Prejudice behind the pomp and baubles

July 27, 2001

Both rank and race dictated imperial order, writes John MacKenzie.

Ornamentalism is a brave title. It might be construed as reflecting just surface pattern and design, the arabesques that gladden the eye but have little structural significance. But David Cannadine's purpose, though conveyed in lively prose and with much wit, is deadly serious. Ornamentalism is a highly self-conscious echo of Edward Said's Orientalism , that tract for our times that, despite deep flaws, has probably had more influence across a wider range of disciplines than any other work of the past quarter century. For Said, European imperialists constructed the Other through the erection of a set of opposites to their own perceived qualities: Asians (and by extension other indigenous peoples of empire) were unprogressive, atavistic, irrational, emotionally and mentally unstable. Such characteristics explained their failure and their subordination.

But for Cannadine, Europeans went into the wider world not in search of differences, but of similarities. Imperial rulers were more obsessed with rank than with class. They sought kings, princes and aristocrats whom they bent to their will by rendering them more like their European equivalents. They exaggerated their symbolic influence while neutering their power, incorporating them into a vast hierarchy that had its apex in the British monarchy. In the process, they created an empire of spectacle and style, of durbar and palaver, well oiled by ceremony, uniforms, medals, honours and salutes. Their vision encompassed at the same time an atavistic quasi-feudalism together with a monumental set of invented traditions. It was essentially a wished-for rural order of social relations, pre-industrial, stable, balanced.

The imperial imagination created a set of rankings in which a Hawaiian king could take precedence over a German crown prince. It was infused with a mesmeric fascination with princely India, with indirect rule systems in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Pacific. As British aristocrats fanned out across the world, whether as governors-general or as landowners in Canada, Africa and elsewhere, they were trying to re-create an imagined past. Meanwhile, as the power of the monarchy waned, its ornamental significance grew. As Disraeli converted Queen Victoria into an empress, she returned to public life as the ultimate ornament (after all, she was even prepared to wear the Koh-i-Noor diamond with her widow's weeds) and the fount of all imperial ornamentalism. Her statues sprouted everywhere, giving her a visibility that far exceeded that of any Roman emperor. Her children travelled the world as her representatives on earth, stimulating opulent ceremonial and enacting symbolic domination of the environment (for example, through hunting) wherever they went, distributing the new orders of chivalry to browns and blacks who needed to be convinced of their role within this great global imagined community.

Britain and her empire were inseparably linked through a Victorian taxonomy of rank that connected rather than separated. "The secret of England's greatness" was not the Bible shown in Thomas Jones Barker's famous painting, but the manifold ornaments of empire that enthralled rulers and ruled. Invented in Victorian times, this ornamentalism survived almost untarnished through the reigns of Edward VII, George V (who crowned himself in India) and George VI, even into the opening of the reign of Elizabeth II.

For such a concise book, the range of Cannadine's sources and the extent of his sweep are indeed impressive. He ranges across the white dominions, India, the so-called "dependent" territories and the post-first-world-war mandates. So far as the latter are concerned (and here we really are impinging on Said's territory), he shows how T. E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill between them sought to manufacture a series of kingdoms out of desert chieftaincies, supposedly stable courts with loyal courtiers out of shifting alliances and violent vendettas. Moreover, the mandarins of the Foreign, India and Colonial Offices, in London and overseas, however middle class in their origins, were invariably sucked into these romantic maunderings, thoroughly suspecting the arrivistes and parvenus who represented the capitalist foundations of imperialism.

And this, perhaps, is the point at which the ornamentalist gilt begins to tarnish. Cannadine's illustrative quotations come largely from the upper echelons of society. We have aristocratic comment, often seeking a sort of freemasonry or rank. We have imperial administrators, usually in positions of upward mobility from the resolutely bourgeois to the status of an imperial aristocracy. And we have writers, often of a somewhat conservative tendency. There are few testimonies here from businessmen or professionals. If we think of those great hierarchies of British India - from the gubernatorial through the "heaven-born" Indian civil servants to the technical services, the box wallahs, the inferior ends of the military and lower-order professionals such as teachers or missionaries - we hear very little from those echelons that constituted the great base of the imperial pyramid. Were they as fascinated by rank as those above, beyond noticing the endemic snobbism, well conveyed in Paul Scott's Raj Quartet , that relegated them to much inferior status while expecting them to play the key roles without which empire could not have functioned? Was not race a far more significant conditioner of social horizons in their world than the rankings and honours that appeared to unite viceroy and maharaja? In any case, were not imperialists obsessed with the global hierarchies of race that had emerged from the Enlightenment? Maybe a king of Hawaii might just outrank a German crown prince, but is there any chance at all that an asantehene or a kabaka or a king of the Zulus would have done so? It seems highly unlikely.

Moreover, even if the imperial purple was snobbishly anti-capitalist, capitalism was still the empire's raison d'être . And intriguingly, capitalists often stood outside the ornamentalist spectacle. The jute barons of Dundee and Calcutta seem largely to have languished unhonoured, fabulously rich though they were. The great shipowners, who were absolutely crucial to the operations of empire, remained of relatively humble rank. There may have been a few knights bachelor among them, but they were never advanced through the orders of chivalry like governors and princes. Capitalists, gentlemanly or otherwise, whether in the metropolis or scattered around the empire, made it work, and no doubt wealth comforted them in their relatively humble social status.

In a personal memoir of an imperial childhood, Cannadine tells us that he was greatly influenced by a book co-authored by Sir Harry Johnston in which the hero was Cecil Rhodes. Yet the Colossus, the arbiter of southern Africa, with his feet astride the Cape and Cairo, according to the famous Punch cartoon (not available in the online edition), stood outside the whole ornamentalist system. No honour ever sullied his corpulent frame. It seems very unlikely that this vicar's son from Bishop's Stortford would have seen himself as inferior in rank to King Lobengula of the Ndebele, a king because the whites for their own purposes wished wildly to exaggerate his power in central Africa. No doubt Rhodes had a sneaking admiration for Lobengula, and he sought to educate the black king's sons, but no one had any doubts about who really mattered in the imperial order.

Even at the top end of that hierarchy, there were those who stayed resolutely outside the ornamentalist system. Joseph Chamberlain, most influential of all colonial secretaries, preferred orchids to orders. The great muse of empire, Rudyard Kipling, refused a knighthood and a peerage, despite apparently hymning the very ornamentalist system that they represented. Kipling even turned down the Order of Merit (twice, in 1921 and 1924). The truly significant seemed above these things. They either had them already, like the marquis of Salisbury, or considered them baubles of no significance, like Churchill, imperial to the core, who turned down the dukedom of London, no less, which George VI offered him in 1945. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle told his wife that he would refuse a knighthood because "it's the kind of thing that is given to lord mayors". His wife (such a common excuse, that) persuaded him otherwise.

Moreover, when we turn to the workers of empire, all attempts at establishing a similarity of rank over a difference of race break down. The workers of the imperial world did not unite. Whites formed up against black and brown, notably in South Africa, but elsewhere too, and race was the true definer of working-class rank. That is surely why the ornamentalist facade crumbled so rapidly at the end of empire. There were two imperial hierarchies: the spectacular and the visible, which Cannadine has unveiled more competently than any predecessor, and a less visible one that was ultimately the more important of the two. The ornamentalist facade was being eaten and undermined by the economic and social changes that represented the true meaning of the modernising and globalising tendencies of imperialism. The ornaments were indeed temporary expedients to shore up power. When the British came to decolonise India, Lord Mountbatten, from the top of the imperial tree, abandoned the princes with alacrity, to the great fury of Sir Conrad Corfield.

Yet, when all these doubts have been entered, Ornamentalism remains an important book. Cannadine rightly seeks to connect British with imperial history through the atavistic survivals that have so often impeded radical political and social change. He argues that the empire must be understood sociologically (rightly pointing out that there has never been a serious social history of the British Empire). He also calls for an understanding of the anthropology of spectacle and of the significance of the visible fabric of empire - architectural, monumental, and artistic. Perhaps his book needed rather more attention to the church and the military, but it remains a thoroughly stimulating read. It should attract a wide audience, for, by implication, it has important things to say about the continuing survival of strange forms of ornamentalism within Tony Blair's supposedly new Britain.

John MacKenzie is professor of imperial history, University of Lancaster.

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