Don’t get misty-eyed over the British Empire

Two new books on the Empire, by Jeremy Paxman and Richard Gott, may have different takes on its legacy and impact, but both are too easily seduced by its civilising mission.

James Heartfield

Topics Books

Richard Gott and Jeremy Paxman have written two very good books about the British Empire. Paxman is the presenter of the BBC’s Newsnight, and his Empire is the book of a series that will be broadcast next year. Gott has written before on the history of Latin America and is a contributor to the Guardian newspaper.

Gott’s Britain’s Empire is a comprehensive account of Britain’s wars against natives and settlers, from the French and Indian War (1755-1763) in North America, up to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Gott has ploughed his way through 13 volumes of Sir John Fortescue’s History of the British Army and a whole range of other sources, including his uncle Penderel Moon’s The British Conquest and Dominion of India. Gott goes from wars with the Asante, to struggles against Burmese princes, to slave rebellions and the fighting with Australian aborigines.

Gott takes nearly 500 pages to cover a shorter time period than Paxman does, but that is because this is blanket coverage of every substantial conflict in the British Empire, and as such it is an excellent resource. This is a book of conviction. Gott aims to expose the ‘benign biscuit-tin view of the past’ and to show that Britain’s empire was ‘established and maintained, for more than two centuries, through bloodshed, violence and brutality’.

Paxman does not downplay the particular episodes of brutalisation, but he does want to put the British Empire into a more understanding frame. His question is what did the Empire do to us? He is more interested in the ways that the Empire impacted upon the formation of the British national identity, and he has argued elsewhere that it is a failing that the history of the Empire is not sufficiently taught in schools.

Both Gott and Paxman see themselves as making a case against orthodoxy, it is just that they disagree what the orthodoxy is. Paxman sees a country overwhelmingly embarrassed – silent even – about its past, whereas Gott’s target is the continuing celebration of the Empire. He singles out HE Marshall’s Our Island Story as characteristic imperial arrogance and apologetic history (though I found, when I read it to my daughters over many bedtimes a few years ago, that it was not so much about empire as about wars with France).

Gott’s great strength is the way that he draws out the links and reverberations of events in the British Empire: how the Burmese struggles against Britain inspired more in Assam, and how the slaves of the West Indies were inspired by the campaign against the slave trade and by rebellions on other islands. For many years a radical journalist, Gott is good on the detail. For instance, there is something compelling about the fact that two leaders of the Guyana slave revolts – Quamina and Jacky – bore the surname Gladstone, after the plantation owner John Gladstone, father of the British prime minister WE Gladstone. The younger Gladstone went on to play a role in the abolition of colonial slavery; the older Gladstone put Quamina’s bullet-ridden body on display on the plantation.

Gott’s book is single-mindedly focused on the military acquisition of the Empire, which makes it a rather numbing succession of terrible repression and heroic resistance, followed by awful atrocity.

Paxman, too, has a great eye for detail, describing the scene at the Kimberley gold mine, for example, where Cecil Rhodes planned to take over the world for the white race while hundreds of Africans dug a vast hole by his tin shack. Paxman tells rather well the different ways that the Empire was taken up by Scots, women and various adventurers. His passages on the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s 60 years on the throne reveal much about the culture of empire.

Still, given that his chosen subject is how the Empire shaped us, Paxman seems to have ignored the most important influence that the super-profits repatriated from the colonies had in meliorating conflict and promoting reform in Britain. Joseph Chamberlain was not only an imperialist, but also the originator of ‘Gas and Water Socialism’ (as described recently in Tristram Hunt’s Building Jerusalem). The cause of empire was not, as Rhodes explained, a grandiose affair, but a ‘bread-and-butter’ issue, because it was the safety valve that would release the mounting social war in Britain.

Paxman’s connections between the dynamic in Britain and in the colonies are too often sketched out but not analysed. It is good to note that mercantilist Liverpool bears the stamp of the slave trade. But then other cities on Britain’s western coast, including Bristol and Glasgow, were slave-boosted, too. The literature on the role of the trade in the origins of capitalism is extensive, but it is touched on rather lightly here.

Both Gott and Paxman take exception to the obviously vicious record of Britain’s colonial wars, but they are less convincing about Britain’s supposed civilising mission. Paxman claims that ‘There was no material advantage to be gained by abolishing slavery, no territory to be conquered by the act, no gain either tactical or strategic. It was a decision taken for purely altruistic reasons, as noble as participation in the slave trade was contemptible.’

In this conclusion, Paxman follows Adam Hochschild’s recent history of the abolition movement and dismisses the quite brilliant arguments put in the late Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Williams showed that abolition was not solely a moral choice, but also an economically sound reform that turned capitalism away from the primitive means of enrichment of slavery towards the much more effective exploitation that could be achieved through ‘wage slavery’ imposed upon workers in an industrial setting. The material advantage was clear to everyone at the time: the slave-driven West Indies having been a great source of wealth in the late eighteenth century had become a terrible drain on the exchequer by the early nineteenth century. Their economic downfall was not just because of the tremendous cost of putting down the near-continuous slave revolts (well described by Gott), but also because the plantations were underinvested by owners who saw little benefit in mechanisation when they could use slaves and who had slowly drifted into indebtedness.

Gott dismisses the civilising mission in words, but when he is faced with the key moments in it, he suddenly wants to embrace them. So for him the anti-slavery movement is the outcome of radicals in parliament and the churches uniting with slave rebels. That is not at all fanciful, but it is fanciful to leave out William Pitt’s view that ‘instead of being very advantageous to Great Britain’ the slave trade ‘is the most destructive that can well be imagined for her interests’.

Nor is it true, as Paxman claims, that there was no territorial gain to be made for Britain from the abolition of slavery. He tells the story of Major-General Charles George Gordon’s mission to Khartoum and the struggle against the Mahdi, but leaves out the claimed justification for the mission, namely the abolition of the Arab slave trade. In the name of freeing slaves in Africa, Britain came close to enslaving the entire continent. Acting against the slave trade gave Britain a reason to board French, Spanish and Portuguese ships, which they did. Many of the slaves ‘freed’ in these raids were put to work as impressed soldiers, or as indentured labourers in Trinidad and elsewhere. By 1842, slave-trade diplomacy had become ‘a new and vast branch of international relations’, said Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen and more Blue Books of official correspondence were dedicated to it than any other subject. In Slavery and Human Progress, historian David Davies writes that ‘among colonial nations Britain has led the way in assimilating anti-slavery to an imperial self-image, linking humanitarianism in the most subtle way to strategic and commercial interests’.

Considering Gott’s militant outlook he ought to be more critical about the ‘civilising mission’, but he is naive about the 1835 Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, imagining that this re-motivation of the British imperial mission was driven by pressure from rebellious natives. On the contrary, the British willingness to consider how to protect the natives happened because they were under pressure from the settlers. Parliament’s sudden interest in native protection was simply an excuse to limit the remarkable expansion of settlement and the settlers’ grasping demands for self-rule.

It is not well understood in either of Paxman’s or Gott’s books that there was a tremendous hostility towards white settlers in respectable opinion in the late-eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century. The settlers were, after all, the problem populations of the mother country: political radicals, Irish rebels, rural dispossessed, the criminalised poor, convicts, and, from the middle classes, the bankrupts and second sons. They were commonly described in Britain as the scum that had overflown the rim of the country to besmirch other lands. It was a pungent metaphor for people who had septic tanks, not flushing toilets.

Paxman tends to project the later praise for settlement back on to this earlier period, missing the hostility that existed towards the settlers. Gott struggles with his binary model of resistance and repression and does not properly understand that this was for the most part a three-cornered fight. Settlers were in the earlier period perhaps the greater challenge to the Empire than were natives – most obviously in the rebellion of the 13 American colonies, but also in the upper and lower Canada revolts, in rows with the New Zealanders over native policy and in a few wars with the Boers. For Gott, these settler revolts are unsettling. He likes the revolt, but not its whiteness and its often anti-native edge. When it comes to the wars over the Americas, Gott denounces the colonists for their ill-treatment of the natives in much the same way that many British loyalists did. Here it seems that Britain’s empire is suddenly the good guy, since the settlers were ‘well aware that their imperial rulers had envisaged a long-term policy of peaceful coexistence with the Native Americans’, while the settlers were set on violence.

Paxman is right, of course, that the cutting edge of our intellectual culture is much more critical of the old-style imperial superiority. But there is a nostalgia for that other face the Empire put forward of a civilising mission of protecting the natives. A history of empire ought to be critical of that more insidious humanitarian imperialism as well as the gung-ho variety.

James Heartfield‘s most recent book is The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909, published by Hurst and Columbia University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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