Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire
By David Cannadine
Oxford University Press; 244 pp. $25.00
What on earth was the British Empire all about? It was a money racket, thought Orwell. No, it was an exercise in racial self-aggrandisement, said Edward Said. Part of a divine plan, thought James/Jan Morris, part of "that infinitely slow and spasmodic movement towards the unity of mankind" Teilhard de Chardin wrote about. The most popular idea among the people who actually ran the Empire, at any rate among the reflective minority of them, seems to have been that it was a selfless civilizing mission, bringing light to dark places — the sentiment implied in Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden."
All of the above, says David Cannadine, at least in some parts of the Empire, some of the time. His purpose is not to deny or overturn anyone else's pet theory, but to draw attention to an aspect of the Empire which, in his opinion, has been too little regarded. As much as anything, he argues, the Empire was about dressing up.
Well, that is to over-simplify somewhat. Cannadine is a respectable scholar, one of the fine cohort of British historians that have made their mark in the past 20 years: Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Roy Porter, Norman Stone and Linda Colley (to whom Cannadine is married). He taught at Columbia for ten years from 1988, an experience which he credits with giving him the "cold eye" required to see the Empire plain: "You get the warm heart if you live here [i.e. in England], but you need to go to America to get the cold eye." Hmmm. Be that as it may, the thrust of Cannadine's thesis here is that, in his own words: "the British Empire was not primarily about race or color, but about class and status." Again: "we … need to recognize that there were other ways of seeing the Empire than in the oversimplified categories of black and white with which we are so preoccupied. It is time we reoriented orientalism."
That last is, of course, a shot aimed at Edward Said's 1979 book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, at the tremendous influence of that book, and at the, well, empire of academic studies it has generated, with spin-off colonies in Critical Race Theory, Feminist History, Queer Theory, and all the rest of the dreary catalog of "post-modernist" scholarly logrolling. Cannadine's title is another tweak of Professor Said's ear. Certainly, he agrees, race was a factor in the way the Empire was seen by those who ran it; but it was always liable to be trumped by class.
The delicious anecdote that has caught everyone's eye appears in the book's prologue, and sets the mood for what follows. It takes place in the summer of 1881, when King Kalakaua of Hawaii, visiting England, was invited to a dinner party at which the Prince of Wales (that is, the future King Edward VII) was also to be present. The prince insisted that King Kalakaua should take precedence in the seating arrangements over the crown prince of Germany, who was his own brother-in-law and the future Kaiser. To back up his insistence, our Bertie offered the following flawless gem of imperial logic: "Either the brute is a king, or he's a common or garden nigger; and if the latter, what's he doing here?"
It is, of course, not news that the British have a thing about class. The copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern that has somehow survived from my own schooldays back in the mother country gives the third stanza of Mrs. Alexander's hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful" as follows:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And order'd their estate.
That was written in the 1840s. The hymn was bowdlerized some time in the 1970s to bring its sentiments into line with more contemporary pieties, but English — or at any rate, Anglican — children sang it for 130 years, and took its sentiment to India, Africa and the dominions with them.
In some of those places the imperialists found hierarchies already in place, and eagerly co-opted them. Indian princes, African chieftains and Arab sheiks were wooed, intimidated or bribed into doing the Empire's work for it, with various degrees of success. Where local societies were at a more primitive level, as in Australia, a strenuous effort was made to import England's own hierarchy and impose it upon the white settlers. Sir Bernard Burke, who created the two bibles of domestic British snobbery, Burke's Peerage and Burke's Landed Gentry, followed them up with a third volume: Burke's Colonial Gentry. Fitzwilliam Wentworth of Sydney belonged to a family that, according to Burke, "is said by genealogists to have derived its designation in Saxon times."
All this was made visible by the extravagant employment of the British genius for theater — for uniforms, badges, braids, emblems, titles, plumed hats and other marks of rank, for statues and monuments, for parades and ceremonies, for the acting-out of empty but spectacular mass rituals, like the great durbars that punctuated the history of British India. What a show we British can put on! The anthem of the later Empire was a vocal version of Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance No. 1. It is still sung lustily every year at the last night of the "Proms" (the Promenade Concerts held at the Royal Albert Hall every year since 1895) — though this year, because that night fell on September 15th, Sir Edward's "rumbustious jollity" was felt to be inappropriate, and was replaced by the American national anthem.
Yet while all that pomp made the Empire a very impressive thing to look upon, circumstance was eating away at the foundations. The whole thing was, as Cannadine explains very masterfully, really just an escapist romantic fantasy, a flight from the horrors and uncertainties of urbanization and modernization into the slow rural rhythms, the comforting hierarchies, costumes and rituals of feudal Britain. Dining with his Indian princes, a Viceroy could forget the industrial unrest back home. The universal contempt for the Babu, the "educated native," blinded the eyes of the imperialists — all classes of them — to the rather obvious fact that these were the people they most depended on to run the show, and the ones who would ultimately inherit it. Meanwhile, the "white dominions" were filling up, as the old American colonies had, with people whose main motive in emigrating from Britain was not to plant the suffocating old feudal hierarchies on a foreign shore, but to escape from them!
And so it all came to dust at last. David Cannadine does not spend much time in elegaics — for that we already have the wonderful and indispensable Morris books. He does, however, make some good points about how the hierarchical fantasies of the British ruling classes left their mark on the world we inhabit today. Their fascination with the dashing sheiks of Araby, for example, and their belief that they could strengthen, co-opt and modernize the native hierarchies of that part of the world, joined with their dislike of the thrusting, mercantile, urban Jews to create the pro-Arabist mindset that still bedevils the Foreign Office and generates miscalculations to this day. (A similar mindset haunts the U.S. State Department, too, but that is a different story.)
This is a lovely book, full of insights and unfamiliar perspectives. Were the rulers of Victoria's empire more snobbish, or more racist? They hardly knew the difference, for the common people of their own nation were very little less mysterious or threatening to them than the dark sullen masses of India or Africa. At least this much can be said, though, and David Cannadine says it: the snobbery diluted and tempered the racism. "It may be that hierarchical empires and societies, where inequality was the norm, were … less racist than egalitarian societies, where there was (and is?) no alternative vision of the social order from that of collective, antagonistic and often racial identities." On this, as on much else, he is provocative — and may very well be right.