Man's burden—
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper—
The tale of common things ...
Take up the White Man's burden—
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard.

But even as the cold vision of the financier and the administrator replaced the heady optimism of the political philosopher, this new ethos—although it held that for reasons of political safety, foreign rule must be less obtrusive—hardly embraced tradition and a vision of organic, conservative native societies, as Cannadine would have it. In fact, those guided by this ethos put faith in Lyall's point that Britain's rule in itself would act as a "dissolving force." Britain's dominion, bringing with it nothing more stirring than public works and an obsessive pursuit of "sound finances," would slowly ("Ah, slowly!" Kipling lamented) but inexorably effect a revolution by disintegrating customs and mores. Cannadine writes of the "cult" of the "timeless" "Burkeian" Indian village "celebrated" by and "intrinsically appealing to the British"; but Stephen allowed that the rule of law was breaking down the traditional village communities, and looked upon that result with enormous satisfaction. And even the high Indian official and legal anthropologist Henry Maine, whom Cannadine holds up as a celebrant of traditional Indian life, actually looked forward to a prolonged period of British rule that would free rural India from the constraints of tradition.

Cannadine rightly argues that recent scholarly imperial history has overemphasized the "racism" of British policymakers. Certainly most British officials were racist by our enlightened standards, but making the study of history a prosecutorial endeavor obfuscates far more than it illuminates. And his plea that the history of the British Empire be more fully integrated into the history of Britain itself than has recently been done should be attended to by this generation of scholars. However, in writing a short but sweeping book "concerned with recovering the world view ... of those who dominated and ruled the empire," Cannadine should have more closely followed the injunction of the most brilliant dissectors of the "official mind" of imperialism, Robinson and Gallagher: "We must turn from the sophistications of social analysis to the humbler tasks of chronology. We must learn the grammar of the policy-makers and construe their texts."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/11/a-bit-of-bunting/302340/