“Oh God! Not another fucking beautiful day.” So bemoaned a character in James Fox’s novel White Mischief (1982), as she looked out over the Rift Valley in 1940s colonial Kenya. Ennui and irritation; disappointment and depression. These are all states of mind familiar to historians of empire (in the lives of their subjects, of course). It has long been argued that strategies to relieve moments of male boredom in the empire included adultery, alcohol, hunting, diary-writing, taxidermy, bird-watching and beating up the servants.
But Jeffrey A. Auerbach takes boredom to a new level in this fascinating study. He maintains that a unifying feature of the British Empire was the prolonged experience of being bored. It was its chief characteristic, and even dominated the so-called age of high imperialism in the 19th century. Moreover, so bored had the British become, he insists, that this laid “the emotional foundations for [them] to leave their empire in the twentieth”.
Auerbach’s study is encyclopedic. He spent 20 years gathering evidence spanning the late 18th century to the turn of the 20th, which records feelings of being bored, miserable and deflated. It’s a captivating history of imperial tedium drawn from memoirs, diaries, private letters and official correspondence. In “reading against the grain”, as Auerbach puts it, he has focused on recorded events normally skimmed over by historians, precisely for being boring – multiple entries repeated over and over again about the weather, train times, shipping forecasts, deliveries, lists and marching; or about nothing ever happening. Readers are treated to example after example of complaints about long, uneventful sea voyages or dull, samey landscapes; testimonies of the banal, mind-numbing tedium of the colonial civil service or military campaigns when nothing happened; and, finally, dreary accounts of settler life.
If you are a lover of histories of white imperial rulers and thumbnail portraits, this book is for you. It’s full of excellent quotes. Lord Lytton, for example, fourth choice to be governor-general of India in 1875 (and appalled by the prospect), later summed up the British Raj as “a despotism of office-boxes tempered by the occasional loss of keys”. It was certainly the case that propaganda about empire and the books written about it to make money created false expectations, leading to bitter disillusionment.
But sweeping statements such as that the empire developed “in a fit of boredom” are unconvincing. The author seems not to have visited Africa or India during his research. Had he done so, I doubt if he would accept that colonial accounts of being bored represent the full experience. Absent are deeper discussions of how expressions of being bored are linked to racism, arrogance and the need to assert power in strange, challenging and unstable environments. Emotional detachment, disdain and a demand to be entertained were also part of a well-rehearsed repertoire of domination.
Rather than empire being mostly boring, more accurate would be David Livingstone’s verdict on exploratory travel while battling dysentery: “it’s not all fun you know”.
Joanna Lewis is associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and the author of Empire of Sentiment: The Death of Livingstone and the Myth of Victorian Imperialism (2018).
Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire
By Jeffrey A. Auerbach
Oxford University Press
Published 4 October 2018