Bastions of Britishness

Jeffrey Richards revels in Piers Brendon's vivid evocation of a liberal Empire with an irreconcilable paradox at its heart.

January 24, 2008

Part panorama, part pageant, part political analysis, Piers Brendon's The Decline and Fall of the British Empire is narrative history at its most glorious - exuberant, vivid, insightful and wholly absorbing. He modestly eschews any comparison with Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but nevertheless opts for a Gibbonian approach to his subject.

The framework is the chronological "big picture", from the surrender of British forces to the rebel American colonists at Yorktown in 1781 as the band played The World Turned Upside Down to the handover of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong to the Communist Chinese amid torrential rain in 1997. Within the framework, with detailed reference to people and places, flora and fauna, food and drink, clothing and climate, Brendon evokes "the warp and weft" of the imperial experience.

He points out from the outset that an irresolvable paradox lay at the heart of the British Empire. It was a liberal empire, dedicated simultaneously to incompatible ideals. As Lord Cromer, the imperial proconsul of Egypt put it, the Anglo-Saxon strove for two mutually destructive ideals - "the ideal of good government, which connotes the continuance of his own supremacy, and the ideal of self-government, which connotes the whole or partial abdication of his supreme position".

The two sides of this paradox are illustrated perfectly at the start of the book with unsparing accounts of the horrors of the slave trade and slavery and the inspiring tale of the campaign for the abolition of both.

Brendon acknowledges the achievements of the Empire, among them roads and railways, honest administration, the spread of the English language and the development of democratic institutions. But he spends more time on the dark side of British imperialism: the racism, the arrogance, the authoritarianism, the massacres, the lootings, the Irish Famine, the Opium Wars, the Jamaica Revolt and the Partition of India.

He deploys his cast of multifarious characters with the mastery of an expert actor-manager as missionaries, merchants, mercenaries, map makers, migrants and madmen parade across the stage. It was Kipling who wrote: "Allah created the English mad, maddest of all mankind" and Brendon lends substance to the aphorism as he resurrects some of the notables of Empire.

There is Marquess Wellesley, Governor-General of India, who carried on like a Byzantine emperor and built a Government House so vast that guests got lost in it and food was always cold because the kitchens were 200 yards down the road.

There is Sir Richard Burton, who having mastered two dozen languages tried to learn simian from a troupe of monkeys. Captain Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales, proposed to hand over those guilty of murder and sodomy to the cannibals of New Zealand.

Sometimes eccentricity masked substantial achievement. Lord William Bentinck, Governor-General of India from 1828 to 1835, was mocked for dressing like a Quaker and carrying an umbrella everywhere. Yet he banned widow-burning, suppressed thuggee, attacked corruption, abolished flogging for sepoys and initiated a steamboat service on the Ganges.

Brendon has an enviable ability to sum up participants in his story in pithy and memorable phrases: for example, the viceroys of India Lord Ripon ("high-minded and longwinded son of Britain's most insignificant Prime Minister") and Lord Lytton ("minor poet and major popinjay").

He provides illuminating mini-essays on more esoteric aspects of Empire: the cultivation of the moustache as an imperial icon, the Empire-wide worship of Queen Victoria and the role of the club as a bastion of Britishness.

Brendon revels in the richness of the English language. On one page taken at random, one encounters "Arcadian frivolities", "imperial belvederes", "the hierophant of Asia" and "the scent of deodars". It was only a matter of time before we encountered the evocative word "gallimaufry" applied to the Empire (it is on page 96).

His one blind spot is popular culture, as he endorses the heresy resurrected by Bernard Porter in The Absent-Minded Imperialists in which, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Porter insists that popular culture promoting the imperial ideal had no effect on the general public.

Sales figures and box office returns suggest the opposite. The Empire saturated the culture from films and plays to sauce bottles and biscuit tins, and commercial companies do not promote images likely to alienate customers.

This aspect aside, Brendon's book is a major achievement, an extraordinary and evocative account of a complex, contradictory phenomenon. For anyone seeking to understand the decline and fall of the British Empire it is essential reading.

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997

By Piers Brendon
Jonathan Cape
816pp
£25.00
ISBN 9780224062220
Published 18 October 2007

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