The painful loss of white prestige

Lord Hailey, the Colonial Office and the Politics of Race and Empire in the Second World War
August 24, 2001

A monopoly of violence and the determination to use it underpinned colonial rule but, in their texts and utterances, the ideologues and practitioners of empire also acknowledged the power and importance of prestige. But what was prestige? An imperial capital, a thumping great legation in a prominent position, formal bans on the admission of non-Europeans to a swimming pool or park, or strong social taboos against sexual relationships with colonial subjects might all contribute to a nebulous notion that had a concrete impact on relations between coloniser and colonised.

In this awkwardly titled book, Suke Wolton traces the wartime thinking of the Colonial Office on the matter in the aftermath of the shock defeat by Japan. She takes as a fixed point Lord Hailey, an administrator with long and varied experience in India and Africa who became something of an official savant on broad matters of policy and direction.

Wolton's book revisits debates long familiar through the work of Wm Roger Louis and through Christopher Thorne's vivid surveys. The shock of defeat was perhaps most sharply felt by British embassies in Chongqing and in Washington DC, which had to explain it to their Chinese and United States allies.

For its part, the nationalist Chinese leadership was outraged by the British collapse and promptly sent packing British agents who were attempting to set up British-led Chinese commando units as there seemed to be little that those vanquished at Hong Kong and Singapore could really teach China.

Wolton's somewhat inelegant prose concentrates on the clash between British and US figures who were uncomfortable - at least in 1942 - with the notion of fighting a war of liberation to reinstall colonial regimes.

The Americans were partly outflanked by British officials, who went on the offensive over the US's poor record on race - plainly seen in Britain after the arrival of black US troops in 1942.

This survey fleshes out our understanding of race thinking in the Colonial Office and in public palavers such as the biannual Institute of Pacific Relations conferences. But there is much to be done to make vivid the tortured progress of the idea of race in wartime. In some areas wartime is accorded greater weight than it might deserve.

Wolton argues that imperial defence in the context of the US's rise to global power led to a reformulation of metropolitan-colonial relations along non-racial lines. In this analysis, for example, Colonial Office thinking saw a shift to the implementation of welfarism in colonial policy. But there had long been close links between metropolitan and colonial health policy. We might question the assumption that pre-war Colonial Office thinking was preoccupied and guided by race thinking.

The book skirts the issues so ably examined by John Dower in his War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986) but it is the reader's loss that the fact of the Asian defeats is itself taken for granted and sketchily presented here.

There is little to link the squalor and confusion of these seemingly unnecessary defeats (at Singapore imperial troops outnumbered the enemy by about three to one) with the conference debates and Whitehall minuting that forms the meat of the book. Wolton is also working in the shadow of John Cell's 1992 biography, Hailey: A Study in British Imperialism, 1872-1969 , and in her volume, Hailey himself is more cipher than actor.

The Japanese military thought in terms of "white prestige". In their captured territories in East and Southeast Asia, Japanese administrations played the colonialist's game and systematically set about belittling the race prestige of British, Dutch and American captives.

Japanese propaganda paraded allied defeats, captives and internees in front of their former colonial subjects. In Shanghai allied civilians, who were not interned until March 1943, had to wear armbands denoting their nationality and were required, like Chinese, to bow respectfully to Japanese sentries when passing them.

Celebrations were organised to mark the fall of Singapore, or rather the liberation of "Shonan" (light of the south), as it was renamed.

The loss of white prestige was taken seriously. It was actively encouraged by the Japanese and keenly felt by British captives - men such as former Shanghai municipal council chairman Harry Arnhold, who recalled in his memoirs how he was forced to travel on buses and to stand unhappily and self-consciously "amongst coolies reeking of garlic, carrying bushels of fish".

Robert Bickers is lecturer in history, University of Bristol.

Lord Hailey, the Colonial Office and the Politics of Race and Empire in the Second World War

Author - Suke Wolton
ISBN - 0 333 80016 8
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £47.50
Pages - 221

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