The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Piers Brendon, Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, has clearly made this subject his life’s work. At almost 800 pages it is a massive work of painstaking scholarship, beginning with the loss of the thirteen colonies on the American seaboard in 1781 and ending with the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. In his 22 chapters Brendon vividly chronicles the vicissitudes – and the eventual loss- of every red area of the globe on which, as Lord Palmerston once grandiloquently remarked, “the sun never set”.

Gibbon, whose title he echoes, is an important influence; he has taken to heart Gibbon’s axiom that “the history of empires is the history of human misery.” Yet Brendon is too balanced an historian – even, perhaps, too fair-minded (that much-vaunted virtue of Empire) – to interpret the history of this period merely as a chronicle of greed and hypocrisy, an interpretation that is fashionable in our shrunken and post-imperial island. In his Introduction he acknowledges - though I think rather grudgingly from what follows - that it was “much better than any other”. One only has to remember the Belgian Congo to know what he means.

Throughout this history runs Edmund Burke’s doctrine that colonial government was a trust; it was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright – freedom. For Brendon there is thus a contradiction at the very heart of Empire: lands and countries that were taken by conquest, settlement, cession, lease and licence, acquired haphazardly and piece-meal and held by a form of benign coercion, were also meant to be held in trust – something conveniently forgotten when the Pax Britannica was at its apogee and solemnly invoked when it was on the wane.

The author is clear about the crimes of empire: for example, the Opium Wars, the genocide of the native Tasmanians, the treatment of the Boers (the English invented concentration camps, as critics love to point out), the punitive response to the Indian Mutiny over which the politician Charles Dilke remarked that Britain had no right “to assume the loyalty of a land taken and held by force and governed for the benefit of conquerors, alien in creed, colour and culture.” There is also incompetence, as in the fall of Singapore (when the schoolboy Lee Kuan Yew heard the Japanese bombs, he told his headmaster at Raffles College, “This is the end of the British Empire.”)

It was nonetheless an extraordinary enterprise. In the early Victorian period the British Empire grew on average by 100,000 square miles a year. In a florid gesture, Disraeli made Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1876; Lord Derby characterised his foreign policy as “to occupy, fortify, grab and brag.” A century later, when the Raj was over for good, the late Queen Mother, when asked what it had been like to be Empress of the sub-continent, replied wistfully: “It was fun while it lasted”.

Brendon’s narrative includes some memorable pen-portraits (and put-downs) of the famous personalities - and rogues - that bestrode the Empire, such as Warren Hastings, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Curzon and others; Stanley and Livingstone summed up the conflicting elements of imperialism, the gun and the Bible, sometimes touted in tandem, at other times in sequence. What was evident throughout the Empire, almost from the start, was the colossal element of bluff: in Africa, a district officer might be in charge of 100,000 Africans with only a handful of local Askaris to assist him; in British India 40,000 Europeans ruled 40 million Indians. One could say that such bluff amounted to genius, a genius compounded of that peculiar British mixture of hokum, hypocrisy and high-mindedness.

It is this latter quality of the Empire that Brendon is rather slow to emphasise. He agrees that certain eminent men, for example Lord Cornwallis, who “established lasting standards of official probity” in India, and who was “honest, brave, humane and just”, or Sir James Stephen, the outstanding under-secretary for the colonies between 1836-47, gave lustre to the noble ideals of empire, but he is more concerned with the bungling, the incompetence, the snobbery and the cruelty that were also endemic features of imperialism. Insignificant men at home could become nabobs abroad, insulated from their imperial subjects by that “omnipresent institution, the club”; they could indulge their grandiose tastes in architecture - characterised in Malaya as “Late Marzipan”- and their provincial tastes in ugly, Home Counties bungalows in the hill stations.

Unlike Jan Morris, whose 3-volume Pax Britannica conveys the romance of the Empire and the heroism it evoked as well as more shabby dealings, Brendon is so occupied with a detailed chronology of our world decline that one wonders from his history how we ever managed to govern for as long as we did a straggling global landmass four times larger than the Roman Empire. As a child of the 1950s, I collected stamps. This was before Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech about Africa and I was impressed by the impassive, regal features of George VI which stared out regularly from stamps of far-flung places, to the background music of Kipling’s stirring phrases about “dominion over palm and pine.”

Years later I got to know a retired district officer from the former Tanganyika; educated at Winchester and Oxford, he had imbibed an ideal of public service and had subsequently spent 40 years of quiet, industrious, honourable toil in the then colonies. He and thousands of his kind are also part of the Empire story. Brendon is inclined to scoff at “instant historians” who credit the British with bringing roads, railways, good governance, free speech, the rule of law, team sports, the notion of fair play and muscular Christianity to countries where they were unknown and which often still practised slavery and cannibalism. Well, they did bring these things. Perhaps most important in the long run, they brought the English language.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.


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