28 February 2011

Cruel Britannia

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 by Piers Brendon

Being a product of the British Empire, I have something of a soft spot for it. Piers Brendon doesn’t. This massive book, which took me nearly a month to finish, has almost nothing good to say about history’s biggest-ever empire, concentrating instead on land-grabs, exploitation of peoples and resources, imperial arrogance, corruption and perfidy, military and political blunders, atrocities of various kinds, acts of cowardice and betrayal, policies of neglect and policies of divide and rule. There is, admittedly, plenty of such material to choose from. I don't believe Brendon misses any of it.

What he does miss, apart from a handful of grudging references thinly sprinkled across more than 650 closely-printed pages, is the plethora of benefits that British rule brought the colonies. British-built roads, railways, seaports and airfields were designed to facilitate colonial commerce and project imperial power, yet were of incommensurable value to the local people who also used them. British trade and colonial economic development benefited locals too, and not just the comprador classes. British-run schools and missions were designed to create docile and usefully employable imperial subjects, yet also propagated modern knowledge, helped overcome superstition and ignorance and introduced to subject peoples the selfsame liberal and humanitarian ideas that would, in time, encourage them to demand and win their freedom. If a majority of the world’s peoples today can be termed ‘civilized’ in any sense, then it is the British and their empire that deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

Brendon isn’t interested in any of that. He just goes banging on about the horrors of British rule, even when forced to admit that other empires, from that of Rome to Japan’s notorious wartime ‘Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’, were far worse. A benign empire is, of course, a contradiction in terms; but I do believe the British tried harder than any other imperial power, and with more success, to resolve that contradiction.

It is hard to understand exactly what the author’s motivation was to research and write this book. Clearly he has an axe to grind and it cuts to the left, but this is just a smear job with no larger political conclusions drawn from it. I suppose there is a market for this kind of thing, presumably among leftist malcontents in the West. Many times I was tempted to quit reading and fling the book across the room. I persevered because of my interest in the subject; you might say I persisted for scholarly reasons.

And talking of scholarship, that in the book appears largely second-hand. Original sources are relatively few. The text is copiously annotated (there are nearly 100 pages of endnotes!) but most of the notes are just attributions of clever turns of phrase Brendon has mined from other people’s work; only rarely do they seem to offer factual support for his assertions. On the subject of my own country many of his statements are flatly wrong, leading me to believe that his scholarship regarding other parts of the erstwhile British Empire is probably just as sloppy.

Brendon also seems to have a personal grouse against Rupert Murdoch, and misses no opportunity to slander the man, the newspapers he owns, and even Murdoch's forebears. Astonishing, that he should descend to such pettiness in the midst of this Herculean literary effort.

Incidentally, and ironically, I borrowed this book from the British Council library in the capital city of the former British colony where I was born and still live. I guess it was put there by some of the aforementioned leftist malcontents; but whatever the cause, its presence on those shelves itself gives the lie to many of Brendon's slanders.


  1. All I can say about the way British Empire worked is that "you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs."

  2. Do read Pax Britannica by Jan/James Morris. He writes beautifully of the aesthetics and personalities of empire. I guess for children of the empire in some far corners of the world ,(like you and I ) who are beneficiaries of the language that has opened up vistas of thought and literature,there is always a deep sense of affinity to the imperial legacy.thats why you must read empathetic Morris rather than blinkered Brendon. Schez

    see http://thelectern.blogspot.com/2007/08/pax-britannica-trilogy-james-morris.html

    "Morris knows, with Collingwood, that the essence of history is the inwardness of the actants, and he gives this to us in delicious dollops." ..

  3. Many bears poked with one stick. Nice. You must be a very popular guy – you renegade.

    I haven’t read the book. And, I’m an American. What can I say? I still rely on British history to distract people from my own. The British Empire is my go-to villain when I can’t use the Nazis, Spain, the Portuguese or the French. Or the Russians, or the Soviets, or the Chinese...

    But, I jest...

    Could you forgive the Western left, at least a little, for the constant and predictable public self flagellation and all the mea culpas...whatever else are we to do? Then, if you think about it, what are we permitted?

    You are in a unique position.

    You might have expected me to disagree with you – but I don’t. It’s exhausting apologizing for apologists. Humans are opportunists by nature. History is made up of winners and losers, and it’s always personal, no matter how much time has passed. We are all both victim and villain if we look around honestly, and look back far enough.

    We can only accept responsibility or blame for what we do or don’t do in our own time, as individuals or as a member of any group. Even then, history might makes us look back at our own choices and see them in a new light.

    So, is it even possible to be objective?

    Well, I guess if someone is going to write about history and be taken seriously, they should probably at least try.

    Rome also did some good. We can say that now because our grandparents didn’t suffer at the hands of the Romans. At least, not directly.

    I want to make my point with a Monty Python clip – but I won’t.

    You’re welcome.

  4. The British Empire was for the benefit of the British people (or rather the British aristocracy) - any other benefits were coincidental.

    Improved healthcare, for example, was the same principle as that used in animal husbandry - keep the herd healthy and it's more lucrative.

    To a certain extent, in later years, they became more benign but only after having made the streets 'safe for a white man to walk'- by employing incredible cruelty and mass reprisals. Indeed, the victims of General R E H Dyer may not neccessarily agree with the benign in later years bit (as perhaps would Edward Henry Pedris's family).

    Current events in the Middle East show few lessons of the past have been learnt. Lectures on democratic rights and open support for the subjects of those despotic regimes we don't like but a painful silence about the undemocratic ones that are / were our mates - until it's obvious they've had it, then join in the general condemnation.

    Did you know all these facts?

  5. I think Indi phrased it well when he described the benefits of Colonialism as 'the child of rape':

    "My view is sort of like that towards a child borne of rape. It came from a bad place, but you can’t help but love the child.
    Sitting here now you have to say yeah, because we don’t know anything else and we’re kinda attached to the reality we’re in. But were there better ways to connect the world? Obviously yes."

    Full post here: http://indi.ca/2011/02/cool-brittania/

  6. A fellow named Roderick Macfarquhar reviewed Brendon's book and called it "a splendid popular history of the British Empire." Wondering who this Macfarquhar was, I looked him up and learned that he's the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science at Harvard. This brought to mind the opening lines from The Sun Also Rises: "Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn." You make some excellent points about the benefits Ceylon gained by being a British colony--and that country certainly fared a lot better under British rule than, say, Kenya did--but some things were shot to hell. Like elephants, for instance: According to Tennent, Major Thomas William Rogers shot 1,400 elephants, and a Captain Galloway killed another 700. I once saw the carcass of an elephant that had succumbed to gunshot wounds. It was at least a week old and crawling with flies and maggots. Jackals had been gorging on it, but they clearly had at least another week or so to go before they could reduce the carcass to a heap of bones. One shudders to think what it must have smelled like with all the rotting meat that British sportsmen left in their wake in mid-19th century Ceylon. Also, when the British left they basically handed the country over to a handful of inbred families who were (surprise) among their most craven collaborators, and whose descendants have been fighting over the spoils ever since.

  7. This is good publicity for the conquistadors. Why do most people think the British were necessarily bad? They weren't as bad as the Spanish or the Portugese right? Go ask the Mayans who they would have preferred. At least what's left of them.

  8. @Jordy: No, they probably weren’t as bad, on the whole, as the Spanish. The Spanish took some beating; in a single generation, between 1491 and 1520 or so, they managed to drive the Jews out of Spain, get the Inquisition up to speed, depopulate the Caribbean and much of the Central American littoral, destroy the Aztec civilization and satellite societies, and launch the Atlantic slave trade. If you want a book about that I can recommend a good one; that is, if you can bear to read it.

    But we shouldn’t be anachronistic in our judgements, or we shall fall into the same trap as Piers Brendon did. Consider that the Spanish acquired their empire in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, at a time when Europe was just out of the Middle Ages. The British acquired theirs between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries (that is if you don’t count the previously planted North American colonies, which they lost). Between those two eras lie the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the scientific and industrial revolutions and much else besides. The whole face of Western civilization changed in those two-hundred-plus years. Maybe if the British had started out as early as the Spaniards, they would have been just as bad.

  9. Have you read Niall Ferguson's Empire? Its an excellent book and argues that the empire, on the whole, was probably more good than bad.

  10. claptrap and poppycock. really! people!

  11. I agree with David Graham specially the comment
    Also, when the British left they basically handed the country over to a handful of inbred families who were (surprise) among their most craven collaborators, and whose descendants have been fighting over the spoils ever since..

    i.e. If you or your ancestors joined the colonial gang you would tend to see colonialism favorably unless jumped ship when times changed such as at Independence or right now.

    Regardless of what indi says of colonialism being "child borne of rape" I dont think it was completely rape. Probably consensual initially, e.g. like the occupation of the Kandyan Kingdom without understanding the consequences. To put it a little more crudely, like a train where the consensual partner does not understand or realize there is going to be train behind the first. Maybe not full disclosure or maybe shit happened.

    Economic Colonialism and gripes thereof.

  12. I agree with Deshan, and, on first reading, can find only one sentence in your article that I can say I disagree with outright:

    "If a majority of the world’s peoples today can be termed ‘civilized’ in any sense, then it is the British and their empire that deserve the lion’s share of the credit."

    I think it would me more accurate to change one word:

    "If a majority of the world’s peoples today can be termed ‘civilized’ in a BRITISH sense, then it is the British and their empire that deserve the lion’s share of the credit."

    Also, someone up there mentioned health care. True, the Brits made improvements in health care (they could hardly not), but the average level of health (measured by life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality etc) of the population improved in leaps and bounds in the decades after independence.

    I have nothing against acknowledging the benefits of British Colonialism, most of which are obvious. I do have something against ignoring the costs, many of which have been visited on us post-independence, and also ignoring the benefits of independence. I truly detest the notion that we have lost something important with the exit of the British, unless, of course, by "we" is meant a minute community of navel-gazing Brown Sahibs who are ever decreasing in political, economic and cultural importance, both at home and abroad.

  13. "If a majority of the world’s peoples today can be termed ‘civilized’ in any sense, then it is the British and their empire that deserve the lion’s share of the credit."

    that is probably one of the most silly sentences I've read...I'm no nationalist but to be so narrow minded as to think there is one definition of 'civilized' is quite...well...moronic.

  14. N, if we replace the word 'civilised' in the line you object to with 'modern', then it would make sense.

    The foundation, in terms of institutions and infrastructure of many a modern state was the work of the British; the US, Canada, Australia, NZ, SA and the rest.

  15. A product of the British Empire.........
    May it be reminded that it was Sri Lankan Governments that paid for your healthcare and education if u indeed grew up in Sri Lanka, not Empire Govts. And look what happened to your great friend Murdoch now......

  16. In the light of the above comment, it may be worth noting that, apart from some vaccinations as a schoolboy and the cost of administering the public examinations I was obliged to take, all my health care and education were paid for by my parents. I was privately educated and doctored, thank heavens. I owe nothing to the broken public healthcare and education systems of Sri Lanka. Besides, my parents paid their taxes and so do I. The credit balance, in any, is on my side.

  17. To state that the British inadvertently left Ceylon with some benefits such as roads, railways, airports and seaports is to bury one's head in the sand! With or without outside help, other countries sprouted these conveniences. The British only did this so that they can exploit the wealth of the island with ease and not through any thoughts of benevolence. Britain would like the whole world to think well of their past deeds? Not whilst some of us still remember their arrogant acts of violence, cruelty and callous behaviour towards harmless, friendly and accommodating natives of this island, which was doing very well for itself until European interference. After all the Ceylonese had kingdoms when people were still dwelling in mud caves in London! I do not for a moment believe that any Briton would like to live under foreign rule.