The Imperial Mind

A historian’s education in the ways of empire

My first glimpse of the British Empire was an entirely favorable one. At some time during my seven years of purgatory at St. Cuthbert’s Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, our history teacher gave us Arthur Grimble’s A Pattern of Islands. Here was a fond reminiscence of a young man who, immediately after his Cambridge education, had been dispatched as an administrative officer to some of Britain’s territories in the Southwest Pacific. His account included no Gandhian protesters, no disgruntled Afrikaners, no Egyptian nationalists, no Arab-Zionist street fights. Instead, Grimble’s little gunboat took him from island to island, where he sat at immense tables stacked with suckling pig and yams, listening to the chiefs and elders as they made their reports.

Cooped up in a working-class row house on Tyneside in the 1950s, I wondered if I might someday pass the Colonial Office exam and end up doing the same as Grimble. Alas, by the time I reached college (1963), almost all of that distant empire had become independent. By that time, too, I had stumbled into a very different account of the servants of empire—the writings of George Orwell, another man who had been steered into a position of vast administrative responsibility at a young age. Orwell was a district officer in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police, which he hated. His abhorrence of one people’s having dominion over another—tempered by his admiration for the imperial soldier and the administrator’s tough-minded sense of duty—lasted until the end of his life. That loathing (which contained a fair amount of self-loathing) oozes through his early novel Burmese Days and through his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” both of which revealed to me the ways that imperialism could brutalize both the rulers and the ruled.

Robert Irving’s sunnier yet elegiac Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi tells the wondrous story of how, when the British announced their 1911 decision to transfer the Indian capital from Calcutta to a grand escarpment outside Delhi (i.e., “New” Delhi), the famed architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were employed to produce a completely new complex of classical edifices. Their ambitious plan reflected a confidence in the longevity of the empire that was both unrealistic and fast-fading. But even today, when one takes a taxi from the noises and smells of Old Delhi, through what used to be called the All-India War Memorial Arch, and up the long hill to what was called the Viceroy’s House, the ambition and vigor that drove this design to its arch-regal completion are staggering.

Such a mix of beauty and vitality leads one to ask just who ran this worldwide empire of dominions, colonies, distant protectorates, and coaling stations, and why? Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher’s now-classic Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism, a work of remarkable verve and style, provided one answer to that difficult question. Forget about the sinister city bankers, the flag-waving press lords, the jingoistic masses. The real movers and shakers, argue Robinson and Gallagher, were government ministers and high officials. These select white males, the “official mind” of the book’s subtitle, were concerned above all else with preserving the grand 18th-century empire (especially India) they had inherited from their predecessors, and so qualified as “negative” or reluctant imperialists. They swallowed up Africa, not in a fit of Darwinian vainglory or in pursuit of gold or of (pace Lenin and Hobson) new markets, but simply to protect the strategic routes to the East. The straightforward unsentimentality of this book turned Marxist interpretations upside down, which continues to exasperate the race-gender crowd: If dead white males were the center of attention, what meager place was left for the history of the powerless, the oppressed, and the second sex?

Because they focus on the official mind, Robinson and Gallagher dismiss the public voice of British imperialism, and unnecessarily so. The great storytellers of empire influenced both contemporary and future generations of would-be district officers like myself. But perhaps we putative imperialists read their books too simplistically. That’s the message of Alan Sandison’s The Wheel of Empire, which looks at the works of the four greatest novelists of imperial themes—Kipling, Buchan, Conrad, and Haggard. Sandison argues that these writers weren’t swaggering expansionists, but rather anxious soothsayers, predicting all that could go wrong as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. They feared the breaking-down of the old order and the new voices of emotion and disruption (Nietzsche, Treitschke, Freud, the navy leagues, the Harmsworth press, the social Darwinists, the socialists). If you read their works carefully, Sandison argues, you come to understand that these writers emphasized honor and duty and steadfastness not to advance empire, but to preserve order in a fatefully flawed world. Under the thin crust of civilization, Buchan noted, the primal forces were muttering and assembling. To deter their dread efforts, it was vital that young Britons maintain the ramparts. That those ramparts would fall only underscores the delicacy and difficulty of the task.

After reading and thinking about the empire for 40 years, I think it silly either to denounce or to rejoice in its existence. The empire happened. A small island state off the northwest shores of Europe ran a quarter of the globe for hundreds of years. This was no small thing. And it demands close study.