Book of the week: Understanding the British Empire

Joanna Lewis praises revealing observations on imperial history

July 22, 2010

"Let's talk about sex, baby
Let's talk about you and me
Let's talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be."
- Let's Talk About Sex; Salt-N-Pepa

Quoting a 1990 hit single by a female hip-hop act may seem like a wildly inappropriate way to begin a review of a collection of essays published by Cambridge University Press and penned by an emeritus reader in British imperial history who is a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge and a veteran of 50 years of teaching and research in a traditionally conservative discipline. And it's probably not what he would have wanted. Yet, and to paraphrase a famous advert, this is no ordinary imperial history ... This is Ronald Hyam's imperial history.

Hyam is one of the world's leading experts on the British Empire, if not the leading expert when it comes to its high politics, governance and culture. For 12 years he was buried among the National Archives in Kew, finding material for the prestigious British Documents on the End of Empire Project launched in 1987. I doubt he saw much daylight for more than a decade. In addition to the multiple volumes he produced for that series, his two narrative histories of the British Empire remain the textbooks of choice for the more discerning undergraduate.

Yet his name is usually linked with sex, and his groundbreaking work has often been mired in controversy. Whispers working through college cloisters told of rumours that Hyam's career progression may not have been aided by the 1990 publication of Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, with its glossary of sexual practices that would make even Wayne Rooney blush.

This latest publication - intended to be his last ever - includes the controversial bits but ultimately shows us why they should not overshadow the rest. Understanding the British Empire is a collection of some of his seminal essays on how the Empire was governed, and its policies and realities. But also reproduced are the racier essays and subjects that have, at times, obscured his weightier contributions, along with some new ones that are racier still. Thus, next to chapters on the primacy of geopolitics, ethics and religion, bureaucracy and policymaking, Winston Churchill, Jan Smuts and the founding fathers of imperial history, up pops Empire and sexual opportunity, penis envy and penile "othering". Ooh, matron!

Never one to beat around the bush, Hyam immediately sets out his stall - and it appears that David Hume is to blame. The value in studying history, Hume wrote, is what it reveals about human nature. The young Hyam agreed, interpreting this to mean what it can reveal about how people make decisions and how they manage sexuality - the "twin axes around which much active life revolves". Both, he insists, can be acutely observed on the British imperial stage, which was one unrivalled in its complexity and geographical spread: the first analysed through a top-down approach looking at policy; and the second through people (mostly men) having (or not having) sex and cultural encounters through sex - a classic bottom-up approach, in other words.

The first sections of the book offer a brilliant bird's-eye view. When grappling with Empire, one could not ask for better tools than Hyam's three key components: the primacy of geopolitics; the importance of notions of "universal benevolence" and mission; and the bureaucratic apparatus that followed in this contradictory wake. Like others, he sees power as reliant on "prestige, on conveying an impression of unquestioned omnipotence" and needing local collaborators whatever their persuasion. One of his many arresting quotes is from Moshoeshoe, an African chief: "My country is your blanket, O Queen, and my people the lice upon it."

The point where he departs from his peers is his fascination with men - and men and sex. Hyam does men as no other imperial historian does. This collection is full of portraits of the many men he has encountered along the way. He explores the great, the good and the unknown. Here, his article on the sexual impulse behind imperial expansion gets a makeover. Empire was not just about "Christianity and commerce", he famously wrote, but it was "also a matter of copulation and concubinage". Pax Britannica was also, sadly, Pox Britannica. A new chapter deals with the history of white obsessions with the black penis - the "large Propagator", as one explorer put it in 1670. I rather doubt that the section documenting the Chinese obsession with dildos will be a milestone in moving forward cultural relations.

Yet this is an endearing collection, not least in its unconventionality. Hyam pushes his deep sense of academic protocol, including avoiding the first person, to its limits. At times he can barely contain himself. A reprinted essay frequently begins with a parenthetical note to the reader that can run to a full page. Footnotes are full of asides, anecdotes, quarrels and amplifications. It's a case of buy one Ron, get one free.

There is emotion, but he is not indulgent; there is a clear impulse for recognition, but there is no vanity. Where there could have been pomposity, there is not even a trace of bitterness. For some, Hyam will remain a dirty old man in an expensive mac. But this book, full of meticulous detail, quirky facts, compassion, insight and mischief, deserves to be read by everyone interested in Empire.

When his work on sex was first published, it was justly criticised for being biased towards men; for blaming white women for racism; for ignoring the context of unequal power relations and the potential for brutality; for remaining unmoved by a pervasive culture of misogyny. A cock and bull story, in other words.

Now, upon reflection, Hyam agrees that the nature of the evidence left behind tends to inflate the "lurid and the perfervid" and that he viewed this area too much through the eyes of colonial officials. Yet, as he points out, research on Empire, sex, homosexuality and prostitution has since flourished. His work should no longer be dismissed as "all talk of no trousers", although imperial rule was conducted mostly to the mundane sound of a bugle rather than the unzipping of a fly.

Indeed, one of his best new essays in this collection is about one man, a 20th-century colonial official named John Bennett, but it is not about sex. Hyam brilliantly documents the hidden reality (which persists to this day) of being lower middle class in traditionally upper-middle-class institutions: of the price to be paid for not being able to play the system, or being deemed "too clever by half". Despised for tackling institutional dogmas, as Bennett was, his argument for a dismantling of the whole Empire in 1947 failed partly because of prejudice. As Hyam notes, the perception was that "people like the Bennetts ... lacked a naturally distinguished or impressive presence, were deficient in savoir faire, in instinctive tact and refinement, graceful and polished manners".

There are no such deficiencies in this grammar-school boy with regard to how best to end a career that has been part private obsession, part public vocation. The great unspoken love woven through these pages is for the richness of the English language. (How often do you have to use a dictionary these days? Not often enough.) In this beautifully crafted collection, Hyam bids a fond farewell to a subject that has sustained an extraordinary and unique life's work. He deserves an equally fond commendation.

THE AUTHOR

Ronald Hyam is Fellow and librarian of Magdalene College, and emeritus reader in British imperial history at the University of Cambridge.

His research interests centre on the winding-up of the Empire between 1945 and 1968, Anglo-South African relations and sexuality in the colonial context.

He has been based at Magdalene for his entire academic career, which began in 1960.

In 1993, he was awarded a doctorate of letters in recognition of his publishing and research in the field.

Dr Hyam has served as editor for volumes of documents on the Labour government of 1945-51 and the Conservative government of 1957-63 for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, based at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

His other interests include calligraphy and listening to church music.

Understanding the British Empire

By Ronald Hyam Cambridge University Press, 576pp, £65.00 and £24.99
ISBN 9780521115223 and 132909
Published 20 May 2010

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